Thomas Sowell Is a Cynical Man

Thomas Sowell has been a titan of conservative politics for decades. Underneath the erudition and prolific output is a cynical thinker who puts an intellectual gloss on social domination.

Portrait of Thomas Sowell, 1964. (Wikimedia Commons)

Thomas Sowell has been around for a very long time. Starting his career as a Marxist, Sowell moved right during the 1970s under the influence of neoliberal economists such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. Sowell’s reputation burgeoned in the 1970s and ’80s, when he became a significant figure in the Reaganomic assault on Keynesianism and social liberalism. While he occasionally self-identifies as a libertarian, Sowell has largely stuck to this fusion of free-market economics and social conservatism ever since, becoming a titan of the black conservative tradition in the process.

In many ways, Sowell is a pioneer of the “facts don’t care about your feelings” brand of conservatism that became ubiquitous for a while and still enjoys considerable mainstream traction. Videos of Sowell online have received blockbuster views and a fawning Twitter fan page quotes him all day long to millions of followers.

Having gone through over a thousand pages of his writing for this piece, not including interviews and short-form articles, I can understand the appeal. Sowell is no lightweight. Vastly more erudite than the dozens of faceless pop-conservative pundits following in the OG’s footsteps, his writing style is straightforward and even charming, devoid of the self-pitying melodrama that is stock and trade for other right-wing commentators. And while many of the trained economist’s writings are critiques of the Left, you’re never in doubt about whether he has practical alternatives to left-wing proposals.

But underneath the prolific output, analytical ambition, and sometimes amusing prose is a repetitious, hubristic, and ultimately cynical writer that puts an intellectual gloss on social domination and tells the “lower orders” to accept their lot.

Sowell’s Shortcomings

Sowell, now ninety-three, has dozens of books on economics, race, and social thought to his name. Perhaps inevitably for such a prolific author, Sowell’s work has long been, shall we say, self-referential. To pick a benign example, in his wide-ranging Race and Culture: A Worldview (1994), Sowell makes and remakes the same point about German immigrants improving the Argentine wheat industry (illustrating his argument that “whole industries and sectors of the economy have been created by people from different cultures”). The exact same anecdotes appear in Economic Facts and Fallacies (2007), all but reprinted.

Sometimes Sowell’s penchant for near-verbatim recycling takes a nastier turn. In Race and Culture, he defends the cost-benefit value of racist stereotyping, writing that

if the average Irish immigrant in nineteenth century America was more beset with alcohol problems affecting his work performance, or was otherwise more troublesome or less productive, then many employers would be reluctant to hire the Irish for jobs where such deficiencies would prove costly. . . . For certain demanding kinds of jobs, it was easier to use the stock phrase of the time: “No Irish Need apply.”

While Sowell admits this is a “bitter medicine” for qualified individuals, it is nonetheless “economically fallacious . . . to say that the below-average earnings of the group as a whole are due to such discrimination.” He recycles the same apologia almost word for word in Economic Facts and Fallacies, and again in Intellectuals and Society (2009):

people who did not want to live near Irish immigrants, as a result of diseases, violence, and other social pathology rampant in the Irish communities of that era cannot be automatically dismissed as blinded by prejudice or deceived by stereotypes. Strenuous efforts . . . to change the behavior patterns within Irish American communities suggest that it was not all a matter of other people’s “perceptions” or “stereotypes.” Moreover, these efforts within Irish American communities ultimately paid off, as barriers against the Irish, epitomized by employer’s signs that said “No Irish Need Apply,” faded away over generations.

Repetitious table banging notwithstanding, Sowell projects an air of confidence that charms his fans. He’s the kind of social critic who appears an authority on every subject, the type of writer who makes his conservative supporters puff out their chests with the vicarious assurance that they too can make a leftist’s head spin with unsparing facts and reason. There’s no doubt he’s managed to synthesize a variety of right-wing rhetorics together (though as I’ll argue, whether the theoretical differences are adequately synthesized is a different question). The two most prominent are classical liberalism’s post-Enlightenment focus on reason and the conservative tradition’s penchant for gloomy bifurcation in the face of egalitarian modernity. Sometimes these two rhetorical modes even synthesize in a self-parodying way, as when Sowell is no longer content to just talk about “facts” but instead “hard facts.”

Sowell’s confident bombast is more than a little funny since he has made an awful lot of bad calls and self-contradicting arguments over the years. From loudly and smugly supporting the Iraq War before quietly and smugly backtracking to insisting “misinformed” ordinary people shouldn’t vote if they’re going to cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton before castigating “elite” liberals for being out of touch with voters to calling Trump “dangerous” before compliantly defending him — Sowell has done it all and then flip-flopped.

Race and Culture in particular is brimming with flimsy arguments about how European imperialism had both pros and cons — and of course, Sowell assures us, the cons cannot be blamed on capitalism because from “a purely capitalist view the costs and benefits of conquest would make most conquests simply not worth the money.” This ignores the stark reality that European colonialism and the expansion of capitalism were intimately linked. The history of the modern cotton trade alone should give ardent defenders of capitalism pause. (Sowell himself seems aware that he’s on shaky ground: immediately after declaring there is no connection between capitalism and imperialism, he notes that Joseph Stalin also killed many people in defiance of economic common sense and that this proves people are often not motivated by economic reason.)

Sowell opens Intellectuals and Society by chastising intellectuals who “seem not to understand” that even if one is “the world’s leading authority on a particular subject,” it does not “confer even minimal competence on other subjects.” This from a trained economist who has seen fit to weigh in on psychometrics, political theory, criminology and policing, American, European, and world history, military strategy, epistemology, education policy, geopolitics, racial-cultural studies, and law and constitutional interpretation.

While Sowell’s refusal to be intellectually siloed amid so much academic hyperspecialization is admirable, his discipline-bestriding proclivities can land him in the same presumptuous territory for which he condemns other intellectuals. Commenting on jurists in Intellectuals and Society, he writes that from “William Blackstone in eighteenth century England to Oliver Wendell Holmes and Robert Bork in twentieth century America, those seeking to stick to the original meaning of laws have made it very clear that they were not talking about events taking place within the inner recesses of the minds of those who write the law,” and then insists that it is the “publicly known meaning of the worlds of the laws” that counts.

Sowell is conflating very different figures here. Blackstone’s entire corpus concerned how judge-discovered or established precedent was foundational to English common law and to developing the unwritten English constitution. This is very different from the pragmatist legal realism of Holmes, who insisted that legal interpretation was hardly a logical exercise of discovery, and that judges must weigh “social advantage” and look beyond legal texts to both history and the future when making a decision. Sowell doesn’t even seem aware of the fact that Bork’s intentionalist viewpoint is quite different from Antonin Scalia’s textualist approach to the law.

Perhaps Sowell agrees with other contemporary conservatives that originalism is just a fig leaf to advance right-wing policy preferences — so why bother knowing its ins and outs? If that’s the case, Sowell could have taken his own advice and spared his readers the intellectual grandstanding.

The Fallacies in Social Justice Fallacies

All these qualities — the quippy writing, the self-assured bombast, the sharp argumentation — are on full display in Sowell’s latest book, Social Justice Fallacies. Clocking in at just a hundred thirty pages, the slim volume affirms his undeniable talent as a foot soldier of the Right while also containing the usual amount of contradictions and oddities — so many, in fact, that responding to them all would require a longer piece than the book itself.

Probably the most obvious place to begin is the dramatic contradiction at the base of Sowell’s economic worldview. Sowell drinks deep of 1980s rhetoric about an overweening state constraining the freedom of the market. Part of his defense is epistemological: policymakers, however well-intentioned, can never truly know whether a measure will produce unintended consequences. This is of course true, though Sowell never grapples with the possibility that well-tailored public programs may produce unexpected positive outcomes as well as negative.

Nor does he deal well with inconvenient facts. Hand-waving away the deepening economic consensus that minimum wage increases raise wages without significantly juicing unemployment, Sowell insists that “minimum wage laws are among the many government policies widely believed to benefit the poor, by preventing them from making decisions for themselves that surrogate decision-makers regard as being not as good as what the surrogates can impose through the power of government.”

Sowell takes to task “social justice” activists who think the state should structure the economy to work for ordinary people. A frequent target is the liberal egalitarian John Rawls, who Sowell criticizes for referring to “things that ‘society’ should ‘arrange’ — but without specifying either the instrumentalities or the feasibilities of those arrangements.” It’s an odd claim — Rawls specifically laid out the institutional arrangements that would satisfy his theory of justice — but telling. Sowell doesn’t bother to rebut Rawls in detail, instead just gishgalloping past him in cheerful ignorance.

Portrait of Friedrich Hayek. (Wikimedia Commons)

Sowell’s main muse on these points is Hayek, who excoriated the Left for trying to impose its vision of a just economic distribution on the spontaneous order that emerged from individual consumer and producer choices. But this sat unevenly with Hayek’s frequent acknowledgement that the state and transnational institutions had to codify rights to private property and legal contracts, and then use coercive force to impose that economic vision on a population that may very well prefer a different one. Famously, Hayek preferred a “liberal dictatorship” to a non-liberal democracy.

Sowell, to my knowledge, hasn’t weighed in on that question, but like Hayek, he is content with the state “arranging” things if it arranges them to his liking. Which makes his rhetorical bombast about out-of-touch elites interfering with the free choices of everyday people more than a little rich — and doubly so when, at times, he fashions himself a populist champion of the demos against the elites, defending the “free choices by members of the voting public, to determine what laws and policies they want to be governed by.” He is curiously silent on the democratic merits of popular policies like universal health care, higher taxes on the wealthy, and student loan forgiveness. Presumably, much like the state shouldn’t arrange things until Sowell thinks it should, the demos should be respected until it is unworthy of respect.

Social Justice Fallacies is filled with this kind of ideological fudging on the relationship between economics, the state, democracy, and individual freedoms. One of the more vulgar examples is when Sowell rehashes his approach to criminal justice. Announcing himself a defender of individual liberties, he chides the “casual contempt for ordinary people and their freedom” shown by social justice “elites” and stresses that in “law as well, there has been the same disregard of other people’s rights and values by intellectual elites.” He then condemns “activist” jurists like Roscoe Pound for interpreting the “Constitution to loosen its restrictions on government power.”

Two pages later, having apparently undergone a swift change of heart, Sowell attacks a “series of early 1960s cases” for “providing newly discovered ‘rights’ for criminals that had apparently escaped notice before. These cases include Mapp v. Ohio (1961), Escobedo v. Illinois (1964), and Miranda v. Arizona (1966).” Maybe Sowell would insist that his problem isn’t with expanding or constraining government power per se, but with “judicial activism” and overreach. But this is undercut by the fact that Sowell has previously supported transformative judicial decisions like Citizens United, while dismissing claims that the US government should abide by its legal obligations not to torture.

Sowell the Cynic

Near the end of Social Justice Fallacies, Sowell attempts to explain the difference between the Right and the Left. He writes that “social justice advocates” and conservatives “envision different worlds, operating on different principles, and describe these worlds with words that have different meaning within the framework of different visions.” He further unpacks the point in Intellectuals and Society. For Sowell, the “anointed left is allegedly committed to a vision of “cosmic” justice, which holds that “there are ‘problems’ created by existing institutions that ‘solutions’ to these problems can be excogitated by intellectuals.” This contrasts with the “tragic” vision of the conservative, which holds that

the inherent flaws of human beings are the fundamental problem, and social contrivances are simply imperfect means of trying to cope with those flaws. . . . “Solutions” are not expected by those who see that many of the frustrations, ills, and anomalies of life — the tragedy of the human condition — as being due to constraints inherent in human beings, singly and collectively, and in the constraints of the physical world in which we live.

This is an unhelpful way of thinking about the distinction between the Left and the Right, which both contain plenty of transformatively optimistic and tragic intellects. The radical Thomas Paine may have declared at the outset of the American Revolution that we had it in our power to make the world anew, and for the better, but Ronald Reagan himself invoked Paine to champion a transformative conservative program that would undo the generations-old New Deal consensus.

And Sowell does not have a genuinely “tragic” vision of human life. Since antiquity, the deepest ruminations on tragedy have stressed that a person faces a problem or injustice, struggles mightily to overcome it, and ultimately fails due to a tragic personal flaw, the contrivance of society, sheer misfortune, or even fate. The affect and resonance of tragedy comes from the gap between the better world a character or society strives for and their ultimate failure to reach it despite great efforts, and a deep tragedy is one that universalizes the meaningful consequences of such failure.

Sowell’s conservative vision isn’t tragic but cynical: an attitude of disappointed resignation combined with sneering contempt toward the naive suckers who think they can do better — all flourished with a deep fear that in trying to make things better social justice activists might well make things worse, and even though we cannot know for sure because of the limits of human knowledge, we should nonetheless err on the side of pessimism. Sowell comes across less a tragic Cassandra than a street-smart salesman who sees a world filled with potential dupes easily taken in by the competition, while being constantly on guard against being conned himself.

The consequence of internalizing his jaundiced vision is that the world will not improve for most people, save for the economic and conservative elites that Sowell is so willing to defend. In Economic Facts and Fallacies, Sowell dismisses calls to reduce income inequality by insisting that “those who contribute less than others to the economy, and are correspondingly less rewarded,” deserve where they wind up. In Race and Culture, he ridicules the “moral lamentations” of capitalism’s critics, who he informs us are merely envious and resentful of the productive and contributing members of society.

Difference and Domination

Throughout his work, Sowell expresses a fascination with human differences that has been common on the Right since Edmund Burke spoke about the “little platoons” into which society was organized. As one of Sowell’s heroes, Robert Bork, once put it, conservatives have a deep respect for “particularity — respect for difference, circumstance, history, and the irreducible complexity of human beings and human societies.” Whereas the Left claims society should be a mosaic in which each equal and unique thread contributes to the whole, the Right usually invokes difference to argue that society should be a pyramid where each level is necessary but distinct, with fewer stones at the top.

For Sowell, the most meaningful differences are those that sort us into worthy and unworthy — the “superior” cultures against the “lower” ones, the productive against the unproductive, the entire world immutably competitive and stratified. The economic laws of the Chicago School are just one expression, unsentimentally placing each person where they belong based on ability and contribution while generating the wealth needed to facilitate the pursuit of excellence. Even the businessman making hiring decisions based purely on prejudice can be commended if he produces the right kinds of stratification.

But for Sowell economics is insufficient, which is probably why, despite being a prude about other intellectuals’ interdisciplinary excursions, he indulges in such sweepingly broad ruminations. Geopolitics, culture, intellectual divisions, and so much more must parcel out the deserving from the regressive. Justice and fairness have little place in his icy vision beyond sporadic individual acts of compassion and charity. Social mobility is permitted, but moving upward relentlessly entails proving one is genuinely worthy and not being granted an unfair edge by one of the “anointed” looking to help the least well-off.  The best that can be hoped for is that the poor will graduate from slums to precarious jobs, where they are expected to be content with air-conditioning and a television set to watch reality TV.

Sowell’s cynical vision echoes Roger Scruton in The Meaning of Conservatism in which the English conservative praised the “natural instinct in unthinking people — who, tolerant of the burdens that life lays on them, and unwilling to lodge blame where they seek no remedy, seek fulfillment in the world as it is — to accept and endorse through their actions the institutions and practices into which they are born.”

Castigating capitalism or racism or imperialism for one’s failures — even if these forms of domination do exist — is simply a way of exonerating oneself from responsibility for failure. Worse still is falling victim to the genuinely tragic conceit of imagining oneself to be morally pure and intellectually knowledgeable enough to change things for the better, which in all likelihood is either a form of naivete or a concealing posture on the path to acquiring status and power that haven’t been earned.

The world is as it is, the strong will do as they will, and the weak will suffer as they must. We all know where such a vision leads.