Sowell’s Early Life
Thomas Sowell (b. 1930) was born in small town of Gastonia, North Carolina, about 20 miles west of Charlotte.
Sowell’s father died shortly after he was born. His mother, a housemaid, had four older children, and young Tom ended up in the care of a great-aunt and her family. Sowell has written that he had very few interactions with white people during this period of his life.
When Sowell was nine years old, the family moved to New York City, settling in Harlem. A few years later, he qualified for admission to Stuyvesant High School—then, as now, a special, college-preparatory public high school. He was the first person in his family to receive an education beyond the sixth grade.
Unfortunately, for financial reasons Sowell had to leave high school before graduating. Over the next several years, he pursued a series of low-wage jobs, including working in a machine shop and as a delivery boy for Western Union.
Sowell has stated that during this time he became puzzled about the reason for the great wealth disparities he saw around him, and that he became fascinated by the writings of Karl Marx as providing an answer to this question.
During the height of the Korean War, in 1951, Sowell was drafted by the US military. He joined the Marine Corps and was assigned to a photography unit. As a result of the training he received there, Sowell fell in love with photography, an avocation he has continued to practice throughout his life.
After the war, Sowell found a civil service job in Washington, DC, which allowed him to take classes at night at Howard University. Two of his Howard professors encouraged him to take the College Board exams.
On the basis of his high scores on the College Boards, together with strong letters of recommendation from the two professors, he applied to Harvard College and was accepted.
In 1958, Sowell received his bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in economics from Harvard. The next year, he obtained his master’s degree in economics from Columbia University.
Sowell went on to attend the University of Chicago at the height of the influence of the Chicago School of economics, led by Milton Friedman. He received his PhD in economics from Chicago in 1968.
While still in graduate school at Chicago, Sowell worked for several summers as a labor economist for the US Department of Labor. He has stated that the experience had a profound impact on his intellectual development.
Specifically, he was assigned to study the correlation between minimum-wage increases in the Puerto Rican sugar industry and unemployment increases in the same industry. He concluded that the correlation was almost certainly causal—which led him to speculate that the government bureaucrats who administer minimum wage laws care more about their own job security than they do about improving the lives of the poor.
Sowell also had a number of temporary teaching gigs during his years at Chicago, including at Rutgers, at Howard, and at Cornell.
After receiving his PhD, Sowell continued teaching at Cornell, now as an Assistant Professor, for another year. He then moved to Brandeis for a year—rising to the rank of Associate Professor—and to UCLA, where he spent two years.
Sowell left Academia briefly in 1972 to become Project Director for the Urban Institute. Then, in 1974, he found steady employment teaching economics at UCLA, where he eventually rose to the rank of full Professor.
By now, the orientation of his economic thinking had shifted from Marxism to classical liberalism.
With a growing professional reputation, Sowell began to receive many invitations from other universities and think tanks. Accordingly, he interrupted his tenure at UCLA several times.
For example, Sowell was invited to spend a year as a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. He also spent a year in another Stanford think tank—albeit one more loosely associated with the University—known as the Hoover Institution. He also held the position for Visiting Professor at Amherst College for a year.
Finally, in 1980, preferring the life of research and writing to that of teaching, Sowell accepted an invitation to return to the Hoover Institution—this time in a permanent position as a Senior Fellow. He has been at the Hoover Institution ever since, where today he is the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy.
On the surface, Sowell’s work may appear quite varied. He has written extensively on both pure economic topics and sociological topics, from race and civil rights to public education.
However, the guiding thread connecting all of Sowell’s work is the need to test economic theory against empirical reality. Nearly all of his work is steeped in meticulously researched facts.
Although other social scientists may agree with him that theory must always be subjected to the test of fact, Sowell goes one step farther than most American economists by seeking wherever possible to place his American topics in an international perspective.
For example, in his scrupulously objective reflections on the role of race in American political economy, Sowell examines the roles of similar caste systems in other political economies both in the past and in the present all around the world.
In many respects, Sowell is as much a historian and a sociologist as an economist.
Though pure economics and the sociology of race have been Sowell’s primary preoccupations, he has also been a strong advocate of giving parents a choice in their children’s education in the form of vouchers.
Sowell often reflects movingly on the role of education in his own life. He is incensed by those who would impose government policies that undermine the merit-based educational system, and in so doing hamstring the members of ethnic minority groups who might otherwise move up in society by means of their own efforts and a good education.
Finally, Sowell has published two books on the subject of late-talking children, which has long been a personal interest of his.
While the hugely prolific Sowell has published many article and books for his academic peers, the majority of his work is in fact directed towards the general reading public. He is graced with a very graceful and accessible writing style and has the gift of making difficult subjects understandable.
Widely admired for his gift for aphorisms, Sowell may be seen as standing in the great tradition of the witty and elegant French classical economist, Frédéric Bastiat.
Selected Books by Sowell
Knowledge and Decisions (1980).
Ethnic America: A History (1981).
Markets and Minorities (1981).
A Conflict of Visions (1987).
Race and Culture: A World View (1994).
The Vision of the Anointed (1995).
Late-Talking Children (1997).
The Quest for Cosmic Justice (1999).
A Personal Odyssey (2000).
Basic Economics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Economy (2000); fifth edition (2014).
Controversial Essays (2002).
On Classical Economics (2006).
Economic Facts and Fallacies (2008); second edition (2011).
The Housing Boom and Bust (2009); revised edition (2010).
Intellectuals and Society (2009).
The Thomas Sowell Reader (2011).
The Best of Thomas Sowell, edited by Dean Kalahar (2014).
Wealth, Poverty and Politics: An International Perspective (2015); second edition (2016).
Discrimination and Disparities (2018).
Books on Sowell
Riley, Jason L., Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell (2021).