MLK Day: The Wisdom of Thomas Sowell

by | Jan 16, 2023

One of the most distinguished intellectuals of his generation, Thomas Sowell’s classical-liberal worldview continues to challenge, inspire, and empower research across the social sciences.

Born in poverty during the early Great Depression. A Marxist at Harvard University and after. A black man making his way up the intellectual ladder. But with a brilliant, open mind, he challenged himself with new ideas and changed his perspective. “Have you gone crazy, Lefty?” they asked. “No. On the contrary, I have become educated,” he answered.

Now, in his 93rd year, Thomas Sowell is the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. One of the most distinguished intellectuals of his generation, Sowell’s classical-liberal worldview continues to challenge, inspire, and empower research across the social sciences.

In Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell (2021), Jason Riley described a patient scholar who has studied, clarified, and corrected orthodox beliefs in support of freedom and opportunity.

Quotations

At bottom, Thomas Sowell is an economist and a student of politics. These three quotations are a good place to start:

“The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.”

“No one will really understand politics until they understand that politicians are not trying to solve our problems. They are trying to solve their own problems—of which getting elected and re-elected are number one and number two. Whatever is number three is far behind.”

“Much of the social history of the Western world over the past three decades has involved replacing what worked with what sounded good.”

And on the “experts” behind the politics:

“It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.”

“Some of the biggest cases of mistaken identity are among intellectuals who have trouble remembering that they are not God.”

“Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it.”

Sowell’s public policy interests have naturally included energy and climate change. He cherishes the real producers, not the complainants of high-energy, modern living.

“It was Thomas Edison who brought us electricity, not the Sierra Club. It was the Wright brothers who got us off the ground, not the Federal Aviation Administration. It was Henry Ford who ended the isolation of millions of Americans by making the automobile affordable, not Ralph Nader. Those who have helped the poor the most [were] … those who found ways to make industry more productive and distribution more efficient, so that the poor of today can afford things that the affluent of yesterday could only dream about.”

On punitive taxation (such as a ‘carbon tax’):

“People who want special taxes or subsidies for particular things seem not to understand that what they are really asking for is for the prices to misstate the relative scarcities of things and the relative values that the users of these things put on them.”

On price controls and oil:

“The strongest proponents of price controls are the strongest opponents of producing more oil. They say the magic words ‘alternative energy sources’ and we are supposed to swoon – and certainly not ask any rude questions like ‘At what cost?’”

“Whenever there have been sharp rises in gasoline prices, whether nationwide or locally in California, [politicians have] loudly demanded an investigation of the oil companies. These repeated investigations over the years have repeatedly failed to turn up anything other than supply and demand.”

“These political circuses have a cost that can be even greater than the high cost of gasoline…. This demonization of oil companies made it politically inconvenient to remove price controls on oil when other price controls from the Nixon administration years were repealed…. There is no free lunch—and no free demagoguery.”

On climate change:

“The campaign to stampede the federal government into drastic action to counter ‘global warming’ has never let honesty cramp its style.”

“Would you bet your paycheck on the weather forecast for tomorrow? If not, then why should this country bet billions on global warming predictions that have even less foundation?”

“The real question is not whether human beings have any effect on temperature. The question is: How much? And how much can we change the temperature – and at what price? And what if we do nothing? What will happen? And how dire will it be?”

“Every record hot day is trumpeted in the media as showing global warming. But record cold days are mentioned only as isolated curiosities, if they are mentioned at all.”

“Among the most popular current catchwords are “climate change deniers.” Stop and think. Have you ever — even once in your entire life — seen, heard or read even one human being who denied that climates change?”

Free-market energy vs. Statism:

“Apparently the only things we can do are the things in vogue among nature cultists and the politicians who cater to them, things such as windmills and electric cars. That is why we would be better off if the government did nothing and let people adjust their own energy consumption in their own ways ….”

Dream big this MLK Day, and may the wisdom of Thomas Sowell continue to shine brightly and continue to enter the mainstream of social and political thought.

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Carl D. Bradley is a guest writer for Capitalism Magazine.

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