THIRTY-EIGHT YEARS AGO, Reason contributor Thomas Hazlett and Senior Editor Manny Klausner sat down with University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) economist and social scientist Thomas Sowell for a sprawling interview about race, gender, poverty, economics, and what he viewed as the government's many failed and misguided attempts to lift up poor minorities. Sowell talked about his history as a Marxist, his frustrations with working in government, and why he rejects the label "libertarian," preferring instead to describe himself as "a person who dissents from the current liberal orthodoxy."
That interview occurred not long after the publication of one of Sowell's most influential and widely read books, Knowledge and Decisions, which resulted in The New York Times labeling him "America's most distinguished black social scientist."
In the years since, his fame and influence have only expanded. He has written dozens of books, including the much-lauded Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy; served as a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution; and been presented with the Francis Boyer Award by the American Enterprise Institute, the Sydney Hook Award by the National Association of Scholars, and, in 2002, the National Humanities Award for his work in economics and political science. He remains one of America's most distinguished social scientists, period.
In July, Sowell once again sat down with Hazlett to discuss his life and career, the consequences of fame, the surprising similarities between Presidents Trump and Obama, how Reason helped inspire his work, and why--despite the generally positive trajectory of the world over the last four decades--he remains somewhat pessimistic about its current state.
Reason: In the December 1980 issue of Reason, Manny Klausner and I interviewed you. A few things have happened in between. For instance, you have had an astounding career as a scholar and thinker and writer. It is time to follow up.
In 1980, you were a professor of economics at UCLA, and you had become the most famous black social scientist in America, according to The New York Times. Also in 1980 you starred in multiple episodes of Free to Choose, the excellent public TV series by Milton Friedman. That was really a great year for you.
Sowell: It was in some ways.
You've achieved a level of fame and some would say notoriety within intellectual circles. Has it changed your life?
A lot. As of 1980, for example, I used to sit in my office at the Hoover Institution with the door open, and people, anyone who wanted to talk to me, they'd just drop by and stop in and we'd chew the fat. Sometimes with students and occasionally even with journalists. That all changed with the election of Ronald Reagan and this hysteria, in some quarters of the media, that I would be part of the Reagan administration and all my bad ideas would be tried out.
That of course was some of the earliest of the fake news that I'm aware of. I had no intention of going into politics. But the attention was so great that we had to close my office door. And then later, we had to take my name off the directories. And then, in still later years, I simply worked at home. It wasn't worth the bother.
You told me a while ago that Reason actually did have something to do with your career path.
It was specifically your columns in Reason that led me to think that you could write about serious economic subjects without using graphs and equations. Economists are just hooked on graphs and equations and jargon, and to see you discuss things that really are complicated and need some explanation, and do it without that, led me to think that it would be possible to write an introductory economics book like that. As I saw various economic issues being discussed on television and realized what fallacies were presented, I would write something about that. I accumulated these writings for 10 years. And by the end of the 10th year, I had enough to write a book about it, which I did...Basic Economics. But it was by no means foreordained that that would happen. I gave it a shot because you were the pioneer who goes ahead, and then there's the crowd that follows after him. Well, I was part of that crowd.
The late Nobel laureate James Buchanan said that Knowledge and Decisions was the best book he had read on economics since Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. Some of us loved that book as a grand, eloquent discussion of how economic thinking is everywhere. Is that your proudest achievement?
It certainly was at the time, and it's certainly among the books that I'm proudest of now. I guess my own personal favorite is Conflict of Visions, which is perhaps a third of the size and more readable. Knowledge and Decisions was a tough book to write. It's not as readable as some of the other things I've done.
In 1980, the question of poverty and public policy arose, and you said the solution was to invite all the experts on poverty to a big conference on an island--and to keep them there for a few decades. When they were allowed to return home, they'd be very impressed with their work. Looking over the last almost four decades, that's kind of what happened to billions of poor people in China, India, South America, and Africa, not to mention the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Poland...