Thomas Sowell: The World's Greatest Living Economist
I first encountered his name in 1967, when I was writing the chapter on Marx's economics in my first book, Marx's Religion of Revolution (1968).
Sowell had written an article for the American Economic Review in 1960. I did not know at the time that he had written it while he was in graduate school, which is unheard of for any author of an AER article. He received his Ph.D. in 1968, the year my book was published. I also did not know that Sowell was a Marxist. In 1960, the year the article was published, he got a job as a summer intern in a federal bureaucracy. He began to abandon his Marxism.
I was not overly impressed by the article. I cited it in a footnote: "Thomas Sowell, "Marx's 'Increasing Misery Doctrine'," American Economic Review, L (1960), pp. 111-20. Sowell argues that Marx did hold to the absolute increasing misery doctrine before 1850 or so, but in the context of this chapter, I have tried to indicate that he also wrote in terms of it after 1850." Little did I suspect what was to come.
There is no Sowell theorem in economic theory. There is no Sowell movement. Nobody has publicly identified himself as a Sowellist. Then why do I regard him as the greatest living economist? This:
1. He applies simple but fundamental concepts of economics to real-world problems, which are often problems that are not widely perceived as being heavily influenced by economic categories.
2. He relies exclusively on verbal communications, not graphs or equations, to explain these concepts and their applications. This keeps his expositions firmly within the realm of historical cause and effect.
3. He never begins his economic analyses with this phrase: "Let us assume. . . ." The only time he ever uses "let us assume," is when it is followed by "for the sake of argument," which is in preparation for a lambasting of some conventional political assumption.
4. He writes in well-honed English that is the product of over 30 years of writing newspaper columns: clear, precise, and rhetorically persuasive -- in short, efficient.
5. He is the most creative economist in our era -- or perhaps in any era -- in implementing the division of labor in his writing. He hires astoundingly productive research assistants, and then he incorporates their remarkable but diverse discoveries into a single coherent narrative.
6. He is a better historian than he is an economist. Other economists have made observations similar to his. But no other historian matches him in his chosen specialty: economic motivations that have prompted the international migration and subsequent economic successes of modern racial, national, and religious groups.
7. His commitment to discovering historical applications of economic theory, which keeps his theories from straying into the realm of irrelevant mathematical precision, where most academic economists prefer to dwell in safety -- preferably tenured safety.
8. He does not suffer fools gladly. He takes no prisoners.
9. He writes editorials with such regularity that he warrants a permanent Drudge Report link. This volume of output, written under the pressure of deadlines, gives him ample opportunities to make wrong-headed, off-the-cuff statements. He has kept these to a minimum, usually confined to areas in which he claims no expertise.
Features 1-7 are guaranteed to keep him from winning a Nobel Prize.
He was not an overnight sensation. It was two decades between that article on Marx and his breakthrough book. In 1974, he hit conceptual pay dirt. He began working on a project that resulted in a specialized monograph. He began the simplest theorem of economics, scarcity -- "at zero price, there is greater demand than supply" -- and applied it to a key economic resource, which is arguably the central economic resource: accurate knowledge. For 400 pages, he mined his unregistered claim for all it was worth. It turned out to be the mother lode. Why? Because knowledge is widely regarded as a free good. Even when it is not so regarded, it is regarded as a good that ought to be free. Sowell showed in ten cogent, carefully argued chapters that accurate knowledge is never free. Any attempt by the state to make knowledge free will backfire, he argued. The digital counter-culture's slogan -- "information wants to be free" -- is nonsense. It is a variant of the ancient quest of something for nothing, which always ends badly.
Then he hit publishing pay dirt. The manuscript was accepted by Basic Books, the leading publisher of academic books on the Right. It published Knowledge and Decisions in 1980. I regard that book as the most important one-volume monograph in economics that I have ever read. I thought so in 1980, and I still do. Why? Because there are so many areas of life in which we have ignored or discounted the cost of accurate and applicable information. Unless you have given a great deal of thought to this, you have missed most of them.
Also in 1980, he went on the payroll of the Hoover Institution. Hoover decided to trade a guaranteed salary in exchange for Sowell's future output. This was a deal for Hoover comparable to Red Auerbach's trade in 1956 of Cliff Hagen and "Easy" Ed McCauley for a newly drafted and untried rookie, Bill Russell.
In 1986, I offered to pay him $3,500 to fly an hour to Los Angeles, give a speech, and fly back to Palo Alto. That was worth about $7,300 in today's money. That was over three times what I had ever offered anyone to speak at one of my conferences. I knew that he normally asked $10,000 per speech. So, I tried the old trick I use when dealing with used car salesmen. I sent him the check. He sent it back, but he thanked me for making the offer. He thereby proved to me that his time was an economic good. At zero price, there was way too much demand for my budget. He clearly placed a high price on his time. Over the next quarter century, he justified this price in terms of the value of his output.
I must now issue a warning. Four of his books, which were written for his academic peers, are second rate. Why do I say this? Because they violated the criteria that I apply to his later work. They are unclear, without rhetorical power, dishwater dull, made no impact on the economics profession, and sank without a trace. First is his monograph, Say's Law, published by Princeton University Press in 1972. Second is Classical Economics Reconsidered (1974), also published by Princeton University Press. It was much better than Say's Law, because it was 90 pages shorter. Third, there is his book on Marxism, published in 1985. As of today, you can buy a hardcover used copy of his book on Marxism on Amazon. You can pay $191.37, $318.18, or $318.20, plus $3.99 for shipping. Don't.
His original economic textbook, Economics (1971), was unmemorable. It had a lot of graphs, which conveyed no useful theoretical knowledge beyond the text, and which made reading the book far more laborious. It was a conventional textbook. It was therefore boring. Its main benefit was that it was short: 340 pages, not the standard 1,000 pages of a college-level textbook. It therefore had this advantage: it is better to bore captive collegiate readers out of their skulls for 340 pages than for 1,000. The proof of how mediocre his textbook was is this: his 2004 non-textbook, Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy. It was written for a non-captive audience: readers who are not enrolled in college. It contains no graphs or equations. It is intensely real-world focused, as are all of the books that he wrote for the general public.
This is his great contribution. With a few exceptions, which I regard as youthful indiscretions, he has written for the general public. No Nobel Prize for him!
There is one other thing. Sowell in his dust jacket photos has always looked at least ten years younger than he is. I like to think they were Photoshopped, but Photoshop is too recent. This has annoyed me for over three decades. (My solution: I never put my photo on my dust jackets. I don't want to be reminded.)