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Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams: Still Out of Step After All These Years

Gary North
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Jan. 28, 2011

Walter Williams has written an autobiography, Up from the Projects (Hoover Institution, 2010). Not counting the index, it is 142 pages long. It makes for a nice afternoon's read. I read it this week. A week ago, I re-read Thomas Sowell's autobiography, A Personal Odyssey (Free Press, 2000). Williams is 74. Sowell is 80. The two of them have similar stories. Sowell was born in North Carolina and grew up in Harlem. Williams grew up in Philadelphia. Sowell served in the Marines. Williams served in the Army. Both of them provided plenty of aggravation for their superiors. They both knew how to work the system. Sowell got more out of the experience. He became a first-rate photographer.

Sowell had the better education, all the way through. Williams struggled more academically. Both mastered the basics of free market economic theory. As a graduate student at UCLA in the early 1970s, he met Sowell, who was on the faculty. They became good friends.

Williams spent his career in academia, mostly at George Mason University in northern Virginia. Sowell was able to get hired full-time by the Hoover Institution, where he has written a series of superior books, including a magisterial trilogy on the movement of peoples and their contributions to economic progress. Both men have written newspaper columns for three decades, among the clearest defenses of economic liberty in the mainstream media. As the successors of the tradition set by Henry Hazlitt, beginning in the 1920s, they deserve our thanks.

Williams has long used a teacher's technique to get his readers to think. He asks a question relating to economics. Then he adds, "If you answered . . . , go to the head of the class." I doubt that many mainstream columnists would ever get to the head of Williams' class.

Both men say that in their youth, they were poor. Both say that they never knew they were poor. I have heard this from successful adults all my life. I think it is a mark of children generally. They really do make the best of what they have. They do not sense that they are deprived when their peers are in the same economic condition. I think we learn to lament our position only after we become adults -- in the richest nation in history. We pay too much attention to the Joneses and how we think they live. I think it's a learned trait, and not a good one. If we think, "Maybe I can be as productive," we do well. When we think, "Why shouldn't I have the same benefits?" we tempt ourselves with too great a focus on consumption rather than production.

Sowell and Williams have been extraordinarily productive. Both have made upper-middle-class incomes. Their incomes have not matched their personal influence. They have helped untold numbers of readers to think straight economically.

Williams at the end of his book makes this comment.

I've benefited from receiving virtually all of my education before it became fashionable for white people to like black people. The result: whatever grades I received were earned, as opposed to given. Teachers provided an honest assessment of my learning. They weren't reluctant to tell me, "Williams, that's just plain nonsense."

Both of them benefitted from a man who was, for one meeting, my graduate school advisor at UCLA, William Allen. Allen was a curmudgeon. He did not suffer fools lightly. He was a good economist, co-author with UCLA colleague Armen Alchian of University Economics, which I regard as the most rigorous Economics 1 textbook ever written. Why was he a benefit to them? Because, during the Black Power days in the late 1960s, when university departments were scrambling to hire blacks with Ph.Ds, no matter what their capabilities, Allen went public when he was chairman of the department. He said he was not going to hire any black except on one basis: the man was the best qualified candidate available. He basically dared the administration to do anything about it. He was a "no racial quotas" hard-nose. Sowell knew that if he got a job in that department, there would never be any question that he earned his way in. Sowell wrote in his book:

One of my black colleagues told me about a conversation among black students at U.C.LA. Someone had a theory about the black professors there, but someone else mentioned me as an exception to that theory. To this was the reply:

"Yeah, but Sowell came in through the front door."

That pretty well says it. Anyone who got past Bill Allen got in through the front door.

Both men took a lot of abuse from black leaders who espoused the Lyndon Johnson good society welfare state line. Sowell talks about it, but Williams reprints published statements in the press about Sowell as a Stepin Fetchit character or worse. The NAACP's General Counsel wrote that Sowell "would play the same kind of role which historically house niggers played for the plantation owners." Carl Rowan wrote in 1981, "Vidkun Quisling, in his collaboration with the Nazis, surely did not do as much damage to the Norwegians as Sowell is doing to the most helpless of black Americans." Liberals did not play fair. Imagine that!

Williams has done his fair share of rhetorical jousting over the years. He calls promoters of the welfare state "poverty pimps."

I first spotted Sowell in the mid-1960s. He wrote an article for the American Economic Review in 1960. This was during his Marxist phase. He was a graduate student at the time, so getting an article in the AER was something of a personal triumph. Most economists never do. In a footnote in my 1968 book, Marx's Religion of Revolution, which I wrote as a graduate student, I noted: "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." I have no reason to believe that he ever noticed.

My only other contact with him was in the mid-1980s, when I wanted him to speak at one of my conferences. He charged $10,000, which in today's money was $20,000. I could not afford this. So, I sent him a check for $3,500 and invited him. I figured a check would grease my skids. He sent it back with a polite rejection. That would have been 2011's $7,000 for one day's work. For a kid who grew up in Harlem, he was in high cotton. Good for him, I thought.

I have known Williams for 35 years. We used to be on the seminar circuit for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's Role of Business in Society summer program. We have both come a long way. No more rubber chicken.

Williams writes of an incident in a class with Prof. Alchian. I knew Alchian from a week-long seminar I had with him and other economists in 1969. He was a rigorous and cantankerous guy. I like to think of him as the Armenians' answer to Milton Friedman. They shared the same perspective. They also showed no mercy.

Alchian raised a question. Why did the generation that built the Brooklyn Bridge build it to last beyond their own lifetimes? What was in it for them to supply unpaid-for benefits to future generations? No student came up with the answer. After several weeks, they gave up. What was the answer? "He chuckled and said, I don't know. I wanted to see if any of you knew.'"

I know the answer.

I will copy Williams. "Why do you care what anyone says at your funeral? After all, you will not be around to hear it." If you said, "People want to be remembered well," go to the head of the class.

It is a matter of legacy. There is a sense in every person that there will be a final judgment of some kind. How we are remembered will in some way matter. Even atheists want a final judgment. They just don't think God will render it. What others will think of them then matters to them now.

The classic example in Western history is the construction of medieval cathedrals. The church funded them. The generation that funded a cathedral might not live to see it completed. They built it for the glory of God. It was designed to last for centuries. They wanted to be remembered as the people who built a great thing to last.

No one builds a bridge to be remembered as the person who designed a bridge that collapsed.

Economists are generally atheists. Their methodology lends itself to atheism. They tend to think in terms of personal self-interest of consumers. They ignore the obvious: we are producers. We devote much of our lives to doing productive things, such as raise decent children, for the sake of our unborn heirs. Economic theory cannot deal methodologically with non-profit organizations. It cannot deal with families. Why not? Because there is no free market, no system of profit and loss, and no capital market for the human assets. You cannot sell your wife. Not anymore, anyway. For over a century in England, you could. Read the book, Wives for Sale. The practice was not legal, but it was tolerated by the civil authorities in some rural communities.

An economist who sees personal self-interest as ending with the producer's death -- no more consumption -- attributes to others abnormally high time-preference. He thinks they overvalue the present in relation to the future. He says that they discount their posthumous legacies to zero. So, he is unable to explain why normal people sacrifice in the present for those who will survive them.

The economist who sees consumption as the only operational goal in life does not understand this question: "For what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?" The trade-off of all trade-offs eludes him methodoligically.

I recommend both autobiographies. They provide a record of two of the most out-of-step intellectuals in my generation. They were, each in his own way, at the head of their respective classes.

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