Thomas Sowell is one of the most important living economist and philosopher. Today Brittany and Connor will discuss what makes him so relevant to our world today.


Here’s a transcript of our conversation:

Brittany: Hi, Connor.

Connor: Hey, Brittany.

Brittany: So, we talk about a lot of really extraordinary people on our show, many of whom aren’t dead, which is kinda sad. But today we actually get to talk about somebody who’s still alive and still very much influencing society in a way that I think we really need. So, Thomas Sowell has been called one of the greatest minds of the last 50 years, and his brilliance has allowed him to speak the truth, especially when it’s unpopular, which as we’ve talked about before, is not really an easy thing for people to do. And he also asked a lot of questions that people are too scared to ask, and that has really helped him become a major influence, both on today’s thought, like modern thought economics. And, you know, he is done a lot of what people haven’t been able to do. One of which, Connor, is catching you like, maybe you’ll catch up to him. He’s written over 60 books. Wow. I think you’re getting close.

Connor: Maybe someday. I, like Sowell. and so, it’s kind of a weird spelling. His last name S O W E L L you guys probably see it in your little podcast app.

Brittany: He’s so well.

Connor: So, Thomas Sowell you know, he is a really great modern thinker and it is fun to even just kind of watch some YouTube videos where he’s interviewed. He’s, a very clear thinker. there’s actually a new documentary on his life that Amazon Prime just put out. We’ll put it in the show notes page, as a reminder, that’s tule And so you’ll have that link there if you wanna find it. The documentary’s really a good look in his life and how this guy’s been able to change the world. I mean, you write 60 books, chances are you’ve, you know, changed a few people’s, minds or even some laws along the way. And one of the reasons that I admire Sowell so much is that of all the economists like he’s among the top for being an advocate for individualism. And yeah, the kids out there who’ve read are Tuttle twin’s books. They know that there’s individualism and then there’s collectivism, right? And collectivism is the idea that we should all have to do the same thing, or that we should all get to decide what someone’s going to do. And it’s about the group rather than the person. It’s kind of the collection, right? Collectivism. And then on the other hand, you’ve got individualism where it’s the individual who’s important that people should be free to decide, you know, for themselves. And so Sowell is really good because he’s a good economist. He’s really good at understanding these things, but he looks at it through that lens about, Hey, look, the individual is what matters here. When the individual goes to the store or the individual, right? Is buying something on Amazon, he’s thinking about what, what incentivizes the individual? What makes an individual, you know, make a certain decision? And that’s how we can look at economics because really as, and we’ve discussed this on past shows, Britney, yeah. Economics is really just human action. it’s people making decisions just like when you buy something, but then maybe thousands of other people buy that thing. All of a sudden you have a demand, right? For a product. But it’s just a bunch of people deciding on their own. And so Sowell really good with that. He also has this amazing ability, I think, to get people to reconsider their views and change their opinions even on a bunch of things. And, you know, we’ve talked about that being able to persuade people to even think about another argument is a difficult task, but Sowell is a really good person who’s able to get people to actually rethink their opinions, which I think is, pretty rare these days.

Brittany: It is. And I’ll even admit, like, I’m pretty stuck in my ways, right? So I don’t know that people could persuade me even. but one thing that I really like, honestly, about a lot of the stories that we tell about these incredible people is how they came from humble beginnings. And, you know, Sowell is no different. He was born in Gastonia in North Carolina in 1930. And I want you to think about that. If you can do the math quickly in your head, that means he’s in his nineties. So we might not have a lot of time left with him. I hope he lives till like 150. I hope he is one of those like trailblazers. But he’s seen a lot. I mean, think about how much you would’ve seen if you were born in 1930.

Connor: Well, that was the start of the Great Depression. Yeah. We’ve done an episode about that and about how hard it was to deal with the economy. There were a lot of people losing their jobs and suffering. And, so here is, Thomas, he’s, part of a black family. Of course, they’re living in the south. And you know, his parents were not well off at all. They didn’t have electricity, they didn’t have like air conditioning, hot water. his dad died before he was even born. and then his mom died during childbirth a few years later. So he grew up as an orphan. He lived with his great-aunt and her two daughters. And, none of them were educated. He was really kind of born in these circumstances that were basically just poverty. Exactly. Poverty.

Brittany: So he never really even got to know his parents, did he?

Connor: No. He didn’t. And, I mean, I think that’s a really rough way to enter the world, But to his credit, you know, he did not let that stop him. He felt like his entire career was a result of his upbringing. And I think that’s important because each of us is going through things in our lives that is going to shape who we are. And, Thomas Sowell could have let his circumstances turn him into a victim, right? woe is me. I need the government to help me, right? People need to do things for me cuz I’m suffering. And a lot of people make those decisions when they have hard circumstances. But here’s Thomas Sowell instead who says, you know what? I’m, I came from this very poor upbringing. He almost, you know, applied himself even harder yeah. to become a better person because of that upbringing. But, because he grew up in poverty and had those circumstances, I think it really not only motivated him but helped him understand economics a little bit more. Because, you know, the Great Depression really impacted people, you know, like his family, his, the folks taking care of him. They wanted, you know, of course, him to be a little bit better off. So they ended up moving him to New York where he could access, better schools. He was away from the South with the segregation and the kind of, racial issues there.

Brittany: Can we back up and talk about what segregation is? I don’t know if we’ve discussed it a lot on this show before.

Connor: Yeah, yeah. So after, you know, world, the civil war or the war between the states, and then, you know, slavery was officially ended. there was segregation segregate is like separate. And, so black and white people were separated from each other socially. And, black people, even though they were no longer slaves, you know, were very mistreated under the law. It was very unfair in the south still because white people were in charge of the government. And, you know, black people had access to lower-quality schools and fewer jobs. you know, like the kids out there may have seen little video clips or heard stories where they couldn’t even drink out the same drinking fountain. and, you know, that the struggle, of course, is that when you grow up in that environment, it’s very hard to get ahead. And so I think it was very smart of them to send little Tommy, away to a school. They didn’t even have a telephone when he was grown and ready to leave his home. And so, despite all that, Sowell believes that you know, he was much, much better off under his circumstances than other black children are today. Which I think is a super bold statement to make.

Brittany: Absolutely. But one thing I love about Sowell, we’ve seen this again in so many of the people we’ve talked about,  is he loved education. And he had a mentor, I believe his name was Eddie. that’s all we know, that’s all he talked about in the documentary was Eddie. But he noticed how bright he was at a very young age. And so he took him to a library. Imagine being a kid and not even knowing what a library was. He actually said that he walked in and he was thinking like, I don’t have the money to buy these books. Why are you taking me here? Like, you’re teasing me. I can’t even do anything here. And so he taught him that he could check out all these books and he could research and he could read. And it was the access to books that opened up all these doors for him that honestly he didn’t even know existed. And, one thing, and this helped him, and it’s something he’s still doing today, is Sowell’s a really big fan of school choice. And we’ve talked about this a little when we talked about, free-range parenting and homeschooling and unschooling. But school choice is a movement where parents, where people want parents to be in control of their children’s education. So right now, you kind of have to go to the school. If you go to a public school that’s closest to your house, you don’t have like a choice to go to one school or another now charter schools are great. Private schools are great if parents can afford them. homeschooling is also an option. And this is something that Thomas so is really, really, really into because he’s seen it help him. He was actually supposed to go to a really bad junior high school. And I mean, I don’t know. Well, one junior high school student’s terrifying me, sorry, junior high school student. But, the ones in a bad neighborhood. I mean, this could have changed his whole life, but because of some school choice, because he was able to go to, it wasn’t a charter school, but it was a much better school, and they let him transfer there, it made all the difference. And so that has made him an advocate for school choice.

Connor: Well, people like him can see the real-world impacts that these decisions have, you know, and the power that education has. And it’s interesting to me, Brittany, you’ll remember on a previous episode when we talked about Rose Wilder Lane, where she was kind of seduced, you know, by socialism for a while and thought that that’s where equality and fairness comes from. And that was the same with Sowell. you know, he fell under the spell of Marxism, you know, which is basically communism and, and socialism. And, and, you can see in a sense why right? Like, I think it’s fairly common for people who are in poorer circumstances to want free stuff. Like, think of college kids today in a bunch of debt. And so then you get a politician comes along and saying, you know, vote for me and we will eliminate all of your school debt. Well, that sounds amazing, right? Like, if you’ve got tens of thousands of dollars in debt and someone’s promising, to you that they’ll make it go away. Or if you’re about to go off to college, if that’s something you wanna do, and you’re being told that you know, the college will be free, healthcare will be free, all these things will be free. Well, of course, that’s a very enticing message, right? Like, who doesn’t want free stuff? But we’ve talked so many times on this podcast, Brittany, about kinda like the Frederick Bastiat quote about that which is seen and that which is not seen. And how a good economist, focuses not just on the things you can see, which is like, ooh, you know, free college, free healthcare, no college debt, whatever. Those are the things that are seen kind of dangled in front of you by a politician who wants you to vote for them. But a good economist is also looking at the thing that aren’t seen. And so people, in poor circumstances, they’re being presented this idea of, Hey, look, just these policies will help you. And of course, it’s very enticing to be like, yes, you know, give me free stuff. and so you have someone like Thomas Sowell who, himself was, you know, attracted to some of these ideas even after he took classes from scholars in this kind of Chicago School of Economics, kind of like the Austrian School, a little bit different, you know, even after he took some of these economics classes, he was still a Marxist. But it wasn’t until he actually worked for the government that he realized how useless the government was. Which I think is funny cuz most people who go work for government end up like, you know, thinking, oh, this is great. I’m paid to do nothing. Right? like I can, the government is great. And, so he goes to work for the government and realizes how ineffective it is. And you know, we’ve talked to kind of talked about this Austrian school, this idea of economics, this free market approach. And as I mentioned, there’s some similarities between the Chicago school and the Austrian school, you know, Chicago school economists. they also believe in limited government intervention in the economy, so they don’t want like a lot of regulations and they don’t want socialism. And, Sowell ended up, kind of subscribing to that idea. He became kind of this Chicago school or limited government approach to, the market and ended up moving away from Marxism to his credit.

Brittany: That’s right. And this is actually my favorite part of the whole documentary. So Dave Rubin, who’s a podcast host that I really love, in fact, I gotta meet him, he’s amazing. But he asked him, he got to do an interview and he said, you know, what is it that got it to change your mind? You were a Marxist. And Sowell looks at the camera and just goes, facts. And he says it so pure and simple, but, you know, Sowell saw poor in economically just devastated areas. And then, like you said, that’s why he was drawn to this idea of Marxist equality. And then he realized that the facts don’t add up. You can’t force equality through policy. It just doesn’t work.

Connor: Yeah. And you know, I really like Sowell because he was a huge believer in self-reliance. Just like, you know, the importance of individuals and, and taking care of yourself. He would even debate people who believed that welfare would help black people get ahead, you know, which was a controversial view or position for him to take, right? Cuz most people believed, oh, we need welfare. The black community were struggling. We need help. And so he took the opposite position that government welfare was actually more harmful. He believed, you know, that people could improve their circumstances through their own, you know, will their hard work. And I think he was living proof of that.

Brittany: Something that plays into that. Another thing that made him such a controversial figure, even among black people, was his views on affirmative action and affirmative action. It’s kind of a big term, but that’s when the government gives out special privileges to minorities. So that could be different races, or even me as a female, like, I get special privileges for college and stuff like that, which is really not fair and Sowell taught at Cornell, which is a really good school, and he realized that the school had been accepting black students based solely on their skin color, not on their academic merits. And this was actually hurting the students because they weren’t prepared for the school. So they were failing out when they would’ve thrived to other schools. And so, Walter Williams, who’s another brilliant economist who works at George Mason University, he was saying like, they, they were actually putting black students in over their heads, it was harming them. So he spoke out against this, and that was, he was one of the first people to do that.

Connor: Yeah. And, I think that’s what’s interesting about him. He had these positions that were very contrary in many respects to the way that most people thought and what they took for granted. And, you know, he would point out, you know, the, as you mentioned, you know, The facts are what matter, that you know, that we shouldn’t let our kind of, preferences and our politics kind of, skew us from understanding the title of the podcast, right? The way the world really works, the actual facts. so guys, make sure you check out the show notes page. It’s a good documentary to watch. Go pull ’em up on YouTube. lots of little clips that you can find. Definitely pick up, one of his books, one of the 60 maybe.

Brittany: And you know what, they’re actually, most of them are free and audible now as well.

Connor: Oh, Awesome. All right, well, yeah, check out the show notes, page Thanks as always you guys for subscribing. We’re glad that you’re listening. Make sure you share the podcast with a friend. Until next time, Brittany, we’ll talk to you later.

Brittany: Talk to you later.