Sowell and Walter Williams: Still Out of Step After All These Years
by Gary North: Moving
How Far Out?
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
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.
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.
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.
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'
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
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.
the end of his book makes this comment.
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
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:
but Sowell came in through the front door."
well says it. Anyone who got past Bill Allen got in through the
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!
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.
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is the author of Mises
on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com.
He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible.
2011 Gary North
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