The calm sunshine of the mind." That was how David Hume described that exceedingly precious, and also exceedingly rare, mental commodity: unruffled rational thought. It's a description I've long associated with the work of Thomas Sowell, the American economist and social commentator who is now in his 80th year.
I hesitated before using the designation "economist". True, Sowell's professional home is in that discipline. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in economics and holds advanced degrees in the subject from Columbia and the University of Chicago. Among his nearly 40 books (including two that I've published at Encounter Books) are technical studies and more general free-market titles like Economic Facts and Fallacies (2007) and On Classical Economics (2006). Sowell also recently published The Housing Boom and Bust, a penetrating study of the recent housing bubble that helped fuel the worldwide credit crisis we are still living through.
Still, Carlyle was on to something when he described economics as "the dismal science". As often practised, economics seems pedantically abstract and divorced from the human realities it is meant to illuminate. Sowell is a rare practitioner of the discipline — Hayek was another — whose broad learning and psychological insight lifts his work in economics to the level of cultural criticism in the highest sense. When he writes about economic matters, Sowell writes not just about the behaviour of markets but also about that of people. Sowell brings a philosopher's eye to the scientist's data. "Evidence" is one of his favourite words, but what he does with evidence goes beyond explanation to the realm of cultural illumination. Like Anthony Trollope, he is interested in limning the way we live now. He specialises in the clear articulation of unpalatable truths. "Put bluntly," he writes in an article about education, "failure attracts more money than success." Naturally, the custodians of established opinion are not grateful for having the nakedness of their emperors pointed out with such clarity. As a result, although Sowell's accomplishments have been handsomely recognised in conservative circles, he is conspicuously underrated by the cultural elite who dispense the demotic legitimisation of celebrity.
Sowell's life is an American success story right out of the pages of Horatio Alger. He was born in North Carolina to a single mother in 1930. His family had neither electricity, central heating nor running water. When his mother died in childbirth, he was adopted by his mother's sister. He grew up believing she was his mother in Harlem, New York. At 16, he dropped out of high school and skipped through a string of low-paying jobs until he was drafted into the Marines in 1951. Armed service, Sowell recalls in his memoir, A Personal Odyssey, was a challenging godsend. Not only did it give him much-needed personal discipline, it also introduced him to professional photography (a lifetime avocation) and, through the GI Bill, made his education possible. The Marines gave Sowell a chance. He seized it.