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Jason Riley on Thomas Sowell: The Life and Work of the Legendary Social Theorist

Maverick: A biography of Thomas Sowell (book cover)

Thomas Sowell is one of the great social theorists of our age. In a career spanning more than a half century, he has written over thirty books, covering topics from economic history and social inequality to political theory, race, and culture. His bold and unsentimental assaults on liberal orthodoxy have endeared him to many readers but have also enraged fellow intellectuals, the civil-rights establishment, and much of the mainstream media. The result has been a lack of acknowledgment of his scholarship among critics who prioritize political correctness.

In the first-ever biography of Sowell, Jason Riley gives this iconic thinker his due and responds to the detractors. Maverick showcases Sowell’s most significant writings and traces the life events that shaped his ideas and resulted in a Black orphan from the Jim Crow South becoming one of our foremost public intellectuals.

Jason L. Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He is the author of several previous books, including Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed.

Shermer and Riley discuss:

  • the unconventional upbringing and education of Thomas Sowell,
  • Riley’s documentary film: Thomas Sowell: Common Sense in a Senseless World,
  • Sowell work in economics, defined as “the efficient allocation of limited resources that have alternative uses,”
  • Sowell’s philosophy that “there are no solutions, only trade-offs.” (Photography analogy: if you close down the aperture you get everything in focus but lose light. All policies have trade-offs.),
  • school choice/vouchers,
  • mismatch theory and affirmative action,
  • What is the appeal of Marxism, communism, socialism, progressivism?
  • immigration and open borders: let the market decide?
  • race and IQ,
  • why he thinks liberals make it harder for blacks to succeed,
  • political correctness, cancel culture and identity politics,
  • BLM and antiracism,
  • reparations: what do we owe others?
  • private vs. public charity/welfare,
  • income inequality and UBI,
  • minimum wage,
  • why he thinks economic success is a more important strategy for the empowerment of black people than dependence on political leadership,
  • Do we have a moral obligation to help those who cannot help themselves?
  • what it means to be a conservative or a Republican post-Trump,
  • Sowell’s The Quest for Cosmic Justice applied to religions and faux religions (Marxism, Wokeism),
  • Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions.
Supplemental material from Dr. Shermer’s book The Believing Brain

In his book A Conflict of Visions, the economist Thomas Sowell argued that these two clusters of moral values are intimately linked to the vision one holds about human nature, either as constrained (conservative) or unconstrained (liberal), and so he calls these the Constrained Vision and the Unconstrained Vision. Sowell shows that controversies over a number of seemingly unrelated social issues such as taxes, welfare, social security, health care, criminal justice, and war repeatedly reveal a consistent ideological dividing line along these two conflicting visions.

“If human options are not inherently constrained, then the presence of such repugnant and disastrous phenomena virtually cries out for explanation—and for solutions. But if the limitations and passions of man himself are at the heart of these painful phenomena, then what requires explanation are the ways in which they have been avoided or minimized.”

Which of these natures you believe is true will largely shape which solutions to social ills will be most effective.

“In the unconstrained vision, there are no intractable reasons for social evils and therefore no reason why they cannot be solved, with sufficient moral commitment. But in the constrained vision, whatever artifices or strategies restrain or ameliorate inherent human evils will themselves have costs, some in the form of other social ills created by these civilizing institutions, so that all that is possible is a prudent trade-off.”

It’s not that conservatives think that we’re evil and liberals believe we’re perfectible.

“Implicit in the unconstrained vision is the notion that the potential is very different from the actual, and that means exist to improve human nature toward its potential, or that such means can be evolved or discovered, so that man will do the right thing for the right reason, rather than for ulterior psychic or economic rewards. Man is, in short, ‘perfectible’—meaning continually improvable rather than capable of actually reaching absolute perfection.”

In his masterpiece analysis of human nature, The Blank Slate, the psychologist Steven Pinker re-labels these two visions the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision and reconfigures them slightly: “The Utopian Vision seeks to articulate social goals and devise policies that target them directly: economic inequality is attacked in a war on poverty, pollution by environmental regulations, racial imbalances by preferences, carcinogens by bans on food additives. The Tragic Vision points to the self-interested motives of the people who would implement these policies—namely, the expansion of their bureaucratic fiefdoms—and to their ineptitude at anticipating the myriad consequences, especially when the social goals are pitted against millions of people pursuing their own interests.” The distinct Left-Right divide consistently cleaves the (respectively) Utopian Vision and Tragic Vision along numerous specific contests, such as the size of the government (big versus small), the amount of taxation (high versus low), trade (fair versus free), healthcare (universal versus individual), environment (protect it versus leave it alone), crime (caused by social injustice versus caused by criminal minds), the constitution (judicial activism for social justice versus strict constructionism for original intent), and many others

From a previous podcast episode with the Director of the London School of Economics, Minouche Shafik, based on her book What We Owe Each Other: A New Social Contract for a Better Society:

“First, that everyone should be guaranteed the minimum required to live a decent life. This minimum should include basic health care, education, benefits associated with work and a pension that protects against poverty in old age, with the level depending on how much society can afford. Second, everyone should be expected to contribute as much as they can and be given the maximum opportunities to do so with training throughout life, later retirement ages and public support for childcare so women can work. Third, the provision of minimum protections around some risks, such as sickness, unemployment and old age, are better shared by society, rather than asking individuals, families or employers to carry them.”

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This episode is sponsored by Wondrium:

Wondrium (sponsor)

This episode was released on December 14, 2021.

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