- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 24, 2007

A MAN OF LETTERS

By Thomas Sowell

Encounter Books, $29.95, 359 pages

REVIEWED BY LARRY THORNBERRY

Very few people these days write letters, let alone write and save copies of them. We can be thankful that economist, scholar, author and columnist Thomas Sowell wrote excellent letters, lots of them, saved copies, and has graciously decided to share them with us.

The letters, written to friends, relatives, colleagues and public figures between 1960 and 2006, are a treat to read. They give insight into the life and career of a man many consider the most acute social commentator on active duty today. And they constitute a compact review of the controversies that have roiled the republic, and much of the world, over the recent volatile decades.

Those familiar with Mr. Sowell’s books and columns know he is unfailingly intelligent, relentlessly analytical — often better than anyone else at going to the heart of an issue, at pinning down what’s important and what isn’t, at showing us connections we might not otherwise have seen. Mr. Sowell often has the answer while the rest of us are still trying to figure out what the question is. And he’s courageous, unafraid to take on sacred cows and point out when the powerful are wrong or culpable (a baseball fan, Mr. Sowell knows how to and doesn’t mind pitching inside — it’s a pleasure watching him move Lefties and other crazies off the plate).

Mr. Sowell's “A Conflict of Visions” (1987) is still the best explanation of political ideologies, where they come from and how they affect how we think and behave. “The Vision of the Anointed” (1995) shows how the erroneous, sometimes downright daffy and destructive ideas that support the social vision of current elites is hermetically sealed, bulletproof, impervious to feedback from reality. “Affirmative Action Around the World” (2004) is a scholarly send-up of this fashionable hustle.

There are many other Sowell titles to choose from. They all shed light on important questions of the day. And not just from seat-of-the-pants opinions you can read any day on almost any op-ed page, but from thorough, data-based research and critical analysis.

But for all the scholarly thoroughness, Mr. Sowell is no dusty don, no boring wonk. His analysis and his polemics are always clearly, even entertainingly stated. He’s a good writer, and often funny. As an example, this swipe at guilt-ridden limousine liberals who whoop up bad and expensive policies:

“I have suggested that rich people who feel guilty should see a psychiatrist at their own expense rather than make public policy at other people’s expense.”

Mr. Sowell is not fond of ideological labels, perhaps because most use them so imprecisely, and he refuses to adopt one for himself. Yet it’s clear enough, reading him over the decades, that he could most accurately be described as a conservative with a strong libertarian streak. His critical thinking has allowed him to have no truck with the utopian simplicities of the progressive mind. Regrettably, we’ve been in the grip of these simplicities over the period of these letters.

Thanks perhaps to his age and to fashion, Mr. Sowell frolicked a bit with Marxism as a young Harvard undergraduate. But this youthful infatuation didn’t survive contact with reality. Certainly not contact with serious thinkers like Milton Freidman and others Mr. Sowell encountered on his way to a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

After graduate school Mr. Sowell alternately enjoyed and endured a career in academe before becoming a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in 1980. The academe Mr. Sowell entered as a teacher was by then debased by dumbing down, grade inflation and rigidly enforced left-PC toxicities. He reflects on this irony in letters to a former college roommate and to Professor David Riesman:

“I finally got my Ph.D. in December, just when it has become virtually worthless, with the academic scene being what it is.” (2/23/69)

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