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)
"My own academic career has coincided almost exactly with the general decline in intellectual standards and in standards of decency." (9/2/76)
The letters document the generally sorry scene at American universities during the Sixties and Seventies (little improved today), and specifically how university colleagues and administrators put pressure on Mr. Sowell to go along with the gag, especially to lower his standards and expectations, particularly when it came to black students.
But Mr. Sowell resisted, insisting that a good grade in one of his classes actually meant the student had learned something. The letters show Mr. Sowell to be clear-headed early and often, not only about academic standards, and about basic racial fairness without privileges, but about the other critical issues of the day. Some examples:
"[T]he recent passing of Bob Bartley reminded me that here was a man who made a real difference by making the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal a counterweight to the nonsense pouring out of most of the elite media. Often, when reading the morning papers, I thought that going from the editorial page of the New York Times to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal was like going from adolescence to adulthood." (Christmas '03)
"Scratch an ultra-liberal and you'll find a bigot underneath. I often wonder if some of the so-called 'militants' have not also written off black people's potential and set about substitutes for achievement." (3/29/71)
"[I]t is no favor to the black community to send them 'doctors' who have been let through medical school without really learning what they need to know. I certainly don't want my children operated on by such 'doctors,' and I don't know anyone else who does." (2/15/78)
"The basic problem of many Third World countries, it seems to me, is that those citizens who have the know-how and drive to increase the national output are — and must be — depicted as parasites by those who lack such talents, but who have academic credentials which impress both others and themselves." (5/6/87)
"Antitrust law is so full of ambiguous phrases, mushy concepts and elusive definitions that it cannot really be considered law. Laws are supposed to tell you in advance what you can and cannot do, not just allow government officials to nail you when they don't like what you are doing and want you to do it their way." (From a column attached to a 6/4/98 letter.)
"As far as I'm concerned. The American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association are faith-based organizations. There seems to be no test of what they believe except that they all believe it." (5/13/01)
Mr. Sowell has gotten a reputation over the years of being a bit prickly and hard to get along with. But this rep is mostly among those who disagree with him and have tried to bring him to heel. Mr. Sowell has integrity, knows when he's right and won't be bullied or buffaloed into PC nonsense.
But rep for orneriness or no, these letters are those of a decent, considerate and courteous man. They are the testament of an honest man of considerable intellectual power. They're worth the time of any thoughtful reader.
Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa, Fla.