Thomas Sowell is considered by many to be one of the most influential and brilliant minds of the past half-century. He is most famous for his work as an economist, but is also a bestselling author, syndicated columnist, historian, and academic.
Yet he hasn’t received much recognition. “When people talk about the great black intellectuals today, you hear names like Henry Louis Gates at Harvard or Cornel West … or today you hear Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi,” says Jason Riley, a journalist, scholar, and member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.
“But in my view, Tom has written circles around those guys and is much broader in subjects that he’s covered as well as much deeper and his analysis is much more rigorous than those guys’,” Riley says.
A new documentary, “Thomas Sowell: Common Sense in a Senseless World,” tells the story of Sowell’s life and how his logic and intellect have impacted society.
Riley, who narrates the film, joins the show to discuss the documentary and the personal impact Sowell has had on his own life.
Plus, John Cooper, associate director of institute communications at The Heritage Foundation and a big football fan, joins us to talk about what we can expect to see during Super Bowl LV this weekend.
We also cover these stories:
- Democrats urge President Joe Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in debt for student loan borrowers.
- Biden addresses the National Prayer Breakfast.
- Former Vice President Mike Pence is joining The Heritage Foundation as a distinguished fellow.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
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Virginia Allen: Many consider Thomas Sowell to be one of the greatest minds of our day. Sowell is most well-known for his groundbreaking work as an economist, but is also a bestselling author, a photographer, syndicated columnist, historian, and academic. He is a man in pursuit of truth, and when he finds it, he stands by it, even when that truth may not be popular.
Free To Choose Media has just produced a one-hour documentary on the life and work of Thomas Sowell. The film is called “Thomas Sowell: Common Sense in a Senseless World.” …
“Thomas Sowell, one of the greatest minds of the past half-century,” says Jason Riley. And Mr. Riley, who narrated the film, is here with us today to discuss the documentary. Mr. Riley, welcome to the show.
Jason Riley: Thank you for having me.
Allen: You narrated this one-hour documentary on Thomas Sowell. I watched it last week and was just completely captivated by the film. I’ve known a little bit about Thomas Sowell, but I learned so much watching this documentary.
What you’ve really done here in this film is essentially take viewers through the life of Thomas Sowell and really show the impact that he has had on people and across so many areas of our world.
So I want to begin by asking you just to share a little bit of your own personal story of how Thomas Sowell—his writings, his rhetoric, his logic, and his honesty—has really impacted you personally.
Riley: Well, I discovered Tom Sowell in college in the early 1990s. I was working on the school paper and having a conversation with my fellow students about affirmative action one day and someone piped in and said, “Jason, you sound like Tom Sowell.” And I said, “Tom, who?”
And the person wrote down the name of a book on a piece of paper and I went to the school library that evening and checked it out and read it in one sitting that evening and went back to school the next morning and checked out everything else they had by Tom Sowell and was pretty much hooked on him by then.
While I was working at The Wall Street Journal on the editorial board in the mid-’90s is when I first got to meet Tom Sowell.
He was at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University then, still is, and he would travel through New York on book tours and meet with various editorial boards. So that’s when I first got to meet him.
I later went out to Stanford to write a profile of him for the newspaper, that would have been in the mid-2000s. And that’s when we sort of struck up a friendship that has sort of endured since then.
Allen: So when you learned, “OK, there’s this film project,” I mean, yourself being a journalist, a scholar, a member of The Wall Street Journal editorial board, what made you say, “This is a film project that is something that I have to be a part of”?
Riley: Well, they came to me, the Free To Choose folks came to me. I had been working on a biography of Sowell—that’ll be out in May—and when they found out that I was working on this biography, they approached me and said, “We want to do a film, a documentary about Tom’s life. Would you care to narrate it?” And I did not hesitate.
Allen: Share a little bit about your book that’s coming out. And what did give you kind of that passion and drive to say, “You know what? I appreciate his work so much that I am going to take on this challenge and not only be a part of this film, but also write this book”?
Riley: Sure. Well, the book is titled “Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell.” It’s available for pre-order on Amazon now. It will be out on May 25.
And it is the first ever biography of Tom. He has no other biographer. He’s written a memoir himself and he’s written about his personal life in his many columns over the years, but this was the first a biography of Tom.
It’s primarily an intellectual biography. I don’t focus much on his personal life, although there is a bit of that in there, but I do focus on his ideas, the scholarship, how he’s distinguished himself as an intellectual over the past half-century and sort of what his legacy will be, how he’ll be remembered.
I was sort of trying to get him to cooperate with the biography. He’s a very private person for a while, for more than a decade, actually, and I think he’s 90 years old now, so maybe I just wore him down. But he did cooperate, he sat for a bunch of long interviews for the book.
I also interviewed a bunch of colleagues of his, acquaintances, and people who are familiar with his work over the years. So it was a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun to write.
He’s meant a lot to me in terms of my own intellectual development over the decades. And so I wanted to introduce him and his work to a new generation. And I don’t think that Tom has gotten the exposure that he sort of deserves.
When people talk about the great black intellectuals today, you hear names like Henry Louis Gates at Harvard or Cornel West and people like that, or today you hear Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi. But in my view, Tom has written circles around those guys and is much broader in subjects that he’s covered as well as much deeper and his analysis is much more rigorous than those guys.
I don’t think that Thomas would have gotten the attention and the exposure he deserves. So I’m hoping the film will whet people’s appetite and get them to pick up some books by Tom, as well as the biography I hope does the same thing, gets more people interested in Tom and his scholarship.
Allen: You mentioned Thomas Sowell’s legacy, and I think that the film does a great job of really explaining what that legacy is, and I’m sure your book does the same, but could you just give us a little bit of a teaser of, in your opinion, what is the legacy that Thomas Sowell has already left and will leave?
Riley: I think in a number of areas he’s really made his mark.
Very broadly speaking though, he’s made his mark as a sort of honest intellectual, someone who is much more interested in being right than in being popular, and following the facts where they lead and reporting his findings, even if they happen to be politically incorrect.
And he feels that is the real duty of a scholar, to follow the facts and not fall for trendy thinking or fashionable thinking. … This isn’t a popularity contest. That’s not what true scholarship calls for. So I think that is one of his legacies.
Another is … I think he modeled himself after Milton Friedman, one of his mentors at the University of Chicago, where he earned his Ph.D. in the early 1960s.
Friedman was someone who felt that intellectuals shouldn’t spend all their time simply talking to one another, that they should seek a wider audience and speak to non-experts, explain themselves and their work to the general public.
And after Friedman left teaching in the 1970s, that’s what he did. In fact, one of the things he did was a television program that was produced by the same company that produced this one, the Free To Choose Network. And that was Friedman’s way of speaking to the general public about economics.
So when Sowell left teaching in the 1970s, I think he set about a type of public intellectualism that was very similar to Friedman’s. He wrote his popular column for general interest readers. Most of Tom’s books are written for non-academics and he takes great pride in explaining economics and these ideas to non-experts.
He’s most known for his writings on race, but his bestselling book is “Basic Economics,” which is essentially an economics textbook without any graphs or equations in it. And I think Tom, although he left the campus teaching, he still sort of continued to teach through these books and columns over the decades.
Allen: One of the things that I was most fascinated to learn about in the film is that Thomas Sowell, he actually used to be a Marxist. But what really cured him, he says of that, was working for the government, when he realized these Marxist ideas, they would never actually work.
Could you just share a little bit about Thomas Sowell’s journey out of Marxism, because I really find that so fascinating?
Riley: Yes. Well, it’s not that uncommon. If you look at a lot of leading conservatives in the 20th century, many of them started on the left.
Milton Friedman started on the left. George Stigler started on the left. Walter Williams, the late Walter Williams, who passed away last year and was a friend of Tom’s for more than 50 years, started out on the left. Clarence Thomas started out on the left. So it’s not that uncommon.
But yes, Tom was a Marxist through his 20s. And then it was working in the government and seeing how some of these ideas he had about how the capitalist system works, seeing that in practice and seeing incentives in place and the intentions of some of these policies versus the actual results, that all had an effect on Tom changing his mind about free markets and their power in shaping people’s lives for the better.
So that’s what it was, it was real-life experience and just less reliance on theories and what’s supposed to happen and paying more attention to what actually comes to pass.
Allen: You did interview Walter Williams for the documentary, which, as you mentioned, Mr. Williams did pass away this past December. So it really is a treasure to have these recorded conversations of him sharing about the work of Thomas Sowell, his relationship with Thomas Sowell.
But one of the things that Walter Williams said is that the media really, they stopped covering Thomas Sowell a long time ago because they knew that they couldn’t debate him. And this is just a sad commentary, in my mind, on really the state of our media.
Why do you think the media has chosen to so often ignore Sowell’s work?
Riley: Well, I think they’ve taken the side of the black left, broadly speaking, and the black left has ignored Tom for a long time. And the media continues to run to black intellectuals, academics, civil rights organizations, and so forth to speak on behalf of black people.
They tell the media, “Don’t pay attention to Tom. Anyone who thinks like that or says those things is a sellout or an Uncle Tom or someone who should not be taken seriously. They’re simply doing the bidding of white people.”
So they’ve responded with these sort of ad hominem attacks on Tom and the media has largely bought that argument.
And the types of people that give out economics awards and those types of things are controlled by the left, generally. And so that has worked against Tom and his exposure over the decades—one of the things I’m hoping that the book and the film will help correct.
Allen: One of the things that I was also really fascinated [by] in the film was just how far-reaching Thomas Sowell’s work really is. That despite the media not giving him the attention that he so deserves, he has impacted so many individuals in so many different areas of our world.
You all interviewed a rap musician for the film who says that Thomas Sowell has inspired many of his lyrics. What did you learn in those conversations with individuals who have been so impacted by Thomas Sowell’s work?
Riley: Well, a lot of them speak about the clarity of his writing. He breaks things down in a way that’s very understandable and digestible and witty and people admire that.
Tom, in the early part of his career, did write more academic books speaking to his peers in the academy, but he could also write for a wider audience.
And editors at newspapers love this because they had this serious rigorous thinker who could write 800-word pieces on the topics of the day for their general interest readers to understand.
So they were getting the depth, this depth of knowledge, in sort of more easily digestible bites. And they really appreciated that and fans of Sowell all seemed to come back to the clarity of his writing and his thinking, how he puts things. He’s a wonderful storyteller.
Also, one of the things he’s known for is his international perspectives. And so he likes to talk about trends, not only within the United States, but in other countries, and what’s going on over there.
I think … sometimes in America, you have people who live in a bit of a bubble, an American bubble, a U.S. bubble. And Tom says, “A lot of these policies that are being pushed here have been tried in other places at other times, and here’s what’s happened over there. And we should keep that in mind when we think about how those policies might affect life here in this country.”
So those international perspectives, which is something he specialized in in many of his books, is something people also appreciate.
Allen: Making a documentary is no small undertaking. It’s a complicated process. A lot of time, a lot of work. What, for you, was the greatest challenge of working so closely with the team of individuals who were producing this film?
Riley: I just wanted to make sure we were doing justice to Sowell. I really see him as this towering intellectual figure. I’m a journalist by training. I’m not an intellectual, I’m not an academic. I spent a life as a print journalist, basically. And I really wanted to make sure both in the book and in the documentary that we were just doing him justice.
I said before that no one else has written a biography of Tom, but I hope someone else does come along, a real scholar comes along, someone who can really grapple with Tom’s ideas at his level and lay them out for people. I hope someone comes and does that.
I hope my book can be a little placeholder until that comes along and do what I intended it to do, which is, again, whet people’s appetite about Tom.
But that’s my biggest concern. I just want to do him justice because I think he is one of the great social theorists of the 20th century of any color and his writings on political philosophy, his writings on social theory, his writings on education and law and history and culture, they are quite broad. And I think that Tom is someone people will be reading for generations to come.
Allen: I know that you said that Thomas Sowell is quite a private man, but you did have the privilege of speaking with him a little bit throughout the course of making the film. Do you know if he has seen the documentary yet and what his thoughts are on it?
Riley: I don’t know. I haven’t had any contact with Tom since it’s been out so I don’t know if he’s seen it yet. He is at Hoover, the Hoover Institution at Stanford, and I know that Hoover’s aware of the film, so perhaps they’ve reached out to him. But no, I can’t say for certain whether he’s seen it.
Allen: Well, I have no doubt that he’ll feel incredibly honored by it. It really is a beautiful documentary and so informative. Would you just tell our listeners both where they can find and watch the documentary, and then also again, share with us when and where your book will be out?
Riley: Sure. The documentary information can be found at SowellFilm.com. … And it was made for public television so there you can find where it will appear on your local public television station. In addition to that, it’s being streamed on Vimeo and Amazon and YouTube, and you can find links to stream it as well at SowellFilm.com.
In terms of my book, again, it’ll be out in May, May 25 to be exact, and it can be pre-ordered on Amazon right now.
Allen: Great. We will be sure to leave links for both the documentary and to pre-order your book in the show notes today. Mr. Riley, thank you so much for your time.
Riley: Thank you.