Wall Street Journal columnist Riley (Please Stop Helping Us) explores the roots of conservative social theorist Thomas Sowell’s ideas on race, economics, and the “trade-offs between individual liberty and state intervention” in this flattering biography. Riley sketches how Sowell’s background as a Black orphan in 1930s North Carolina and a high school dropout who went on to earn advanced degrees from Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago informed his opposition to affirmative action and his belief in the uplifting benefits of free market capitalism for African Americans and other minorities. There are some colorful details about Sowell’s early life (at a Bronx homeless shelter for boys, he “kept a knife under his pillow for protection”), but Riley mainly focuses on how Sowell’s “adherence to empiricism” led him to conclude that the welfare system “pay people to fail,” that sexism does not explain the gender pay gap, and that the “internal cultures” of ethnic groups play a bigger role than discrimination in determining how they fare in the U.S. Along the way, Riley takes potshots at liberal scholars, characterizing their disagreements with Sowell as unsupported by the data and based on willful misreadings of his arguments. Conservatives will cherish this one-sided hagiography; others need not apply. (May)
Fascinating… Riley has achieved something rare in the field of intellectual biography — a recounting of a distinguished scholar’s life that draws on popular interest in Thomas Sowell the person and directs it to a lucid survey of Sowell’s voluminous intellectual output.”—National Review
“Sowell’s vast and diverse intellectual output, devoured over the decades by a loyal readership, screamed for a biography a long time ago. Jason Riley delivers, in a pleasing style that arrives as a must-read for any fan of Thomas Sowell, what the public so wanted but inexplicably did not receive until now.”—American Spectator
“Riley’s presentation of Sowell and his ideas is particularly important because it comes at a time when the Republican Party stresses its interest in reaching out to working-class and non-white voters. Sowell is one of the most influential black conservatives of the past 100 years.”—Daily Caller
“Riley, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and columnist for the Wall Street Journal, has done an admirable job distilling Sowell’s 90 years, 30-odd books, and countless columns into a single volume. Maverick will delight Sowell’s biggest fans and help introduce new generations to the man and his work.”—Washington Free Beacon
“An idea-centered life of the noted economist and political commentator. . . . This will be valuable to students of economics, Black conservatism, and public policy.” —Kirkus
“Thomas Sowell is among the most brilliant thinkers in the world today—deep, original, creative, fearless, intimidatingly erudite. His gripping and improbable life story can only magnify one’s awe at this astonishing man’s accomplishments.”—Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and the author of How the Mind Works and Enlightenment Now
“Maverick is a brilliant intellectual biography of one of the most important thinkers of our time. Jason Riley writes lucidly and engagingly, illuminating ideas of Sowell’s that are more timely today than ever, dispelling many myths along the way.” —Amy Chua, Yale Law professor and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations
“Enlightened opinion has it that the views of conservative black thinkers are boilerplate canards dismissible with a few statistics. Enlightened opinion is also uninformed by — and quite dismissible in the light of — the life's work of Thomas Sowell. At last a biography that shows how and why.” —John McWhorter, Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University, Contributing Editor at the Atlantic, and Host of Slate's Lexicon Valley
“With the publication of “Maverick,” Jason Riley has rendered an enormous service by providing a compelling, informed and elegant intellectual biography of the great Thomas Sowell. It was obviously a labor of love. As a professional economist and Windy City native, I especially appreciated Riley's nuanced, deeply researched account of Sowell's roots in the Chicago School of economic thought, as it was led by Milton Friedman and George Stigler in the 1950s and 1960s.”—Glenn Loury, Professor of Economics, Brown University
“There are two important ambitions at work in this book. The first gives historical context to Thomas Sowell’s extraordinary genius. The second shows how his work spawned a new, post-60s conservative consciousness in black America. It looks with openness and courage at the often-awkward encounter between conservatism and racial conflicts. But most of all, this is the inspiring story of one of the greatest American thinkers who has ever lived.” —Shelby Steele, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of Shame
The life of economist and public intellectual Thomas Sowell (b. 1930) is given consideration and nuance in this biography by Riley (senior fellow, Manhattan Inst.; Please Stop Helping Us). This contribution (which is the only full-scale treatment of Sowell aside from Riley's documentary Thomas Sowell: Common Sense in a Senseless World and Sowell's own autobiographical works) compares Sowell's creation of an ideational marketplace with those who considerably influenced him (Milton Friedman, George Stigler, Steven Pinker), those who arrived at similar ideas (Walter E. Williams, Shelby Steele, Stephen L. Carter, Glenn Loury, William Julius Wilson), and some of his current critics (Ibram X. Kendi, Ta-Nehisi Coates). In a clearly composed account, geared toward general readers, Riley describes Sowell's lengthy career characterized by his emphasizing the importance of incentives, institutions, self-improvement, geography, human capital, and trade-offs engendered by choices. Always assessing society through the eyes of an economist, Sowell (a former Marxist) has for decades espoused libertarian-conservative concepts of school choice, drug decriminalization, and opposition to affirmative action's unintended consequences. VERDICT Based on interviews and ideas replete in Sowell's innumerable books, this biography is seasoned with selections from the economist's sardonic quips. While many will disagree with his proposals, few should disregard his impact.—Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Lib. of Congress, Washington, DC
An idea-centered life of the noted economist and political commentator.
“I’m sure that at least 95% of the people in this country have never heard of me, and that’s the way it should be.” So remarked Thomas Sowell (b. 1930) in 2003. Readers of conservative/libertarian publications such asReasonand more liberal ones such as the New York Timeswill number among the other 5%, aware of Sowell through his prolific journalism. Wall Street Journalcolumnist Riley charts Sowell’s perhaps unlikely path. From a modest background, he finished high school after serving in the Marine Corps, took advantage of the GI Bill to attend Howard University, then Harvard and Columbia, and finally earned a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago. His politics began to change from a kind of Marxism to a qualified endorsement of Milton Friedman’s free-market ideas. (Sowell allows government a greater role than Friedman in enhancing the public good.) From the vantage point of the Hoover Institution, he has written numerous controversial books and a mountain of newspaper commentaries that have hit the third rail plenty of times. As a Black public intellectual, he has opposed affirmative action and similar programs. “Sowell’s scholarship would demonstrate empirically,” Riley asserts, “that racial preferences for the black underclass were not only ineffective but counterproductive, that they stigmatized black achievement, and that they were no substitute for the development of skills, attitudes, and habits that are conducive to upward mobility.” Perhaps unlikely friends such as Steven Pinker have suggested that Sowell’s race has kept him from being recognized as a great economist, but regardless, he has always been interested in matters that embrace child development, public policy, and other extraeconomic topics. It is on Sowell’s economics that Riley falls short: Sowell has said that his work on Say’s law is among his most important accomplishments, but Say’s law goes unglossed while the differences between the Chicago School and other economic schools of thought merit broader exploration.
Though with some shortcomings, this will be valuable to students of economics, Black conservatism, and public policy.