Culture

New Documentary Reveals the Character Behind Thomas Sowell's Brilliant Economics

YouTube screenshot from Thomas Sowell documentary produced by Free to Choose

A documentary chronicling the life and work of Thomas Sowell, narrated by Manhattan Institute senior fellow and Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley, has now been released for public viewing. It is a preview of Riley’s written biography of Sowell titled Maverick, which will be released on May 25 and is available for pre-order now. Sowell, a brilliant economist known for his conservative views, has published his work widely but has remained personally somewhat reclusive.

Riley previewed his work in an interview with Dave Rubin. Riley, who has known Sowell for about 15 years, became familiar with his work during college when he debated affirmative action. A classmate said Riley sounded like the famous economist.

Rubin and Riley talked about how Sowell’s work had influenced their thinking, even though both had already been on their way to supporting economic freedom before reading Sowell, whose work reinforced their own ideas. Riley said that Sowell’s work and willingness to engage in public debates on issues related to race and economics made it easier to be a black conservative. He says that he gets far more support today than Sowell received earlier in his career.

The documentary begins with Sowell’s childhood and his birth in South Carolina. He was orphaned at a young age, and a great-aunt and her daughters took him in and raised him. To provide young Thomas with greater opportunity, they moved north and settled in Harlem in New York City. A family friend took Sowell under his wing and introduced him to the public library, which opened a new world to the young boy.

Sowell went to an excellent elementary school. However, when it was time to go to junior high, he found himself in a failing school. He transferred to a different junior high and said that this opportunity, and the mentorship he received from a family friend, were formative and pivotal to his later success. Sowell is a fierce advocate of school choice as a result of this experience. At 90, he released Charter Schools and their Enemies, a book that took an in-depth look at Success Academies in New York City. The schools’ CEO, Eva Moskowitz, appears in the documentary to talk about Sowell’s advocacy.

What some people might not know is that Sowell was drafted in 1951 and joined the Marines. He taught pistol shooting and became part of the Marine Corps Combat Camera Division, which documents events during combat. These photos are not necessarily used in the media. Rather, the military uses them to piece together historical references. According to Riley, Sowell remains an avid —and quite talented — amateur photographer.

Sowell was once a committed Marxist, even after taking classes from Milton Friedman at the Chicago School of Economics at Chicago University. There, Sowell says he learned that you could advance an argument but that you had to bring the evidence to support it. Larry Elder says this is where Sowell began to use data rigorously, which remains a hallmark of much of his writing. He remained a Marxist throughout his time in graduate school. Only a stint working in the government changed his mind.

His first professional position was at the U.S. Department of Labor. Sowell entered the department as a proponent of the minimum wage, though, paradoxically, he thought it could increase the number of jobs. He developed a formula to test this phenomenon but received negative feedback for it, rather than accolades. That was the beginning of the end of his belief that the government was the answer to anything.

Elder is not the only public figure to appear in the film and talk about Thomas’s influence. Steven Pinker, Walter Williams, rapper Eric July, and Victor Davis Hanson all appear to discuss their experiences and working relationships with Sowell. Perhaps one of Sowell’s greatest contributions has been explaining economics to non-economists in plain language that the public could understand. He regularly appeared on Firing Line and participated with Freidman in the Free to Choose organization, which produced the documentary.

The film, just under an hour in length, is full of insight into Sowell’s life, work, and career. It is a great vehicle to get younger students interested in economics, and there is an entire rabbit hole to go down on YouTube that contains his public debates and appearances. The Free to Choose Network YouTube channel is a great place to start.

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