After his service, Sowell passed a GED and enrolled at Howard University. His high grades enabled him to transfer and complete a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Harvard College, where he graduated magna cum laude. He went on to receive a Master of Arts in Economics from Columbia University, and a Doctor of Philosophy in Economics from the University of Chicago. He initially chose Columbia University he has said, because he wanted to study under George Stigler. After arriving at Columbia and hearing that Stigler had moved on to Chicago, Sowell followed him there.
Sowell has taught at prominent American universities including Howard University, Cornell University, Brandeis University, and UCLA. Since 1980 he has been a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he holds the fellowship named after Rose and Milton Friedman.
Besides scholarly writing, Sowell has written books, articles and syndicated columns for a general audience, in such publications as Forbes Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and major newspapers. Sowell primarily writes on economic subjects, generally advocating a free market approach to capitalism. Sowell opposes Marxism, providing a critique in his book Marxism: Philosophy and Economics. He also argues that, contrary to popular perception, Marx never held to a labor theory of value.
Sowell also writes on racial topics and is a critic of affirmative action. While often described as a "black conservative", he prefers not to be labeled, and considers himself more libertarian than conservative.
In another departure from economics, Sowell wrote The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late, a follow-up to his Late-Talking Children. This book investigates the phenomenon of late-talking children, frequently misdiagnosed with autism or pervasive developmental disorder. He includes the research of — among others — Professor Stephen Camarata, Ph.D., of Vanderbilt University and Professor Steven Pinker, Ph.D., of Harvard University in this overview of a poorly understood developmental trait. It is a trait which he says affected many historical figures. He includes famous late-talkers such as physicists Albert Einstein, Edward Teller and Richard Feynman; mathematician Julia Robinson; and musicians Arthur Rubenstein and Clara Schumann. The book and its contributing researchers make a case for the theory that some children develop unevenly (asynchronous development) for a period in childhood due to rapid and extraordinary development in the analytical functions of the brain. This may temporarily "rob resources" from neighboring functions such as language development.
Sowell considers the following to be problematic issues in modern-day society:
Sowell is a supporter of free market and pro-growth economics. In a recent column he criticized as "socialism for the rich" certain policies which he points out benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor.
Sowell also favors decriminalization of drugs.
Five themes in his work cut across specific topics:
These five keys place the economist's writings in the greater context of historical synthesis and human decision-making, rather than being simply those of a conservative pundit or "race" writer on particular contemporary social issues. Sowell's work is also a significant answer to critiques of economics arguing that the discipline has failed to come to grips with real world problems and is occupied too much with technical models and details, while paying little attention to historical processes. Broad, incisive analysis of history is a fundamental pillar of Sowell's method, and he has repeatedly demonstrated that he can take the models of the discipline and integrate them to shed light on important historical problems and trends. The summary below does not attempt to "endorse" or establish whether the claims or arguments advanced by Sowell are "true" or "false" but encapsulates a good deal of his thought, cutting across three decades.
1) Empirical evidence and objective analysis of relevant factors is sorely lacking in claims surrounding race, culture and society: In his writings Sowell has repeatedly emphasized the need for empirical evidence and objective assessments of data, as opposed to the sweeping generalizations, wishful thinking, and distorted or false evidence provided by numerous writers in the field of social policy and economics. Sowell contends that in no field are these distortions greater than when the topic of race is discussed. Sowell maintains that common assumptions and stirring rhetoric about poverty, slavery, discrimination, economic progress or education don't hold up when measured against hard data.
2) What counts in assessing a social or economic policy is not the stated intentions of promoters, but the incentives created and the actual end results produced: In his book Marxism: Philosophy and Economics Sowell shows that this was the outlook of Marx. He applies this "bottom line" approach to other social policies, ranging from IQ Tests to affirmative action. In numerous cases, he demonstrates that the stated aims of promoters had little relation to the actual results produced. In regard to affirmative action, for example, the goals of proponents: that it was a temporary measure, that it helped those categories of minorities less fortunate, that it would promote social harmony, et cetera, have not been satisfied when the empirical evidence is analyzed. Sowell contends that too often, social policy is made on the basis of sweeping assumptions, arbitrarily selected statistical data, and ideological dogma, without sufficient evidence.
3) Numerous factors determine income and education levels among American ethnic groups, and between genders, not the overgeneralized, "all-purpose" explanations of racism, or sexism: In books, such as Markets and Minorities, Ethnic America, Race and Culture and others, Sowell demonstrates the importance of such factors as geography, degree of urbanization, cultural structures, field of work, and other factors more relevant than charges of “racism”. He believes that those who make such charges seldom present credible empirical evidence. As for the “pay gap” between men and women, for example, Sowell’s book Civil Rights argues that most of said gap is based on marital status, not a “glass ceiling” discrimination. Earnings for men and women of the same basic description (education, jobs, hours worked, marital status) were essentially equal. That result would not be predicted under explanatory theories of “sexism”.
4) Internationally, empirical evidence shows colonialism, imperialism, and/or claims of genetic superiority are all theories failing to explain technological or economic differences among nations. Sowell’s trilogy, Race and Culture, Migrations and Culture and Conquests and Cultures exemplifies his broad analytical approach to historical processes, cutting across centuries of history, and many different peoples. He compares nations and minority groups within nations, particularly migrants. On an international scale, cultural factors are very important. Some countries heavily subjected to imperialism and colonialism are themselves among the most prosperous. For example, he notes that once backward Britain survived centuries of Roman colonialism and imperialism, to emerge centuries later as the most powerful empire on earth.
Too often, Sowell maintains, trendy explanations of racism and imperialism, or their reverse- simplistic claims of genetic superiority- are used to explain significant historical patterns, when mundane factors such as geography can be much more relevant and useful in understanding an issue. Factors such as the presence of navigable rivers, good harbors favorable for transportation and trade, mountain ranges that capture water for later irrigation, fertile land, climate patterns that facilitate the movement of productive plants and animals, etc. all heavily influenced nations' or people's successes over the span of history. Tropical Africa for example, is particularly deficient on a number of such geographic advantages. Sowell shows that for centuries, non-white nations like China were more advanced that those of Europe until comparatively recent times. He also argues that the European West borrowed and adapted freely from other nations and regions- from the writing systems and domesticates of Southwest Asia, to the numerous inventions or innovations of China (gunpowder, compass, etc), to various other strands in-between. Within national settings, students of East Asian origin in the West frequently outperform their white counterparts and score higher on IQ tests. These patterns undercut simplistic white supremacist theories of inherent genetic superiority. In 1983's Economics and Politics of Race Sowell predicts that the long cycles of history may yet again reshuffle the success of nations and peoples.
5) Many modern ideological struggles can be traced to two visions: the vision of the anointed and the vision of the constrained realist: Sowell lays out these concepts in his A Conflict of Visions, and The Vision of the Anointed. These two visions encompass a range of ideas and theories. The vision of the anointed relies heavily on sweepingly optimistic assumptions about human nature, distrust of decentralized processes like the free market, impatience with systemic processes that constrain human action, and absent or distorted empirical evidence. The constrained or tragic vision relies heavily on a reduced view of the goodness of human nature, and prefers the systematic processes of the free market, and the systematic processes of the rule of law and constitutional government. It distrusts sweeping theories and grand assumptions in favor of heavy reliance on solid empirical evidence and on time-tested structures and processes.
6) On race and intelligence (as measured by IQ), whole groups and nations have raised their IQ scores over time, undermining various theories of intelligence related to minorities such as Jews and blacks.
7) What some portray as "authentic black culture" is actually a relic of a highly dysfunctional white southern redneck culture. Such a dysfunctional white culture Sowell maintains, in turn derived from the ‘Cracker culture’ of certain regions in Britain, mainly the harsh English borderlands, origin of many 'cracker' migrants. Sowell gives a number of examples that he regards as supporting the lineage, including an aversion to work, proneness to violence, neglect of education, sexual promiscuity, improvidence, drunkenness, lack of entrepreneurship,… and a style of religious oratory marked by strident rhetoric, unbridled emotions, and flamboyant imagery.
Sowell also provides figures to support his argument that there was a far bigger divide between the cracker/redneck culture of the Southern and Applachian regions and the culture of more northerly Americans, than between whites and blacks. E.g. Northern blacks tried to stop redneck blacks coming up from the South, and the same happened between northern whites and redneck whites. This thesis is the title essay of Sowell's book Black Rednecks and White Liberals.
8) Ordinary citizens might benefit from analyzing issues and public policies in terms of costs, benefits and tradeoffs, where scarce resources have alternative uses, rather than rely on lofty rhetoric from political leaders, activists and special interests. In Basic Economics and Applied Economics, Sowell lays out the fundamentals of the discipline so that the layman can understand them, and his essential way or model for approaching problems. There are no free lunches Sowell emphasizes, only tradeoffs at various levels. This "transactional" approach to social and economic policy is one of the hallmarks of Sowell's writings. Quote:
9. Government action is too often perceived as beneficial, just and noble, when in fact it often hurts those it is purportedly trying to help. As far back as 1975's Race and Economics and continuing through his Affirmative Action Around The World and Basic and Applied Economics series, Sowell repeatedly shows that much government action in the social and economic arena has not only failed to achieve desired or claimed results but in many cases has created worse conditions than those previously existing. Examples given to bolster Sowell's arguments range from rent control (which decreases the supply of housing), to busing for racial balance (schools in some areas under busing are just as segregated or worse than before), to crime control, to zoning laws, to education. Sowell also takes strong issue with the notion of government as a helper or savior of minorities, arguing that the historical record shows quite the opposite- from the lower level Jim Crow laws created and enforced by state and local regimes, to welfare subsidies at the federal level that have promoted family dependency and breakdown. Sowell draws upon a mass of historical data to question both the priorities and logic of those who call for even more government intervention and spending to 'solve' the problems of minorities.
10. On several measures, black progress was much more positive prior to the significant rise of the welfare state, and prior to the era of affirmative action. Another of Sowell's themes is to show the painful but steady rise of blacks in the US against heavy odds before massive intervention by government programs, a rise that contradicts some popular assumptions.
11. Human capital is the most durable, most precious of all, trumping both physical and financial capital, and overcoming the most adverse circumstances. Over and over again in Sowell's works the theme of "human capital" appears. Human capital is the sum total of values, attitudes, skills, work effort and cultural inheritance and patterns, often extending back for centuries. Human capital can be individual- education, self-discipline, savings or hard work - but more important to Sowell's work, it is also mass capital, the combined product of millions, not the selected preserve of a few.
Human capital and oppressed minorities. Human capital has permitted ethnic minorities to bounce back and triumph over the harshest, most brutal treatment by majorities. Sowell's works (Economics and Politics of Race (1993), Ethnic America(1981), Affirmative Action around the World (2004), and Race and Culture (1994). etc) are laced with such illustrations, across several nations of the world, and across several centuries. Jews in Europe or the Middle East for example, often harshly persecuted for centuries and denied a basis in agriculture, used their skills in urban economies to not only survive, but to ultimately end-run their enemies. Overseas Chinese are another such group- enduring harsh treatment from the colonial and modern era of Southeast Asia to the mining towns of 19th Century California, where rampaging white mobs did not give them "a Chinaman's chance. Today their native born descendants as a group surpass the US white average on a number of counts, from income and education, to IQ and academic tests. Japanese-Americans show a similar pattern despite such obstacles as racist land laws designed to freeze them out of farming occupations, or the internment camps of WWII.
Human capital in patterns reaching back centuries. In several works- Sowell demonstrates this triumph of human capital, and the human spirit. These are repeated across several different countries. Industrious German farmers for example who took over "wasteland" scorned by others and made them productive farms did so not only in the United States, but in places as far afield as Russia and Argentina. Japanese farming skill and discipline repeated itself from the produce fields of California to Brazil. Italian stone and vineyard workers dominated certain related trades from the streets of New York, to the fields of distant Argentina. None of this is by accident- but reflects human capital earned the hard way across the span of centuries, in multiple nations, across multiple generations. The importance of human capital- mass capital attained by ordinary men and women through generations of experience and sacrifice, is for Sowell, much more important to human well-being than the theories of racial supremacists or utopian activists. Such capital is the foundation of human liberty and civilization. Some critics claim that the sharp, sometimes sarcastic tone found in some of Sowell's works such as Inside American Education reflects his exasperation and frustration at the waste of human capital occurring in many minority, particularly black communities.
12. Systemic processes mated to the common wisdom and practical action of the ordinary volk are superior to the grandiose presumptions of intellectual, political and bureaucratic elites. In several works, such as Knowledge and Decisions, A Conflict of Visions and The Economics and Politics of Race, Sowell stresses the importance of systemic processes like free markets, the rule of law and constitutional government. Such systemic processes are orderly, structured and sequential. They are not perfect, nor can they be, since humans themselves are flawed. Instead, on the balance, they provide the best framework whereby imperfect humans, can achieve large measures of freedom in not only the political sphere but the economic one as well. Such processes are continually refined and improved incrementally over time. Improvements over time to common law judicial systems like that of the United States for example, did not quickly come about by sweeping decrees from those with allegedly superior wisdom, but by a long, painful process extending back to the Magna Carta and beyond. Likewise US blacks pulled themselves from poverty not because of government programs or policies, but often in spite of government, largely using the processes of free markets. Blacks broke segregation in many white neighborhoods for example, not because of the goodness of the government or the goodwill of whites, but because their combined dollars outbid or induced even racist whites to sell them property in 'reserved' areas.
On the balance Sowell maintains, systemic processes are superior to the dictates or condension of those on high, who presume to know better than ordinary people. A product of the hard-scrabble streets himself, Sowell also stresses the practical action and wisdom of the broad masses within those methodical frameworks, versus the presumptions, confiscations and social engineering of elites. The ordinary masses deserve freedom as much as "their betters." Such elites he argues, are only too ready to claim freedom for their own trendy notions and self-aggrandizing profit, while denying similar freedom to the small man on the street to manage his own resources and make his own decisions. A deep skepticism towards intellectual and bureaucratic elites runs through much of Sowell's work. This is perhaps summed up best at the end of Knowledge and Decisions (1983):