The Wit and Wisdom of Thomas Sowell

 

Thomas-Sowell“Much of the social history of the Western world over the past three decades has involved replacing what worked with what sounded good.”

“The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.”

“[T]he bottom-line message of multiculturalism [is that] members of minority groups that lag educationally, economically, or otherwise are to continue to behave in the future as they have in the past – and, if they do not get the same outcomes as others, it is society’s fault.”

“Only in government is any benefit, however small, considered to be worth any cost, however large.”

“The history of the 20th century is full of examples of countries that set out to redistribute wealth and ended up redistributing poverty.”

“[N]othing is easier than disarming peaceful people — thereby leaving them more vulnerable to people who are not peaceful, who can simply ignore the restrictions that others obey.”

“I have never understood why it is ‘greed’ to want to keep the money you have earned but not greed to want to take somebody else’s money.”

“When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.”

“People who pride themselves on their ‘complexity’ and deride others for being ‘simplistic’ should realize that the truth is often not very complicated. What gets complex is evading the truth.”

“Despite a voluminous and often fervent literature on ‘income distribution,’ the cold fact is that most income is not distributed: It is earned.”

“Intellect is not wisdom.”

“Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it.”

“The most basic question is not what is best, but who shall decide what is best.”

“Since this is an era when many people are concerned about ‘fairness’ and ‘social justice,’ what is your ‘fair share’ of what someone else has worked for?”

“What is history but the story of how politicians have squandered the blood and treasure of the human race?”

“If you are not prepared to use force to defend civilization, then be prepared to accept barbarism.”

“Where recycling takes place only in response to political pressures and exhortations, it need not meet the test of being incrementally worth its incremental costs. Accordingly, studies of government-imposed recycling programs in the United States have shown that what they salvage is usually worth less than the cost of salvaging it.”

“If you have been voting for politicians who promise to give you goodies at someone else’s expense, then you have no right to complain when they take your money and give it to someone else, including themselves.”

“One of the sad signs of our times is that we have demonized those who produce, subsidized those who refuse to produce, and canonized those who complain.”

“It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.”

“There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.”

“The only way anyone can have a right to something that has to be produced is to force someone else to produce it for him. The more things are provided as rights, the less the recipients have to work and the more others have to carry their load.”

“No one will really understand politics until they understand that politicians are not trying to solve our problems. They are trying to solve their own problems — of which getting elected and re-elected are number one and number two. Whatever is number three is far behind.”

“What is called planning in political rhetoric is the government’s suppression of other people’s plans by superimposing on them a collective plan, created by third parties, armed with the power of government and exempted from paying the costs that these collective plans impose on others.”

“It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.”

“Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late.”

“There are many who find a good alibi far more attractive than an achievement. For an achievement does not settle anything permanently. We still have to prove our worth anew each day: we have to prove that we are as good today as we were yesterday. But when we have a valid alibi for not achieving anything we are fixed, so to speak, for life.”

“Failure is part of the natural cycle of business. Companies are born, companies die, capitalism moves forward.”

“As history has also shown, especially in the twentieth century, one of the first things an ideologue will do after achieving absolute power is kill.”

There are 27 comments.

  1. Thatcher

    Thanks for posting! Every time I think my admiration for Sowell cannot get any deeper I read some more or hear him and then Wow. His writing is so accessible that it should be required reading for high school students both for his wisdom and for writing techniques.

    • #1
    • October 22, 2015 at 7:37 am
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  2. Inactive

    Some of these quotes easily classify Sowell as a carping back bencher according to more moderate intellectuals.

    • #2
    • October 22, 2015 at 8:17 am
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  3. Inactive

    While a resident in anesthesiology, one of my mentors, an immigrant from Ukraine, had many aphorisms. Among them, “The common sense is not so common.” The modern intellectual project, it seems, is to destroy the last vestiges of every fundamental belief rooted firmly in our human nature. The latter, according our knowing betters, is merely a “social construct.” Regarding history, he told me, “In the Soviet Union, the past…. is very hard to predict.”

    Isn’t it telling that were society to act broadly upon all of Sowell’s statements, we would be much more likely to approach – if not utopia, a far more perfect union. It is also remarkable that progressives pursue the exact opposite of virtually every one of Sowell’s statements. In sum, this captures the ethos of my despair for the future.

    • #3
    • October 22, 2015 at 8:31 am
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  4. Inactive

    Thanks for posting.

    I just got an audible version of ‘A Conflict of Visions’, since I am interested in what exactly is the nature of this gaping divide between liberals and conservatives. The narrator is a bit boring, though.

    • #4
    • October 22, 2015 at 9:49 am
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  5. Member

    Thomas and Milton or Carl and Berine?

    • #5
    • October 22, 2015 at 10:09 am
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  6. Inactive

    Lovely post about a great American so I must add this:

    True rights are always defined by negations. You can’t steal, cheat, commit fraud, or murder. As soon as somebody else is forced to fund your ‘right,’ it has ceased to become one.

    Note: this is a loose translation from memory from one of the numerous books I own by Dr. Sowell.

    • #6
    • October 22, 2015 at 10:12 am
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  7. Member

    More than any other, Dr. Sowell is the man most responsible for my conversion from a liberal to a conservative/libertarian.

    I’m not prone to hero worship or celebrity but there is one person I would love to take to lunch and that is Dr. Sowell. He is truly an American treasure.

    Heck, I’d buy him lunch to bend his ear on his photography alone.

    • #7
    • October 22, 2015 at 12:26 pm
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  8. Thatcher

    Thank you! I’ll be copying these and using on my own blog. It’s great to have them all in one place.

    • #8
    • October 22, 2015 at 12:40 pm
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  9. Inactive

    Some days it seems all you hear is craziness. Thomas Sowell is a blast of sanity. Thank you.

    • #9
    • October 22, 2015 at 12:52 pm
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  10. Member

    These are beautiful, haiku-like presentations of genius. They should be spread wide and far.

    Idea: These aphorisms would make a great series of Facebook memes. And “thomassowellmemes.com” is available!

    • #10
    • October 22, 2015 at 1:13 pm
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  11. Inactive

    Thomas Sowell is a great writer. His work definitely encouraged my thinking towards a more “economic” manner– looking for trade-offs in decisions.

    One distinction he made, that always stuck with me, was his distinction between the intention of a policy, and the actual effects of the policy. Obviously, we evaluate policy. He was mainly discussing how people should talk politically about a policy. However, from the stand-point of the study of policy design and policy implementation, I would guess that the distinction isn’t always made well enough. Aaron Wildavsky–also an amazing writer– would be an exception to the rule.

    • #11
    • October 22, 2015 at 2:47 pm
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  12. Inactive

    Thomas Sowell is the only person about whom I can say the following:

    I have never disagreed with a single word of his that I have read.

    • #12
    • October 22, 2015 at 4:36 pm
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  13. Member

    CuriousKevmo:

    He is truly an American treasure.

    I’ve thought that myself, but I hate to say it — it’s like the evil eye or something.

    Heck, I’d buy him lunch to bend his ear on his photography alone.

    sowell giraffe

    Me too. He’s pretty good.

    • #13
    • October 22, 2015 at 6:58 pm
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  14. Member

    Goldgeller: Obviously, we evaluate policy

    Do we? It doesn’t strike me that we do — how else could things like the great society programs continue.

    • #14
    • October 22, 2015 at 9:01 pm
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  15. Moderator

    Richard Fulmer: As history has also shown, especially in the twentieth century, one of the first things an ideologue will do after achieving absolute power is kill.

    Thank you for this whole article. Being an argumentative jerk, I thought I’d pick a statement that was only 99% right; most of the time, the guys who get absolute power started killing well before that point.

    Still, it is good to be reminded of some great statements and introduced to more.

    • #15
    • October 22, 2015 at 10:49 pm
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  16. Moderator

    BrentB67:Some of these quotes easily classify Sowell as a carping back bencher according to more moderate intellectuals.

    Do you have any particular examples in mind?

    • #16
    • October 22, 2015 at 10:50 pm
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  17. Member

    “Any serious look at the history of human beings over the millennia shows that the species began in poverty. It is not poverty, but prosperity, that needs explaining. Poverty is automatic, but prosperity requires many things — none of which is equally distributed around the world or even within a given society.”

    • #17
    • October 23, 2015 at 11:19 am
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  18. Member

    Thomas Sowell should be required reading in every high school in America.

    • #18
    • October 23, 2015 at 11:27 am
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  19. Inactive

    Here is the iconic mind, you are invited to read and be educated. When I see him interviewed I always am struck by the absolute humanism of the man. The breath of his insight into all of us brings me such a surge of emotion. I always am amazed to find so many people, especially black people, unaware of him. I recommend his latest ‘Wealth, Poverty, and Politics : An International Perspective’.

    • #19
    • October 23, 2015 at 12:24 pm
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  20. Member

    My son is an Economics major (and a freshman) at UC San Diego, where (he reports) it appears that 99% of the university’s student body vocally, ardently and dutifully supports Bernie Sanders.

    When we sent him off last month, it was with a copy of Sowell’s Basic Economics.  I have just forwarded these quotes to him. Though he is not quite a full-throated culture warrior, he is willing to politely question the conventional wisdom of his fellow students.

    • #20
    • October 23, 2015 at 3:59 pm
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  21. Member
    Richard Fulmer Post author

    Dad Dog:My son is an Economics major (and a freshman) at UC San Diego, where (he reports) it appears that 99% of the university’s student body vocally, ardently and dutifully supports Bernie Sanders.

    When we sent him off last month, it was with a copy of Sowell’s Basic Economics. I have just forwarded these quotes to him. Though he is not quite a full-throated culture warrior, he is willing to politely question the conventional wisdom of his fellow students.

    Good Dog!

    • #21
    • October 23, 2015 at 6:58 pm
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  22. Coolidge

    Johnny Dubya: I have never disagreed with a single word of his that I have read.

    I can think of one: “I used to be a Marxist.” :-)

    • #22
    • October 23, 2015 at 8:01 pm
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  23. Member
    MBF

    I always like his “3 questions for challenging liberal/progressive/socialist ideas.” (1) At what cost? (2) Compared to what? (3) Who decides?

    • #23
    • October 23, 2015 at 8:42 pm
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  24. Inactive

    If I could somehow import the world view of another human being into the mind of my kids, it would be the world view of Thomas Sowell.

    • #24
    • October 23, 2015 at 9:25 pm
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  25. Inactive

    While I think he is actually at his best in the long form, I can think of no better gift for a young person headed off to college (or high school!) than a collection of Sowell’s columns. I have several dating back to the ’80s. They are all great. Maybe the best first choice would be The Thomas Sowell Reader. It is the most comprehensive: it hits all the major points, and there is less stuff on the ephemeral news of the day. And yet a part of Sowell’s genius is that he manages to express timeless truths through the lens of daily news ephemera. So anything he writes is worth reading.

    • #25
    • October 23, 2015 at 9:33 pm
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  26. Member

    Vitamins

    • #26
    • October 23, 2015 at 11:39 pm
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  27. Member

    Thanks for collecting and posting these. I still have the copy of his Basic Economics book I read about 15 years ago. In another day and age, he would be as well known and esteemed as another American icon, Paul Harvey.

    • #27
    • October 24, 2015 at 8:09 am
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