Thomas Sowell’s weekly opinion column has consistently been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise depressing political dialogue. He has just retired and his voice will be missed.
A black man born in the segregated South during the Depression, Sowell’s hard work, discipline and intelligence led him to tremendous success. He graduated from Harvard, earned a Master’s from Columbia and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago. Sowell taught at prestigious colleges and wrote tremendously influential books. In many ways, his life was the embodiment of the American Dream.
Despite his own academic accomplishments, Sowell spent a lifetime mocking elite attitudes of superiority. He shared George Orwell’s view that “some ideas are so foolish that only an intellectual could believe them.” After all, “no ordinary man could be such a fool.”
That’s why his voice has remained so valuable in the public dialogue. Too many experts have come to believe that America would be better off if voters would just let experts rule over the rest of us. It’s a mindset that favors government by distant bureaucrats and rejects our nation’s founding ideals of freedom, equality, and self-governance.
Sowell never let himself be seduced by that self-serving fantasy of the elites. In Intellectuals and Society, he pointed out that “The fatal misstep of such intellectuals is assuming that superior ability within a particular realm can be generalized as superior wisdom or morality over all.”
Adding to the problem, “Many intellectuals and their followers have been unduly impressed by the fact that highly educated elites like themselves have far more knowledge per capita…than does the population at large.” Blinded by their own intelligence, these elites miss the bigger picture. “They have often overlooked the crucial fact that the population at large may have vastly more total knowledge… than the elites.” The challenge is that the “knowledge is scattered in individually unimpressive fragments among vast numbers of people.”
It’s a simple truth that Sowell articulates well. Yes, there are some very smart people in the world. But, nobody can know it all. If we allow ourselves to be ruled by a small elite, we are ignoring most of the information needed to make wise decisions.
The only way to tap into all available knowledge is through a free society that lets each person decide things for themselves. A free society is a learning society. We learn from our own mistakes and from each other. It’s an approach that values street smarts as well as book smarts, practical experience as well as theory. And, it’s a pragmatic, common-sense approach that builds a successful society. That’s why freedom and self-governance are superior to rule by experts. As Sowell put it, it is absurd “for those with one percent of the knowledge in a society to be guiding or controlling those with the other 99 percent.”
Sowell deserves a wonderful retirement and I wish him well. He is an American hero because of his life story. He started out with nothing and achieved great success. Unlike many of his colleagues, he always resisted the urge to believe that his success entitles him to rule over others. Instead, Sowell remains a clear and consistent voice for freedom. His column will be missed, but his message must be carried on.