Sowell has a strong grasp of various aspects of history and key arguments from economics. In the fashion of a modern day Bastiat, he is able to craft clever rejoinders to common and flawed populist arguments. I also think his cultures trilogy and some of his books like "Knowledge and Decisions" are excellent works.
Where Sowell does not come out well is that:
- Sowell fails to critique bad arguments made in support of positions that he favors. In fact, while he doesn't come out openly in support of these arguments, he laments the inability of people on his side to come up with emotionally appealing, populist rhetoric.
- Often, Sowell nitpicks an argument, finding it to be flawed from one dimension. Then, he casually and carelessly jumps to the conclusion that it is wrong from a completely different dimension, even though his own disclaimer on top says that the two dimensions aren't related.
- Sowell tend to externalize blame for bad policies and idea on the "other" which in his recent books and columns has been intellectuals, politicians, the left, the liberal/mainstream media, Obama, the Democrats, and all the people his typical readership (self-identified right-of-center Americans) already dislikes. He rarely confronts the readers with flaws in their own reasoning or biases. Even for policies which are supported by democratic majorities, Sowell lays the blame on the scapegoats above rather than the masses who're reading his books. You'd almost think that free markets is what the masses would choose if it weren't for distorting factors such as intellectuals, politicians, etc.
- There seem to be cases where Sowell's positions differ from those of his typical readership, but in these cases, rather than confront the contradiction, Sowell glides over it cagily. In many cases, Sowell refuses to reveal where he stands on an issue -- calculated ambiguity that befits a politician.
- Sowell often takes the weakest, most poorly articulated arguments for positions he disagrees with, rather than well-constructed arguments that use good quality reasoning.
- This is a deep and complex criticism, though I think it ties in with all the previous ones. Two of Sowell's key themes are: (i) that social and cultural traditions encapsulate evolved wisdom over several centuries that is superior to "articulated rationality," and (ii) the importance of empirical analysis, evidence, and actual argument as opposed to verbal virtuosity. There is a tension between these, and Sowell seems to use this tension in an arbitrary manner. When he favors a position and can think of reasons and arguments for it, he uses approach (ii). In other cases, he reverts to approach (i).
I think these points are well substantiated by reading his books and columns, but I will include a number of concrete examples. However, I am not treading new ground here.
- Examples: In a letter to a reader (published in A Man of Letters) Sowell writes "I have NEVER criticized Rush Limbaugh" and a few pages away we learn that Rush Limbaugh is one of the few people for whom Sowell has genuine respect (Sowell apparently had lunch with Limbaugh and enjoyed it). I can understand that Sowell is generally sympathetic to Limbaugh's position, but the fact that he finds offensive the very idea of criticizing Limbaugh -- a man who has certainly committed enough logical errors for Sowell to lambast if he so chose -- is revealing about Sowell's selectivity. Elsewhere, while lamenting the polarization and shrill tone of political talk shows, Sowell heaps praise on Limbaugh as one of the few talk/radio show hosts worth listening to -- Even fans of Limbaugh would find it hard to praise him in the same breath that they are expressing criticism of the shrill and politicized nature of talk shows. Elsewhere Sowell writes that the last time a Republican got outraged was in 1991: and I'm not sure this would quite qualify as a credible analysis of US politics circa 1991-2007. More amazingly, Sowell, doesn't even feel the need to justify this claim to his audience with historical evidence.
- Examples: Some people believe that the constitution's First Amendment guarantees a separation of church and state. Others have argued that in fact, it only guarantees something much weaker: the absence of an established state religion. Sowell takes the latter view. In a syndicated column, he expresses support for originalism, a belief that judges should uphold the original interpretation of the constitution when it was written, regardless of their personal views on specific matters. He then argues for his interpretation of the First Amendment, concluding that the "separation of church and state" doctrine does not emerge from the constitution. So far, so good. Then, bizarrely, Sowell concludes that the "separation of church and state" doctrine is flawed without offering any justification, see and This is a great example of Sowell acting cagey: rather than offering a clear upfront argument of why a legal requirement of separation of church and state is wrong (a question that cannot be answered by looking at what the constitution currently says), Sowell makes a legal argument that is not relevant. This type of logic is routine for Sowell.
- Externalizing blame: Whether Sowell is critiquing protectionism, or economic interventionism or high taxation, he rarely puts the blame where it belongs: the voting public aka Sowell's readers. Criticism is usually directed at politicians (particularly Democrats), the "liberal"/"mainstream" media, and intellectuals (the target of his recent book). Sowell rarely confronts the possibility that the reason that anti-free-market ideas are popular is not a conspiracy but due to a deep-rooted tradition of apathy or even antipathy to free markets among democratic voters. One might almost get the impression that the masses would vote for free markets if it weren't for politicians and intellectuals. Sowell seems to lack the courage to tell his readers, "Yes, you may think that protectionism is great, but you're wrong, here's why." He'd rather blame Herbert Hoover.
- Caginess: I'll insert links later, but the drug war and the military draft -- both opposed by Sowell's mentor Milton Friedman, are examples. More minor examples include proposed constitutional amendments to ban flag burning. Sowell has written columns about the injustice that people on college campuses aren't allowed to showcase American flags.
- Choosing to critique weakest arguments: More examples to be inserted, but Sowell's insistence on engaging with mainstream politicians and the media, rather than academic works or insightful bloggers who disagree with him on specific matters, are examples.
- Internal contradiction: This is elaborated on more in the critiques below. I will take a few more examples that I noticed. Sowell's book "Inside American Education" critiques US public schools for their "anti-intellectualism" and for brainwashing students on left-wing themes. He says they don't do a good job teaching student to actually think and fail to present both sides of an issue. But then, he turns around and defends the idea of parents choosing to educate children by giving them instructions (without offering reasoning or explanations -- simply "do as I tell you") and bemoans programs like "Values Clarification" on the grounds that this undermines the clear-cut authority of parents. Interestingly, Sowell offers little evidence to suggest that, prior to the alleged left-wing takeover of the schools, schools were doing a good job of teaching critical thinking. Ironically, Sowell's own critique of schools can be dismissed using the very same tactics with which he dismisses complaints against CEO salaries: school teachers and curriculum designers embody evolved local wisdom based on centuries of experience in teaching. Outside "intellectuals" like Sowell may be more intelligent and knowledgeable on the whole, but they lack the local knowledge and personal experience that schoolteachers and curriculum designers have.
- Bryan Caplan critiqued Sowell's book here
- -- a book by Richard Paterson. While my politics are probably closer to Sowell than Patterson, I think Patterson does a very fair job deconstructing Sowell's prose.