Explore Economist Thomas Sowell’s Remarkable Life In New Documentary

Thomas Sowell: Common Sense in a Senseless World – Full Video

Explore Economist Thomas Sowell’s Remarkable Life In New Documentary

Despite writing more than 50 books on economics, race, and history, there’s a good chance Thomas Sowell is the national treasure you’ve never heard of.

The past ten months have proved we live in a senseless world. There are large groups of people on both sides of the aisle who have no regard for reality, or what were once considered the normal and expected rules of polite society. One man, however, has never been swayed by the prevailing winds of the political moment over his illustrious 50-year career, keeping himself grounded in empiricism, fact, and logic: economist Thomas Sowell.

While he has published more than 50 books on subjects such as economics, race, and history, there is still a good chance that Sowell is the national treasure you’ve never heard of. The recently released documentary, “Thomas Sowell: Common Sense in a Senseless World,” successfully introduces Sowell both to those who’ve never heard of him and dives deep into the lesser-known aspects of his life for those who are already avid fans.

Narrated by Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley, the documentary takes the audience through Sowell’s life from his birth in North Carolina to his time as a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he still works today. For the most underappreciated public intellectual of our time, this film is a well-deserved tribute to a magnificent career.

Sowell and Education

“Thomas Sowell: Common Sense in a Senseless World” appropriately begins with Sowell’s childhood. He was born in Gastonia, North Carolina, in 1930, and both of his parents died by the time he was only a few years old. He was adopted by his great aunt and raised by her, as well as her two adult daughters. When Sowell was eight, they moved to Harlem to gain access to greater opportunities than were available in the Jim Crow South.

While none of the women who raised Sowell ever graduated high school, he says they were “interested in education and they were interested in me.” He did not grow up with any semblance of material wealth — his family did not have a telephone in the house until he was well into his teen years, and they never had a television — but Sowell did grow up with the cultural value of education: something that was able to eventually propel him to great heights.

Education has long been a road to success in America. It is for this reason the two highest-earning religious groups in America — Hindus and Jews — also happen to have the most education out of all religious groups. Today, the tragic reality is that, for many low-income students, the chance to acquire a quality education is significantly diminished by the conditions of the failing public schools they are required to attend.

Having benefited from the option to transfer to a better school when he was young, Sowell now advocates the same policy for the disadvantaged families of today. While Sowell has been writing about education for decades, arguably his deepest dive into the subject came just last year when he wrote “Charter Schools and Their Enemies,” a book that deserves to be remembered as one of his finest works.

The film spends a commendable amount of time emphasizing the role and importance of education, as well as introducing the audience to the various alternatives to the traditional public school monopoly, such as charter schools.

Eva Moskowitz, founder of Success Academy Charter School, correctly points out that the benefits of school choice are concentrated within the most vulnerable communities, despite the fact people with Sowell’s political persuasion are so often maligned as “uncaring” and “unempathetic” towards those who are disadvantaged. By correctly framing the issue in a way that highlights the communities the policy is helping, it allows conservatives and libertarians to begin reclaiming the moral high ground.

Sowell’s Intellectual Influences

Sowell was drafted into the military in 1951. Afterward, he attended Howard University as an undergraduate, then transferred to Harvard University, where he procured a degree in economics. He earned his master’s at the University of Columbia, then went on to the University of Chicago for his Ph.D.

During his college years, Sowell was a Marxist, and he remained so even after taking a class taught by Milton Friedman. Yet all it took was one summer interning in the federal government for him to be exposed to government’s inefficiencies and perverse incentives.

In detailing Sowell’s journey from Marxism to capitalism, the film strikes a chord with those paying attention to the current condition of higher education. Many college students today have a similar disposition to Sowell when he was in college. They believe capitalism has proved to be corrupt at its core, as evidenced by things like climate change, increasing income inequality, and decreasing income mobility.

While people can debate about the merits of these various concerns for hours on end, the real thing these students miss is the efficacy (or lack thereof) of government control of the economy. Sowell’s personal experience in the government opened his eyes to the truth about capitalism, but that should leave all of us wondering what the wake-up call to many in my generation will be.

Sowell credits the Chicago School of Economics with teaching him the importance of gathering hard data. That lesson has stuck with him throughout the years, as his data gathering and usage remains one of his strong suits. Although empiricism and objective truth have largely been replaced by intuition among today’s college students, Sowell never argues based on feelings, but backs up his assertions with facts — and a lot of them at that.

Sowell Today

In 1980, Sowell became a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where they essentially offered to “pay him to be Tom Sowell” by allowing him to choose what and when he writes. Riley explains, “thousands of students would miss out on having Professor Sowell as a teacher, but millions of intellectually curious readers would benefit from Thomas Sowell’s work here [at the Hoover Institution].”

Among the best aspects of “Thomas Sowell: Common Sense in a Senseless World” is the extent it explains Sowell’s enduring popularity. Arguably the key reason Sowell is so beloved is that he fearlessly makes his argument no matter the fashionable sentiment at the time. Whether it be on the perverse incentives attached to the welfare state, his critique of the idea that every disparity signals discrimination, or the idea of human capital as the chief necessity for group advancement, Sowell takes on the intellectual establishment.

At a time people are increasingly afraid to speak their minds for fear of being “canceled,” Sowell is a refreshing presence — a presence that lets people know that there are other people who approach the questions of the day with simple common sense. As Riley describes him, “[Sowell is] that rarest of species: an honest intellectual. He spent a career putting truth over popularity. He’s explored the answers to questions others were afraid to even ask.”

Bringing Sowell to the Next Generation

One would not be blamed for believing that a 90-year-old economist would not be particularly popular among a younger audience. Yet, make no mistake, Sowell’s work has proved to be timeless, and he’s gaining a large following among the next generation. On Instagram, the unofficial Thomas Sowell account has more than 150,000 followers, while on Twitter, Sowell’s followers number more than 650,000, and his reach continues to grow.

A documentary such as “Thomas Sowell: Common Sense in a Senseless World helps widen that reach. Garnering more than 2.1 million views on YouTube in the first week since its release, there is no doubt that it has done its part in keeping the work of Sowell alive and in the minds of the next generation of students, thinkers, and leaders.

Without a doubt, the world has been lucky to benefit from Sowell’s insights. We can only hope that with the help of films like this, we can adequately extend those insights to those who will be next in line to influence our world.

Jack Elbaum is a freshman at George Washington University. His writing has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and the Washington Examiner. You can contact him at jackelbaum16@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @Jack_Elbaum.

Bob Chitester Discusses Milton Friedman and ‘Free to Choose’

Published on Jul 30, 2012 by

“There are very few people over the generations who have ideas that are sufficiently original to materially alter the direction of civilization. Milton is one of those very few people.”

That is how former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan described the Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman. But it is not for his technical work in monetary economics that Friedman is best known. Like mathematician Jacob Bronowski and astronomer Carl Sagan, Friedman had a gift for communicating complex ideas to a general audience.

It was this gift that brought him to the attention of filmmaker Bob Chitester. At Chitester’s urging, Friedman agreed to make a 10 part documentary series explaining the power of economic freedom. It was called “Free to Choose,” and became one of the most watched documentaries in history.

The series not only reached audiences in liberal democracies, but was smuggled behind the iron curtain where it played, in secret, to large audiences. Reflecting on its impact, Czech president Vaclav Klaus has said: “For us, who lived in the communist world, Milton Friedman was the greatest champion of freedom, of limited and unobtrusive government and of free markets. Because of him I became a true believer in the unrestricted market economy.”

July 31st, 2012 is the 100th anniversary of Friedman’s birth. To commemorate that occasion, we’d like to share an interview with “Free to Choose” producer Bob Chitester. Like this interview, the entire series can now be viewed on-line at no cost at http://www.freetochoose.tv/, thanks to the incredible technological progress brought about by the economic freedom that Milton Friedman celebrated.

Produced by Andrew Coulson, Caleb O. Brown, Austin Bragg, and Lou Richards, with help from the Free to Choose Network.


April 4, 2021

President Biden  c/o The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

We got to stop spending so much money on the federal level. It will bankrupt us. I remember back in 1980 when I really started getting into the material of Milton Friedman as a result of reading his articles in Newsweek and reading his book “Free to Choose,” I really did get facts and figures to back on the view that we need more freedom giving back to us and the government needs to spend less.

As a result of Friedman’s writings I was able to discuss these issues with my fellow students at the university and by the time the 1980 election came around I had been attending political rallies and went out and worked hard for Ronald Reagan’s election. In this article below Dr. Thomas Sowell (who was featured twice in the film “Free to Choose”) notes how much influence Milton Friedman had on the election outcome in 1980:

Milton Friedman at 90

by Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute in Stanford, California.

Added to cato.org on July 25, 2002

This article originally appeared on TownHall.com, July 25, 2002.

Milton Friedman’s 90th birthday on July 31st provides an occasion to think back on his role as the pre-eminent economist of the 20th century. To those of us who were privileged to be his students, he also stands out as a great teacher.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, back in 1959, one day I was waiting outside Professor Friedman’s office when another graduate student passed by. He noticed my exam paper on my lap and exclaimed: “You got a B?”

“Yes,” I said. “Is that bad?”

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute in Stanford, California.

“There were only two B’s in the whole class,” he replied.

“How many A’s?” I asked.

“There were no A’s!”

Today, this kind of grading might be considered to represent a “tough love” philosophy of teaching. I don’t know about love, but it was certainly tough.

Professor Friedman also did not let students arrive late at his lectures and distract the class by their entrance. Once I arrived a couple of minutes late for class and had to turn around and go back to the dormitory.

All the way back, I thought about the fact that I would be held responsible for what was said in that lecture, even though I never heard it. Thereafter, I was always in my seat when Milton Friedman walked in to give his lecture.

On a term paper, I wrote that either (a) this would happen or (b) that would happen. Professor Friedman wrote in the margin: “Or (c) your analysis is wrong.”

“Where was my analysis wrong?” I asked him.

“I didn’t say your analysis was wrong,” he replied. “I just wanted you to keep that possibility in mind.”

Perhaps the best way to summarize all this is to say that Milton Friedman is a wonderful human being — especially outside the classroom. It has been a much greater pleasure to listen to his lectures in later years, after I was no longer going to be quizzed on them, and a special pleasure to appear on a couple of television programs with him and to meet him on social occasions.

Milton Friedman’s enduring legacy will long outlast the memories of his students and extends beyond the field of economics. John Maynard Keynes was the reigning demi-god among economists when Friedman’s career began, and Friedman himself was at first a follower of Keynesian doctrines and liberal politics.

Yet no one did more to dismantle both Keynesian economics and liberal welfare-state thinking. As late as the 1950s, those with the prevailing Keynesian orthodoxy were still able to depict Milton Friedman as a fringe figure, clinging to an outmoded way of thinking. But the intellectual power of his ideas, the fortitude with which he persevered, and the ever more apparent failures of Keynesian analyses and policies, began to change all that, even before Professor Friedman was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 1976.

A towering intellect seldom goes together with practical wisdom, or perhaps even common sense. However, Milton Friedman not only excelled in the scholarly journals but also on the television screen, presenting the basics of economics in a way that the general public could understand.

His mini-series “Free to Choose” was a classic that made economic principles clear to all with living examples. His good nature and good humor also came through in a way that attracted and held an audience.

Although Friedrich Hayek launched the first major challenge to the prevailing thinking behind the welfare state and socialism with his 1944 book “The Road to Serfdom,” Milton Friedman became the dominant intellectual force among those who turned back the leftward tide in what had seemed to be the wave of the future.

Without Milton Friedman’s role in changing the minds of so many Americans, it is hard to imagine how Ronald Reagan could have been elected president.

Nor was Friedman’s influence confined to the United States. His ideas reached around the world, not only among economists, but also in political circles which began to understand why left-wing ideas that sounded so good produced results that were so bad.

Milton Friedman rates a 21-gun salute on his birthday. Or perhaps a 90-gun salute would be more appropriate.


Thank you so much for your time. I know how valuable it is. I also appreciate the fine family that you have and your commitment as a father and a husband.


Everette Hatcher III, 13900 Cottontail Lane, Alexander, AR 72002, ph 501-920-5733

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Thomas Sowell

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