I’ll be discussion leader of a symposium this coming Friday and Saturday on the work of Thomas Sowell. I spent more time than I usually do coming up with discussion questions because Sowell’s writing is so clear, so evidence-based, and so persuasive, that I had trouble injecting controversy. The main controversy I could come up with is over his distinction between the “constrained vision” and the “unconstrained vision.” A very early article by Bryan Caplan helped me put my finger on my difficulties. Other than that, I found virtually everything in his writing straightforward.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from Sowell.

In his 1980 book Knowledge and Decisions, my favorite of his books, he discusses a famous economics article, “The Economics of a P.O.W. Camp,” written by R.A. Radford, a British economist who had been a prisoner in a P.O.W. camp. (By the way, if recall correctly, this article was on at least 3 of the syllabi we had during my first year of graduate school at UCLA, 1972-72. The article is a masterpiece.) Sowell writes:

What is of wider social significance is that those prisoners who performed these services [as middlemen] were both widely utilized and deeply resented. The physical fallacy arose as spontaneously as the actions which demonstrated its falsity.

In many of my classes I taught at the Naval Postgraduate School, after teaching Hayek’s “Use of Knowledge in Society,” which was also on at least 3 syllabi in my first year at UCLA, I used a short excerpt on the “Physical Fallacy” that includes the quote above.

Here’s another excerpt from the same Sowell book:

Like other forms of price controls, usury laws distort the communication of correct facts about credit risks without in any way changing those facts themselves.

Here’s Sowell on the misallocation of labor due to conscription:

Even in an all-out war, most soldiers do not fight, but perform a variety of auxiliary services, many of which can be performed by civilian employees, since most of these services take place far from the scenes of battle. From the standpoint of the army as an economic decision making unit, it is rational to draft a chemist to sweep floors as long as his cost as a draftee is lower than the cost of hiring a civilian floor sweeper. From the standpoint of the economy as a whole, it is of course a waste of human resources. Again, the use of force is significant not simply because force is unpleasant, but because it distorts the effective knowledge of options.

One would take him to be saying that conscription is a bad idea. But an interaction I had indirectly with him (through his assistant at Hoover) in 1980 made me wonder.

There are so many good Sowell quotes. I’ll do more later.