The Quotable Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell retired last week from writing his weekly column for Creators Syndicate. I wrote about this earlier in the week in this post ( The Great Tomas Sowell Says Farewell To His Weekly Column ).  Dr. Sowell is my favorite author. I try to read all his stuff, which is difficult because of the staggering amount of material he has written.

Dr. Sowell does two things that are difficult when you write. 1) He makes complex and abstract concepts understandable to regular people like me. 2) He economizes on words while revealing this high degree of insight.

I heard someone say this about a particular writer he admired (I can’t recall who it was). This applies to Dr. Sowell. “I know the same words that he knows, but I can’t put them in the same order that he does“. I am so happy that Dr. Sowell’s mind sees things the way it does. His writing has brought much enjoyment to me over the years.

I have compiled some of my favorite quotes from what he has written. Here are a few.


Here are some questions that Dr. Sowell says should be asked when analyzing a topic or discussing a particular topic with another person.

At What Cost?

Compared To What?

Is What Is Being Compared Comparable?

What Is The Real Question?

And Then What?

Who Is To Make The Decision? Through What Process? Under What Incentives And Constraints? With What Feedback Mechanisms?


Here are some short phrases from Dr. Sowell.

-Economic Problems Don’t Have Political Solutions.

-Perfect Justice Means Perfect Tyranny.

-Virtually Everything Is Foreseeable In Retrospect.

-Every False Diagnosis Of A condition Is An Obstacle to Improvement.

-Feedback Serves To Limit The Impact Of Errors.

-Sober Analysis Seldom Has The Appeal Of Ringing Rhetoric.

-History Is By Definition Tardy.

-Don’t Confuse Causation With Morality.

-It Takes A High I.Q. To Evade The Obvious.

-Many People Have Credentialed Ignorance.

-We Can Only Make Our Choices From Alternatives That Are Actually Available.

-Moderation Is Great, Unless It Is Taken To Extremes.

-What Is True Is Not Always Popular And What Is Popular Is Not Always True.

-Liberalism: Let My Conscience Be Your Guide.

-Everything Is The Same Except For Its Differences; and Everything Is Different Except For Its Similarities.

-The Question Is Not Whether The Glass Is Half Full Or Half Empty. The Question Is, Was The Glass Full Of Empty When You Started?


Here are some longer quotes about economics, freedom and politics.

-The abstract existence of knowledge means nothing unless it is applied at the point of decision or action.

-Knowledge is one of the scarcest of all resources in any economy, and the insight distilled from knowledge is scarcer still.

-Decisions differ because of the internal preferences and the external incentives facing those who make the decisions.

-Results observed at a given point in time may be part of a process that stretches far back in time.

-Envy used to be one of the seven deadly sins before it became one of the most admired virtues under its new name, “Social Justice”.

-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.

-History is not a record of people’s articulated intentions being realized so much as it is a record of entirely different things happening as a net result of mutual innumerable strivings toward mutually incompatible goals.

-The God like approach to social policy ignores both the diversity of values and the cost of agreement among human beings.

-Just as a poetic discussion of the weather is not meteorology, so an issuance of moral pronouncements or political creeds about the economy is not economics.

-People who are very aware that they have more knowledge than the average person are often very unaware that they do not have one tenth of the knowledge of all of the average persons put together. In this situation, for the intelligentsia to impose their notions on ordinary people is essentially to impose ignorance on knowledge.

-Any attempt to have rational discourse requires that those with different views have a common language in which to discuss their differences.

-The anointed are on their tiny island of knowledge, surrounded by their sea of ignorance.

-The anointed are insulated from the feedback of uncooperative reality.

-The anointed are often wrong, but never in doubt.

-Intellectuals are masters of the world of unverified plausibilities.

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

-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.

-Wherever we want to go, we can only get there from where we are, not where we think we are. Not where we think we are, or wish we are, or where we want others to think we are, but where we are in fact right now. If we don’t have truth we don’t have anything to start with, and build on. Political spin and pious euphemisms don’t tell us where we are.

-If you have a right to someone else’s approval, than they do not have a right to their own opinions and values.

-The fatal misstep of intellectuals is assuming that superior ability within a particular realm can be generalized as superior wisdom or morality over all.

-The intelligentsia and others always fight phony wars against straw men. Why create a false issue, except to evade the real issue?

-In political competition what is being sold is not an end result, but a plausible belief about a complex process. Ergo accurate knowledge has no such decisive competitive advantage.

-The free market may work vest when there is a level playing field. But politicians win more votes by tilting the playing field to favor particular groups.

-Tests are not unfair. Life is unfair and the test measures the result.

-The test conveys a difference that already exists. It doesn’t create a difference that would not exist otherwise.

-People have to be aware of the dangers in letting economic decisions be made through political processes.

-The argument for Socialism, it sounds great; the argument against it, it doesn’t work.

-Anyone can be wrong about the future. But being wrong about the past is something else.

-If an informed citizenry is the foundation of democratic government, than an uninformed citizenry is a danger.

-Systemically evolved freedom in Colonial America later became intentionally preserved freedom in the Constitution of the United States.

-Constitutional guarantees encumber the state precisely so that the state may not encumber the people.

-More severe penalties that are not enforced are not as good as less sever penalties that are enforced.

-Lowering standards for those unable to meet them only endangers the very benefits those standards produce. Standards do not exist for no reason.

-Freedom has always been embattled where it has not been wholly crushed.

-A border dispute between Ohio and Indiana does not keep us from knowing that Columbus is in Ohio and Indianapolis is in Indiana.

-Each ethnic group tends to trail the long shadow of its own cultural history, as well as reflecting the consequences of external influences.

-Wealth in the U.S. is not distributed at all. People create it, earn it, save it, and spend it.

-Survival in the market often requires recognizing mistakes and changing course, while survival in politics often requires denying mistakes, continuing the current policies and blaming the bad consequences on others.

-Free markets efficiently allocate scarce resources which have alternative uses. This results in higher standards of living for society as a whole, along with unequal rewards to individuals, industries and regions.

-The effectiveness of the market does not depend on Government officials or intellectuals understanding it.

-The biggest difference between economic decisions in the market, and political decisions in Government is that costs are an inescapable factor in economic decisions, while political decisions can ignore costs.

-Voluntary decision-making processes have many advantages which are lost when courts attempt to prescribe results, rather than define decision-making boundaries.

-Nothing is easier than to confuse broader powers with deeper insight. But almost by definition, those with the broadest powers are the most remote from the specific knowledge needed for either deciding or for knowing the actual consequences of their decisions.

-Sometimes the ascribed status to a particular group is preferential, so that sorting and labeling that is biased in the proscribed direction is legal but any bias in a different direction is not.

-The word “crisis” has virtually become a political synonym for “situation” and indicates little more than something that someone wants to change.

-Social crusaders are not forced to confront the consequences of their choices, even in their own minds, or consciences, much less pay a tangible price for he havoc they leave in their wake while feeling noble.

-Many complaints that some basically good Government policy has been applied stupidly may fail to address the Underlying problem of catagorical laws in an incremental world.

-Nothing human has ever achieved perfection. So the fact that intellectuals can always imagine something better than the vest that exists in reality is hardly surprising.

-Justice of any sort, criminal justice as well as so-called “social justice”, implies the imposition of a given standard on people with different standards.

-What is politically defined as economic planning is the forcible superseding of other people’s plans by Government officials.

-The claim that costs are “prohibitive” is to miss the whole point of costs, which is precisely to be prohibitive. Costs transmit inherent limitations of resources compared to the desires for them, but do not create this fundamental disproportionately.

-All costs are prohibitive to some degree, and virtually no costs are prohibitively absolutely.

-Where prices are set by Government fiat, they convey no information as to ever-changing economic trade-offs…. Price changes are virtually instantaneous, while statistics available to planners necessarily lag behind.

-If prosperity could come only from the united efforts of upright and noble-minded people, all of mankind would still be sunk in poverty.

-Everyone must live in the world of reality. To the extent that reality has been filtered to fit a vision, this filtered information is a misleading guide to making decisions in an unforgiving reality, to which we must all adjust because it is not going to adjust to us.

-The same man is not equal to himself on different days, much less at different periods of life.


If this seems like a lot, this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you can remember some of these statements by Dr Sowell, especially the questions that should constantly be asked, you will start seeing the world through a different lens.



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