Thomas Sowell is a well-known economist, but he was a Marxist when he arrived at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1959 to begin his Ph.D. studies. Sowell wanted to study under future Nobel economist George Stigler and originally planned to pursue his doctorate at Columbia University. However, Stigler moved to the University of Chicago, and Sowell followed him there.
At the University of Chicago, Sowell also came under the influence of economist Milton Friedman, classical economist David Ricardo, Gary Becker, and Friedrich Hayek as well as Stigler. Sowell was inspired by all of them, but some had greater influence than others.
Still, there is a case to be made that no one had a greater impact on Sowell’s career path than Stigler and Friedman. They were his instructors and his mentors. They served on his dissertation committee and even helped him with material needs.
When a problem arose with Sowell’s student aid and he contemplated leaving graduate school to find a job, it was Stigler who, without Sowell’s knowledge, secured a generous grant for promising academics from the Earhart Foundation….
And it was Friedman who, years later, brought Sowell to the attention of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where he became a senior fellow in 1980 after he left teaching.
Even though Sowell was still a Marxist at the time, “Friedman and Stigler saw something in him early on that led them to nurture his development as a scholar. According to Richard Ware, the longtime head of the Earhart Foundation, the grant request was signed by either Stigler or Friedman or both. “The foundation held Stigler and Friedman in such high regard that the Sowell recommendation was basically rubber-stamped.” In the nomination letter, “they said he’s a socialist, but he’s too smart to remain one too long.”
According to Sowell, he didn’t abandon socialism because he was bamboozled by his Chicago professors. Rather, what ultimately began his drift to the political right was a summer job at the U.S. Department of Labor in the summer of 1960.
While studying the effects of minimum wage laws on employment, he began to “rethink the larger question of the role of government in general,” he recalled. “The more other government programs I looked into, over the years, the harder I found it to believe that they were a net benefit to society.”
Like other well-known black dissident thinkers, Sowell “came to his free-market beliefs by way of reflection and observation.” Other people who made the move from liberal political inclinations in their student days to free-market thinking are Friedman, Stigler, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, race scholar Shelby Steele, and economists Walter Williams and Glenn Loury. “Like Sowell, all of them have faced regular attacks from black liberals and other critics often far more interested in questioning their motives than in addressing their arguments.”