Friday, January 22, 2010
I've been wanting for a long time to write about one of my favorite authors and thinkers, Thomas Sowell. Everything he writes is so refreshing---because he explains things so clearly, I think. Reading his work is like getting a long cold drink, or maybe a better metaphor is turning the light on in a dark room. As I read his writing, I find myself constantly nodding my head, not because I already know or agree with what he is saying, but because it makes so much sense that I feel immediately like I should have always known it. He writes quite efficiently, so for me it does take some concentration to read one of his books. I can't do it while the kids are running around and asking me for things, like I can with easier books. But by investing that focus and concentration, I get such enlightenment that it's worth the extra time it takes me to get through a book.
Several years ago I was talking to my sister-in-law and she mentioned Thomas Sowell's book Basic Economics. She referred to it using the word "life-changing," and at the time I thought it a strange adjective to use to describe such a boring-sounding book.
Then I read it myself, and I had to agree. The book is life-changing. It, and its just-as-enlightening sequel, Applied Economics, are two books that have made me examine my own ideas, actions, and opinions more closely, and to more positive effect, than any other books outside the religious sphere. The principles I learned from Basic Economics and Applied Economics are not only economic, or even just political, in nature---they have far-reaching implications that have helped me think more reasonably and---maybe more importantly---act more consistently in ways that match my thinking.
Maybe that idea deserves further explanation. Most of us, obviously, make our voluntary decisions based on the assumption that those decisions will bring us closer to our desires and ideals. But I found it fascinating how often people (me included) end up acting in ways that have the effect of bringing to pass things we never intended---even things that are the opposite of what we would have hoped when making the initial decision. In other words, whatever our stated goals are when we act, the consequences of our acts are sometimes very different. This comes mostly from lack of clear, reasonable analysis of our own and others' motivations, and from ignoring the future implications of what we do now. (Sowell calls this "failing to think beyond Stage One.") It is not that we aren't capable of thinking reasonably, but that we are not in the habit of doing so.
I love good poetry for its brevity and the clarity of its images, and I love Sowell's writing for much the same reason. Although his clear, forceful prose is the opposite of "poetic" in many ways, it is similar in that it can convey a new thought with remarkable power in just a few words, and with such skill that you think, "Of course! Anyone could see that!" rather than simply marvelling at the intellect behind it. Basic Economics takes concepts that seem complicated and makes them absolutely transparent and understandable. It makes plain many fallacies and inconsistencies in the way we usually think, without ever coming across as condescending. It is very readable and engaging---not esoteric or too "scholarly" in tone---but it is transformative in its effect: it will make you view the world differently.
I originally found Basic Economics at the library, but it was hard to get (long hold list) and it is a mark of my esteem for it that when we got a Barnes and Noble gift card for Christmas last year, we bought Basic Economics even though it cost nearly $40 and there were lots of other fiction books we wanted as well. I usually love reading good fictional stories and I love poetry, and I would never have thought a book on ECONOMICS could compete with those for my time and attention---but it does. (Sam got me Applied Economics this year for Christmas, so I can now lend them both out if you are interested.) I think both books should be required reading for college-age young adults (I will certainly give it to my own kids when they are old enough) and for anyone who wishes to learn to THINK more clearly and make better, more informed choices in their own lives.
In short: I recommend Basic Economics and Applied Economics wholeheartedly and hope that you will find them as enlightening and yes, life-changing, as I have.