Even in the gray glare of the Sunday afternoon light coming through the restaurant window, Thomas Sowell, the black conservative economist, looks not just young for 51, but extravagantly young. He has an utterly smooth face, a micro-pored brown which is unlined, untroubled, unqualmed by the attacks made on him for all these years. It's a face scarcely more worn than when it belonged to the little boy in Harlem whose construction worker father couldn't understand what he was doing, night after night, in the library; the face of an only child with a cool, glittering intelligence that shows in the sweet and utterly serious purse of his lips, the quick distant eyes behind his glasses, easy and eager. Untouched.

He says: "There are no solutions to problems."

What?

"There are no solutions to problems," he says again, being a man accustomed to astonishment in his listeners. "If you believe there are, you must be very disappointed in what's been happening for hundreds of years."

Right now, Thomas Sowell is the hottest intellectual in Reaganomic Washington, along with George "Wealth and Poverty" Gilder.

He's in town to testify before the Joint Economic Committee, to address a luncheon sponsored by the Heritage Foundation at the Capitol Hill Club, to appear on "Meet the Press," and to talk about the latest of his 11 books, "Ethnic America." He is a member of the president's Economic Policy Advisory Board. He took himself out of the running for a Cabinet post at either Labor or Housing and Urban Development. Best of all, as the political being he says he isn't, but becomes the moment his plane from California touches down at National Airport, he is not only black, but a migrant to the North from Gastonia, N.C.; a high-school dropout, former delivery boy, machinist and enlisted marine who graduated from Harvard with honors, then got his PhD in economics from the University of Chicago.

And he is a conservative. He is "one of the brightest men around," says conservative columnist William F. Buckley. He is comparable to "Stepin Fetchit" and "Aunt Jemima," says black liberal columnist Carl Rowan, who continues: "Vidkun Quisling, in his collaboration with the Nazis, surely did not do as much danger to the Norwegians as Sowell is doing to the most helpless of black Americans."

Sowell himself has written, with his astringent wit: "Being a black 'conservative' is perhaps not considered as bizarre as being a transvestite, but it is certainly considered more strange than being a vegetarian or a birdwatcher."

Strange.

He'd like to impound the pet ideas of practicing liberals: the minimum wage, affirmative action, busing and slum clearance. They are not solutions but problems in themselves, he says.

His reasoning has an obvious quality which is both tempting and alarming to an audience accustomed to more tangled social theory. On the minimum wage, he says: "If an employer wants to pay more to one group than another, he pays a price for his discrimination. All that the minimum wage does is make it possible for him to discriminate for free."

One hostess in Palo Alto, Calif., where Sowell is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, says: "He can take the normal run of academics over the coals. He's done this at our house. It's amazing to listen to. Most of the people at the university disagree with him, of course. I get the feeling that his wife is of a different political ilk, too. I think she's from some kind of radical chic background. He's such a maverick, he has to be completely alone."

Untouchable Maverick

Sowell's blacklist of what he calls "foregone conclusions" goes on and on.

"The notion that reform and the introduction of sweat shop legislation have reduced poverty is wrong," he argues. "I think the reason people no longer wear rags is because a man named Singer invented the sewing machine." He says rent control decreases the supply of housing, and says: "I have some relatives in the South Bronx who are the only people in their building who pay their rent. We need to make it easier for slum landlords to throw out people who don't pay rent so as not to penalize the ones who do."

He opposes the grounds for the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegration decision. "It should not have been based on a sociological theory of what segregated schools were doing to black children. It should have been based on the 14th Amendment, but I think the court was afraid to make it a constitutional issue."

He adds: "In my elementary school, no black kid ever wondered why no white kids were there. Nobody was wringing their hands over it."

The wit gets caustic indeed when he attacks assumptions that blacks need to be helped and "led by the hand in order to compete. Sports and entertainment are hypercompetitive. When they pitched to Hank Aaron, they didn't say 'Poor Hank, God bless him.' "

And he chuckles with a deep, fluty noise that shakes him for a few moments. Clearly, he is not only untouched but untouchable. The great pecking party of contemporary liberalism has apparently failed to draw one drop of blood from Sowell; hasn't even ruffled his feathers. He ignores their conclusions because he has already denied their premises. He appears on the heartland's own liberalklatsch, "The Phil Donahue Show," and remains impervious to Donahue's astonished hand-waving, to audience votes, all of it.

Andrew Greeley, reviewing Sowell's "Ethnic America" in Psychology Today, writes: "To me, 'conservative' is an inadequate word to describe such a position." A series of articles Sowell published in this newspaper, arguing that middle-class black leadership distorts the views of the black masses, won him a storm of criticism. Edwin Dorn, executive director of the PUSH-Excel Institute, accused him of offering "shrill excretions. Being black is less important than being reasonable." An official of the Urban Institute, where Sowell was a project director in the '70s, says that "the normal social pressures don't exist with Tom. He was willing to be a complete isolate."

Sowell himself boasts now over an omelet and a glass of chablis, "When I was at the Urban Institute I was told there wasn't one vice president who hadn't gone to the president and asked for my resignation."

He laughs. Strange. Untouched. The kind of man whose answering machine at the Hoover Institution has his secretary's voice advising callers to leave their names and numbers, "and perhaps we can get back to you."

Can-Do Credo

"My family taught me to read when I was 4," he says. "But I didn't start school until I was 7 -- when I was 6 I spent the year having every childhood disease there is. I only spent two weeks in second grade, though. They moved me up to the third, and I remember the teacher pointing me out to the other kids and saying that if they were good like I was, they'd get to move up too. When we moved to New York, it was a period when kids from the South were routinely set back a year. I was supposed to be going into fourth grade, but they put me in the third. I demanded to see the principal. I stood around outside his office for a while, then he let me in and had me do some math problems. They put me in the fourth grade, and I was immediately the worst student in the class. By the end of the term, though, I got a commendation from the principal as the most improved student in the class."

This was a pattern he'd keep following: bucking the system not to make life easier, but to take on more demands than anybody thought he could handle.

"My family hadn't gone past elementary school. They had no idea what I was going through. They'd say 'The kid next door has a job after school, why don't you?' I was commuting from 145th Street down to Stuyvesant High School, an academic school, on 15th Street. It was incredibly hard for me. I was doing homework all the time, hour after hour of it, late at night and up early. I wasn't doing that well. They automatically promoted me at Stuyvesant, but I refused, I said I hadn't done the work and I shouldn't move up. That was my first clash with bureaucracy."

He took his maverick rationality to the baseball field as well. "At first I played shortstop, but I had a propensity for knocking into the other team's infielders when I was baserunning. The manager took me aside and said: 'If you don't stop that, they'll kill you when you're in the field and they're running the bases.' So I moved to centerfielder.

"I was one of those guys who believed in taking the base lines the way the rules said. And I was not above sharpening my spikes while I was sitting on the bench, and letting the other team see me."

A World of His Own

No give. No unwritten rules. No nuances.

As the official at the Urban Institute says: ""He's not willing to do the small things that nurture things along."

Then again, that's just the sort of nurturing he remembers fondly from the South: "It was very human in a lot of ways. For instance, when kids would bring old clothes to school for other kids who needed them, the teachers would be sure to put them in one big bag so nobody would know who they were getting them from."

After a while, the workload at Stuyvesant High School "became quite a drag," he says, and he quit at 17. He moved away from home and got a job as a delivery boy in the garment district.

"I wanted to write fiction, novels," he says. "I was making $25 a week, paying $5.75 a week for a room, and $13 for groceries. This didn't leave a lot, but I saved up $30 to buy a secondhand typewriter."

His models were Somerset Maugham, especially in "Of Human Bondage"; John Steinbeck in "Grapes of Wrath"; Sinclair Lewis' novels, and Don Marquis' "Archy and Mehitabel."

No black writers? No Richard Wright? No Langston Hughes?

"Oh sure. I read 'Native Son,' and 'Poor Boy.' Hughes meant a lot. I see in Hughes a very positive approach to blacks -- not the 'poor me' approach."

He wrote and wrote, and finally this maverick of the base paths and spurner of school largesse had typed his way to the ultimate artistic achievement of the isolated man, the loner: He'd created his own world by writing a novel.

"I sent it around to some agents, but all I got back were some letters telling me to keep writing." He says he doesn't remember what it was about, this man who can remember his grocery bill from 30 years ago. What he remembers is the pain he felt after saving the manuscript for years, through his stateside service as a photographer in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, and finally taking it to Sterling Brown, at Howard University, for comment. "He did more writing in the margins than I had on the pages," he says now, stuttering into fierce and amazed laughter. "Oh, it was terrible. I was just mortified."

This streetwise ex-marine was mortified -- he being the kind of marine who could not only get promoted to corporal but indulge a flair for sarcasm that on one occasion got him arrested.

"I was taking a photograph of a railroad bridge at Camp Lejeune, which was against the law. I had a big camera set up on a tripod. An MP came over and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was drilling for oil."

He spent only a year at Howard on the GI bill before once more biting off more than he could have been expected to chew by transferring to Harvard. "I very nearly didn't make it. I had no study habits, no discipline. I had no idea how to do work like that. They called me in during my first semester when I had two Ds and two Fs and said I had to shape up or ship out."

He is fond of telling people that just as nobody led him by the hand at Harvard, nobody needs to lead blacks to opportunities -- they'll grab any opportunity they get. At Harvard, he grabbed, graduating with honors and going on to win his PhD in economics at the University of Chicago in 1968.

Necessary Evil

Now, in Northwest Washington, he has just finished dealing ripostes to a somewhat startled panel of interviewers on "Meet the Press." He is sitting over brunch and looking back at a career full of squabbles.

"When I taught at Howard I saw myself as a necessary evil. I was teaching graphs in one course, and the kids would say 'I can't do it.' I'd say 'You're going to flunk the course.' The faculty came to me and said I couldn't expect them to handle that kind of work. I said, 'You're telling me that because they went to a bad kindergarten, they can't do college work?' Three-quarters of them flunked the first test. The faculty said, 'See, you're being pigheaded.' " But most of them passed the course."

At Cornell he objected to the black power advocates carrying guns on campus, and caused a furor by trying to eject a disruptive student from a summer course in economics for ghetto kids.

On the "Meet the Press" segment he's just finished, he took his usual tack of denying basic assumptions and torpedoing foregone conclusions. Emery King, a black reporter with NBC, asked him with a querulous confidence: "Blacks have made more progress in the last 17 years than at any other time in history, progress that came about largely as a result of the government's social programs during that period, among them affirmative action. What do you propose or would you propose as substitutes as we see the administration going about the business of dismantling some of these programs?"

The reply was classically Sowellian: "I would disagree with you entirely on your facts. As I've looked at affirmative action, I do not see blacks or Hispanics rising relative to the general population under affirmative action . . . The fact is that under affirmative action Puerto Rican income, for example, has fallen from 60 percent of the national average to 50 percent of the national average. Mexican-American income has fallen from 76 percent to 73 percent of the national average. Black income has fluctuated right about where it was before affirmative action. When you break down the figures further . . ."

Well, why bother? Who can ad lib an argument with a guy like this? Who can even ask a question of somebody who doesn't bother to answer it because he demolishes the premise of the question?

"The more reputation I get for being unreasonable, the better it is for me, and the easier it is for me to get things done," he says now over the luncheon table. He smiles his round, pursed-lip smile and says: "Unreasonableness in defense of principle . . ." and lets it trail off into the tartly ironic echo of Barry Goldwater's "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice."

He doesn't give an inch, and he takes all the miles he can get, intellectually. There's an adamant, wary, heard-it-all, resigned ease about him, the intransigent cool of a kid who, growing up, heard and saw all manner of outrageous claims upon life, limb and reason. The message of that untouched, unmoved face is: If you're going to try to bull Tom Sowell, you'd best be better at it than everybody else who's tried it so far.

He refuses to make any move toward finding common ground, aside from interest in the issue at hand. He disdains the easy political gesture. He refuses to take advantage of his proletarian background by exhibiting the slightest black-cultural mannerisms which might give him credence as someone on the side of working-class minorities.

"Black English," he says, in an accent with a touch of Ivy League drawl. "I keep noticing that young people who speak black English will have parents who don't speak that way at all. Where does it come from?"

Where do his stubbornness and isolation come from? (He is such a private person that he won't say how many children he has, and refuses to confirm the fact that his second wife is white. "I refuse to compromise their privacy," he says.)

As years go by, I've come to think it's genetic," he says, no doubt savoring the fact that he's coming down hard on the conservative side of the nature v. nurture debate here. "People in my family know their own minds and go their own way. I had an uncle who was known as the heavyweight champion of M Street, here in Washington. He refused to carry a knife to protect himself. One day he got attacked by a guy with a knife, and got cut. He kept fighting long enough to knock the man out, then passed out himself. That's the kind of people I'm talking about."

Fighting and fighting. Never giving an inch on those base paths. It's not that he doesn't believe that racism exists, he says; it's just that he doesn't think that it explains very much about the economic situation of blacks. "You have to separate moral and causal analysis. Slavery was morally wrong, but that doesn't mean that it caused everything that's wrong with blacks now."

Blacks, he says, are an immigrant group like any other, and their immigration dates from their 20th-century move into the northern cities. Given that, their progress was much the same as other groups, until government in concert with civil rights leaders promoted the programs he opposes.

"The thing that galls me the most about black leadership is that they're oblivious to things that don't bring money to them or get whitey."

Then again, moments later, he says: "Greed has a bad name. When you have a system based on being greedy, things get done, because there are some bucks in it."

Amazing. He not only disagrees, he flaunts his cynicism about a lot of liberal beliefs which had long since become a secular faith. And doesn't seem to mind the attacks, the accusations of betrayal, the fiery breath of established dragons. He looks so startlingly young, scarcely a line on his face.