Monday, 4 February 2013

SUMMER SNIPPETS: ‘Race and Culture,’ by Thomas Sowell

More snippets from my summer reading, this time from Thomas Sowell’s 1994 classic, Race and Culture: A World View.

The effectiveness of particular cultures for particular things can be of the highest importance.  Much—perhaps most—of human history cannot be understood without understanding such things as the conquest of ancient Britain by the Roman legions against a vastly larger military force, simply because the legions were a militarily superior organisation from a more advanced society.  It is not necessary to claim that a particular people or a particular culture is superior in all things or for all time.  On the contrary, world leadership in science, technology, and organisation has passed from one civilisation to another over the centuries and millennia of human history.  But neither is it necessary to deny the greater effectiveness of particular cultures for particular things at particular times and places—even if other contemporary cultures may be superior for some other things.”

Neither race nor related concepts can be used in any scientifically precise sense to refer to the people inhabiting this planet today, after centuries of genetic intermixtures.  The more generic term, race, will be used here in a loose sense to refer to a social phenomenon with a biological component, rather than make a dichotomy whose precision is illusory.”

The incidence of economically valuable skills no doubt varies from class to class, but it likewise varies from ethnic group to ethnic group and from nation to nation.  The difference is that ethnic groups and nations have an existence independent of arbitrary definitions based on skills.  Moreover, some immigrant groups begin at a lower socioeconomic level than that of the surrounding population and eventually rise above them, due to their skills, work habits, or other economic performance differences.  They have changed class precisely because of their skills, capabilities, or performance.”

Vast differences between the economic productivity of peoples from different cultures do not imply that these differences are permanent, much less hereditary.  Early nineteenth-century Germans were clearly well behind the English in industrial technology … yet within a century had surpassed [them].  So had the United States within the same span of time.  Much the same story could be said of Japan [and now China], which moved from imitator to initiator over the same span of time…
    “The normal tendency of economic processes is to disseminate technology, knowledge and skills from their place of origin to where they are lacking.  The law of diminishing returns means that the rewards of any factor of production tend to decline where that factor is abundant, and to be higher where it is more scarce.  Like water finding its own level, abundant factors tend to flow to where their scarcity makes their productivity and reward greater. Thus capital, skills, organisation, technology, or hardworking labour tend to flow to regions and cultures where they are are especially scarce.  But the very scarcity and value of these skills and traits mean that those who possess them are more likely to become more prosperous than the indigenous people of the recipient countries. Political reactions to these economic realities [on every continent and in every century] have often been very negative, and sometimes violent.”

Formal education, especially among peoples for whom it is rare or recent, often creates feelings of entitlement to rewards and exemption from many kinds of work… Such attitudes affect both the employed and the unemployed.  Even those educated as engineers have often preferred desk jobs and tended to ‘recoil form thee prospect of physical contact with machines.’  In short, education can reduce  an individual’s productivity by the expectations and aversions it creates, as well as increase it by the skills and and disciplines it may (or may not) engender…
    “It is understandable that Third World peoples who have been rules for generations by colonial bureaucrats sitting behind desk, wearing collar-and-tie and shuffling papers, should seek to imitate that role when they get the chance.  But the wealth and power of the imperialist nation that put the colonial bureaucrat there in the first place was not created by sitting behind desks and shuffling papers…
    “Both in underdeveloped countries and among many lagging groups in industrialised nations, there has developed a taste for easy, self-flattering courses such as Maori Studies in New Zealand, Malay Studies in Singapore, and a variety of ethnic studies. in the United States.  The claim is often made that the morale-boosting effects of such courses will enhance the students’ academic performance in other fields, but this claim is wholly unsubstantiated.  What is clear is that easier courses, whether in ethnic studies or otherwise, prove attractive to lagging groups…”

The stunning impact of immigrants in transforming whole economies [is not peculiar] to European immigrants.  In [most] parts of the world, modern economic development was largely the work of immigrants or foreign investors, with the indigenous population playing little or no role in the modernisation process.  [In 1914, for example, foreigners owned, in addition to two-thirds of Argentine industry, nearly three-fourths of Argentine commerce. Nor was this pattern unique in South America.] In colonial Malaya, for [further] example, Chinese immigrants provided much of the labour that developed that country’s giant tin industry, and immigrants from India manned the rubber plantations—both financed largely by European and American capital.Similar patterns of European capital and non-European immigrant labour combining to create economic development could be found from Fiji in the South Pacific to countries on the east coast of Africa and the Middle East.  Yet in these and other countries, the earlier or indigenous population has almost invariably come to resent these foreigners, whether sojourners or immigrants, who raised the economic level of their country. In a later period especially, after the actual origins of particular economic activities have faded into the mists of time, foreign groups have often been denounced for having seized control of  the nation’s industries and exploited its people.  It is as if businesses and wealth came into existence somehow and foreigners happened to take possession of them.”

Housing is a very heterogeneous product, ranging from hovels to mansions, so the supply and demand for this product in a culturally heterogeneous populations offers highly varied possibilities, as does the perception of the outcomes by heterogeneous observers.  Many observers have been appalled by the housing inhabited by people of a different class, race, or national origin.  Sometimes this has reflected simply a difference in income between the observers and the inhabitants, the latter being unable to afford anything better.  At other times, however, the hosing choices have reflected different goals, or different trade-offs among goals … [Men] living as immigrants or sojourners, for example …. saving to take money back home or to bring their families over to join them [will have a contrasting demand for housing to those who might criticise the living conditions they are prepared to accept] …
    “…. In short, for these groups such as Italian men [and middleman minorities overseas, such as the Chinese in Southeast Asia, the Lebanese in West Africa, or the Indians in East Africa … or during the mass emigration of Jews that transferred the centre of world Jewry from Eastern Europe to the United States], housing choices as of a given time reflected long-run plans as well as short-run trade-offs.  All this tended to be ignored by observers shocked at these groups’ housing conditions, and especially by social reformers determined to do something about it.
    “Seldom have the crusades of social reformers been directed toward enlarging the set of options available to the groups whose housing the reformers disapproved.  More commonly, housing reform efforts have reduced the existing options, whether by “slum clearance” programmes that destroyed “lower quality” housing, by building codes that forbade construction of housing without amenities prescribed by reformers, or by other regulations limiting the number of persons living in a given space to what reformers found acceptable.  In these ways, less fortunate groups were forced to pay more for housing that they themselves chose.  Their incomes could no longer be used to maximise their own satisfactions, according to their own values, but were partially diverted to making observers feel better.”


  1. Thomas Sowell is such an intellectual giant, isn't he? He hits the target again and again, and his conclusions are so relevant to New Zealand today, especially:

    "Self-flattering courses such as Maori Studies...prove attractive to lagging groups."

    "It is as if businesses and wealth came into existence somehow and foreigners happened to take possession of them.”

    "Housing reform efforts have reduced the existing options."

    Brilliant stuff!

  2. That's a great quote you put up next to his picture.

    He's one man the left force themselves to ignore, as he's the living refutation of all their arguments about black underachievement.


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