Book Review: Race and Culture by Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a skilled writer with a powerful ability to combine historical, social science and free-market perspectives. He cuts through the noise and doesn’t mince his words on the sensitive topics of race and culture.

In Race and Culture Sowell argues against two common social science doctrines: 1) that all races are equal and 2) that races are purely an outcome of their environment. Environment is admittedly important but there are also skills, habits and characteristics that make certain cultures successful at something for a period of time. That success must imply a degree of inequality.

An example of cultural inequality is Arabic numerals, which are indisputably superior to Roman numerals and used across the world as a result. The fact that paper is used across the world today implies that the Chinese race and culture was superior relative to others in the sphere of paper technology. This doesn’t imply that China was a superior race but it highlights that local superiority can exist. Examples, where cultures are able to adapt foreign technologies quickly, advance these and move forward must surely also indicate a level of relative progress or superiority. Cultural relativists deny inequality but sometimes differences or inferiority are the starting point for subsequent achievements and define that culture thereafter. The Meji reformers in Japan, for example. Admission of inequalities can be a critical step towards overcoming them.

I particularly loved how Sowell described a group of people he calls “middlemen minorities”. Jews, Lebanese, Chinese, Indians, etc, at various points in history, in various locations displayed very similar characteristics. These groups emigrated in relatively small groups, had very few possessions when they arrived, held very close family bonds and maintained culturally conservative values. Generally, these groups were very frugal, prioritising saving to buy small businesses as soon as possible after arrival. They would differentiate themselves from the local population by working uncomfortably long hours, made possible by living in their business premises, employing all members of the family to secure the business and ensure that all the meagre profits were ploughed back into the business. Parents kept close watch over their children’s value system and could even become negative about the less conservative values within the majority population. Over time businesses would scale and the middlemen minorities would often expand into the lending business, charging more appropriate interest rates because they knew the local community and risk profiles better than the banks. Sometimes these middlemen were highly respected in the community for the differentiated services they provided but they could also be stigmatised. Both the minorities and majorities could become fearful/jealous/condescending towards cultures different to their own, particularly during times of economic stress.

The extensive chapter on slavery was also enlightening. Sowell comments that the most distinguishing feature of western slavery was not that it existed, slavery existed in numerous countries both before and after western slavery, but that the Western nations brought global slavery to an end in such a short period of time. Sowell’s free market application to the economics of slavery is fascinating. He logically shows how economic progress was a major factor that brought slavery to its knees. Slave owners had strong incentive to relax typical slave laws to uncover the talents of slaves that were covered by the initial occupation of slave labour. Child rearing, education, art, etc were all skills that required slave owners to grant greater liberties and frequently offer freedom in order to generate the desired productivity outcomes. As soon as some owners began to relax these rules the knowledge transfer between slaves increased, leading to amplified agitation and provided weight for the movement towards freedom.

While a vehement critic of relativism, Sowell also explains why environment matters. For example, thousands of years ago humans could not properly sustain life in the cold and early human life centred on the tropics and humans were concentrated in the tropics as a result. As clothing and shelter technology advanced people could move into colder territories and take advantage of the change in landscape. One the advantages of a colder climate was fewer tropical diseases, which still plague African countries today. Africa also has few navigable rivers, which is seen as a defining feature of human development over the years (The Nile is one of the rare navigable rivers and it fostered the development of Egypt). It can be dramatically cheaper to transport goods and people over water than land and most of the world’s major cities are situated on waterways as a result. In Roman times the Empire in Southern Europe flourished because it was close to the differentiated cultural influence of the Middle East, had easy transport over the calm Mediterranean and the relatively warm weather supported bigger more concentrated populations. In Northern European societies were initially much smaller than Southern but eventually learnt to take advantage of longer winters and greater time indoors. The rough Atlantic Ocean held back seafaring development in North Western Europe at first but the experience in these waters later allowed the British, Dutch, French, Spanish and Portuguese to capitalise on their superior skills by expanding empires across the globe whereas Italy and Greece were left behind. This brief story shows how environment can matter but it can also have different influences in different time periods depending on the technologies available and preeminent goals of society.

Education provides another pertinent observation. Educational is universally accepted as a good social outcome but there are underappreciated differences in what is perceived as good/bad education. For example, developing countries persistently over-invest in liberal arts and underinvest in science, maths and engineering despite the high returns from these professions. Government employment often becomes the goal for social scientists further perpetuating economic problems in developing nations as society becomes ideologically dependent on government for employment, welfare and strategic direction rather than the individual. Sowell also notes that formal education creates a sense of entitlement and can sow the seeds of social instability and thereby reduce productivity by creating expectation divergences.

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