Thomas Sowell’s Legacy
After more than a quarter century of sharing his thoughts and opinions through his Creators Syndicate newspaper column, Thomas Sowell recently decided to retire from column writing. It is a loss to public discourse and especially a loss to the African-American community, for reasons I shall explore below. Luckily, the reading public still has access to Sowell’s trenchant political and social observations and analyses through his many books, including his latest, Wealth, Poverty and Politics, a revised and enlarged edition of a 2015 volume of the same title.
His overall aim is to clarify the facts and causes of income and social inequalities. In pursuing this aim, he challenges the thinking of “luck egalitarians,” the moral philosophy of John Rawls, and the redistributionists, all of whom advocate various concepts of equal opportunity and disparate political schemes to summon desired outcomes through social engineering. Often these conceptions of equal opportunity assume that most of the differences in achievement between individuals and groups should either be even or random. In the case of luck egalitarians, advocates of an extreme version of equal opportunity, life chances should depend only on an individual’s responsible choices, not on brute luck. Luck egalitarians deem morally illegitimate such things as one’s genetic endowment, abilities, and the circumstances of birth; however, they also deem morally legitimate things that are acquired, both tangible and intangible, through deliberate and calculated choices.
Sowell capitalizes on this dichotomy and argues against the assumption made by equal opportunity warriors about achievement “disparities” or “gaps” among individuals and groups. The assumption, according to Sowell, is that many economic and social outcomes would tend to be either even or random, if left to the natural course of events, so that the strikingly uneven and non-random outcomes so often observed in the real world imply either adverse human intervention or else some genetic differences in the people whose outcomes are so different.Due to the decline of genetic determinism, it becomes intellectually attractive to surmise that disparities in outcomes that are not even or random can be explained by discrimination or some other form of malicious intent.
Sowell offers an alternative view that does not assume evenness or randomness among individual and group achievement. His view posits causal factors such as geography, demography, culture, and political factors that are far from even or random. Sowell acknowledges that other causal factors that are motivated by human malice or discrimination, like conquest and slavery, can play a role in accounting for unequal outcomes, but conquest and slavery should not have more causal weight than other factors merely because they are morally offensive. When he discusses geography and the continent of Africa, for example, Sowell points out that geographic conditions have been an important factor in Africa’s development. The Sahara desert is the largest desert in the world, separating North Africa from sub-Saharan Africa. Although the sheer size of the desert has adversely affected the development of North Africa, it has had far more devastating consequences for sub-Saharan Africa.
The separation between the North and the South has for centuries been the main factor in limiting contact between the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world, and the lack of adequate harbors in tropical Africa also limited contact with overseas cultures. By contrast, navigable waterways such as the Mississippi and Hudson rivers and many natural harbors on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts were instrumental in the development of the United States. Navigable waterways fostered contact both within U.S. borders and externally. Sowell provides ample illustrations of geography playing an important role in the development of countries and peoples. And it is not egalitarian, says Sowell, adding that “the disparities in geographic settings, and in the phenomena which arise from those settings, are at least as striking as the economic disparities that many people find so surprising.”
Unlike luck egalitarians, Sowell understands that it is foolish to assume that equal opportunity requires that a country’s path to development or an individual’s path to achievement be completely devoid of obstacles that are not of their own choosing. Brute luck and its effects are not episodic; they are factors throughout one’s life. Geography may limit or expand a country’s development, but in either case it constrains its choices.
Sowell also discusses cultural traits that are far from even or random in accounting for differences among ethnic groups. Culture is intangible and portable, according to Sowell, and includes not only customs, values, and attitudes but also skills and talents—what economics calls human capital—that more directly affect economic outcomes.
The topic of cultural capital and its diffusion has figured prominently in several of Sowell’s books. In Wealth, Poverty and Politics he elaborates on the concept as it applies to various ethnic groups. He points out, for example, that in places as distinct as Australia, Russia, France, and England, Germans have excelled at building pianos. They were the first to pioneer advances in optical instruments and cameras. They also excelled in military skills in countries around the world. The Chinese, Jews, and Lebanese, despite having been discriminated against, thrived economically wherever they migrated due to their cultural capital. Sowell’s discussion of the Germans and other ethnic groups underscores his argument that more than skills are involved in differentiating these various ethnic groups. Behind the skills are cultural values that make the acquisition of new skills a priority, and values that make the shedding of obsolete skills imperative. The argument is insightful insofar as it shows that cultural differences are not random or even:
Germans are just one of the groups who have taken their own particular culture with them when they immigrated to other societies, so that the general environments of those various other societies were not the controlling factor in these groups’ economic or other outcomes in those societies. … To account for radical differences in income and wealth among groups living in the same society, environment can be defined as what is going on around a group, while culture means what is going on within each group.
The other assumption of equal-opportunity advocates is that justice must precede efficiency. John Rawl’s A Theory of Justice goes to great lengths to defend this view. Rawl’s position is that unequal economic and social awards may be accepted only insofar as they benefit the less fortunate in society. Sowell argues that such a view can limit progress within society on behalf of those who engage in counterproductive lifestyles. The less fortunate or those who make poor decisions are not predestined to their fate. Although their choices may be affected by “past social conditions,” they are still influenced by current incentives—penalties and rewards—for their future conduct, especially when non-judgmentalism amounts to a subsidy for counterproductive behavior.
The differences in income and wealth among various cultures can be accounted for by the differences in productivity. The Rawlsian position ignores the obvious fact that income inequalities seem to match inequalities in economic productivity among individuals and groups. According to Sowell, ignoring the role of productivity in income inequalities is typical of redistributionists, who try to correct for what they consider unearned advantages (“the accident of birth”) received by individuals and groups. Thus they are more interested in judging merit than productivity, and social justice becomes their rallying cry. In order to illustrate his point, Sowell asks us to imagine a man who is born into a poor, abusive, and alcohol-ridden family. The man, through sheer determination, rises above his circumstances to become a carpenter, a supportive husband, and a loving father to his children. The man’s achievements are certainly meritorious. On the other hand, imagine a man who is born into a loving and well connected affluent family who goes on to become a brain surgeon. Although it is commendable that the second man becomes a brain surgeon, it is not necessarily more of a meritorious achievement than becoming a carpenter. Sowell elaborates:
In a world where rewards were based solely on merit, there would be no obvious reason to pay the brain surgeon any more than the carpenter was paid. But, in a world where productivity matters, this is no longer a question of the relative merits of individuals. What is far 192 Wealth, Poverty and Politics more important than merit-based “social justice” to particular income recipients is the well-being of all the people who stand to benefit from what they produce. Introducing production into the discussion makes a big difference. It is now a question of the relative urgency of brain surgery and carpentry….
Instead of construing the relative economic fates of individuals and groups as “income recipients,” we should look at the “services produced” by certain individuals and groups in relation to those who benefit from the income redistributionists. Ultimately, Sowell argues, the luck egalitarians, Rawlsians, and redistributionists seek a type of social justice that goes beyond what any society actually controls. If the past is irrevocable, and choices are necessarily constrained by circumstances that long predate our arrival on the scene, the only possible way to achieve social justice is to create our own world. However, with such a creation we are no longer seeking social justice; rather we are seeking “cosmic justice.” And if the past is any indication, the quest for cosmic justice can lead to much suffering.
Sowell also brings to bear on the topic of black American culture many of the insights he has put forth through his Creators Syndicate columns. These insights are grounded in the belief that black Americans are no different from other ethnic groups in America who strive to rise above their humble beginnings. He does not deny that the majority of blacks were introduced to America through slavery, but he denies that black Americans were permanently scarred by the experience of slavery and, thus, in need of perpetual government handouts.
Sowell’s approach is to marshal facts in order to analyze a claim or social policy. One claim that he has very little tolerance for is the belief that slavery and post-slavery discrimination left a legacy of broken families among black Americans. He convincingly shows that the data on the black family say otherwise. For example, the proportion of black children living with one parent was not as significant “during the first hundred years after slavery as it became in the first thirty-five years after the great expansion of the welfare state, beginning in the 1960s.” Sowell argues that the causal connection between the breakdown of the black family and the welfare state is empirically verifiable for those willing to look at the historical record.
Thomas Sowell’s matter-of-fact, empirical approach to topical issues that affect the black community will be sorely missed. His trenchant analytical approach to these issues will continue to be on display, though, in the pages of Wealth, Poverty and Politics and his other books. Of course Sowell’s ideas also can be seen now in the work of many other African-American political commentators, many of them influenced by his scholarly excellence born of rigorous, data-driven economics.
Andre Archie, associate professor of philosophy at Colorado State University, is the author of Politics in Socrates’ Alcibiades. He is currently working on a book titled Socratic Conservatism, Socratic Questions: The Right Turn in Plato’s Political Dialogues for The Catholic University of America Press.