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Thomas Sowell on Culture
Cultures, Sowell believes, involve attitudes as well as skills, languages, and customs. The successful in any culture, he concludes, are the more aggressive, education-minded, and/or business minded. A people's culture is not simply a reaction to a particular set of circumstances existing at some particular time or place. He supports this conclusion by pointing out that many ethnic groups have exhibited special proficiency in certain occupations over a long period of time in several countries.
Because Jews, for example, have been leading middlemen in Argentina, Australia, the U.S., Poland, Jamaica, Brazil, England, Curacao, Russia, and other countries, he doubts that this role is one that has been assigned to them by each of these societies. Overseas Chinese, too, have been disproportionately middlmen. If group differences in occupational choice and success are simply stereotypes, he asks, why is it the case that even before modern mass communications existed did like stereotypes develop in distant and disparate societies?
Unfortunately, groups that succeed economically have often been viewed, not as being super productive, but super exploitative of others. Societies characterized by cultural diversity have suffered from the political mobilization of envy that has led to legal restrictions on productive groups, preferential policies for those unable to compete with them, mass expulsions, confiscations, and mob violence.
If an ethnic group's characteristics are not largely a product of its current environment, government cannot expect to cause it to change in a short period of time. Although groups may successfully resist outside pressure to change, they may of their own accord change. Sometimes these changes are profound.
Some cultures are more receptive than others to changes in technology. They differ in their willingness to utilize a new technology, make it their own, and modify it to suit their own purposes and circumstances. Sowell quotes a student of Asian history who observes that some groups have with seeming ease jumped straight from a primitive mode of life into almost full participation in the world's economy. On the other hand, other groups that have for centuries enjoyed a much higher culture somehow fail to adapt themselves to new conditions. The United States adopted British technology more rapidly than did continental Europe. Although theirs was a vastly different culture from that of the British, after decades of lagging behind the West, the Japanese quickly forged to the forefront in several technologies.
Technology, he claims, is not the sole determinant of economic progress. Also playing a role in both economic and social achievements are differences in work habits, savings propensities, organizational skills, personal hygiene, attitudes, and self-discipline. Usually, the fate of a culture lies in its members' own hands. The spread of technology may or may not require the movement of people, and, increasingly, the spread of technology has depended upon formal education, rather than the movement of people with practical experience in modern technology. Countries are more receptive to the transfer of knowledge than people.
A brain drain from the underdeveloped to the developed world is not inevitable. Americans and Japanese learned British technology and stayed at home to utilize it. Whether people who have mastered the advanced culture of other societies remain at home to apply their knowledge to the development of their country, rather than migrate to other countries, depends upon the culture of their country and the political and economic decisions made there that facilitate or stifle the use of their new knowledge.
A country may be unable to currently utilize the most advanced technology because its people lack the necessary skills to utilize it. While the underdeveloped countries have been passive recipients of modern products and technology, Japan seized upon Western technology in the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth century overtook the West in many respects. Today the problem isn't access to technology, it is what is done with it.
Sometimes what seems to be a quite different performance of an ethnic group in different parts of the world can be explained by the fact that within any broad ethnic group there are significantly different sub groups. The interaction of cultures often leads to beneficial change, as is shown by the fact that much of the advancement of the human race has taken the form of cross-cultural borrowings and influence. (Neither cultures nor races, he asserts, in the broad, old-fashioned sense of the word that he utilizes are pure.) Some variances between cultures represent more than just an equally desirable, but different way of doing things. Sometimes one way is superior to others. As an example of this, he observes that Arabic numerals are superior to Roman numerals. As a result, the entire world, including the Romans, have adopted Arabic numerals.
Cultures do not maintain their superiority for all time. World leadership in science, technology, and methods of organization have passed from one civilization to another over the centuries. Cultures spread by assimilation of technology, the migration of peoples, or the imposition of foreign cultures through conquest.
Groups vary in their willingness to sacrifice in order to pursue various universally-desired goals. Economic and social success do not depend upon abstract potential. Instead, they depend on developed capabilities. However, he observes local circumstances do not provide equal opportunity to everybody. People living in the mountains are handicapped in becoming great seamen. The continent of Europe has virtually every geographical advantage over Africa. It is superior in terms of navigable waterways, soil fertility, greater and more reliable rainfall, and a climate that does not promote disease like Africa's does. He doubts that it is mere coincidence that the poor parts of Europe are those that are the least well endowed geographically.
Ethnic groups differ significantly in their interest in different kinds of education, and this affects the quality of their economic performance. The relative value an ethnic group places on various fields of study is the same even when they live in different countries. Many members of some groups believe an advanced education exempts one from work. This has negative economic consequences. People in countries that were formerly colonies often aspire to be paper shufflers because that is what they saw their colonial masters doing. They do not realize that this is not what made their former masters wealthy, which was science, technology, organization, discipline, and entrepreneurship. They do not realize this because it happened thousands of miles away.
Cultures' attitudes toward commerce and industry vary as much as do their attitudes toward education. He observes that a disdain for commerce and industry has been common for centuries among the Hispanic elite, both in Spain and Latin America. At lower social levels in Hispanic society, there is a disdain for manual labor. Further reducing productivity is a resistance to contractual obligations and a plastic sense of truth.
Hypersensitivity to status distinctions can make cooperation difficult. A scarcity of initiative and responsibility are also handicaps. When a culture has characteristics that hinder economic progress, the desire to maintain its cultural identity is also counter productive.
Vast differences in productivity between cultures need not be permanent. As evidence of this, he points out how the Germans moved ahead of the British in industrial technology. The normal tendency is, he believes, for the economic process to disseminate technology, knowledge, and skills from their place of origin to where they are lacking. He explains this on the basis of the lower marginal return where a factor is abundant than where it is scarce.
Thomas Sowell is the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow in Public Policy at the Hoover Institution. He is a very prolific writer who writes on economics, history, social policy, ethnicity, and the history of ideas. He received his bachelor's degree in economics (magna cum laude) from Harvard in 1958, his master's degree in economics from Columbia University in 1959, and his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago in 1968.
His books on economics include:
Classical EconomicsReconsidered (1974),
Say's Law (1972),
and Economics: Analysis and Issues (1971).
His books on social policy include:
Knowledge and Decisions (1980),
Preferential Policies (1989),
Inside American Education (1993),
and The Vision of the Anointed (1995).
His books on the history of ideas include:
and Conflict of Vision (1987).
His most recent book is a new departure, Late-Talking Chidren (1997).
He has also written a monograph on law entitled Judicial Actism Reconsidered..
His writings have also appeared in scholarly journals in economics, law, and other fields.
Sowell's current research focuses on cultural history in a world perspective, a subject on which he began to write a trilogy in 1982. Two of the books in that trilogy have already been published:
Race and Culture (1994)
and Migrations and Cultures (1996).
He is in theprocess of completing the third: Conquests and Cultures, which should appear in 1998.
Sowell's journalistic writings include a nationally syndicated column that appears in more than 150 newspapers from Boston to Honolulu and a column in Forbes magazine. Some of these essays have been collected in book form, most recently in Is Reality Optional?.
Over the past three decades, Sowell has taught economics at various colleges and universities, including Cornell, Amherst, and the University of California at Los Angeles, as well as the history of ideas at Brandeis University. He has also been associated with the Hoover Institution and three other research centers. He was project director at the Urban Institute from 1972 to 1974, a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University in 197677, and was an adjunct scholar of the American Enterprise Institute in 1975-76.
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