WASHINGTON, January 2, 2017 – Thomas Sowell, one of America’s foremost public intellectuals and most outspoken black conservatives, submitted his final column in December. At 86, he said, he thought the time, after 25 years of column writing, had come to retire from this enterprise. Hopefully, his other literary pursuits will continue.
For more than 50 years, Sowell has published books and journals on race, economics, and government policy. He grew up in Harlem and was the first member of his family to go beyond 6th grade, eventually graduating from Harvard. A self-proclaimed Marxist in his 20s, he received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago, where he studied under Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economic advocate of free markets.
Sowell slowly lost faith in the ability of government to effectuate positive change in our economic life. He taught economics at Cornell and UCLA and has been a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University since 1980.
Shortly after he moved into his office at Stanford, I visited him there. I remember having dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Palo Alo, putting a tape recorder on the table, and engaging in a lengthy interview, which was subsequently published in Human Events).
Thomas Sowell examined the history of race relations in America, and throughout the world. He questioned much of the orthodoxy to be found in intellectual circles and asked—and tried to answer—-the most difficult questions. Do certain groups advance in society at varying rates because of the attitude of society toward them? Does discrimination against a given group cause it to do less well economically and educationally than those groups which do not face such external barriers?
In a landmark study, “The Economics And Politics Of Race: An International Perspective”(1983), followed by an impressive succession of important books, Sowell uses an international framework to analyze group differences. Examining the experience of different groups in more than a dozen countries, he seeks to determine how much of each group’s economic fate has been due to the surrounding society and how much to internal patterns that follow the same group around the world.
The Italians in Australia and Argentina, for example, show social and economic patterns similar in many respects to those of Italians in Italy or in the United States. Chinese college students in Malaysia specialize in very much the same fields that they specialize in in American colleges—a far different set of specializations from those of other groups in both countries. Germans have, similarly, concentrated in very similar industries and occupations in South America, North America or Australia.
Analyzing the successes of each group, Sowell points to the group’s culture, which rewards some behaviors over others, as the determinant of skills, orientations and therefore economic performance. “Race may have no intrinsic significance,” he writes, “and yet be associated historically with vast cultural differences that are very consequential for economic performance.”
In Southeast Asia, for example, the overseas Chinese have been subjected to widespread discrimination. Quota systems were established in government employment and in admission to universities in Malaysia, and a “target” of 30 percent Malayan ownership in business and industry was established. In Indonesia, a 1959 law forbade the Chinese to engage in retailing in the villages. Chinese-owned rice mills were confiscated. In the Philippines, it was decreed that no new Chinese import business could be established, and Chinese establishments were closed by law.
Despite all of this, Sowell points out, the Chinese thrived. As of 1972,they owned between 50 and 95 per cent of the capital in Thailand’s banking and finance industries, transportation, wholesale and retail trade, restaurants and the import and export business. In Malaysia, the Chinese earned double the income of Malays in 1976, despite a massive government program imposing preferential treatment of Malays in the private economy. In the U.S., as in Southeast Asia, writes Sowell, “the Chinese became hated for their virtues.” Despite discrimination, the Chinese advanced rapidly in the U.S., as did the Japanese, who met similar forms of racial bigotry, including special taxes and job restrictions.
In Europe, Sowell points out, precisely the same story can be told with regard to Jews. Anti-semitism was a powerful force in many countries, yet Jews continued to advance. Although Jews were only one per cent of the German population, they became 10 per cent of the doctors and dentists, 17 per cent of the lawyers and won 27 per cent of the Nobel Prizes awarded Germans from 1901 to 1975. In the U.S., notes Sowell, “Although the Jewish immigrants arrived with less money than most other immigrants, their rise to prosperity was unparalleled. Working long hours at low pay, they nevertheless saved money to start their own small businesses…or to send a child to college. While the Jews were initially destitute in financial terms, they brought with them not only specific skills but a tradition of success and entrepreneurship which could not be confiscated or eliminated, as the Russian and Polish governments had confiscated their wealth and eliminated most of their opportunities.”
In the case of blacks in the U.S., Sowell shows that West Indians have advanced much more rapidly than native born American blacks because of major cultural differences. In the West Indies, slaves had to grow the bulk of their own food and were able to sell what they did not need from their individual plots of land. They were given economic incentives to exercise initiative, as well as experience in buying, selling and managing their own affairs, experiences denied to slaves in the U.S.
The two black groups, native-born Americans, and West Indians, suffered the same racial discrimination, but advanced at dramatically different rates. By 1969, black West Indians earned 94 per cent of the average income of Americans in general, while native blacks earned only 62 per cent. Second generation West Indians in the U.S. earned 15 per cent more than the average American. More than half of all black owned businesses in New York State were owned by West Indians. The highest ranking blacks in the New York City Police Department in 1970 were all West Indians, as were all the black judges in the city.
It is a serious mistake, Sowell believes, to ignore the fact that economic performance differences between whole races and cultures are”quite real and quite large.” Attitudes of work habits, he argues, are key ingredients of success or failure. The market rewards certain kinds of behavior, and penalizes other behavior patterns, in a color-blind manner. Blaming discrimination by others for a group’s status, he states, ignores the lessons of history.
Political efforts to address the “problems” of minorities, such as race-based affirmative action programs, usually fail, Sowell reports, because they refuse to deal with the real causes of such difficulties: “…political ‘solutions’ tend to misconceive the basic issues…black civil rights leaders…often earn annual incomes running into hundreds of thousands of dollars, even if their programs and approaches prove futile for the larger purpose of lifting other blacks out of poverty.”
Crucial to a group’s ability to advance is the stability of its family life and the willingness to sacrifice:
“…more than four-fifths of all white children live with both their parents. But among black children, less than half live with both parents…What is relevant is the willingness to pay a price to achieve goals. Large behavioral differences suggest that the trade-off of competing desires vary enormously among ethnic groups…The complex personal and social prerequisites for a prosperous level of output are often simply glided over, and material wealth treated as having been produced somehow, with the only real question being how to distribute it justly.”
If we seek to understand group differences, it is to “human capital” that we must turn our attention, Sowell declares. The crucial question is not the fairness of its distribution but “whether society as a whole, or mankind as a whole, —gains when the output of both the fortunate and the unfortunate is discouraged by disincentives.”
It is Sowell’s view that many black leaders have not served their constituencies but themselves. Instead of expressing concern over the decline of the black family, the increasing out-of-wedlock birth rate, the rise of inner-city crime—they speak only of “discrimination.” Instead of calling for an end to such government licensing laws as those which limit the number of taxicabs in cities such as New York and Philadelphia, they call for more government “make-work” jobs.
While many blame all problems within the black community on the legacy of slavery, Sowell points to the fact that more black children lived in two-parent families during slavery, Reconstruction and the years of segregation than at the present time. He writes that, “In reality, most black children were raised in two-parent homes even during the era of slavery and for generations after, blacks had higher rates of marriage then whites in the early twentieth century, and higher rates of labor force participation in every census from 1890 to 1950. The real causes of the very different patterns among blacks in the world of today must be sought in the twentieth century, not in the era before emancipation.”
Tom Sowell has been telling the hard truth for many years, and has received much abuse for doing so. He has been a strong advocate for a genuinely color blind society, in which men and women would be judged on their individual merit, not on the basis of race. All Americans who believe in such a society, and believe that one’s view about economic, political and other matters should be based on the facts as one sees them—not on race, religion or ethnicity as the promoters of today’s “identity politics” would have it, should recognize what a champion of freedom Sowell has been. We will miss his regular column, but hope he will continue to share his wisdom with us. It is certain that his intellectual legacy will grow for it is based upon scholarship and a search for truth, not upon the changing needs of our political class for convenient and popular responses to the complex challenges we face. Sadly, there are too few such people among us.
For a free society to thrive, we need more Thomas Sowells. We have been lucky indeed to have him with us.