A chat with Thomas Sowell “Unshrugging Atlas” of the American race debate, longtime fellow of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, economist, FORBES columnist, survivor of Harlem public schools and the U.S. Marine Corps, gifted amateur photographer and much-feared world-class grouch, Thomas Sowell, 68, has just published his 25th book-Conquests and Cultures: An International History (Basic Books).
It’s a stunner. “We all stand on his shoulders,” says the Manhattan Institute’s Abigail Thernstrom, whose book America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible (coauthored with husband Stephan) caused a major controversy last fall.
Sowell’s newest work is the last of a trilogy (Race and Culture, 1994; Migrations and Cultures, 1996) in which he gives his answer to one of the most troubling, and taboo, questions of modern times: why the achievements of different human groups vary so dramatically.
Sowell argues, bluntly and in great detail, that some human cultures-the mental “working machinery of everyday life”–are just plain more effective than others. Not “better” or “worse”; just plain work better in the modern world.
He argues that cultures are pervasive, persistent and paradoxical in their transmission. (Conquerors can benefit the conquered-in the long run). Cultures do change. But it takes time.
How should society deal with cultures that do not adapt well to modernity? “Certainly the worst way,” says Sowell, “would be trying to artificially preserve such cultures through such notions as ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘cultural relativism.’”
Sowell bypasses both “bias” and genetic inferiority as explanations for the inferior economic accomplishments of some groups. But his cultural explanation for group differences is hardly more popular than the genetic explanation associated with Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s much-reviled The Bell Curve. Liberals prefer to explain uneven distribution of income and of accomplishment as due to “racism”
or “prejudice.” Asked recently why liberals reject or ignore his arguments, Sowell replied: “Because it deprives them of their favorite villain.” It casts “doubt on the efficacy of external [government] intervention. And external intervention is what the [political] left is all about.”
But being out of tune with his fellow intellectuals and academicians doesn’t much bother Sowell. He’s used to it. Last year he published Late-Talking Children (Harper- Collins). It summarized his conclusions on the subject, partly derived from observations of his own son, John, now a computer programmer. Sowell’s Web site (www.tsowell.com) features a group organized by Vanderbilt University speech pathologist Stephen M. Camarata and an endorsement by MIT cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. But, Sowell notes, “rank-and-file speech therapists have absolutely gone ballistic.”
The thought makes Sowell laugh happily. FORBES recently spoke with him at length.
Sowell: With all three of the books in this series, the crucial question is human capital. The people who have it prosper. And those who don’t, don’t. And in different periods of history, over many centuries, different people have it.
FORBES: But in Conquests and Cultures, there’s a note of geographic determinism. You say the Industrial Revolution happened in Britain partly because Britain’s iron ore and coal were located close to one another and close to the sea. Whereas in Germany, land transportation costs were prohibitive-and the seaports froze.
Sowell: I also did that in Race and Culture. One of the reasons I got angry when people wrote letters to FORBES claiming I’d gotten this from Jared Diamond [Guns, Germs and Steel, 1997] was that I’d published Race and Culture three years earlier! What started me off with geography were two facts. One is that Africa is more than twice the size of Europe but has a shorter coastline. That blew me away. And the second was that before the transcontinental railroad you could reach San Francisco faster and cheaper from China than from St. Louis. There’s a huge difference in water and land transport costs. For example, people in Tbilisi were buying their kerosene from Houston, 8,000 miles away, rather than from Baku, 340 miles away. Which means not only immediate economic advantage, but that the people themselves have a larger cultural universe when transportation is easier. None of the rivers of Africa compare to navigable waterways like the Hudson or the Yangtze. I remember my wife and I standing on the Danube trying to guess which way the water was flowing. Well, you don’t have the problem in Africa! On the Benue River [chief tributary of the Niger], because of the rains, they have just a two-month window of opportunity for navigation.
fORBES: But Africa’s a very big place. There are certainly some reasonable ports-Zanzibar, Cape Town. Those could have supported developed hinterlands the size of England. England would vanish in Africa.
Sowell: But there was no long-standing trade relationship that would have opened the place up. I’m not for geographic determinism. There are a lot of other factors. Geography sets the limits of what’s possible. Within those limits, you make choices. For example, when the Spaniards landed in Argentina, they found some of the most fertile land in the world. The topsoil goes 15 feet deep. And they imported wheat. (Laughs) Because they didn’t go there to farm. And so it didn’t matter what the soil was like. Or the Chinese. Admiral Cheng Ho traveled farther than Columbus, to Arabia and East Africa. But the Chinese simply didn’t want to explore or set up an overseas empire. They said, these are all just barbarians, who needs it? So the fact that they had the technical capability didn’t mean anything. The fascinating thing about the Western Hemisphere was before the Europeans came there were no horses, no oxen, no camels, no sheep, no goats. The Mayans had wheels on the toys they made for children. But they never applied them to anything else. In Europe there were these draft animals. That’s a huge incentive.
FORBES: But even if the Mayans were using porters, why not at least handcarts? Rickshaws?
Sowell: That’s sort of a luxury item. The question is whether there was enough incentive.
FORBES: Your conception of culture is very far-reaching. People are not blank slates. They come with specific cultural heritages. It’s not clear they can be altered.
Sowell: No. There have been many attempts that led nowhere. The Russification of the Jews–well, we’ve seen how successful that was.
FORBES: If you think that culture is almost unchangeable over (say) four or five generations, then obviously allowing one group rather than another to immigrate. . . .
Sowell: Makes an enormous difference. What is truly tragic is that there are organized lobbies, financed by groups like the Ford Foundation, whose purpose is to keep foreigners foreign. It’s not that Hispanic parents want their kids to speak Spanish, but that the activists want them to speak Spanish. And the activists are backed by the Ford Foundation.
FORBES: The very subject of race and assimilation is a minefield today.
Sowell: Unfortunately, the whole racial area is terrible. I have a number of people who come to me and say, “Tom, I think you’re right. But I’m not about to say what you’re saying.” That kills it. Which is one of the things I found sad at the death of [University of Maryland economist] Julian Simon. In writing a piece commemorating his passing, I pulled one of his books off the shelf. And inside of the book, for the first time, I discovered a letter from him. He wrote that [Nobel Laureate economist] Simon Kuznets had said a case could be made that we should have a larger population rather than a smaller one–but that he would never say so publicly because it would discredit him. Simon wrote me that he could understand the prudence of this–but we know where such prudence ultimately leads. The other side is shouting a lot of nonsense at the top of their lungs. And the people who understand are holding back–out of “prudence.” You’re turning the asylum over to the inmates.
FORBES: Now people are going to say, looking at this book, that here is Sowell, on top of everything else, justifying imperialism. The British were shaped by 400 years of Roman rule. India by nearly 200 years of British rule.
Sowell: (Laughs) I make it clear that conquest is a very ugly business. I even disavow any notion of weighing the benefits against the losses because they’re both so staggering. I look at conquests, like migration, as one of the ways human capital gets spread. When economists talk about human capital, they’re usually thinking at the individual level. But I would go further and add cultural capital. Attitudes exist in societies that can be beneficial or harmful. Standing in line in England-you don’t find that in Italy. Respect for the law. Just plain old honesty. In Paraguay farmers would send money into town with a German rather than with another Paraguayan. The spirit of cooperation. Edward Banfield’s book [The Moral Basis of a Backward Society] on a village in southern Italy reported they just could not get people together to do things. These things matter enormously. Russia’s got abundant resources and know-how. But there is no reliable law and no ethic of honesty. Investors have no idea if they’re going to get their money back. And the losers are the Russian people as a whole. A few years ago some Nigerians visited Stanford. They asked me: Why do we have so many military coups? I said: Military coups occur all over the world. Why shouldn’t they occur in Nigeria? Anybody who’s got guns can walk into the presidential palace and take over. The real question is: How come, in a handful of countries, they don’t do it? And the answer is cultural capital. There are traditions ingrained in the soldiers themselves. If an American general says, listen, we’re going to send a battalion over to the White House and take over the country, when he gives the order, they’ll arrest him and put him in jail. I think we grossly underestimate how much is determined by what’s inside people’s heads.
FORBES: This can change. You’ve described the Irish in America upgrading themselves, largely through the efforts of the Church.
Sowell: But even to say that a group “upgraded themselves” goes completely against modern academic thinking. Academics don’t think in terms of people improving and achieving-only of privileges, advantages and disadvantages. If you say “upgraded,” you’re opening the possibility that there was a reason people said “no Irish need apply.” And that the Irish today are quite different from their ancestors-as undoubtedly they are. Academics think that all adverse beliefs are just myths and bigotry.
FORBES: How do you feel about American intellectual life now?
Sowell: Depressing. . . .
FORBES: But not more depressing than 20 years ago.
Sowell: No, it’s not. There are ideas now that are being heard that were not heard 20 years ago . . . including some ideas of mine. On race, for example. You can’t just look at numbers and say the numbers aren’t right so there must be discrimination, because we now know there are many other factors involved. But it’s also true that institutionally intellectual life has become more encrusted. Twenty years ago, if you saw something written on Davis-Bacon, you knew it was written by [George Mason University economist] Walter Williams. And “black conservatives”-at one time you could count them on the fingers of one hand. Now, among talk show hosts, I’ve lost track! I mean, there’s Ken Hamblin in Denver, Larry Elder in Los Angeles, Armstrong Williams in Washington. And there are more among journalists–there’s a young fellow named Deroy Murdock coming along. The tragedy is that a whole generation is going down the tubes because the black leadership is that of the 1950s, either personally or in terms of their mind-set. One of the reasons I want to do my autobiography is that I have a terrible feeling, not only on racial issues, that when my generation passes from the scene, all our experiences are going to disappear. And the revisionist historians will be free to make up whatever lies fit their purpose at the time.
Sowell: How many people even know that there were successful black schools dating back almost a hundred years? Without all these exotic Afrocentric curricula? Very ordinary schools, like the school I went to in the middle of Harlem. We go back and get the records, we find that the standardized test results are the same in Harlem as on the [Jewish]
Lower East Side. Now, we recognize that all these people came out of the Lower East Side and went on and up and so on. We don’t recognize the same thing with blacks. Some years ago, after an article on me, a black lawyer wrote saying your story is not that unusual. He’d lived about three blocks from where I’d lived. He said, from this one building, we had a lawyer, a doctor, a priest, a college president-in this little five-story walk-up tenement! And then I thought, well, within that five-block radius, during that same period of time, you had James Baldwin, you had Harry Belafonte, you had Colin Powell. In fact, where did the black middle class come from if not from places like this? You could get a decent education then–which you cannot get now in those same places. But nobody will write about it. FORBES: Representative Frank Riggs’ (R-Calif.) amendment, basically federalizing California’s Proposition 209 by banning affirmative action quotas from public universities, recently failed because the moderate Republicans wouldn’t support it.
Sowell: Well, the moderate Republicans, my God. . . .
FORBES: But is it really practical to have color-blind law in a multiracial society?
Sowell: Yes. In fact, it’s more urgently needed in that kind of society. Otherwise, you get into these groups all fighting each other over goodies. The relationship between blacks and Hispanics is much more hostile now, I believe, than it ever was before there were so many government goodies to fight about. In Compton, Calif., for example, the big complaint is that the blacks are in control and the Hispanics don’t get anything. This is going to be true whenever you have one group in power like that.
FORBES: Obviously, conflict is intensified by government moneys. But even in the societies with no transfer programs at all, distinctive groups tend to coalesce around distinctive leaders. And then those leaders have to be reckoned with. Is that what we’re looking at in the U.S.–inevitable balkanization along racial lines?
Sowell: Look at Sri Lanka. Prior to [S.W.R.D.] Bandaranaike [Sinhalese demagogue, prime minister 1956-59] this was one of the models for the world. There was not a single race riot between the Tamils and the Sinhalese in the first half of the century. And then compare what happened in the second half-a sickening civil war, going on apparently forever. And the difference is the government began operating by groups. Prior to that, for example, you applied to university as an individual, there were no quotas.
FORBES: But there was an imperial power at the time. There was no question who controlled the society. The British controlled it.
Sowell: The British left in 1948. This continued until 1956. Similarly with government jobs. And the net result was, as in all such cases, that one group was much more successful than another. But it’s only when you then decide to ensure group parity that the whole thing falls apart. The imbalances don’t cause the problems. It’s the attempt to produce the balance that causes the problem.
FORBES: But in a society deeply divided, is it practical for government to stand aside? Doesn’t the society itself compel an arbiter?
Sowell: I’m trying to think of an example and I can’t. I don’t know what’s meant by deeply divided. If you mean that there are highly disparate results, they are the rule, not the exception, all around the world.
FORBES: But authoritarian governments are the rule, not the exception, all around the world. Let me put it bluntly: Is it possible to have a multiracial open society?
Sowell: The Roman Empire.
FORBES: But it wasn’t a democracy.
Sowell: Yeah. Well, Sri Lanka was a democracy. It was really only one man who changed the course of history in that country. Quite cynically-there’s no evidence that Bandaranaike was any great Sinhalese extremist himself. In fact, that’s how he got assassinated. Once he got the prime ministership, he was ready to make a deal. Bandaranaike was also a classic example of something that I’ve seen elsewhere: the guy who himself has nothing of the identity that he’s riding to political power. Bandaranaike didn’t speak Sinhalese, he was a Christian, his godfather was the British colonial governor-it was a farce. People like that are all around the world, creating this kind of problem.
FORBES: Can the genie be put back in the bottle?
Sowell: It’s a lot harder than letting it out!
FORBES: Hence the Republican retreat.
Sowell: You make the fight. And, look, Proposition 209 has turned around affirmative action. I think that if the University of California is able to keep out affirmative action for five years, it’s gone forever. Because in five years you’ll begin to see a much higher percentage of blacks graduating, compared to those admitted, than ever under affirmative action. And nobody is looking at the entire public system. Including the [second-tier] California State University system, more blacks will graduate overall, because there will be less burnout through mismatching.
FORBES: What about Stanford [private, hence unaffected by 209]?
Sowell: Oh, Stanford is p.c. personified. But I think the battle being fought now [in California’s public universities], if it’s won, can’t be rolled back.
FORBES: Today immigration policy takes no account of differences in culture–
Sowell: I’ve always believed there should be some group-based criteria because we don’t know enough to choose on the individual level.
FORBES: You think it would be reasonable to say that, on the whole, we find that this group is better than that group, so we prefer this group?
FORBES: Which groups?
Sowell: You would have to do a very careful study. For example, the census has a category “Asians.” But Asia is the largest continent in the world. It includes everybody imaginable.
FORBES: But a study should be done?
Sowell: Yes. I think it would be desirable. Politically it would be, perhaps, impossible.
FORBES: Of course, politicians themselves don’t know what’s politically possible from one year to another.
Sowell: That’s right. If so-called public intellectuals have any kind of role at all, it’s to change what is politically feasible. I don’t believe that Ronald Reagan could have been elected in 1980 if Milton Friedman hadn’t said what he said 20 years earlier.