Wealth, Poverty, and Politics: An International Perspective
by Thomas Sowell.
Basic Books, 2015.
Hardcover, 244 pages plus notes and index, $30.

Last summer, after more than two decades in Northern Virginia, I moved with my family to Germantown in northwest Philadelphia. We found a lovely Civil War-era home and are enjoying finding our place in this city, though my young children will likely never attend a public school here.

Public transit is now the easiest and fastest way to my office, and after years battling traffic I’ve been catching up on my reading again—most recently Wealth, Poverty, and Politics. My new commute through struggling neighborhoods—including a transfer from bus to subway in what is known as the Badlands of North Philadelphia—is a setting that highlights the wisdom in this book.

Every day I pass an abandoned factory next to the new Salvation Army community center. Hundreds of broken windows break up walls covered in graffiti. The listing sign promises two million square feet of manufacturing space on an active rail corridor. And every day I pass a bookstore on the corner of Erie Avenue and Broad Street with the slogan painted prominently on its walls: “We ship to prisons!” I suspect that store does not carry the works of Thomas Sowell. But it should.

Sowell’s latest brings in current data on themes he has addressed in past works—I was reminded of The Vision of the Anointed, Race and Culture, Migrations and Cultures, and of course his Basic Economics—all applied to political demagoguery, notably recent efforts to raise resentment over income inequality. The book lives up to the promise of its subtitle, offering a true global perspective in accessible and compelling prose. Its tone of measured confidence is well paired with his dissection of the ideologues on every continent who have destroyed societies in their pursuit of power. He avoids specific policy proposals, though it will be easy to assess others’ proposals for their alignment with the historical and cultural realities identified here.

Wealth, Poverty, and Politics identifies and assesses the various factors that lead to unequal outcomes among groups and nations—geographic, cultural, social, and political. Some geographies are plainly more conducive to the development of civilization than others. Life is not fair. People abuse power. Yet many of today’s most successful countries and groups have few geographic resources. Politicians and social commentators the world over explain disparities in terms of oppression and privilege. Sowell notes that people who resort to these categories inevitably avoid the question of production.

Isolation and human capital

Sowell identifies cultural isolation and human capital as key factors in relative prosperity—mountain peoples the world over are isolated and impoverished. Language too: linguistic diversity divides people and hampers prosperity. Even something as basic as a lack of beasts of burden to make trade possible is a critical factor in disparities in results between sub-Saharan Africa and precolonial America compared with India and Europe. Japan and China fell significantly behind other cultures during their respective periods of politically enforced isolation (Sowell argues that it took China six hundred years to recover). Addressed too are religion (in passing) and culture (extensively); the early successes of Islamic civilization were abandoned as Islam became less receptive to other cultures. He notes that “Spain translates more books into Spanish annually than the Arabs have translated into Arabic in a thousand years.”

As Sowell notes, “Without the cultural prerequisites for developing natural resources into real wealth, … raw physical resources themselves are of little or no value.” He tracks several nations and émigré cultures with these prerequisites—some combination of human and cultural capital that results in consistent economic success and “outperforming other groups.” Among these are the Germans in Eastern Europe and the “overseas Chinese” across Southeast Asia. Other minorities that have carried cultural capital with them into exile or taken advantage of educational or cultural opportunities include “at various times at places, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Ibos in Nigeria, Tamils in Sri Lanka, Indians and Pakistanis in East Africa, Japanese in Peru, Indians in Fiji, Jews in Eastern Europe, and Lebanese in West Africa.” He highlights eighteenth-century Scotland and nineteenth-century Japan as rare exceptions of cultures embracing lessons from other cultures—with concomitant success.

In some cases, the distinguishing characteristic of human capital in these groups is little more than dogged perseverance and willingness to work hard despite the loss of citizenship, livelihood, and possessions. Other relevant factors are trust, honesty, openness, and a cultural value for education in fields that lead to “economically meaningful skills.” Space precludes more than a mention of his treatment of “soft-subject students and intellectuals” and their part in swelling the productivity-destroying bureaucratic class—and fomenting social instability.

Social and political factors come into play when one group is more successful than another. The lagging group can respond by studying and imitating the factors that lead to success, or by cultivating resentment. The latter is the innate human response, despite innumerable historical examples that show how counterproductive are its results. The only beneficiaries of such resentment, notes Sowell, are political leaders of lagging groups, whose pockets and egos are filled. For everyone else, resentment leads directly to isolation, economic regression, and violence.

There is a distressing roster of other successful minority groups cited here—distressing because it is so easy to track them against the history of world conflicts, usually in the role of scapegoat, émigré, and corpse. But the global perspective does help to relativize claims of oppression from various peoples. Oppression does happen. The world is full of evil. But groups differ in how they create and deploy cultural capital in response to these evils. Patterns of poverty and success, achievement and resentment, recur time and again from Bohemia to Fiji to Quebec.

Sowell’s careful comparison of the parallel cases of disturbing cultural regression in American blacks and urban British underclass whites explodes the claims that either group is fundamentally held back by external economic forces, let alone racism (real and evil as that is). His annotated accounts of significant black American cultural and economic growth—even through the 1960s—being suborned by elite celebrations of ghetto culture, are more than sufficient reason to read this book. I can trace the story in the architectural strata of North Philadelphia (not to mention the unkempt sidewalks and vacant lots that stand in stark contrast to the neatly swept stoops of the poor in South Philadelphia).

Baselines, circuits, networks

The book includes a necessary reminder that human civilization required reaching a baseline or threshold level of agricultural production. The principle of a baseline has multiple applications, not least as a reminder that poor populations must spend more of their time and income on survival and so are not going to be as productive as people who have already reached the baseline of sustenance. (One thinks too of the popular board game, “The Settlers of Catan,” which starts out painfully slowly until players build up some basic infrastructure, and then moves more quickly as properties produce more resources for more rapid development.)

Sowell suggests an explanation for the breakout success of various peoples and groups. Increases in productivity are dependent on a complex of interrelated factors, all of which must be present for real achievement. Baseline agriculture, human capital, opportunities, political climate, group and individual drive, and on and on—all this must intersect, and this happens rarely. As I was reading I thought of a useful metaphor: the personal computer. All the parts must be functional, assembled, working together and connected to power before we can even begin the discussion of productivity. And while early PCs were useful for isolated activities like word processing, the real transformational shift has come as individual computers have been networked together—benefiting even those who never touch a computer.

Similarly, Sowell looks at the case of the sudden rise to prominence of Jews in the sciences since the eighteenth century. Millennia of human capital built through rigorous Torah scholarship was suddenly unleashed into new fields when Jews in America and then France were finally able to add the missing piece: access to the universities. The benefits of their scientific advances extend to all nations and groups.

As for the Badlands, too many social, cultural, and political factors have gone awry. Anyone who has been trapped in debt on the wrong side of that baseline where compound interest becomes a burden instead of a benefit will recognize the difficulty these people face, for compound interest also has a moral and social counterpart—for good or ill. Many seem trapped in desperate but distracting quests for personal respect (the topic of most altercations I overhear from phone calls and on the street) and identity. Despite their proximity to wealth, education, transportation, and infrastructure, until my neighbors can return to a baseline level of human capital, no great enterprises, world-shaping inventions, or medical cures are likely to come from Upper North Philadelphia.

An inoculation of common sense

Much of Sowell’s writing here feels like common sense—and it is. But we are losing touch with common sense given what passes for discourse in our era. Faulty premises are contagious, and Sowell is helpful in identifying many places where we are at risk of infection, such as the “toxic confusion” caused by calling achievements “privileges.” More to the point of today’s “debates” is the critical question of why anyone expects equality now when it has never existed on our planet. Outcomes for any human activity from economics to inventions to sport cannot be random (or “equal”) because people act purposefully in response to varying needs, circumstances, and incentives. Labeling wealthy people “greedy” does not explain why anyone would give them money. In fact, people become wealthy when they produce something that others want or need.

The chapter on “Implications and Prospects” is full of similar critical clarifications on method, assumptions, and interpretation of data, as well as a clear-eyed assessment of the empirical results of various policies across countries and eras, and the consistent pattern of demagogues the world over. He is also able to expand the bounds of common sense, making connection after connection that leads the reader to say, “I never thought of that, but it’s obvious when it’s pointed out.” His success in making sense of so many disparate factors in this manner validates his overall approach and highlights the cost of our rising cultural amnesia. You cannot see farther than your ancestors if you don’t first allow yourself to see at least as far as they did. We must not take stability, productivity, or progress for granted.

Preoccupation with abstract ratios is an indicator of privilege reserved for academics, bureaucrats, “human resource” departments, and political demagogues. People who are actually poor care little about ratios (unless they are taught to)—and more about where the next meal or rent payment is coming from. Every group benefits from the investment of human capital, but ideologues would hold all people back so they can feel smug about reducing meaningless statistical inequities—doubly meaningless because the comparison is between economic cohorts whose membership is constantly shifting. Claims of a mandate to intervene in the name of a never-defined concept of “social justice” thus often become a “veto on progress.” And the exercise of this veto, Sowell notes, is as baseless as the divine right of kings.

You shall not covet

The book does have minor shortcomings, mostly of omission. While Sowell recognizes that moral distinctions are different from economic distinctions and that there are other scales of value than economic efficiency, his argument might well be strengthened by further explication of the factors that make for cultural success. Readers would do well to read this in conversation with some of the recent books of Rodney Stark. I also wanted an active defense of larger families. Sowell’s tacit assumption that smaller families are better deserves strict scrutiny. Not only are there differences in kind between large families in a stable marriage and large families where each child from the same mother has a different father (not uncommon on my commute), there can be benefits to the wider culture from larger connected family units.

Sowell makes clear the damage caused by cultivating resentment rather than fostering human capital and productivity. Unmentioned but well illustrated is the wisdom of Jewish and Christian tradition that caps the Ten Commandments with a blanket prohibition against envy and coveting. The path of human flourishing depends on us avoiding comparisons with our neighbors. On this commandment rests social health and economic progress.

The Badlands needs a civic version of the Benedict Option, the emerging movement to create communities with the resources to form deep Christian identity in the face of modernist pressures. (It needs the Christian version too.) The jury is still out on the effectiveness of the four charter schools I pass on my route, three of which replaced failed public schools, and each of which faced vitriolic opposition from political and union elites. But parents here are so desperate for some alternative for their children that they have helped push the charters through. They know the fate of those captured by ghetto culture.

It is clear is that revitalization of the derelict factory on my route is not in itself enough to restore the neighborhood. But if enterprise returns, the people who find lasting employment in that place will be those who have internalized the culture of the Salvation Army; far too many of those caught in the Badlands culture will need books shipped to them in prison.

On a global scale, the twentieth century saw the rise of true genocide, massive slaughters spurred on in many cases by resentment of successful groups. It is no exaggeration to call appeals to envy and resentment in the pursuit of power the most destabilizing, immoral, and subhuman form of politics. The tactic must be named and resisted. Resisting the wanton slaughter of straw men by politicians and activists might help avert the slaughter of real men, women, and children. 

Peter Edman is associate editor for the Bookman.