Thomas Sowell’s Wealth, Poverty And Politics

wealth-poverty-politicsSome of my most vivid childhood memories involve traveling through countries such as Egypt and Turkey and witnessing a world wholly foreign to my own, a world where children begged in the streets and tourists supplied their own bottled water to avoid the risk of drinking from the local taps. The people I knew from my world lived in large brick houses with expansive front lawns; here whole families crowded into huts or cramped apartment complexes. As I got older and my horizons expanded, I saw poverty in my home city. At Christmas time, my school organized charity events to collect food and presents for needy families, and on one occasion my father and I delivered these donations ourselves. I still remember the feeling of anxiety as we rang their doorbell, and the look of shame and gratitude on the face of the man who answered it. Our society has declared a “war” on poverty, and untold millions have been expended in local and foreign aid to win this war, and yet poverty persists, at home and abroad. Moreover, poverty itself has become a political issue, as some groups within society prosper while others flounder, and the causes and consequences of these disparities have decided elections and even instigated revolutions. Why are some nations poor and others wealthy? Why do some groups lag behind while others achieve remarkable success? These are the questions tackled by Thomas Sowell’s Wealth, Poverty And Politics.

The book begins by interrogating the question itself. Poverty, says Sowell, is not the exception but the rule, now and throughout history. The more pertinent question, and therefore the more enlightening one, would inquire why some nations or people are wealthy. And the answer to this question, which begins at the dawn of human civilization, has doomed the world to inequities that persist into the present day. Sowell begins by describing the role of geography in the development of human civilization, and the very uneven part the world’s rivers, oceans, mountains and fertile land have played. He begins by pointing out the obvious: human beings require food and water to survive. It is for this reason that so many of the world’s great cities are located on or near bodies of water, from New York and London to Paris, Boston, Montreal, Hong Kong and San Francisco. Proximity to water also facilitated travel, of both people and goods, enabling commerce and diplomacy to flourish – where navigable rivers permitted. But the world’s navigable rivers are not evenly apportioned across the continents.

Rivers flowing gently across wide level plains, as in Western Europe, are far more usable, for both commerce and the transportation of people, than rivers plunging down from great heights through rapids, cascades and waterfalls, as in much of sub-Saharan Africa.

As human technology improved, and boats grew larger in size, the depth of rivers and tributaries came to matter a great deal as well: deeper rivers, or rivers that were unaffected by rainy and dry seasons, were better suited to the transport of heavy materials. The Danube, the Thames, the Volga and the Mississippi all score better in this regard than their comparable rivers in Africa and South America. Gradually, as ocean travel become possible, access to coastlines became an economic necessity, and here, too, Africa suffers:

One of the remarkable facts about the continent of Africa is that, although Africa is more than twice the size of Europe, the African coastline is shorter than the European coastline. This is possible only because the European coastline twists and turns, creating many harbors where ships can dock, sheltered from the rough waters of the open seas. Moreover, the coastline of Europe is increased by the many islands and peninsulas that make up more than one-third of that continent’s total land area.

Sub-Saharan Africa, cut off from the rest of the continent by the world’s largest desert, now suffers from coastal waters that are too shallow for most ocean-going ships to unload cargo directly. The economic consequences of these geographic barriers can be staggering, and Sowell marshals an astonishing array of facts to make his case:

In 1830, for example, it cost more than 30 dollars to move a ton of cargo 300 miles on land but only 10 dollars to ship it 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. One consequence of such huge transportation cost differentials was that people living in the city of Tiflis in the Caucasus, 340 miles from the Baku oil fields by land, bought oil imported from the United States, 8,000 miles away by water. Similarly in mid-nineteenth century America, before the transcontinental railroad was built, San Francisco could be reached both faster and cheaper across the Pacific Ocean from a port in China than it could be reached over land from the banks of the Missouri River.

Other geographic factors can be just as influential, for good or for ill. To live in a mountainous region, for example, has everywhere meant to suffer in isolation, whether in Kentucky or in the Balkans (hence balkanization), and physical isolation brings with it steep economic penalties, as the cost of trade rises; valleys and plains, on the other hand, are both more fertile and more navigable. The presence of domesticable beasts of burden – native to Europe and parts of Asia, but not to Canada or most of Africa – has likewise facilitated the invention and expansion of agriculture, or doomed other regions of the world to rely more extensively on human labour.

An even more influential (and consequential) variable is culture, and it is here that controversy begins. It is acceptable to blame inequalities on geography, for no one can bear the blame for the wide variance in the planet’s topography or biodiversity, but to blame a particular culture for its shortcomings, the thinking goes, is to blame the victim – poverty is treated like a disease or affliction, rather than the predictable consequence of some deleterious behaviour or ideology or, worst of all, a difference in work ethic. Before delving into his arguments, it’s a good idea to convey how great these cultural discrepancies can be – between nations, religious groups, ethnic groups or within nations. Across the world, language has been both a uniting and a dividing factor in human relations, either helping to facilitate diplomacy and commerce or creating lasting divisions between otherwise very similar peoples (Quebec, my home province, is specifically cited as an example of the latter). Ponder what it means for Africa that, although its population is “about 50 percent larger than the population of Europe,” they possess “about nine times as many spoken languages.” This linguistic diversity has acted, and continues to act, as a barrier, and it puts Africa in stark contrast with, for example, Asia: “Africans have about 90 percent as many languages as Asians, who outnumber them nearly four to one.” Africa’s linguistic diversity is the offspring of its tribalism: because it was never unified under one conquering force, as, for example, China was, it has never been forced to develop a common tongue. Next, consider the example of Spain, a former colonial power that now stands out as one of the poorest European countries:

The monumental moral depredations of Spain in the Western Hemisphere had very little causal effect on the long-run prosperity of the Spanish economy. As late as 1900, more than half the people in Spain were illiterate, while most blacks in the United States were literate, despite having been free for less than 50 years. A century later, in 2000, the real per capita income in Spain was slightly lower than the real per capita income of black Americans.

How well does the theory that it is conquest and colonialism that best explain the wealth in the West hold up, given such staggering differences in cultures and economic outcome? For a less controversial example, Sowell asks us to consider the longstanding gap between the American North and the American South. Sowell quotes from primary sources, Northerners and Southerners alike, who noted the lackadaisical attitude towards work prevalent in much of the South, and contrasted with the industry of the North. General Robert E. Lee spoke of Southerners as “disposed to let good enough alone and put off changes till the morrow,” and another antebellum Southern was less sparing in drawing the contrast:

The one content to laze away life with as little labor as possible and all the enjoyment compassable; his log hut, wool hat, homespun suit, and cornbread and bacon the limit of his desires for domicile, vesture, and food… The other instinct with life, activity, intelligence, never satisfied with the present well-being while anything better is beyond to tempt his longings and his wits.

Not a flattering comparison, but one that was widely acknowledged, and further evidenced by the disparities in productive between the two cultures. “When it came to inventions in general,” writes Sowell, “only 8 percent of U.S. patents issued in 1951 went to residents of the Southern states, whose white population was approximately one-third of the white population of the country. Even in agriculture, the main economic activity of the region, only 9 out of 62 patents for agricultural implements went to Southerners.” Sowell even quotes from Thomas Jefferson, who lamented the lack of good bookstores in the Southern United States. Reading, it turns out, is one of the many cultural habits that begets economic success, and one of the most painful distinctions Sowell draws is between those groups within the United States who make a habit of reading and those who prefer to spend their free hours watching television.

Whole nations and civilizations differ in their attitudes towards reading (and, by extension, to learning). Consider the example of the Middle East:

One revealing sign of today’s lack of cultural receptivity to Western culture in the Middle East is that in today’s Arab world – about 300 million people in more than 20 countries – the number of books translated from other languages has been just one-fifth of the number translated by Greece alone, for a population of 11 million people. Over a five-year period, a United Nations study showed that the number of books translated in the Arab world was less than one book for every million Arabs, while in Hungary there were 519 books translated for every million people, and in Spain 920 books per million people. Put differently, Spain translates more books into Spanish annually than the Arabs have translated into Arabic in a thousand years.

This is a startling revelation, and indicative of more than just the economic stagnation of the Middle East. When Sowell speaks of “cultural receptivity,” he is referring to a culture’s ability – and willingness – to learn from other, more successful cultures. For much of Europe’s history, it was the beneficiary of cultural knowledge from the Far East. In modern times, after a self-imposed isolation ended by American gunships, Japan went from economic and technological backwardness (from looking on a train as a miracle) to become one of the wealthiest and most advanced nations in the world, all in the span of little more than a century. This receptivity – or lack of receptivity – explains a great deal of the imbalances in the wealth of modern nations.

I have read some five or six of Thomas Sowell’s books over the past few years, and I continue to find him one of the most informative of American intellectuals. Roughly one third of the bulk of this book is devoted to footnotes, and with good reason: every page is stuffed with interesting statistics, facts, insights and comparisons that help to illustrate his points and lead the reader, inevitably, towards his conclusions. “Intellectual” is not a term he would happily adopt for himself (see Intellectuals And Society) but he embodies the best characteristics of an intellectual nonetheless, and he has in me a lifelong reader.