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Book Review: Race and Culture

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Race and Culture: A World View
by Thomas Sowell (New York: Basic Books, 1994); 331 pages; $25.00.

Through most of history, since before the time of Aristotle, slavery has been considered a natural institution in human society. Indeed, Aristotle believed that some men were born to be slaves, just as others were born to be masters. The notion of a political equality of individual rights, in which there were neither masters nor slaves, was unheard of or considered an absurd utopian idea over the centuries. But slavery finally began to end in the 19th century. How did it come about? Why is it rarely talked about today? Basically because it does not fit into the fashionable schema of political correctness and anti-Western ideology that dominates the intellectual terrain of our time.

To a great extent, slavery ended because of the efforts of 18th- and 19th-century European and American advocates of human liberty and economic freedom, most of whom were white males. And this does not sit well in the present political environment in which Western civilization is supposed to be the cause of all the world’s problems.

In his continuing pattern of moving against the tide of collectivist currents in society, Thomas Sowell reminds us of these “unpleasant” facts in his latest book, Race and Culture: A World View.

In some ways, Race and Culture might be viewed as the culmination of the work to which Dr. Sowell has devoted himself for more than two decades, because it brings together many of the strands of thought that can be seen to run through his earlier books- Race and Economics; Ethnic America; The Economics and Politics of Race; Markets and Minorities; Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality? ; and Preferential Policies: An International Perspective.

The heart of Thomas Sowell’s message is that men are not born equal; that not all cultures are equal contributors to world civilization; that the world is a complex and diverse cultural place, the causes and consequences of which we still have little understanding; that markets tend to harmonize the interests of, or at least minimize the friction between, various peoples and cultures, while politics creates conflict and privileges for some at the expense of others.

Dr. Sowell once again takes to task those who assert that since all people are alike, any distribution of people among occupations in a society that does not match the racial and gender demographics of that society demonstrates that racial or gender discrimination must be present. In other words, if women make up about fifty percent of the population and if an ethnic minority group makes up about twelve percent of that same population, then racial and gender discrimination is “shown” to be at work unless women and members of that ethnic minority group are more or less represented in each and every occupation by the same percentages.

Dr. Sowell draws from the history of the world to counter this claim by explaining that different groups in different cultures have not randomly distributed themselves in economic activities. Rather, they are often “clustered” around various occupations and professions that are frequently passed from generation to generation. Even when members of a particular ethnic or cultural group have migrated away from their original homeland, similar cultural traits and occupational patterns can be observed in their children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. This is not to say, Sowell insists, that immigrants do not adapt to their new land or absorb attitudes and beliefs from their new country. They do. But at the same time, the cultural residues of the “old country” can leave their mark on future generations. And this influences attitudes towards work, education, values, and interpersonal behavior among different groups in a society.

The problem with the social engineer, in Dr. Sowell’s view, is precisely the fact that he wishes to treat people as blank slates upon which the social planner can imprint any desired behavioral qualities he thinks are best. And if people do not conform to his preferred patterns and forms of cultural and social behavior, this means, in the planner’s eyes, that evil forces must be at work.

Another element in Sowell’s analysis is the fact that we just do not know any social laws or rules of cultural development to explain how or why these diverse patterns of behavior and values emerge the way they do. They are the consequences of the interconnected forces of a society’s history: the geography of where a people live; the result of being either conquerors or the conquered at various times in the past; the types of interactions with other groups and peoples over the centuries; effects of emigration and immigration, as well as numerous other influences. Each will have had its effect in leaving an imprint upon the culture and society in question, with each people and cultural group developing in its own unique way because of the type and intensity of impact that each of these influences will have left in its wake. There is simply no rule or law to explain it. It just happens, and that’s what makes a people, a culture, and a race.

What we call a culture-the value systems and behavioral patterns discernible among many of its members-is the cumulative outcome of this process. Culture, therefore, is one of those examples of the unintended consequences of human action, an example of social order that is the result of human action, but not of human design. For the social engineer to condemn it and try to remake it in his own desired image is one more example of what Friedrich Hayek called the “pretense of knowledge,” the belief that the planner has the knowledge and ability to reorder the social universe in a way that is better than when people are left to follow their own course. That course may be influenced, even burdened, by the cultural prejudices of a society’s traditions and history, but it still remains the individual’s course as he tries to either work within the cultural bounds of the society into which he has been born, or tries to stretch its bounds or work outside of it, and in the process perhaps influences that society’s future cultural trends.

Thomas Sowell takes these ideas and demonstrates their consequences for both individuals and society as a whole when governments intervene into and attempt to regulate the choices and voluntary transactions of market participants. And he concludes: “Being wrong may be a free good for intellectuals, judges, or the media, but not for economic transactors in the marketplace.” He means that for the social engineer, the costs he imposes on society as a result of his meddling is usually high for others, but minimal for himself. Hence, the social engineer rarely feels, personally, most of the negative consequences from his interventionist actions. This is a central reason why he is so dangerous in the fight to preserve and extend human freedom. And it is the reason why all of us who are his planned victims must do everything possible to prevent his mischief.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).