Ethics & Public Policy Center

Equality Is An Illusion

Published in Books & Culture on September 1, 1996



The facts about immigration and cultures, says Thomas Sowell, don’t fit neatly into our current competing ideologies.

“History,” writes Thomas Sowell in Migrations and Cultures, “is an anchor in reality against the rhetorical winds of the zeitgeist.” Perhaps the single unifying theme in Sowell’s large and varied body of work is an unfashionable emphasis on evidence, a word he uses frequently, and without apology, in the midst of high-toned moral conversations. Thus, for example, in The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy (1995), he considers the widely publicized “scandal” of racial disparities in mortgage loan approval rates-and finds that there is no evidence of discrimination. Such chutzpah–here is a man who claims simply to be laying out the facts!–has earned for him routine vilification from his ideological foes. He is, after all, a black conservative. Need any more be said?

A senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a nationally syndicated columnist, Sowell is the author of many books. His latest, Migrations and Cultures, had its genesis in 1982. Research for this project eventually took him to 15 countries on four continents, and what began as one book turned into three: Race and Culture, published in 1994, Migrations and Cultures, and Conquests and Cultures, scheduled for publication in 1997.

In Migrations and Cultures, Sowell surveys the worldwide experience of immigrants from six groups: Germans, Japanese, Italians, Chinese, Jews, and Indians. These six case studies are framed by discussion of historical migration patterns and the persistence of cultural traits among immigrants who bring a common set of skills and values to very different host countries. Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center met recently with Sowell in Washington, D.C., and talked with him about his findings.

What led you to write Migrations and Cultures?

I wrote the book-despite the fact that we already have a huge number of very good books on immigration-because the approach I take is comparative, looking at particular groups in various countries around the world. So, for example, I look at the Germans in Paraguay, Russia, Australia, the United States, Brazil, and Argentina. The results are fascinating: there are recurring patterns in the experience of German immigrants and their descendants in these widely different host countries.

The same is true of the overseas Chinese. Orlando Patterson at Harvard once wrote that the Chinese were prominent in Jamaica for various reasons that he cited as peculiar to Jamaican history. That may sound plausible if you look only at Jamaica, but if you look around the world you find that the Chinese are dominant as a “middleman minority” in Thailand and the Philippines, in Panama City and Lima, Peru. You’re forced then to conclude that their distinctive success must be attributable to the culture that they brought with them from China, whether in the form of particular skills or a certain approach to life. And if you look at the overseas Indians, the Jews in the diaspora, and many other groups, you’ll find similar patterns.

This evidence is very important because so much of our social policy and much of the thinking in the media and in academia is based on the notion that a given social or ethnic group is, in a sense, the creature of the surrounding society. The way that members of the group are perceived by the surrounding society, the stereotypes about them that are held by the majority population-all of those kinds of external forces are assumed to be the controlling factors in determining the fortunes of the group. But in fact, cultural patterns that are internal to the group are very often the controlling factors. We can’t dogmatically assert as a matter of principle that it is the internal cultural patterns of a group or the surrounding social and natural environment that predominates at a given time or place; that can be established only by study of the particulars.

Now, there’s great resistance to this approach. If, for example, you attribute the relatively low economic status of a particular group to persisting cultural patterns, you’re likely to be accused of “blaming the victim.” But blame has very little to do with any of it. No one can be blamed for the culture that originated within his group before he was born, perhaps thousands of miles away in a place that he has never seen. Enduring cultural traits have been distilled from the experience of that whole group, evolving in response to circumstances that may be radically different from the circumstances he’s coping with today. There may be some parts of the inherited culture that are very valuable to him where he is now, and other parts that he has to discard if he is to succeed in that new environment.

What is your definition of culture?

Since I’m an economist, what I call culture bears the influence of economics. Culture, as I’m using the term, consists primarily of the skills used in coping with the problems of everyday life: job skills, technical skills, interpersonal skills. Many definitions of culture concentrate on literature and music and art. Those are clearly important human enterprises, but they’re much tougher to assess in comparative terms. Is twentieth-century French poetry more advanced than Chinese poetry of the Song Dynasty? But if you’re talking about industrial production or medical science, then you can say, yes, the medical science in the United States is clearly more advanced than it is in Bangladesh. The industry here is more advanced than it is in Chile or Bolivia, and so on.

Does your perspective on culture differ from the reigning academic paradigms?

Yes, radically. The reigning idea is that cultures are not better or worse, they’re all just different, and we should “celebrate diversity.” The question is not whether I think one culture is better than another. The millions of people who share this or that culture will decide what aspects of it they’re going to keep and what they’re going to abandon. The whole progress of the human race has been largely one of abandoning things that don’t work as well anymore and taking on new things.

One of the classic examples is numbers. All over the world people use numbering systems that originated in India, which we in the West call Arabic numbers simply because it was the Arabs from whom the Europeans learned them, although they didn’t originate with the Arabs, either. Now anyone who compares Roman numerals with Arabic numerals, and particularly anyone who is at all mathematically inclined, will discover that to try to do calculus or astronomically large figures in Roman numerals is really madness. Arabic numerals are better, they’re not just different.

Most people-outside the academy, anyway-would agree that some ways of doing things simply work better than others. But you don’t stop there. You say, “Nothing is equal in the world.” What do you mean by that?

Not only are cultures not equal; the very settings in which cultures evolve are not equal. Navigable rivers and harbors are crucial in economic development. Almost every great city-certainly most of those before the twentieth century, before there was a transportation revolution-arose on rivers or harbors. That means that if you are in a region where there are very few navigable rivers or harbors, you’re not going to have cities and you’re not going to have all of the things that develop in a city. If you are on land that is not sufficiently fertile to be used continuously over a long period of years, you are not going to have family farms that you can pass on and improve over the generations; you’re going to have to use up this land and then move on when the fertility declines below the point at which you can subsist, and then come back in later years after it has recovered. You’re going to have to become either nomads or slash-and-burn agriculturalists who move around all the time, no cities, no roots anywhere.

Those circumstances are radically different around the world. There’s no way that they could have had an industrial revolution in the Balkans, because they don’t have the minerals required for an industrial revolution locally, nor is there any economically feasible way of getting them in there. There are no rivers reaching from the harbors to the interior of the country, because the mountains come right down to the shore. And what is far worse than the poverty that results at a given time from geographical disadvantages is the lack of human capital, cultural capital in these places. So when immigrants from the Balkans go to Australia or to the United States, they don’t bring the skills that people from England, Norway, Germany, or France would bring. Therefore, they start at the very bottom. The vast majority may be unskilled laborers, because there is nothing else they can do.

Africa is a classic example of multiple geographical handicaps. There are entire nations in Africa without a single navigable river. I can remember taking a picture of the Manhattan skyline from New Jersey and seeing an aircraft carrier docked at 42nd Street. I thought, There’s probably not a place in the entire continent of Africa where you could do that. I then checked with geographers and African scholars and people who live there, and that’s true. You can’t bring a ship like that up the Nile, or up the Zaire. It can’t be done.

And that is why, as you put it, “Skills have never been randomly or evenly distributed, but have been highly concentrated, though concentrated in different places in different centuries”?

Exactly. There are huge concentrations of people in particular industries. Cambodians own four-fifths of the donut shops in California. That’s really staggering at first glance, but then you say, well, it’s true that blacks are four-fifths of the players in the nba. You could make a laundry list of industries in southern Brazil where all the people who established all the firms in those industries were of German ancestry. The Japanese, at one point, produced 90 percent of all the tomatoes in southern Brazil. You find this around the world. Why were so many customs certificates in the Ottoman Empire written in Hebrew? Because a disproportionate number of the customs officials were Jewish. In London, for a period of almost a century, most of the records of the Russian ambassador were written in German because most of those ambassadors were German.

A classic example would be optical skills among the Germans. Not only in Germany itself do you have the great world-class lens makers-Zeiss, Schneider, Rodenstock, and others-but also, when you look at the United States, the leading American lens makers have been of German ancestry: Bausch & Lomb, Wollensak. The people who first designed the Kodak camera lenses when they started making their own were of German ancestry. For a long time they were alone in the world in this. It’s only been since about 1950 that the Japanese have joined them. But that’s only two nations out of the world. If you’re wondering where the great lenses in the world are, it would be Germany and Japan, maybe one or two in France. But if you go back to the Middle Ages, you find that northern Italy was where the leading optical devices were coming from. It’s sort of like a relay race. One nation or civilization will take the lead in a particular field; then, after so many centuries or generations, it will pass on to another, but expertise will never be randomly distributed.

You mentioned pianos as well.

The Germans made the first pianos in North America, South America, Britain, Russia, and France. To take another example, Switzerland was not the place where watches were made until the Huguenots came there. There were no watches being made in London until the Huguenot refugees moved to London and set up watch factories.

If you look further at the financial sector, for a very long time the British had no native Britons in the financial sector. You had Jews and you had Lombards come there. Even today in London in the financial district you have Lombard Street as a relic of the period when the Lombards were the big financiers in Britain. But in that case, the British, like the Japanese, were great at imitating. After a certain amount of time, all of these skills that were brought to Britain by all of these people began to diffuse into the British population.

It all seems so obvious. Is this going to be controversial?

Absolutely. There was never any reason for us to expect equal capabilities in all groups, because all groups have not had equal opportunities to develop those capabilities. People whose cultures began in the Himalayan mountains have no opportunity to become great seafaring nations. It is out of the question for them. Nomads have not had a chance to put down roots and build cities. It’s just that simple.

But wherever you turn, you’ll encounter social policies based on the misguided notion that any sort of imbalance among different groups within our society must be the result of discrimination and must therefore be corrected by government action. And this notion is held with religious fervor, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I just saw a reference to my book Ethnic America, which described it as racist, because anything that says that the internal patterns of a group have a lot to do with their fate is very threatening to the welfare state ethos, to the intellectual climate that supports that ethos, and to the egos of the people who are committed to this as the magic road to advancement.

And this just throws all kinds of wrenches in it.

In a sense, it is as threatening as the idea that genes have something to do with intelligence. I suspect that culture would be as difficult to manipulate from the top as genes. There are dramatic changes in culture over time; in fact, they’re so dramatic that I’ve used this evidence in other places as an argument against deterministic genetic theories. How in the world were the Chinese so far ahead of the Europeans for a thousand years and so far behind for several centuries thereafter, since the genes hadn’t changed? Obviously we have to look beyond explanations based on differences in genetic endowment.

What kind of implications does your book have for the current debate over immigration in the United States?

Actually it would have implications on both sides. I was very pleased to see that people who were pro-immigration and anti-immigration both gave favorable comments on the book. In fact, representatives of both sides seem to think that the book supports their position. But the book wasn’t written to support either side; it was written to set forth the facts as best I could. So much of what we say in the whole area of race and culture is based on faulty information, misinformation, or disinformation. It’s a monumental job just to try to straighten out the main facts. That’s the job that I’m trying to do in this series of books.

You suggest that people who are both anti-immigration and pro-immigration agree with the book. How does that happen? Are they only reading the parts they like the most?

Maybe. What I do is lay out the facts whichever way they happen to cut. Some of the facts cut one way and some cut another way. There are countries where the whole economy was essentially created by immigrants. Not just the United States, but countries where there was a large indigenous population that was essentially going nowhere. I’m thinking of, say, Malaysia, where the whole retail structure of the country was created largely by the Chinese. Much of the capital-intensive industry of the country was created by either Europeans or Americans. The plantations were manned by people from India. The Malays were virtually spectators at the economic development of their own country. Without the immigrants and the colonialists, they would have been in a terrible condition.

The question is, then, whether you can generalize from history and project that pattern-immigration as a stimulus to progress and growth-into the future, because things do change all the time. Especially in recent times, there are many alternative ways of getting human capital transferred from one country to another without mass movements of people. Moreover, in our time, the people who have great skills don’t immigrate very often. Historically you have groups like the Huguenots, who emigrated from France and spread industry into Germany and Britain and the Low Countries; the Jews, who spread the garment industry all throughout the Western Hemisphere and Australia; and the Germans, who also brought many kinds of skills. But all of those people now are loathe to immigrate. When I arrived in Australia, which once had a so-called White Australia policy, the government was trying to encourage people from Japan to immigrate to Australia, but the Japanese aren’t interested.

What are some of the negative influences of immigration? Are there any? Is there increased welfare reliance?

Unfortunately, in recent times as the welfare state has grown, opposition to immigrants has grown. It’s no coincidence that Germany, where we’ve seen a violent backlash against immigrants, is preeminently a welfare state. You simply cross the border into Germany and magically you are entitled to other people’s money on a large scale. In a country where the former East Germans, particularly, seem to have a lot of unemployment, entitlements for immigrants don’t sit that well with the native population. It’s tragic, because in the nineteenth century it was very common for many countries in the Western Hemisphere-Canada, Brazil, Chile-to either send agents to Europe to try to recruit people to come over, or to actually help pay their fare. Even after World War II, Australia helped subsidize the travel expenses of many immigrants; the war had revealed how vulnerable Australia was because of its small population. Yet now, as the welfare state grows, the cost to the public of having people come in can be very high. This helps to account for the extremely stringent immigration policy of New Zealand, where they’re trying to keep people out even though the entire population is about the same as that of Los Angeles.

What is the impact of immigration on affirmative action?

You have entrepreneurs coming over here, let’s say from India, to set up businesses in the Silicon Valley and being instantly entitled to affirmative action, which has been justified to the public on the grounds that this is redress for past injustices. Such bizarre situations-and they are by no means rare in the United States today-show what a blunt instrument the law is. Once you’ve put the words on paper, regardless of what you may have originally meant, they take on a life of their own, and you’re stuck with the results.

While many policy studies emphasize the redistribution of existing wealth, you are particularly interested in the creation of wealth. How does immigration facilitate the creation of wealth?

It brings in skills, very often, that were simply not there before. I mentioned that the Chinese created retail networks throughout Malaysia. Indian immigrants did the same thing throughout Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. The Lebanese did the same thing in Sierra Leone and other parts of West Africa. The Germans in Brazil opened up areas that were forest before. They created whole industries from scratch. The Japanese did the same with agriculture in Brazil.

Tragically, the people who create wealth in this way are often hated. Immigrants create and develop an industry, but a generation or two later no one remembers that history. So the question arises, Why is it that these foreigners have taken over the metallurgy industry? But they didn’t “take over” the metallurgy industry, they created the metallurgy industry.

Even in a nonimmigrant, nonracial context, you can find the same attitudes toward those who create wealth. Robert Reich refers to “the fortunate fifth.” House minority leader Richard Gephardt speaks of “the lucky ones in the lottery of life.” There’s no thought that perhaps these “lucky” people created wealth through hard work and ingenuity, and that’s why they have more of it.

Similarly, you have immigrants who are sojourners, who send money back to their home countries, their families. Very often the political people represent this as draining the wealth of the host country. But that wealth didn’t exist in Malaysia, for example, until those people came from China and created it, and they were going to spend it on themselves whether they spent it in Malaysia or in China or wherever. It’s very sobering to realize how easy it is for demagogues to turn reality upside down in people’s minds.

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