DISCRIMINATION AND DISPARITIES
By Thomas Sowell
Basic Books, $28, 179 pages
Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who has taught economics at Cornell, UCLA and Amherst, is the author of numerous books on subjects as diverse as philosophy, history and decision-making theory. His book, “Basic Economics,” has been translated into six languages. He is a contributor to numerous publications, a syndicated columnist and one of those very rare economists who can communicate with laymen in clear, direct and vigorous prose.
That he served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, bringing him into daily contact with people many of his academic colleagues know only in the abstract, may help to explain his ability to communicate effectively with an audience infreqently reached by academic economists.
And that he is also black may reinforce his ability to speak honestly and objectively as he does on the disparities of race that increasingly distort our national debate, providing fuel to demagogues on both sides of the issue.
In “Discrimination and Disparities,” Mr. Sowell challenges believers in one-factor explanations, among them discrimination, exploitation or genetics, for differences in economic outcomes.
“At one end of a spectrum of explanations is the belief that those who have been less fortunate and their outcomes are genetically less capable. At the other end of the spectrum, is the belief that those less fortunate are victims of other people who are more fortunate. Yet the great disparities in outcomes need not be due to either comparable disparities in innate capabilities or comparable disparities in the way people are treated by people.”
That’s not to deny that the treatment of others isn’t a factor in human development — at times a decisive one. Factors such as racial discrimination, for instance, have been with us through recorded history. As Mr. Sowell points out, when the Roman Empire flourished, its citizens looked down on their British and Germanic counterparts as illiterate skin-wearing sub-humans, members of an obviously inferior race.
And in contrast to how skin color and geography are viewed today by some of our contemporaries, Mr. Sowell quotes a Muslim scholar from the 10th century, who noted that Europeans not only became paler as you traveled north, but “‘the farther they are to the north the more stupid, gross and brutish they are.’”
There’s an important lesson here and running through Mr. Sowell’s detailed analysis of peoples, governments, social and economic forces, ideas, statistics and the history of human progress: “The past must be understood in its own context. It cannot be seen as if its context were just like the context of the present, but with events taking place in an earlier time.”
He quotes Edmund Burke: “‘In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from past errors and infirmities of mankind.’” But Burke also warned that “‘the past could also be a means of keeping alive, or reviving, dissensions and animosities.’”
This could well be the case today, with the issue of slavery, ended in this country a century and a half ago in a bloody civil war, but often resurrected politically as if the cast of mind that accepted it still prevails today. To be sure, it’s a stain on the historical record, but the past is the past, and the living cannot be held responsible for the deeds of those long dead.
As Mr. Sowell writes, “Nothing the Germans can do today will in any way mitigate the staggering evils of what Hitler did in the past. Nor can apologies in America today for slavery in the past have any meaning, much less do any good, for either blacks or whites today.”
“The only times over which we have any degree of influence at all are the present and future — both of which can be made worse by attempts at symbolic restitution among the living for what happened among the dead To admit that we can do nothing about what happened among the dead is not to give up the struggle for a better world, but to concentrate our efforts where they have at least some hope of making things better for the living.”
In all, a sane, balanced and highly informed discussion of many of the central issues of the day. As Steven Pinker, a Harvard professor of psychology and author of “Enlightenment Now” recently wrote of Thomas Sowell, “even those who disagree are well advised to grasp his facts and arguments.”
• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).”