Recently by Thomas Sowell: Kodak and the Post Office
With all the talk about “disparities” in innumerable contexts, there is one very important disparity that gets remarkably little attention – disparities in the ability to create wealth. People who are preoccupied, or even obsessed, with disparities in income are seldom interested much, or at all, in the disparities in the ability to create wealth, which are often the reasons for the disparities in income.
In a market economy, people pay us for benefiting them in some way – whether we are sweeping their floors, selling them diamonds or anything in between. Disparities in our ability to create benefits for which others will pay us are huge, and the skills required can develop early – or sometimes not at all.
A recent national competition among high school students who create their own technological advances turned up an especially high share of such students winning recognition in the San Francisco Bay Area. A closer look showed that the great majority of these Bay Area students had Asian names.
Asian Americans are a substantial presence in this region but they are by no means a majority, much less such an overwhelming majority as they are among those winning high tech awards.
This pattern of disproportionate representation of particular groups among those with special skills and achievements is not confined to Asian Americans or even to the United States.
It is a phenomenon among particular racial, ethnic or other groups in countries around the world – the Ibos in Nigeria, the Parsees in India, the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Germans in Brazil, Chinese in Malaysia, Lebanese in West Africa, Tamils in Sri Lanka. The list goes on and on.
Gross inequalities in skills and achievements have been the rule, not the exception, on every inhabited continent and for centuries on end. Yet our laws and government policies act as if any significant statistical difference between racial or ethnic groups in employment or income can only be a result of their being treated differently by others.
Nor is this simply an opinion. Businesses have been sued by the government when the representation of different groups among their employees differs substantially from their proportions in the population at large. But, no matter how the human race is broken down into its components – whether by race, sex, geographic region or whatever – glaring disparities in achievements have been the rule, not the exception.
Anyone who watches professional basketball games knows that the star players are by no means a representative sample of the population at large. The book “Human Accomplishment” by Charles Murray is a huge compendium of the top achievements around the world in the arts and sciences, as well as in sports and other fields.
Nowhere have these achievements been random or representative of the demographic proportions of the population of a country or of the world. Nor have they been the same from one century to the next. China was once far more advanced technologically than any country in Europe, but then it fell behind and more recently is gaining ground.
Most professional golfers who participate in PGA tournaments have never won a single tournament, but Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have each won dozens of tournaments.
Yet these and numerous other disparities in achievement are resolutely ignored by those whose shrill voices denounce disparities in rewards, as if these disparities are somehow suspicious at best and sinister at worst.
Higher achieving groups – whether classes, races or whatever – are often blamed for the failure of other groups to achieve. Politicians and intellectuals, especially, tend to conceive of social questions in terms that allow them to take on the role of being on the side of the angels against the forces of evil.
This can be a huge disservice to those individuals and groups who are lagging behind, for it leads them to focus on a sense of grievance and victimhood, rather than on how they can lift themselves up instead of trying to pull other people down.
Again, this is a worldwide phenomenon – a sad commentary on the down side of the brotherhood of man.
One of the ways of trying to reduce the vast disparities in economic success, which are common in countries around the world, is by making higher education more widely available, even for people without the money to pay for it.
This can be both a generous investment and a wise investment for a society to make. But, depending on how it is done, it can also be a foolish and even dangerous investment, as many societies around the world have learned the hard way.
When institutions of higher learning turn out highly qualified doctors, scientists, engineers and others with skills that can raise the standard of living of a whole society and make possible a better and longer life, the benefits are obvious.
What is not so obvious, but is painfully true nonetheless, is that colleges and universities can also turn out vast numbers of people with credentials, but with no marketable skills with which to fulfill their expectations. There is nothing magic about simply being in ivy-covered buildings for four years.
Statistics are often thrown around in the media, showing that people with college degrees earn higher average salaries than people without them. But such statistics lump together apples and oranges – and lemons.
A decade after graduation, people whose degrees were in a hard field like engineering earned twice as much as people whose degrees were in the ultimate soft field, education. Nor is a degree from a prestigious institution a guarantee of a big pay-off, especially not for those who failed to specialize in subjects that would give them skills valued in the real world.
But that is not even half the story. In countries around the world, people with credentials but no marketable skills have been a major source of political turmoil, social polarization and ideologically driven violence, sometimes escalating into civil war.
People with degrees in soft subjects, which impart neither skills nor a realistic understanding of the world, have been the driving forces behind many extremist movements with disastrous consequences.
These include what a noted historian called the “well-educated but underemployed” Czech young men who promoted ethnic identity politics in the 19th century, which led ultimately to historic tragedies for both Czechs and Germans in 20th century Czechoslovakia. It was much the same story of soft-subject “educated” but unsuccessful young men who promoted pro-fascist and anti-Semitic movements in Romania in the 1930s.
The targets have been different in different countries but the basic story has been much the same. Those who cannot compete in the marketplace, despite their degrees, not only resent those who have succeeded where they have failed, but push demands for preferential treatment, in order to negate the “unfair” advantages that others have.
Similar attempts to substitute political favoritism for developing one’s own skills and achievements have been common as well in India, Nigeria, Malaysia, Fiji, Sri Lanka and throughout Central Europe and Eastern Europe between the two World Wars.
Such political movements cannot promote their agendas without demonizing others, thereby polarizing whole societies. Time and again, their targets have been those who have the skills and achievements that they lack. When they achieve their ultimate success, forcing such people out of the country, as in Uganda in the 1970s or Zimbabwe more recently, the whole economy can collapse.
Against this international background, the current class warfare rhetoric in American politics and ethnic grievance ideology in our schools and colleges, can be seen as the dangerous things they are. Those who are pushing such things may be seeking nothing more than votes for themselves or some unearned group benefits at other people’s expense. But they are playing with dynamite.
The semi-literate sloganizing of our own Occupy Wall Street mobs recalls the distinction that Milton Friedman often made between those who are educated and those who have simply been in schools. Generating more such people, in the name of expanding education, may serve the interests of the Obama administration but hardly the interests of America.
Anyone who has ever been in a Third World country, or even in a slum neighborhood at home, is likely to wonder why there can be such dire poverty among some people, while others are prospering.
Both politicians and intellectuals have tended to have simple answers to that question, even if these simple answers have been different in different eras.
A hundred years ago, the prevailing answer was that some people are innately and genetically inferior. Not only was this answer thundered from political platforms in redneck dialect by politicians in the Jim Crow South, the same message was delivered in cultured and lofty tones from academic podiums in the most prestigious colleges and universities across the country.
Nor was this unique to the United States. In Britain, a study of high-achieving families by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, concluded that the reason for their achievements was genetic superiority. From there it was a short step to seeing various races as genetically superior and inferior.
More ominously, Galton saw those who were inferior as a drag on society who should be eliminated. As often happens when a big idea seizes the imagination of the intelligentsia, their strongest argument is that there is no argument – that “science” has already proved what they believe.
As Sir Francis Galton put it: “there exists a sentiment, for the most part quite unreasonable, against the gradual extinction of an inferior race.”
The idea that those with different views had only “sentiment” on their side, while he had science, was common among intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic.
Eugenics – a term Galton coined – became a crusading creed, and eugenics societies were set up by such stellar intellectuals as John Maynard Keynes, H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw in England. In the United States there were 376 college courses devoted to eugenics in American colleges and universities in 1928.
By the end of the 20th century, the pendulum had swung to the opposite end of the spectrum. Now differences in achievements among classes, races or the sexes were seen as being a result of discriminatory treatment. And, again, as with the intelligentsia of the Progressive era, those with different views were dismissed with a word – often “racist” now, as compared to “sentimental” in the earlier period. But in neither era were views different from the crusading creed of the day seriously engaged.
In our supposedly more enlightened time, it became dangerous even to express differing views on the subject on leading college and university campuses.
A very fundamental question was seldom asked, in either the earlier or the later period: Was there ever any realistic reason to expect the same achievements among races, classes or other subdivisions of the human species?
Could we really have expected Eskimos to have the same ability to grow pineapples as the people of Hawaii had? Could the Bedouins of the Sahara really know as much about fishing as the Polynesians of the Pacific? Could the people of the Himalayas have the same seafaring skills as people living in ports around the Mediterranean?
On a more general level, could people living in isolated mountain valleys realistically be expected to develop their own intellectual potential as fully as people living in cities that were international crossroads of commerce, cultures and ideas from around the world?
When the Spaniards discovered the Canary Islands in the 15th century, they found people of a Caucasian race living at a stone age level. Isolation and backwardness have gone together in many parts of the world, regardless of the race of the people involved.
Historical happenstances – the fact that the Romans invaded Western Europe but not Eastern Europe, for example – left a legacy of written languages in Western Europe that people in Eastern Europe did not have until centuries later.
But the innumerable factors affecting human achievements are not only complex and hard to untangle, they offer neither politicians nor intellectuals the opportunity to simply be on the side of the angels against the forces of evil. Factors which present no opportunity to star in a moral melodrama have often been ignored in favor of factors that do.
Different histories, geography, demography and cultures have left various groups, races, nations and civilizations with radically different abilities to create wealth.
In centuries past, the majority population of various cities in Eastern Europe consisted of people from Western Europe – Germans, Jews and others – while the vast majority of the population in the surrounding countrysides were Slavs or other indigenous peoples of the region.
Just as Western Europe was – and is – more prosperous than Eastern Europe, so Western Europeans living in Eastern European cities in centuries past were more prosperous than the Slavs and others living in the countrysides, or even in the same cities.
One of the historic advantages of Western Europe was that it was conquered by the Romans in ancient times – a traumatic experience in itself, but one which left Western European languages with written versions, using letters created by the Romans. Eastern European languages developed written versions centuries later.
Literate people obviously have many advantages over people who are illiterate. Even after Eastern European languages became literate, it was a long time before they had such accumulations of valuable written knowledge as Western European languages had, due to Western European languages’ centuries earlier head start.
Even the educated elites of Eastern Europe were often educated in Western European languages. None of this was due to the faults of one or the merits of the other. It is just the way that history went down.
But such mundane explanations of gross disparities are seldom emotionally satisfying – least of all to those on the short end of these disparities. With the rise over time of an indigenous intelligentsia in Eastern Europe and the growing influence of mass politics, more emotionally satisfying explanations emerged, such as oppression, exploitation and the like.
Since human beings have seldom been saints, whether in Eastern Europe or elsewhere, there were no doubt many individual flaws and shortcomings among the non-indigenous elites to complain of. But those shortcomings were not the fundamental reason for the economic disparities between Eastern Europeans and Western Europeans. More important, seeing those Western European elites in Eastern Europe as the cause of the economic disparities led many Eastern Europeans into the blind alley of ethnic identity politics, including hostility to Germans, Jews and others – and a romanticizing of their own cultural patterns that were holding them back.
What happened in Eastern Europe, including many tragedies that grew out of the polarization of groups in the region, has implications that reach far beyond Europe, and in fact reach all around the world, where similar events have produced similar polarizations and similar historic tragedies.
Today, in America, many denounce the black-white gap in economic and other achievements, which they attribute to the same kinds of causes as those to which the lags of Eastern Europeans have been attributed. Moreover, the persistence of these gaps, years after the civil rights laws were expected to close them, is regarded as something strange and even sinister.
Yet the economic disparities between Eastern Europeans and Western Europeans remains to this day greater than the economic disparities between blacks and whites in America – and the gap in Europe has lasted for centuries.
Focusing attention and attacks on people who have greater wealth-generating capacity – whether races, classes or whatever – has had counterproductive consequences, including tragedies written in the blood of millions. Whole totalitarian governments have risen to dictatorial power on the wings of envy and resentment ideologies.
Intellectuals have all too often promoted these envy and resentment ideologies. There are both psychic and material rewards for the intelligentsia in doing so, even when the supposed beneficiaries of these ideologies end up worse off. When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.
Both politicians and intellectuals have made their choice.
Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His Web site is www.tsowell.com. To find out more about Thomas Sowell and read features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page.