Good Old Wine, New Bottle

By Lawrence Harrison
Volume 6, Number 3 (Spring 1996)
Issue theme: "Straight thinking on immigration"

Thomas Sowell has for more than fifteen years been among America's most politically incorrect - and influential - economists, importantly because of his belief that culture is a major factor in explaining why some national, ethnic, or racial groups do better than others, also because he is a black conservative. In Migrations and Cultures - A World View, recently published by Basic Books, Sowell stresses that some cultures are more progress-prone than others and that multi-culturalism and affirmative action work against progress and unity in the United States.

Readers of Ethnic America (1981), The Economics and Politics of Race (1983), and Race and Cul-ture (1985), are going to encounter a lot of familiar material in Migrations and Cultures. Sowell focuses on the performance of six immigrant groups - Germans, Japanese, Italians, Chinese, Jews, and East Indians - in destination countries all over the world. (All but the East Indians were the subject of chapters in Ethnic America.) His conclusion is that the success and prosperity of these groups in very different settings - for example, the Germans in Russia, Brazil, the United States, and Australia - is chiefly the consequence of cultural factors such as work ethic, frugality, emphasis on education, discipline, and sense of community, factors that also importantly explain why, using the same example, Germany itself is so prosperous.

That parallel also works well for Japan and at least the north of Italy, less well for China (although its post-Mao economic performance is surely consistent with the astonishing achievements of the overseas Chinese), and not well at all for India. But Sowell documents the importance of tracing whence within India came the immigrants to East Africa, Malaysia, the United States, Trinidad, etc., concluding that those who were successful in India, like the Gujaratis, are those who have been most successful abroad.

The chapter on the Italians examines the striking differences between the achievements of the northern and southern Italians both at home and overseas and is particularly relevant for the United States today because the southern Italians have followed a path similar to that of the Latin Americans, and particularly Mexi-cans, who constitute the majority of legal and illegal immigrants into the United States in recent decades. The southern Italians and the Mexicans have not at-tached priority to education - school dropout rates for both have been high - and they have tended to remain in the blue col-lar class, in sharp contrast with the Germans, Chinese, Japanese, Jews, and East Indians, all of whom have valued education highly and have moved rapidly into the professions and business. Sowell points out that at the peak, Italians accounted for 1.5 percent of the American population. To-day, Latin Americans account for almost 10 percent, Mexicans for almost 5 percent.

The chapter on Italy also underscores a gap in Sowell's schol-arship that may result in the incorrect impression that what he is saying is being said for the first time. Migrations and Cultures con-tains 2,371 footnotes. But Sowell ignores some of the most impor-tant books that address the mat-ters of principal concern to him. Religion is a key source of values in his argument, but Max Weber's name does not appear in the text. Nor does Edward Banfield and his The Moral Basis of a Backward Soci-ety, a seminal cultural interpreta-tion of southern Italy's backward-ness (it is mentioned in a foot-note). Nor does Robert Putnam's recent Making Democracy Work, a comprehensive examination of the differences between Italy's north and south with a strong message about the importance of culture.

After tracing the histories of the six ethnic groups, Sowell pres-ents a set of conclusions several of which imply new or changed poli-cies for the United States. His overarching conclusion is that "each group has its own cultural pattern - and ? these patterns do not disappear upon crossing a border or an ocean. Nor are these patterns always coextensive with national or racial groups. Among migrants from India, for example, Tamils have not had the same experience, either at home or abroad, as Gujaratis. Southern Italians have differed from north-ern Italians ? the skills, habits, and values which constitute the cultural endowment of a people usually play a powerful role in shaping the kinds of outcomes experienced by that people."

He argues, as I have, that cultural relativism is wholly incon-sistent with the reality that some cultures produce more well-being and justice than others. He de-scribes the idea that all cultures are essentially equal as "at best, a polite evasion of otherwise embar-rassing differences in per---formance and, at worst, a distrac-tion from the task of acquiring the requisite human capital be-hind other people's good fortune, instead of resenting that good fortune and attributing it to ‘exploitation' of those who had precious little to exploit." More-over, "Skills have never been evenly or randomly distributed, whether between ethnic groups, nations, or civilizations," which is relevant to Sowell's strong opposi-tion to affirmative action. "There-fore academic standards, employ-ment standards, and other criteria can no longer be dismissed as arbitrary impositions of barriers with ‘disparate impact' by races, class, gender, or other social group-ings."

Sowell goes on to argue, as I did in Who Prospers? that the dis-parities in well-being between blacks and whites in contempo-rary America are more the conse-quence of cultural problems than of discrimination. His tracing of the intensely discriminatory treat-ment of Chinese and Japanese immigrants in the United States serves as a backdrop for their high levels of achievement in the ab-sence of political favors or prefer-ential treatment, in contrast with the emphasis by many contempo-rary black leaders on such prefer-ences. He reinforces his argument with some telling data: "Black American married couples with college degrees [are] at the same income level as white American married couples with college de-grees. Even a quarter of a century earlier, black males raised in homes with books and library cards were at the same income levels as white males raised in homes with similar advantages and similar education."

Sowell thus rejects the cate-gories of "haves" and "have-nots" in favor of "doers" and "do-nots;" and some cultures encourage "do-ing" more than others. When immigrants from a passive culture move to a country of dynamic culture, "they gain a higher stan-dard of living and a wider cultural exposure which they come to value and embrace." The multi-culturalism that encourages the perpetuation of the values of pas-sive cultures is thus contrary to the interests of both the immi-grants and the new host society. Particularly inappropriate and costly are affirmative action pro-grams for immigrants "set up os-tensibly to remedy historic wrongs that occurred before contempo-rary immigrants arrived."

A disappointing aspect of Migrations and Cultures is Sowell's failure to address the broad issue of immigration. He does not dis-cuss the impact of high immigra-tion. He does not discuss the im-pact of high immigration levels, and particularly of uneducated, unskilled immigrants, on the pros-pects of poor citizens, on our pop-ulation growth rate, on the envi-ronment. His treatment of the six ethnic groups may leave the im-pression that all immigrant groups can make it in the United States - and be a net asset for the nation - if we facilitate their acculturation to America rather than perpetuate their original cultures through multiculturalist policies and affirmative action. But the main current of the book drives home the idea that some cultures are more progress-prone than others and that some immi-grant groups do better than oth-ers.

The need for disaggregation by ethnicity or national origin of the immigration flow is an impor-tant contribution to the immigra-tion debate. Disaggregation will help to explain Francis Fukuyama's pro-immigration stance (Japanese immigrants have done extremely well in America) in contrast to the anxious stance of Richard Estrada (Mexican immigrants have not done very well). And Sowell correctly defines the dilemma with which his analysis leaves us: "? domestic ideological agendas may make it impossible to be selective in admitting immigrants from different nations, leaving as alternatives only loss of control of the border or restrictive policies toward immigrants in general." Probably the best that can be realistically sought is a new policy that stresses the skills, education, and financial resources of immigrants. ?

About the author

Lawrence Harrison is an associate at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. He is the author of Underdevelopment Is a State of Mind - the Latin American Case; Who Prospers? - How Cultural Values Shape Economic and Political Success; and the forthcoming The Pan-American Dream - Culture and Community (Basic Books).