Thomas Sowell, a prolific author, has consistently provided thought-provoking content that challenges prevailing notions. His ability to ask probing questions about race, politics, and progress distinguishes him from many of his contemporaries. Sowell’s works often serve as a refreshing departure from the conformist trends in intellectual discourse.
Sowell’s most recent trilogy of books, “Markets and Minorities,” “Ethnic America,” and “Pink and Brown People,” continues to spark intellectual debates. However, here we are focusing on a critical aspect of his work: the shifting nature of IQ and its implications.
The controversy surrounding IQ centres on whether it is predominantly a product of inheritance or influenced by environmental factors. Over time, IQ scores have demonstrated the capacity to change. For instance, during World War I, Jewish IQs fell below the national average. Carl Brigham, the author of the college board SAT, incorrectly cited this as evidence against the notion of Jewish intelligence. Yet, a decade later, Jewish IQs surpassed the national average, proving Brigham’s premature assessment.
Similarly, In Japan, the average IQ has risen by seven points within a single generation. There is also pertinent data regarding black orphans raised by white families, who exhibit an average IQ of 106, significantly higher than the average IQ of 85 for black children as a whole. These examples showcase that IQ is not a fixed, unchangeable characteristic; it is malleable and subject to change in response to various factors. However, this evolution should not diminish the relevance of IQ. IQ scores measure a range of cognitive skills crucial for mathematics, science, and intellectual pursuits. While not static, these scores are far from irrelevant. They reflect skills and abilities that play a pivotal role in shaping individual and collective achievements.
Sowell’s work forces us to confront a key question: What factors contribute to the fortunate circumstances enjoyed by a relatively small portion of the human population today? Can we analyse, recreate, or transplant these historical circumstances into other societies? Sowell’s insights prompt us to explore the concept of “human capital.”
Human capital encompasses a wide spectrum of skills, traits, discipline, and even physical health that enable individuals to contribute more to society than others. While predominantly learned, these attributes can become almost hereditary as they are passed down from one generation to the next. For most people, human capital is acquired through a combination of inheritance and education. However, rare cases, such as black orphans raised in white families, showcase the role of environmental factors in shaping human capital.
The Passive Accumulation of Human Capital
The prevailing notion argues that the accumulation of human capital is primarily a passive process. Sowell challenges this idea, emphasising that it’s not solely about individual merit but often stems from the values instilled within individuals during their upbringing. Families and cultures play a crucial role in shaping these values. Individuals who grow up in environments that emphasise certain values are more likely to adopt them and benefit from the associated advantages.
The Role of Adversity
Sowell argues that adversity is an essential factor in personal development. It fosters resilience and strength, qualities that can be drawn upon in challenging situations later in life. Shielding young people from adversity might inadvertently deprive them of opportunities to build character and fortitude.
Affirmative Action and Social Assumptions
Sowell has been a vocal critic of affirmative action, contending that it doesn’t necessarily benefit the intended recipients. He believes that affirmative action policies should be re-evaluated, and the underlying assumptions about their effectiveness and fairness should be scrutinised.
Cultural Patterns and Immigration
Sowell questions whether a group’s characteristics are primarily shaped by the society they live in or if they carry their patterns with them wherever they go. He studied groups in different countries, such as Germans in Australia and the United States, to explore this. His research revealed that these groups tended to exhibit consistent characteristics, irrespective of the host society, suggesting that cultural traits have a significant influence.
The Influence of Culture and Society
While acknowledging that culture and society play roles in shaping individuals and groups, Sowell provides examples of how different groups react to the opportunities and dynamics in a new society. He highlights that certain groups, like the Jews in the United States, were quick to seize upon educational opportunities and institutions, effectively raising their IQ levels. This demonstrates the dynamic interaction between an individual or group’s inherent cultural traits and the opportunities provided by their new society.
Genetics vs. Cultural Impact
Sowell acknowledges the sensitivity surrounding the genetic aspect of intelligence but emphasises that it’s crucial to engage in honest, evidence-based discussions. He cautions against misusing genetic differences to promote notions of racial superiority or inferiority, emphasising the importance of a nuanced and informed dialogue.
The challenge of distinguishing between genetic factors and cultural influences on various groups’ characteristics exists primarily. Sowell raises the example of Ashkenazic Jews and Sephardic Jews, noting persistent differences even in a society like Israel, which has embraced a melting pot philosophy for four decades. The question posed is whether the term “genetic” might also be metaphorically used to describe deeply ingrained cultural inclinations. This highlights the complexity of attributing traits solely to genetics or culture.
Sowell further explores the concept of cultural patterns within different groups. He examines the case of Sephardic Jews in the United States and points out that, despite not having centuries of history in Arab countries, they do not exhibit significant disadvantages compared to Ashkenazic Jews. This suggests that cultural factors play a primary role in these differences. However, he acknowledges that some still attribute such variations to genetics.
Furthermore, culture and society interact to shape outcomes. Sowell provides examples of how certain groups, like blacks in the Western Hemisphere, have experienced varying degrees of social advantage based on their percentage of white ancestry. This leads to a discussion of how historical differences and opportunities can lead to misconceptions about genetics.
Sowell acknowledges that separating genetics and culture is difficult because these factors often coexist. He highlights instances where groups with similar backgrounds living side by side can still exhibit significant differences in outcomes. This complicates the task of distinguishing between genetics and culture when they tend to go hand in hand.
Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity
Sowell emphasises that he does not oppose equal opportunity; rather, he critiques preferential treatment that obscures objective standards. He argues that affirmative action policies, while well-intentioned, have often benefited already advantaged black individuals and have not significantly improved the circumstances of those who are most disadvantaged. He points out that the policies tend to incentivize hiring blacks who are less likely to challenge the status quo, which may ultimately hinder the progress of average black individuals.
Polarisation and Single-Parent Families
Sowell addresses the potential polarisation caused by affirmative action policies. Sowell raises the issue of the increased number of single-parent black families, which has risen significantly in the past two decades. This raises questions about the correlation between affirmative action policies and changes in family structures within the black community.
Examining Hiring Disparities
Sowell discusses hiring disparities among black and white individuals, particularly within female-headed families. He highlights that when comparing these groups, black female-headed families are falling further behind, indicating the challenges they face in the labour market. However, for more advantaged families, blacks can catch up and even surpass whites, suggesting that skills, experience, and education play significant roles in this dynamic. Sowell proposes that risks associated with hiring certain individuals might deter employers from considering black candidates, thus creating disadvantages.
Affirmative Action and Hiring Practices
Sowell mentions that universities and employers may avoid hiring individuals they perceive as risky, even if those individuals are qualified. This is exemplified by a scenario where universities hesitate to hire women for assistant professor positions without certainty that they will advance to associate professorships due to potential legal consequences. Sowell’s insights shed light on the unintended consequences of such policies.
Leadership and Political Solutions
In his analysis, Sowell raises questions about the level of attention dedicated to analyses like his within the black leadership community. He posits that political leaders within this community may be firmly committed to the idea of political solutions due to their relevance being intricately tied to such approaches. Furthermore, some leaders may opt for attributing problems to victimisation rather than engaging in nuanced analyses. He shows the need for leadership to transcend its traditional political confines, emphasising the critical importance of attracting the brightest minds to address pressing civil rights issues.
The Decline in Black Leadership
Sowell offers his perspective on the declining quality of black leadership, viewing it as a symptom rather than a cause of the problem. He posits that if there were critical civil rights issues to address, the best and brightest of the rising generation would lead, resulting in better leadership quality. Sowell also touches upon the role of self-training and the importance of leadership in influencing change.
Challenging Economic Dominance
In the 1930s, a Filipino politician raised an interesting point about the dominance of the Chinese minority in the country’s economy. He suggested that if Filipinos wanted to compete with the hardworking and frugal Chinese population, they would need to adopt similar work ethics and savings practices. However, this statement was met with outrage, and the politician faced severe backlash. Consequently, attributing Chinese dominance to exploitation became a more politically palatable explanation.
Leadership in the Political Landscape
The political landscape often encourages leaders to align with popular sentiments and offer solutions that people want to hear. Even those who are not seeking public office may tailor their messages to appeal to specific audiences, making it challenging to convey alternative viewpoints. Sowell emphasises that leadership should extend beyond traditional political contexts. He highlights the importance of attracting talented individuals to address pressing civil rights issues and challenges conventional wisdom in various aspects of society.
Moreover, Sowell observes an inverse relationship between political activism and economic achievement. He suggests that historically, groups with alternative pathways to success tend to avoid politics, focusing on methods that have proven more effective for their advancement. This choice is made because people believe it’s better to focus on other things that might work out well, rather than spending lots of time and energy on politics.
Rise in Single-Parent Black Families
One topic of concern is the rise in single-parent black families, which have failed to keep pace with their white counterparts over the past decade. Sowell delves into the reasons behind this trend, including factors like desertion and instances where families never existed in the first place, especially in cases of teenage pregnancies. Sowell critiques non-empirical propositions that continue to shape policies, even when they yield unfavourable outcomes. He draws parallels between affirmative action and sex education, where the response to failure often involves doubling down on the same approach.
Human Capital in Post-War Reconstruction
Sowell discusses the significance of human capital in the post-war reconstruction of countries, with a particular focus on Japan and Germany after World War II. The central argument revolves around the critical role that human capital, encompassing skills, knowledge, and expertise, played in the recovery and development of these nations. He refers to John Stuart Mill’s observations from the 19th century, emphasising that physical capital, such as infrastructure and machinery, inevitably wears out and must be replaced. The key factor determining a country’s sustained economic growth is its possession of human capital, which is essential for rebuilding and maintaining physical capital. The idea is that human capital can be self-generating, as seen in Switzerland, where a culture of skill development and innovation prevails. However, this self-generation of human capital is not uniform across all regions, and some struggle to nurture and retain it effectively.
Challenges in Nurturing Human Capital
An argument is raised regarding the effectiveness of foreign aid, highlighting that merely transferring wealth (physical capital) may not lead to economic growth if the recipients lack the requisite human capital to utilise it effectively. The transfer of expertise or knowledge is presented as a potentially more beneficial form of assistance, albeit one that presents its challenges. Political leaders who prioritise policies fostering human capital development, such as investments in education and skill-building, can significantly contribute to a nation’s long-term economic success. Conversely, policies that hinder human capital development can impede economic growth.
Both politics and markets are integral to a nation’s development. Politics can either facilitate or obstruct economic progress, depending on the policies enacted. Markets, on the other hand, rely on a well-equipped and skilled workforce, emphasising the pivotal role of human capital in driving economic advancement.
Politics and Economic Prosperity
Professor Robert L. Lekachman argues that minority groups like the Jews and overseas Chinese showcase the vulnerability of successful groups lacking political power. Without effective political representation, such groups may encounter discrimination and persecution, highlighting the intricate interplay between politics and economic prosperity, with human capital serving as its foundational pillar. Historically renowned for their economic success, these two groups have often refrained from active political engagement.
Unintended Consequences of Political Involvement
One counterexample mentioned by Sowell involves the Chinese community after the emergence of Chinese nationalism in the early 20th century under Sun Yat-sen. This movement exported Chinese nationalism to Southeast Asia, prompting ethnic Chinese living in countries like Burma and Thailand to identify more strongly with their Chinese heritage. Paradoxically, this surge in nationalism led to increased hostility and persecution against the Chinese in Southeast Asia, ultimately resulting in the tragic boat people crisis. The involvement of the Chinese in politics, albeit driven by external factors, had unintended and devastating consequences. A similar scenario is described with the German community in Brazil, which, like the Chinese, tended to avoid political engagement. However, during World War I, the Kaiser’s government attempted to capitalise on their German identity, publishing pro-German materials in Brazil. This political involvement backfired, inciting mob violence against German businesses and neighbourhoods.
Professor Lekachman expresses scepticism about the potential benefits of political involvement for groups that have thrived through non-political means. He observed that successful groups, regardless of their cultural advantages or work ethic, often become more vulnerable to political backlash as their success grows.
Affirmative Action and its Consequences
Sowell argues that affirmative action has caused divisions within minority communities, particularly between Jews and African Americans. The comparison between the two communities highlights differing perspectives on the policy. He points out examples where affirmative action led to negative outcomes, such as making certain professions inaccessible to Jews due to market distortions.
Americans can sometimes be impatient when it comes to how fast society transforms. Lekachman agreed that there have been big changes, but not in the direction they’d like. He thinks these changes happened because of economic problems in the 1970s. These issues have been around for a long time, and affirmative action is seen as a new way to deal with them.
For example, the University of California wanted to have more women and Black people become full professors over about 20 years. Sowell argues that they only added fractions of new employment. The burden of proof is on those who want to make changes, but it’s hard to know how long is enough to see if something is working.
Sowell argues that not everyone wants to be a lawyer, so we need to think about jobs for everyone, especially in poor communities. Lekachman suggests revoking the Humphrey Hawkin Act. Having more jobs available can make employers less picky about who they hire.
Humphrey Hawkins is seen as a reflection of what’s happening in public schools, where people are often promoted or moved forward just because it’s the expected time for it, rather than based on their actual performance and qualifications. Now, this practice, which hasn’t worked well in education, is being extended into the job market. This means that people may get hired and advance without considering other important factors, and they won’t necessarily need to meet any particular standards.
Portugal has a similar system, despite having these practices, Portugal has the highest per capita debt in the world, and this situation developed in just nine years, not the expected 25 years.
Lekachman argues that during World War II while supporting a massive military effort, the civilian standard of living improved. This was achieved by bringing into the workforce individuals who were previously considered unemployable for various reasons. When there was a shortage of people instead of a shortage of jobs, employers found creative ways to hire and utilise the available workforce.
Minimum wage vs Maximum wage
Minimum wage law can make it more challenging for minorities to find employment. Here Sowell argues that conversely, a maximum wage law, similar to what was in place during World War II, could potentially make it easier for people to find jobs. During the war, price and wage controls were enforced, resulting in a chronic labour shortage, and this led to higher rates of employment for women, minorities, and others who might have otherwise struggled to find work. Despite their differences, Sowell and Lekachman both recognize the complex interplay of factors that influence employment and economic outcomes.
Income Distribution and Market Failures
Black teenagers’ unemployment rates were high after World War II, and they’re still high today, even though there have been years of changes. Lekachman suggests that there could be 4 percent or better unemployment in a climate of considerable governmental intervention in the setting of key wages and prices, which by his lights, is indispensable.
Lekachman suggests that many prices are determined privately but is open to replacing them with public pricing at a minimum level. Sowell mentions the rarity of private price setters, while Lekachman highlights government intervention when prices are set collectively, such as in the case of electrical contractors.
Sowell and Lekachman discuss the paradox of increasing interest in income distribution issues despite earlier beliefs that they were resolved. The failure of some corporations to adhere to traditional market rules often leads to bankruptcy.
The contrast between the economic situations of well-off and disadvantaged people, both in the United States and Malaysia, has had similar results. Affirmative action programs are critiqued for not effectively benefiting the poorest members of these communities.
In conclusion, Thomas Sowell’s extensive work offers profound insight into the complexities of economics and society. Key takeaways include the dynamic nature of IQ, emphasising the need for nuanced intelligence discussions. Human capital’s pivotal role in a nation’s prosperity shows the importance of education and skill development. Sowell’s critiques of affirmative action policies highlight their complexities and unintended consequences, challenging us to rethink such programs. He navigates the intricate interplay between genetics and culture, acknowledging their intertwined influence. Sowell advocates for transformative leadership that transcends political boundaries, fostering brighter minds to address civil rights issues.