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Sowell’s stunning response to our modern messiahs of equality


‘The world has never been a level playing field,’ quips economic historian David S Landes. ‘Heck, don’t we know that?’ chorus the Left. ‘That is why we are the demolition men and women of this world. Armed with dynamite, wrecking balls, bulldozers and earthmovers, our vision is to pulverise the evil of inequality and create a new world of homogeneous egalitarianism.’

The messianic illusion of progressivism is the counterfeit of Isaiah’s poetic vision in the opening aria of Handel’s Messiah: ‘Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain.’

The fantasy of human beings creating a world order where outcomes would be equal led to the most colossal catastrophes of the 20th century. Nazism sought equality by ridding the world of its ‘inferior’ races, while Communism attempted to impose equality by ridding the world of ‘exploiters’ responsible for the poverty of the exploited, writes Thomas Sowell in a shattering critique of this virus of wishful thinking in his new book Discrimination and Disparities.

Sowell is one of America’s greatest economists. He is the author of more than forty books. Sowell does not wear his scholarship on his sleeve. He writes on economics in a manner that is not only accessible, but also relevant and even riveting. Most importantly, he tenaciously rejects ideological sloganeering and, using empirical testing to the point of obsession, points out that ‘the Emperor has no clothes’.

A good example of an exercise in hypothesis testing is Marx’s Capital, he notes in Discrimination and Disparities. ‘“Exploitation” was at no point in its 2,500 pages treated as a testable hypothesis, but was instead the foundation assumption on which an elaborate intellectual superstructure was built,’ he argues. ‘And that proved to be a foundation of sand.’

Societies being stretched out on the rack of the Inquisition to achieve equality of outcomes? Balderdash! Even nature doesn’t distribute its outcomes equally! 90 per cent of all the tornadoes in the entire world occur in just one country – the United States. Lightning happens more often in Africa than in Europe and Asia put together. Earthquakes are common around the rim of the Pacific Ocean, in Asia and in the Western Hemisphere, but rare around the rim of the Atlantic. Eight times as many species of fish are caught in an Amazonian pond the size of a tennis court as exist in all the rivers of Europe.

Get real, utopian dreamers, this is the real world where ‘skewed outcomes contradict some fundamental assumptions on both the political left and right’. You won’t find equality of outcomes even among children born to the same parents and raised under the same roof. So why should you expect equality of outcomes when conditions are not nearly so comparable?

Sowell hits you on the head with hard data. Citing study after study from the US, Britain, Germany, Norway and the Netherlands, he demonstrates how children who are first-born are far more successful than their younger siblings. Even the average IQ of first-born children is higher than the average IQ of second-born children and in turn the IQ of second-born children is higher than that of third-born children. Of the 29 astronauts in the Apollo programme, 22 were either first-born or an only child. First-born and only children are also over-represented among leading composers of classical music.

Explaining success, however, is far more complex, Sowell concedes. ‘Disparities can also reflect the plain fact that success in many kinds of endeavours depends on prerequisites peculiar to each endeavour.’ So if you need five prerequisites in a particular endeavour then the chances of someone having all five at the same time is rare. This applies to individuals, groups and even nations.

Scotland was one of Europe’s poorest and most illiterate countries for centuries. Yet, in the 18-19th centuries, it saw a disproportionate rise of intellectual figures such as James Watt, Adam Smith, David Hume, Walter Scott and John Stuart Mill. Why? Education, the missing prerequisite, was supplied by the ‘Protestant churches’ crusade promoting the idea that everyone should learn to read’ so they could study the Bible and have a fervent compulsion to learn the English language.

Although he has taught at leading universities such as Stanford, Cornell, UCLA and Amherst, 87-year-old Sowell is no ivory-towered ideologue. He was born in poverty in the Jim Crow South during the Great Depression and grew up in Harlem. This is hugely significant. As a black African American, this towering thinker cannot be accused of racism when he lashes out at progressive policies he thinks have been most responsible for the impoverishment of African Americans.

Sowell surgically dissects the ‘meanings of discrimination’. People make fact-based distinctions while judging individuals as part of a group. You wouldn’t employ someone from Group X if you knew 40 per cent of Group X are alcoholics. Similarly, employers who might be reluctant to hire young black males, because this group tends to have a higher proportion of individuals with criminal records, paradoxically tend to hire more young black males in jobs where all applicants have to have criminal background checks.

Sowell shows how the market punishes discriminators as in apartheid South Africa or the racially segregated American South. So even if white legislators push for laws that discriminate against blacks, white South African employers in competitive industries or bus, trolley and railroad companies in the segregated American South widely defied these laws because it cost them money.

As a young black boy, Sowell would have been denied employment under minimum wage laws. He illustrates how, when there were no effective laws of that type, there was no significant difference between the unemployment rates of black and white teenagers. However, after the imposition of such laws, ‘not only did teenage unemployment rates as a whole rise to multiples of what they had been’ but black teenage unemployment rates rose to twice as high.

Discrimination and Disparities does not recommend a magic bullet policy ‘fix’. Sowell is only too aware that we live in a fallen world and any phoney messianic pretensions to flatten mountains and fill in valleys ‘risks creating needless evils in the present while claiming to deal with the evils of the past’. The book’s astonishing brevity is compensated for by the weight of evidence and argument. Will someone send a complimentary copy to our modern messiahs of equality, beginning with Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, Lambeth Palace, London SE1 7JU?

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‘Rebel Priest’ Rev Jules Gomes
‘Rebel Priest’ Rev Jules Gomes
The Rev’d Dr Jules Gomes, BA, BD, MTh, PhD (Cantab) is a journalist and academic.

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