Book Review: ‘Wealth, Poverty, and Politics’ by Thomas Sowell


Dr. Thomas Sowell’s latest work, Wealth, Poverty, and Politics: An International Perspectiveshould be one of the most influential works of the 2016 election season. This isn’t just a work of characteristic brilliance from Sowell – it’s a laser-guided intellectual weapon aimed at the foundations of liberal envy politics.

Nothing remains of “income inequality” rhetoric and redistribution socialism by the time the last page is turned. It’s a relatively short book, but remarkably thorough.

Sowell’s thesis is that many factors explain unequal outcomes, contrary to left-wing dogma that rich people get rich by exploiting the hapless poor, an “injustice” the State must redress through income redistribution. One of the arguments presented here will be familiar to any long-time reader of Sowell’s work: individual people move through income brackets during their lives, with a pronounced – and extremely logical – tendency to become wealthier as they get older. An experienced worker with an impressive resume will naturally command higher income than young people entering the workforce for the first time.

A great deal of the Left’s class warfare ideology should really be viewed as generational warfare. Sowell expands on this idea more fully than in previous works, describing how studies that purportedly demonstrate horrid levels of “income inequality” are skewed by refusing to follow individuals over the course of their lives, instead taking snapshots of the population without regard to time and process. These studies are often accompanied by punditry that explicitly states higher income brackets live in a different world than the poor – a political idea impossible to sustain when accurately considering that many of today’s high income earners were in lower brackets earlier in their lives.

Indeed, as Sowell observes, when some 56 percent of American households occupy the top ten percent at some point during their lives, “for most Americans to envy or resent the top ten percent would be to envy or resent themselves.

For the Left, that’s a feature, not a bug. Teaching the middle class to hate itself and accept greater government control over their lives is Job Number One for liberalism.

Time and process are recurring themes throughout Wealth, Poverty, and Politics. The fourth dimension is largely absent from collectivist economic theory, which rests on the assumption that wealth and achievement are randomly distributed by nature, so unequal outcomes must be the result of sinister private-sector conspiracies. Most of Sowell’s book is a fascinating, and searingly honest, journey back through history, looking at cultures around the world to determine why some groups tend to be more successful than others.

His conclusions will not rest easily in the ears of today’s hyper-sensitive micro-aggression students, but it’s vitally important for them to listen, because they’re getting swindled by the same Leftist ideology that deliberately turned them into infantile basket cases. If we truly wish to reduce poverty and increase the prosperity of lagging groups, we should carefully study the history and habits of successful groups and emulate them, not weld our minds shut with outraged shrieks that only racism can explain the dire economic straits of preferred victim groups.

Sowell dismantles victim ideology with forensic precision, noting that every social argument for poverty as a function of racist, heartless society dissolves when looking at the success of some ethnic and cultural groups in every environment they inhabit – including societies where the most vigorous discrimination against them is not only pervasive and tolerated, but even mandated by law. There are countries in the world today where dominant ethnic majorities receive significant privileges under the law, and yet disfavored minorities dramatically outperform them. It has nothing to do with genetics, since as Sowell mournfully observes, African immigrants to the United States tend to outperform the native-born black population. It’s all about culture.

Sowell breaks down the cultural advantages of successful groups, and makes some fascinating observations about the ancient origins of those advantages, shaped powerfully by the geography in which various cultures evolved. The modern inclination is to assume that these historic forces shouldn’t matter much for people born today – what difference does it make if a group descends from isolated mountain villages, in a world of instantaneous global communications? And yet, some of those who would scoff at Sowell’s assertions about the centuries-long impact of the local environment upon various cultures will also insist that pre-Civil War slavery remains the dominant cultural influence American black youth.

In truth, “modern” history is very short, a mere industrial blip upon thousands of years of cultural evolution, in which most people lived and died within a few days’ foot travel from the spot where they were born. Cultural habits developed over centuries and transmitted by the family – the core social unit of the entire human race, its power undiminished by deliberate statist policies to replace it with government programs – profoundly influence the way young people integrate into our high-tech modern society. The history of Great Society liberalism offers a horrifying lesson in how utterly government has failed to replace the family unit as a transmission belt for productive wealth-creating values. Another of Sowell’s recurring themes explored more thoroughly in this new volume is the upward trajectory of American blacks before they ran into the Great Society welfare state, and were devoured by it.

It therefore matters a great deal to a child’s prospects for success if his family imparts long-standing cultural traditions of hard work, delayed gratification, independence, risk-taking, education, and trust. Trust emerges as a vital ingredient of wealth through Sowell’s analysis. Trust is the fuel for productive commerce. Creating an atmosphere of trust is an essential duty of government, but beyond a certain point, Big Government damages trust rather than enhancing it, by making it more difficult for people to voluntarily cooperate for mutual profit.

Sowell describes how isolated cultures, thwarted from material and intellectual commerce with other groups by geography, emerged from history with reduced cultural capital and shrunken horizons of trust, while successful groups have a radius of trust beyond even what the government guarantees by law. In other words, they help one another informally, a process greatly enhanced by strong family bonds, and the result is wealth creation beyond what low-trust cultures can achieve in the same environment.

Redistributive socialist government wastes that precious commodity of trust, by reinforcing poisonous cultural notions of futility, nihilism, paranoia, and theft. Tinkering with income levels through welfare programs does nothing to improve productivity, which is the true source of wealth. Most people would agree with that common-sense notion: you work, so you earn. Even socialist rhetoric acknowledges the link between production and wealth by asserting rich people (other than left-leaning entertainers and wealthy politicians, of course) don’t really “earn” their high incomes, so they don’t truly “deserve” to keep the money.

Sadly, we’re too eager as a society to forget about productivity and focus on money when looking at the very lower-income groups who most urgently need their appetites for production stoked. Dr. Sowell’s book is a masterful fusion of science and common sense on the subject of why some groups are impoverished, and what society can do to lift them out of poverty – the original stated goal of the Great Society – rather than pouring trillions of dollars into a corrupt welfare state that makes poverty more comfortable.

Every presidential candidate should read this book immediately, and require all campaign surrogates to digest it as well. The Democrats are going to try escaping political damage from Barack Obama’s weak economy and irresponsible spending by sermonizing about “fairness,” and how the State still isn’t large enough to guarantee it. Wealth, Poverty, and Politics provides the sharp intellectual weapons necessary to cut through that argument, and its wisdom can help conservatives design policies that might actually make a difference.


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