Migration Patterns


Migrations and Cultures: A World View, by Thomas Sowell, New York: Basic Books, 512 pages, $27.50

Thomas Sowell has spent much of his professional life advancing a controversial idea: There's more to inequality than discrimination. In his latest book, Migrations and Cultures: A World View, Sowell forges ahead, drawing lessons from the experiences of German, Japanese, Italian, Chinese, Jewish, and Indian migrants. "[O]ne of the clearest facts to emerge from these worldwide histories of various racial and ethnic groups is that gross statistical disparities in the 'representation' of groups in different occupations, industries, income levels, and educational institutions have been the rule–not the exception–all across the planet," he writes. "Moreover, many of these disparities have persisted for generations or even centuries."

This is, needless to say, not the dominant view of the American Sociological Association, or of social scientists generally. When they encounter disparities between racial, ethnic, or cultural groups, their first and last impulse is to call a hunt for modern-day oppressors. "[T]he political temptation is to overlook the causal influences of differences in cultural capital which often go far back into history and, instead, to attribute these disparities to current failures of society," writes Sowell. That's a big mistake, since "skills have never been evenly or randomly distributed, whether between ethnic groups, nations, regions, or civilizations."

The problem is cultural relativism–the idea that no culture is better than any other culture, despite their apparent differences. Many academics today are relativists. Sowell is not. He understands that culture is more than the stuff of a university's multicultural festival, where all the food is good and all the games are fun. His view of culture is more complex, and also more functional. "Cultures are the particular ways of accomplishing the things that make life possible," writes Sowell. These include methods of arranging families, transmitting knowledge, and organizing politics, as well as the values that cultures attach to matters like spirituality, intellect, violence, cleanliness, and technology.

OK, so maybe cultures are not equal. But how can we compare them? That's easy, says Sowell: They compete. "Cultures do not exist as simply static 'differences' to be celebrated but compete with one another as better and worse ways of getting things done–better and worse, not from the standpoint of some observer, but from the standpoint of the peoples themselves," writes Sowell.

Successful cultures will spread. Before the advent of mass communication, migrations were the primary means of expanding a culture's influence. When people moved, they took their knowledge with them. "[E]ach group has its own cultural pattern…these patterns do not disappear upon crossing a border or an ocean," writes Sowell. This is what accounts for so much of the occupational segregation we see around the world–and it is often better understood as cultural segregation. Sowell's six case studies provide dozens of examples of one cultural group coming to dominate an entire profession. Germans, for instance, have excelled in many different societies as clockmakers, piano builders, and brewers. This is not because they have been forced into ethnic niches, but because traditionally they have been very good at these jobs.

If Sowell's entire argument rested on German clockmakers, piano builders, and brewers, of course, he would have a very thin argument–and a thin book. But he provides scores of similar examples. Sometimes Migrations and Cultures reads like a compendium of odd statistics, a really long version of the Harper's "Index." Number of Japanese-owned barbershops in Lima, Peru in 1904: 1. Number in 1924: 130. Percent of all barbershops in Lima owned by Japanese in 1924: Almost three-quarters. Rate of home ownership among Sicilian immigrants to Australia: More than 80 percent. Percent of newspapers in Alexandria, Egypt, owned by Syrians in the early 19th century: Over half. This sort of thing can go on for pages in mind-numbing fashion. Yet the sheer magnitude of these references drives home Sowell's thesis.

Sowell is emphatic in making the point that cultural differences do not equal racial (i.e., genetic) differences, even though certain races are often closely associated with certain cultures. "Over long spans of history, the radical reshuffling of the relative technological rankings of different races and nations makes it hard to conclude that such standings are genetically determined," he writes. During the Middle Ages, Southern and Eastern Europe was much more advanced than Northern and Western Europe. But by the time of the Enlightenment, their positions had started to reverse.

Chinese migrants provide a similar example of a culture in flux. During the 20th century, the Chinese "have prospered all around the world–except in China." In fact, the overseas Chinese produced as much wealth in 1994 as the entire population of mainland China, which is many times larger. This has not always been the case. Less than one thousand years ago, China was arguably the most advanced civilization on the planet. But today, Chinese political institutions and economic practices inhibit entrepreneurial growth.

In other places, most notably Indochina and increasingly in North America, the Chinese have succeeded remarkably as what Sowell calls "middleman minorities." Middlemen may have a lousy reputation, but they perform the useful service of lowering the cost of economic transactions. This can lead to many small successes, as individuals struggle to open stores in Singapore or Malaysia so they can support themselves and their families. It can also lead to stunning achievement. There are currently five billionaires in Indonesia and Thailand, and each is of Chinese ancestry. Some commentators have started referring to the "Bamboo Network" of overseas Chinese who have invigorated Southeast Asian economies and are making dramatic progress in mainland China itself as communist dictators grudgingly open markets to outside investment.

Sowell's thoughts on middlemen minorities are some of the most interesting in Migrations and Cultures. They are also some of the most aggravating, since we've heard them before–mainly from Sowell. In 1994's Race and Culture: A World View (which is ostensibly a companion to the current volume), Sowell also includes a section on middleman minorities. The two discussions do not overlap precisely and the anecdotes are mostly different, but veterans of the first book occasionally will experience a sense of d'éjà vu when reading the new one.

Geography also helps explain differences in how cultures have accumulated human capital. Coastal peoples have tended to be more knowledgeable, technologically and socially, than interior people, for example. Rivers can play a similar role, opening up the interior of a country to the outside world. One of the reasons why Africa is the world's least urbanized continent is not because its people are mentally deficient–a common if unspoken view–but because it has so few navigable rivers or natural harbors. In other words, Africans have not had the same kind of geographical advantages that have allowed other peoples to progress more rapidly.

Sowell does not directly tackle the question of what generic qualities make a culture economically successful. Perhaps this is too ambitious a task for anybody–much smarter to cite specific examples of success and try to learn from them, rather than concoct grand theories that have no basis in reality. Still, it's hard not to make at least two general observations.

First, each of Sowell's groups displays a commitment to the work ethic, or at least to some of the traits linked to it: "The capacity of Germans for hard, thorough, unrelenting work has been noted in Germany itself, as well as in colonial America, czarist Russia, Honduras, Australia, Brazil, Ireland, Argentina, and Paraguay." "The Japanese as a group acquired a reputation for honesty and reliability, whether in Brazil, the United States, or Peru." Jews and Indians are both described as scrappy people of commerce who will toil away as peddlers and invest heavily in the education of their children. At one point, Sowell suggests that we should stop referring to the haves and have-nots and take up the "more fruitful dichotomy" of doers and do-nots.

Second, political activism delays economic success, since its emphasis on redistribution does not lead to a culture's formation of human capital. Better that migrants spend their time running their business than running for office. When they do run for office, they can rarely count on their ethnicity to get them far. When Fiorello H. La Guardia–the Italian American who represented New York in Congress and then served as mayor–ran for mayor in a 1941 re-election, he defeated an Irish opponent but did not carry the city's significant Italian vote. Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori is the descendent of Japanese migrants, but he needs more than their support to win elections. His popularity transcends his background.

Sowell does not talk much about Asian-American political behavior, but he might have. On a series of economic indicators, Asian Americans outperform every other racial or ethnic group in the United States, including non-Hispanic whites. They are also the least likely to vote. The most successful Asian-American politicians, such as California state treasurer Matt Fong, Rep. Jay Kim (R-Calif.), and Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.), do not rely exclusively on an ethnic constituency–unlike most black or Hispanic lawmakers. They campaign as candidates, not race-men.

Ultimately, Migrations and Cultures shows that the view from the ivory tower, in which all cultures are equal and discrimination always explains disparity, is wrong. To deny the fact of cultural competition–and that there are sometimes clear winners–is to engage in what Sowell condemns as "a polite evasion of otherwise embarrassing differences in performance" and "a distraction from the task of acquiring the requisite human capital behind other people's good fortune."

John J. Miller (millerjj@aol.com), a Bradley Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, is vice president of the Center for Equal Opportunity.