Magazine article The American Conservative

Thomas Sowell's Legacy

Magazine article The American Conservative

Thomas Sowell's Legacy

Article excerpt

After more than a quarter century of sharing his thoughts and opinions through his Creators Syndicate newspaper column, Thomas Sowell recently decided to retire from column writing. It is a loss to public discourse and especially a loss to the African-American community, for reasons I shall explore below. Luckily, the reading public still has access to Sowell's trenchant political and social observations and analyses through his many books, including his latest, Wealth, Poverty and Politics, a revised and enlarged edition of a 2015 volume of the same title.

His overall aim is to clarify the facts and causes of income and social inequalities. In pursuing this aim, he challenges the thinking of "luck egalitarians," the moral philosophy of John Rawls, and the redistributionists, all of whom advocate various concepts of equal opportunity and disparate political schemes to summon desired outcomes through social engineering. Often these conceptions of equal opportunity assume that most of the differences in achievement between individuals and groups should either be even or random. In the case of luck egalitarians, advocates of an extreme version of equal opportunity, life chances should depend only on an individual's responsible choices, not on brute luck. Luck egalitarians deem morally illegitimate such things as one's genetic endowment, abilities, and the circumstances of birth; however, they also deem morally legitimate things that are acquired, both tangible and intangible, through deliberate and calculated choices.

Sowell capitalizes on this dichotomy and argues against the assumption made by equal opportunity warriors about achievement "disparities" or "gaps" among individuals and groups. The assumption, according to Sowell, is that many economic and social outcomes would tend to be either even or random, if left to the natural course of events, so that the strikingly uneven and non-random outcomes so often observed in the real world imply either adverse human intervention or else some genetic differences in the people whose outcomes are so different. Due to the decline of genetic determinism, it becomes intellectually attractive to surmise that disparities in outcomes that are not even or random can be explained by discrimination or some other form of malicious intent.

Sowell offers an alternative view that does not assume evenness or randomness among individual and group achievement. His view posits causal factors such as geography, demography, culture, and political factors that are far from even or random. Sowell acknowledges that other causal factors that are motivated by human malice or discrimination, like conquest and slavery, can play a role in accounting for unequal outcomes, but conquest and slavery should not have more causal weight than other factors merely because they are morally offensive. When he discusses geography and the continent of Africa, for example, Sowell points out that geographic conditions have been an important factor in Africa's development. The Sahara desert is the largest desert in the world, separating North Africa from sub-Saharan Africa. Although the sheer size of the desert has adversely affected the development of North Africa, it has had far more devastating consequences for sub-Saharan Africa.

The separation between the North and the South has for centuries been the main factor in limiting contact between the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world, and the lack of adequate harbors in tropical Africa also limited contact with overseas cultures. By contrast, navigable waterways such as the Mississippi and Hudson rivers and many natural harbors on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts were instrumental in the development of the United States. Navigable waterways fostered contact both within U.S. borders and externally. Sowell provides ample illustrations of geography playing an important role in the development of countries and peoples. And it is not egalitarian, says Sowell, adding that "the disparities in geographic settings, and in the phenomena which arise from those settings, are at least as striking as the economic disparities that many people find so surprising. …

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