Thomas Sowell, Wealth, Poverty, and Politics (NY: Basic Books, 2015)
It’s pretty much what the cover says: a very well written analysis of wealth and poverty on an international scale, and the politics that augment, exacerbate, and affect wealth and poverty. Sowell draws on his earlier writings but adds in a great deal of more recent research to provide an easy-to-read, easy to reference synopsis of “How come some places/peoples have all the luck?”
And the answer is geography and culture, but especially culture. Indeed, some places have all the (bad)luck when it comes to being disease-ridden, hard to reach locations with lousy soil or weather that is not conducive to agricultural bounty. Some rivers are either in flood or will barely float a canoe, and that takes place over the course of a few weeks or months. So yes, not every group starts with the same benefits of lush natural resources, which sets the residents back from the beginning. And then there’s Switzerland and the Inca Empire . . .
Sowell touches on the environmental aspect, but focuses on culture, especially those portable bits of culture that allow certain groups to thrive under harsh conditions and that discourage worldly success by other cultural groups. Until the 1950s, culture dominated how groups fared when transplanted. Then politics stepped in, especially the politics of resentment. Certain ethnic and cultural groups produced leaders who fixated on inequality and argued that dragging the successful down because of slights in the past was better than uplifting the under-performing group. Be it ethnic Malays vs. Chinese, native Ugandans vs. Indians, ethnic Romanians vs. Germans and Jews between the two World Wars, the politics of resentment produced the same results – impoverishment. Often driven by the intelligentsia of the under-achieving population (Czechs, Romanians, Malays, Ugandans, Bolivian and Peruvian Indians), the push to kick out economically successful cultural and ethnic minorities was not universally welcomed: the average Malay preferred to work for a Chinese because they were more honest and treated employees better. (142-143, 241)
The book is both a useful compilation of many of Sowell’s (and others’) economic and cultural arguments, and a good reference for comparative economics. It is a bit dismal to read how similar humans are when pride and pandering combine, but overall the book is a worthwhile read and a good addition to any reference list for economics and comparative cultures.