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Pat MurphyThomas Sowell, the maverick African-American economist, may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but that only underlines his value.

The prolific author has published dozens of books, many of which range beyond any narrow definition of economics.

Three of Sowell’s works from the 1990s – Race and Culture, Migrations and Cultures and Conquests and Cultures – combine to illuminate his theme that culture plays a critical role in influencing economic and social success. As he puts it, “racial, ethnic, and national groups have their own respective cultures, without which their economic and social histories cannot be understood.”

It’s important to define what Sowell means by culture.

He’s not talking about the music people make, the poems they write, the stories they tell or the gods they worship. He is talking about specific practical skills and “attitudes toward work, toward education, toward violence, and toward life.” These, in his view, are the things that provide the human capital conducive to thriving.

And this concept of human capital extends to institutional arrangements, including dependable laws and a non-confiscatory political system.

To illustrate the institutional dimension, Sowell points to the problems of post-communist Russia. Despite an abundance of natural resources and a plethora of scientists and engineers, the protections and incentives provided by western legal, political and financial systems were conspicuously absent. This severely hobbled the country’s ability to capitalize on its advantages.

Sowell also draws an explicit distinction between human capital and formal education. While recognizing the latter’s potential value, he doesn’t see it as a panacea. To him, the kind of education matters.

Difficult subjects – such as mathematics, science, engineering and medicine – are better than easier ones, and the growth of an intelligentsia can be a mixed blessing. Indeed, to the extent that an intelligentsia sees its mission as the promoter of ideological agendas or the rectification of identity-based grievances, its influence can be destructive.

Nor is a pre-existing science and technology advantage a guarantee of anything.

China, for instance, was once far more technically advanced than western Europe – think printing, gunpowder and the compass. Much the same can be said for parts of the Islamic world. Then something happened to dramatically change the relative positions.

In explaining the change, Sowell underlines the importance of cultural borrowing, and the ability to adopt and refine ideas that come from elsewhere. He expresses it this way: “The receptivity of a given culture to ideas and innovations, and the ability of that culture to take these advances and carry them further, has been crucial.”

As prime examples, he cites Britain in early modern times and Japan in the 19th and 20th centuries. The British borrowed ideas from everyone, including the Dutch, the French and the Spanish. While they may not always have been particularly original themselves, they had a knack for adopting and refining.

In effect, this meant that they were never in a position of having to rely entirely on their own inventiveness. When they ventured onto the east coast of North America and faced indigenous groups like the Iroquois, the British could draw on the cultural capital of not only Europe but also China, India and Egypt. The Iroquois, in contrast, had been relatively isolated and so were unable to mobilize the same breadth of resources.

Productive cultural borrowing requires two things: opportunity and receptivity.

Opportunity is significantly enhanced by geography. Navigable waterways and the potential for ocean-going commerce greatly expanded the cultural universe available to Europeans.

Receptivity, on the other hand, is primarily self-determined, even if that determination is unconscious and instinctual. Accordingly, cultures shouldn’t be regarded as museum pieces to be celebrated and preserved, but rather as “the working machinery of everyday life.” As such, they should be judged on their effectiveness to the task at hand.

Sowell, of course, is not without his critics. They see him as primarily an intellectual warrior rather than a truth-seeking academic. In their reckoning, he’s a libertarian conservative who trawls through facts in search of evidence to support a set of pre-determined conclusions. That he may be very smart and extremely knowledgeable only makes him more dangerous.

I’m reminded of the old saw about pots and kettles. If Sowell is a man with an agenda, he’s hardly the only one.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.

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