“An excellent scholar! One that hath a head filled
with calves’ brains without any sage in it.”

—John Webster

Thomas Sowell has become a virtual one-man publishing industry, and Preferential Policies is his latest contribution to the Sowell book-of-the-year club. It is not surprising to find that this scattered and woefully disorganized potboiler is part of a “much larger international study of racial and ethnic groups—a study still in progress.” Unfortunately, the wrongheadedness Sowell displays even in the few cases where he seems to have done substantial work (as in Ceylon/Sri Lanka) gives us little reason to think that his major work will be much of an improvement.

An example of his scholarship: in his few brief references to blacks in the United States, Sowell does not seem to realize that his accounts contradict each other. He portrays the condition of blacks (at least outside of government employment) as pretty much a steady march upward from the Civil War until the counterproductive apparatus of affirmative action arrived in the 1960’s; yet he writes of the pervasive Jim Crow streetcar laws passed between 1900 and 1903, laws which clearly marked a worsening of the position of Southern blacks. This case also offers a good example of Sowell’s lack of historical curiosity. If he had looked a bit deeper, he would have discovered the reason for the wave of Jim Crow in the South: the Progressive movement, which disenfranchised black voters. In short. Southern Bourbons (laissez-faire conservatives), who had ruled since Reconstruction, were replaced by Progressives, who intervened in issues of race as well as economics. Ironically, attention to this point would have strengthened Sowell’s free-market approach.

To impose some sort of order on his smattering of countries and examples, Sowell unfortunately chose to separate his cases into three categories: “Majority Preferences [Political Privileges] in Majority Economies,” “Majority Preferences in Minority Economies,” i.e. where minorities are economically dominant, and “Minority Preferences in Majority Economies” (roughly, modern affirmative action policies for chosen minorities). But these organizing principles make little difference in the analysis, nor do they hold up well as distinctions under investigation.

Sowell; for example, finds only two modern cases of Category 1: the American South and South Africa. And yet whites in South Africa are clearly a minority of the population, so that this case should be placed in a fourth category curiously absent from Sowell’s book: “Minority Preferences in Minority Economies.” Furthermore, the argument could be made that whites were a minority in much of the South, so that the U.S. case might come under the fourth category as well. In fact, the only clear-cut existing case of Category 1 is glaringly absent: governmental disabilities (such as prohibition of the ownership of land) placed by the state of Israel on its Arab minority. (Israel is only mentioned in undocumented references to affirmative action—Category 3—laws on behalf of its Sephardic minority. Except that the Sephardics may well be in a majority, which would rudely shift these actions into Category 2.)

Sowell also persistently refuses to face the difficult questions. Thus, in discussing Category 2, “Majority Preferences in Minority Economies,” he confronts situations where the numerical majority acts through government to hobble economically dominant minorities (the Chinese in Malaysia, the Lebanese in Sierra Leone). Sowell criticizes these actions because the “overrepresentation” of, say, Chinese in top Malaysian economic positions, which is obviously not due to government privilege, must have been legitimately achieved by merit. I agree with Sowell, but it is surely incumbent on him to consider the common counterargument: that these minority groups enjoy the support of their own “clannish” networks, that they find, hire, and promote each other, and that, using such networks, they arrive at their socially privileged positions illegitimately and at the expense of the majority. The point is not that this argument is correct, nor that it justifies political action against the “clannish,” only that a serious scholar must consider and rebut it. But it is never mentioned.

For an example of deeply flawed analysis even where considerable work was done, let us take Sowell on Ceylon/Sri Lanka. Before and after Britain granted Ceylon independence in 1948, everything, according to Sowell, was racially and ethnically harmonious. But then, out of the blue, the Sinhalese demagogue S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike injected the irrationality of Sinhalese racism into Sri Lankan politics in 1956, and the result has been bloody conflict ever since. If only all parties pursued “reason” and “compromise,” according to Sowell, they could achieve consensus under free-market and non-group-preference policies, and all except a few troublemakers would be better off.

In this we see not only the vagaries of Thomas Sowell but the deficiencies of free-market economists in general. Thus, to Sowell, problems of language and culture are either bizarre and irrational or else simply masks for the economic privileges of various ethnic groups. And yet, as we have seen most recently in the flare-up over Quebec and its relation to Canada, it makes a big difference to everyone which language is used in courts, schools, and street signs. Most people love their language and resent proceedings in some other tongue. There is nothing peculiar or irrational about that. The governing elite of Ceylon had been educated in English, in British schools. A governing elite speaking and writing English made a great deal of sense so long as Ceylon was a colony of Britain; but it made no sense whatever once Ceylon had become independent Sri Lanka. Seventy percent of the people of Sri Lanka are Buddhists who speak Sinhalese; 20 percent are Hindus who speak Tamil. Only a small fraction of either group speak English, and, to irritate the majority Sinhalese even further, most of the English-speakers happen to be Tamil. There could hardly be a situation more inherently explosive, yet Sowell puts the whole problem down to irrational emotionalism injected into politics by Bandaranaike, an irrationality that somehow took on a continuing life of its own.

The point is that independence for Sri Lanka, while an admirable thing on many grounds, made fierce ethnic conflict inevitable. It is typical of Sowell’s failure to understand linguistic and ethnic conflict that he dismisses the Tamil independence movement as the work of “extremists.” While it is true that Tamil independence—in fact, ethnic partition of the island—would not solve the problems of the ethnically mixed areas in Sri Lanka, it would settle much of the problem by separating the concentrated Tamil area in the north from the rest of the island. Ethnic partition is no panacea, but it greatly reduces the area and scope of social conflict, which is something that freemarketeers are supposed to favor. But Sowell, like most free-market economists, is a utilitarian democrat, and like most utilitarian democrats, he believes that everyone’s ends are roughly the same. In that case, sweet reason can easily prevail. But in what language is that sweet reason to be expressed?

To put it another way: democratic theory tells us that the will of the majority should prevail. But then, over what territorial area should voting expressive of that will take place? And why shouldn’t the Tamils of northern Sri Lanka be able to vote all by themselves? But if the democrat is to take the stern position that no secession or partition must ever be tolerated, then by what logic shouldn’t the territory of the will of the majority be expanded to the entire world? In other words, doesn’t adamant opposition to any secession imply one-world government? And if Thomas Sowell or any other democrat is prepared to go the full way and advocate world government, then in what language should its deliberations take place?

Sowell’s blind spot on the language question also deeply affects his analysis of Assam, a large state in northeastern India. Sowell is openly contemptuous of the affluent though “indolent” Assamese peasantry who, early in British rule, objected strenuously to the competition of the immigrating Bengalis. Hungrier and more enterprising, the Bengalis soon grew to economic dominance in Assam. It is easy to tut-tut self-righteously over the envy and bad sportsmanship of the Assamese, until we realize that Sowell, once again, pooh-poohs the importance of the language problem. For the Assamese understandably bridled at Bengali rapidly becoming the major language of the schools and of the ruling elites. Is this merely irrationality and mean-spiritedness? Is it really so absurd for the Assamese to wish to continue as a majority in Assam and to preserve the dominance of the Assamese language?

In short, mere economic analysis, looking at ethnic conflict solely as a desire for special economic privilege by the less competent, misses a crucial dimension of the problem. And this brings us straight to the immigration question. Is it really impermissible for a home population using its traditional language to wish to retain its majority status in its own homeland? Apparently, Thomas Sowell believes so. But then what would he say to the Latvians (or Estonians or Moldavians) who have seen the Russians employ over the past half-century a deliberate policy of Russification—the destruction of the indigenous language and culture by encouraging the immigration of masses of Russians, who have now reached something like 50 percent of the population in these countries? Would he brusquely dismiss any Latvian attempts to preserve their identity and culture by, say, restricting the voting power of immigrant Russians? And if not, why would he accord Latvians or Moldavians any more privileged a status than the Assamese?

This is not to deny that Sowell the economist brings strengths to his analysis. His insistence that ethnic discrimination takes place far more easily in government than in the free market because the employer: or the landlord must, on the market, pay the costs of his own discrimination is well-taken. In government, on the other hand, the costs can be loaded onto the taxpayers. Sowell also shows that the beneficiaries of affirmative action in the United States are not the majority of blacks but the noisy and relatively well-off black elites. But these arguments are by now old hat, and they don’t begin to make up for the arrogant exclusion of moral and cultural factors from the discussion.

It is a besetting sin of modern economists (whatever their ideology) that they understandably burn to deliver pronouncements on political questions but hold it necessary to cleave to the pose of “value-free scientists,” sternly dismissing all noneconomic positions as absurd, whimsical, and lacking the commanding weight of Science. Even Sowell’s tone follows suit: his writing is clear enough, but delivered in a plodding and monotonous style, unrelieved by any flashes of wit or insight—a style the late British humorist Stephen Potter marvelously described as “plonking.”

And yet, at crucial moments, Sowell’s work is “political” in the worst sense. Central to the entire question of preferential politics and affirmative action, at least in the United States, is the fatal initial step of compulsory integration. For before the mandating of coerced privileges to blacks occurred the first critical intervention: the federal government trampled on the rights of private property by making “discrimination” (first against blacks and now against a never-ending parade of groups) illegal. The right to employ or to rent or to sell must imply the right to exclude from employment or rent or sale; destruction of that right by outlawing discrimination leads to the current flood of horrors as the night follows the day. Free-market economics, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to own property and to contract for that property as one sees fit. Neoconservatism, on the other hand, supports the initial compulsory integration or anti-discrimination stage of civil rights but balks at affirmative action. Thomas Sowell, however, is both a free-market economist and a political neoconservative. Where does he stand on this crucial conflict? Who knows? For once again, he deals with this important question by simply not bringing it up.

What accounts for the continuing overvaluation of Thomas Sowell among the reading public in general and in the conservative movement in particular? Could it have anything to do with the fact that Sowell is one of the very few black free-market economists? Economists are very familiar with the fact that one’s market value is in direct proportion to one’s scarcity, and Sowell is all too scarce a phenomenon. But surely the familiar arguments against affirmative action should apply even here: it is kinder, both to Sowell himself and to the cause of truth and scholarship, to treat him as everyone should be treated—according to individual merit, and in a color-blind manner.


[Preferential Policies: An International Perspective, by Thomas Sowell (New York: William Morrow) 221 pp., $17.95]