Conquests and Cultures

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

There is nothing particularly new in Thomas Sowell’s books except the willingness to state boldly facts and theories that run counter to conventional wisdom. Among his currently unfashionable ideas is the proposition that the histories of individual groups and states conform to general patterns of human behavior. Conquests and Cultures completes the trilogy begun in 1994 with Race and Culture and followed in 1996 by Migrations and Culture. The thesis of all three is that “racial, ethnic, and national groups have their own respective cultures, without which their economic and social histories cannot be understood.” These cultures represent traits that can be useful or even necessary in one time or place and that tend to persist even when the conditions that produced them change. In some cases, this gives advantages to one group in competition with others; in other cases, it places a group at a tremendous disadvantage.

The theme Sowell elaborates in this volume is the impact of conquest upon subject peoples. Again, this is nothing particularly new—historians have long deplored the horrible process by which the Romans acquired their empire, then gone on to praise the long-term benefits of peace and good government that the Pax Romana brought to all their subjects. As one character in the 1979 film comedy Monty Python’s Life of Brian asked, “apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” Peace, of course. Modern nationalists, like ancient ones, say that this is not enough: better to live in independent anarchy and poverty than to be ruled by foreigners.

In one provocative passage after another, Sowell demonstrates that European colonialism had similar impacts wherever it appeared: short-term horrors in the beginning, followed by long-term benefits. Even more provocatively, he gives the colonialists the benefit of having some good intentions in acquiring their empires, especially the British desire to end the slave trade. It was certainly not money that motivated most colonialists, because colonies cost money, and the colonial powers gave independence to their conquered subjects quickly once World War II eliminated the surplus wealth that had allowed them the luxury of overseas empires.

Did the colonies bring in wealth? Not unless you fudge the facts, as did Lenin, by mixing in European investment in the United States with investment in backward regions. The evidence suggests that the colonies were the beneficiaries of European largess rather than sources of European prosperity. Sowell’s arguments rest essentially on common sense rather than abstruse economic analysis. If the colonial states had been plundered of their wealth by the Europeans, then the post-colonial states should have been wealthier once they attained independence and the European states poorer. In fact, almost universally, the opposite occurred.

Sowell does not linger to discuss the theories of neo- colonialism, which he considers self-serving propaganda by leftists and nationalists. He blames the poverty of post-colonial states on the political, social, and economic policies adopted by the new rulers—policies they learned from European intellectuals and academics in their youth. In effect, the post-colonial world served as a gigantic social laboratory that revealed how destructive state control is, no matter how noble or idealistic the motivations are.

On the other hand, freedom by itself is no guarantee of prosperity. Freedom is only a condition that allows group characteristics to flourish or mutate. Sowell admires groups, especially minorities, that consciously make the adaptations to new circumstances that permit them first to survive, then to prosper. The Roman and British models demonstrate that economic and social freedom, but not political freedom or democracy, most assuredly are essential conditions for the potential to make successful adaptations.

Why are some groups more creatively successful than others? In a thoroughly old-fashioned manner, Sowell insists that the most important determining factor on culture has been geography. In his most brilliant chapter, Sowell demonstrates that Africa really never had a chance to create the kind of civilization that could defend itself against exploitation by Arabs and Europeans. First of all, there was a lack of navigable waterways that could...

(The entire section is 1846 words.)