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Offline Reginald Hudlin

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« on: March 02, 2010, 07:34:22 am »
Sowell: Free Market Fights Discrimination

It's axiomatic: Discrimination accounts for racial inequality in our society, and government action is needed to fix this injustice.

Not so fast, says economist Thomas Sowell. There are many causes of inequality, and discrimination often explains less than we think it does. Furthermore, discrimination is most powerful when it's state policy, because government can force someone else to pay the price of discrimination.

In the free market, businesses are "out to make a buck," and there's a heavy price from discriminating against potential customers and employees based on race.

In part two of a wide-ranging interview with IBD, Sowell explains intellectuals' many misconceptions about race, discrimination and inequality.

IBD: In one of your first books, "Black Education: Myths and Tragedies," you said self-sufficient, intellectually oriented, hardworking black students were a threat to the preconceptions held by white faculty members who feel guilty about discrimination. Do you think such students or even such black people, more generally are a threat to the preconceptions of intellectuals?

Sowell: Yes. And they are a tremendous threat to the more militant blacks on campus who make a determined effort to keep them out. I mentioned in that book a young woman who did very well on the SATs whose mother was a maid and father an alcoholic, and the university admissions committee tried to keep her out.

The self-interest of the academic black establishment I think is very clear in that black people like that student make it harder for them to mobilize recruits to their causes. Also, people like that don't minister to the need of white liberals to feel like they're doing something to get rid of their guilt.

IBD: Do you think that was part of the motivation behind the attacks on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas when he was nominated?

Sowell: Perhaps. But I'm also reminded of another situation that occurred at Harvard (involving) a black student who had come from a poor educational background. He had made a special effort to raise his educational level and wanted to attend a special summer program at Harvard for people who were going on to medical school. He received a form letter saying that he didn't need to be in this program because he had done so well.

I then wrote to the head of the program that sent that letter saying, "You need to get the best people you can into the Harvard Medical School. If this guy needs some more help, for goodness' sake give him some more."

It's as if they didn't want to cultivate the most fertile ground. They wanted to make the desert bloom because that's more of an achievement for them. I was surprised to receive a letter from David Riesman at Harvard saying that he had argued the same thing even earlier to no avail. That told me that these people were just hellbent on doing things this way. Of course, that leads to such things as the Patrick Chavis case, as you may or may not be aware of.

IBD: That doesn't ring a bell.

Sowell: Patrick Chavis was a black student admitted to the medical school at the University of California, Davis, at about the same time Allan Bakke was denied admission. (Chavis was admitted under an affirmative-action program and may have been given the spot denied to Bakke, who later challenged the policy in court.) And for years thereafter, people pointed out that Chavis went to the black community to practice medicine.

He was lionized for years until one year the death of one of his patients caused his case to come before the state medical board, which suspended his license. After a year of investigation, they cancelled his license permanently.

And going back to the case at Harvard, I closed my letter to this guy by asking, "Do you want to send your children to doctors who are like the ones you are accepting or the ones you are turning away?" It shows that the ostensible beneficiaries of these ideas and programs take a back seat to the need of the anointed themselves to maximize their own sense of importance, brilliance or whatever.

IBD: Now in your writing about race, one theme is that discrimination is usually due to government policy, not free markets. Why is that?

Sowell: Because there is a price to be paid in the free market and no price to be paid in government. Economists would say that's pretty obvious.

I don't know if you are aware, but the case Plessy v. Ferguson was a put-up job between Plessy and the railroads. First of all, seven-eighths of Plessy's ancestors were white, so if he'd simply gone into a railroad car and sat there, he would've simply gone to his destination, got off, and there would be no case. Nobody would have seen any reason to question why Plessy was sitting in the white car. Plessy's attorney had to inform the railroad in advance so that the railroad could have its attorney on site and there could be a case.

The railroad's problem was that if they had one railroad car that was two-thirds full, and whites and blacks sit indiscriminately, that's fine. But if you have to separate cars for whites and blacks, and each car is only one-third full, you are going to have the extra cost of the car and the cost of the extra fuel to pull that extra car. The railroads really hated this stuff and they were happy to collude with Plessy to bring this case.

Furthermore, seating blacks in the back of buses was not something that happened since time immemorial. It happened at various times between the 1890s and first decade of the 20th century. The bus companies, which were privately owned at that time, fought tooth and nail against this stuff. They fought in the state legislatures to prevent the law from being passed. They took cases into the courts to get the law declared unconstitutional. And when they failed that they simply dragged their feet in enforcing it.

So, for years after these laws passed, blacks got on buses and sat wherever they pleased. It was only when the local political authorities begin to crack down and arrest the drivers and threatened to arrest the heads of the bus companies that it was enforced.

Another example: The black economist Walter Williams lived in South Africa at the height of apartheid, lived in a neighborhood that was legally supposed to be for whites only. And he was not the only one. I talked to the guy from South Africa, a white, who helped Walter get this place. He didn't want Walter to move into a neighborhood with lots of hostility for him and his family. So, he knocks on the door of the guy Walter would be living next to and asked him if he had any problem with a black man living in the house (next door). And the man replied, "Well, since there is a black man already living on the other side, why would I have a problem?"

South Africa during apartheid is a classic example of the costs of discrimination and the incentives that creates. Hundreds of construction companies were fined for violating the apartheid laws because it would cost them money (not to hire blacks). (The people who ran these companies) may have had the same views as the people who passed these laws, but the people who passed these laws didn't pay any price for it.

IBD: In "Markets and Minorities," you said collusion by Southern white employers against blacks immediately after the Civil War wasn't very successful. Why not?

Sowell: Particularly in an agricultural society, you have a fixed window of opportunity to get your crops planted in the ground. So, the white farmers would get together (like a cartel) to determine what they'd pay black workers, which would be below the market rate. But one of the problems with all cartels is that what is in the best interest of a cartel is seldom in the interest of every member of the cartel. So members of cartels cheat on each other.

What happens is, one farmer decides he's going to get the best black workers, (so) he offers (black workers) 10% more than what the cartel agreed to. Well, then the guy down the road who realized he is having a hard time getting anyone hired, and the planting season is coming upon him, decides he is going to offer 15% more. And before you know it the whole thing falls apart.

IBD: Another theme is that it is unreasonable to assume that different racial and ethnic groups will have similar economic outcomes. Why?

Sowell: My mind so boggles by that presumption, I hardly know where to begin. I think it is virtually inconceivable that different races could have the same skills, approaches or anything. For one thing, races originated in different parts of the planet. They originated in different geographic settings, and those different geographic settings affected the course of history. Geography alone is enough to preclude that assumption, but geography is not alone.

But let's just look at geography. When the Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere, they found there were no horses and no oxen anywhere. If you take these heavy-duty beasts of burden out of Europe, the history of how that society evolved would be radically different, because horses were essential to everything from transportation to farming to warfare.

There were no wheeled vehicles in the Western Hemisphere. Some people say, well, they hadn't thought of the wheel. But there were wheels on the toys of Mayan children. The big advantage of wheeled vehicles is when there are heavy-duty beasts of burden to pull them. So, there was no great incentive even where the wheel existed (in the Western Hemisphere) for it to be put into all the applications that it was put into in Europe and Asia. So there was no way they could have the same type of society in the Western hemisphere as they had in Europe and Asia.

Think about it. How would people in the Himalayas have acquired seafaring skills? How would people in Iceland know how to grow pineapples? Geography alone precludes equal outcomes among different races.

IBD: In your writings on race, you don't give a lot of weight to discrimination as an explanation of unequal outcomes among groups. Why?

Sowell: I guess it would depend on the context. If you are talking about the age of slavery, then it makes a huge difference. It is an empirical question that would vary with the context. Everywhere that I've examined closely, I've found that discrimination explains a lot less than you might think.

For example, people talk about how there weren't many blacks in various occupations (in the U.S.). But if you look at how many blacks ever went to college when Gunnar Myrdal wrote "An American Dilemma" during the 1940s he mentioned how recent it was for most blacks to go to high school there weren't that many blacks to discriminate against in various professions.

Now, it's true that it was quite late in the day before there were any black professors teaching chemistry at major universities. However, it's also true that there were hundreds of black chemists in private industry. Again, for the same reason: In private industry you're out to make a buck, and if this guy can make you a buck you're liable to overlook a lot of things. But in a university you're spending somebody else's money, so there's no cost to discriminate against blacks or, say, Jews.

I haven't been able to get information on exactly when the first Jew was employed by an Ivy League college, but it was considered a landmark thing when Arnold Trilling received tenure at Columbia. And Columbia had existed for over 150 years at the time.

IBD: Another theme in many of your books is that things that are considered axiomatic truths by the intelligentsia should instead be treated as hypotheses to be tested against the evidence. Did you develop that technique by yourself?

Sowell: I just observed it by reading a lot of what was being said about race. For a long time, I resisted writing about race. For the whole first decade of my career I published no book and no article on race, even though this was the 1960s and everyone was urging me to do so. And I was interested in it and wrote letters to the editors about it. But my thought was I had no special training on this and being black did not make me an expert, unlike so many other people seem to think.

It was only when I began to read some of the stuff that the supposed experts were saying that I realized what absolute hogwash it was. And then I began to think, well, if this is what the experts are saying, maybe it's time for the amateurs to get into this. And then I began to do research on race and so on.

IBD: Recently you wrote "I seldom read fiction and I tend to regard autobiographies as fiction." Should we apply that warning to your autobiographical works ("A Personal Odyssey" and "A Man Of Letters")?

Sowell: That's an interesting notion. My autobiographical stuff is mostly based on correspondence. When I rely on memory it's unreliable, and very often I've had to correct myself. Fortunately, I had four file cabinets full of correspondence going back to the 1950s that I was able to consult and verify what was said at the time and what things were and weren't. Of course, it's always subjective, but I think I've minimized the amount of fiction.

IBD: Will you have a new book coming out in the next year or two? What's your next project?

Sowell: Well, this is the first time in many years I have no new book project on the agenda. I'm hoping, although my friends are all quite cynical about this, that "Intellectuals and Society" will be my last new book. I've said what I've had to say and I want to spend more time with photography. (Dr. Sowell's photography can be viewed at

I plan to update new editions of books I've already written and to collect columns or other writings of mine, but I really have no new book initiative. So you can put me down as a "has-been" (laughs).