Back in 1983, economist Thomas Sowell wrote The Economics and Politics of Race, an in-depth look at how different ethnic and immigrant groups fared in different countries throughout human history. He noted that some groups, like the overseas Chinese, Japanese, and Jews, tended to thrive economically no matter where they went, bringing new skills to the countries that they arrived in and often achieving social acceptance even after facing considerable hatred and violence. Other groups, like the Irish and the Africans, tended to lag economically and found it difficult to become prosperous.
Sowell explained many of these differences by looking at the cultures both of the immigrant groups and of the dominant powers in the countries that they moved to. The Chinese, Japanese, and Jews, for example, valued work. They often arrived in countries with little more than the clothes on their backs, but they worked long and hard hours in menial labor and saved money scrupulously to make life better for their children. Even if they lacked social acceptance, they were allowed the freedom to develop their talents and contribute to the economic life of their new homes.
Irish and African cultures were never offered these opportunities. Ireland’s feuding lords had prevented hard work from being rewarded in Ireland, a situation that only got worse with British occupation. Sowell shows how Africans were similarly discouraged from working hard because slavery and the Jim Crow Era made it impossible for skills and effort to pay off in better standards of living. So long as hard work never paid off, there was no incentive for Irish or African cultures to emphasize entrepreneurship, and the members of these ethnic groups suffered from poverty rates much higher than those of other populations in the places they lived.
Fast forward to 2009. With many of the institutional barriers to the advancement of ethnic minorities gone from most countries, historically disadvantaged groups are catching up with the general population in economic terms. Pope Benedict revisited the theme of economics and culture in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, coming to similar conclusions as Sowell does about the role that culture plays in the development of the human person.
The Pope and the professor mean different things when they refer to “development.” Sowell’s research focuses on empirical economics, looking at standards of living and average incomes to determine how well off some group of people is, and looking at skills to determine how developed any single person is. The Pope measures development in terms of how much a society permits the full flourishing of the human person. Since every person has a vocation from God to contribute his gifts to the betterment of humanity, development recognizes a person’s natural rights and letting him be free to do good.
Pope Benedict agrees with Sowell that some cultures are better suited to fostering human development than others: “Some religious and cultural traditions persist which ossify society in rigid social groupings, in magical beliefs that fail to respect the dignity of the person, and in attitudes of subjugation to occult powers. In these contexts, love and truth have difficulty asserting themselves, and authentic development is impeded.” Cultures that value social mobility, the dignity of the person, and the role of free will in determining a person’s future are suited to human flourishing.
These are the same characteristics that Sowell notes as helping some ethnic groups to advance more quickly in the economy than others. Those cultures that insist on rigid boundaries between certain types of people will not be able to enjoy the fruits of everyone’s creativity and productivity. Afrikaners (people of Dutch descent in South Africa) under apartheid, for example, believed that it was unacceptable for native Africans to hold many jobs. Instead of letting Africans develop the gifts that God gave them and sharing with them in prosperity, the Afrikaners chose segregation. South Africa was poor under apartheid: neither Afrikaners nor native Africans advanced economically.
Caritas in Veritate similarly notes that cultures have to be oriented towards communion in society, so that the gifts of everyone contribute to the well-being of everyone. Cultures that choose to emphasize isolation and separation, on the other hand, “cut (people) off from one other in a search for individual well-being, limited to the gratification of psychological desires.” Authentic human development is missing when society is cut up into lines that prevent people from freely interacting and cooperating in the marketplace for their mutual benefit.
As Americans, we should take up the Pope’s challenge to take a good, hard look at our own culture: “Discernment is needed regarding the contribution of cultures and religions, especially on the part of those who wield political power, if the social community is to be built up in a spirit of respect for the common good.” As with any culture, there are some aspects of American culture that honor the common good and that promote real development. Our tradition of liberty in the context of morality honors the dignity of the human person. Our beliefs in free action unrestricted by the government give people the free choice that makes virtue possible. Our distaste for unjust privilege and belief in the equality of all people make social mobility a deeply-entrenched value.
On the other hand, Pope Benedict warns that “Every culture has burdens from which it must be freed and shadows from which it must emerge.” America also has a history of exclusion. African Americans were held in slavery for hundreds of years here, and only recently did they gain full legal rights protected by the government. At various points, Mexicans, Chinese, Jews, and other immigrant groups have been treated brutally by Americans unwilling to open society to people with new gifts to offer. Secularism also poses a grave threat to authentic development: without values and morals guiding people’s free choices, liberty becomes license and freedom can become an excuse for depravity.
Both Thomas Sowell and Pope Benedict XVI have done excellent work showing how important culture is for the economic and human development of people and societies. The current economic crisis is a time of reckoning. Americans would do well to use it to recall what in our culture permits us to be truly free and develop as people, and what in it needs to be cast off in order to truly honor dignity and free will. By renewing our belief in a virtuous and free society, we can promote the spirit of entrepreneurship and responsibility that leads to authentic development and social prosperity.