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. (more…)