Quote of the Week: Different Cultures Do Different Things Well

The most sweeping denials of performance superiority [between cultures] have been based on redefining them out of existence as culturally biased “perceptions” and “stereotypes.” Those who take this approach of cultural relativism acknowledge only differences but no superiority. Yet all cultures serve practical purposes, as well as being symbolic and emotional, and they serve these practical purposes more efficiently or less efficiently — not just in the opinions of particular observers but, more importantly, in the practices of the societies themselves, which borrow from other cultures and discard their own ways of doing particular things.

Western civilization, for example, has abandoned Roman numerals for mathematical work, in favor of a very different numbering system originating in India and conveyed to the West by Arabs. The West has also abandoned scrolls in favor of paper, and scribes in favor of printing, in each case choosing things originating in China over things indigenous to Western culture. All over the world, people have abandoned their own bows and arrows for guns, whenever they had a choice. Much of the story of the advancement of the human race has been a story of massive cultural borrowings, which have created modern world technology.

Thomas Sowell, The Quest for Cosmic Justice, pp. 60 – 61

Five Reasons You Should Read This Book

The Quest for Cosmic Justice, by Thomas Sowell, 1999
  1. It’s short (189 pages, not counting index and endnotes). You can read it in a weekend.
  2. The author is a black man, educated at Harvard, Columbia and University of Chicago, and was a Marxist in his 20s but is no more. In the video below, you can see him give some of his story.
  3. Endnotes! There are gobs of endnotes citing books, Supreme Court cases, and other sources. Besides backing up the book’s claims, these are a useful source for further reading. Sowell cites his own works a lot, but we can hardly blame him considering how prolific of a writer he’s been. I now fully intend to read through his entire corpus of work.
  4. Amazingly quotable. I thought about posting quotes from this book this week, but was afraid I would get to posting long sections and then just the entire book. Below, I will include a quote from each of the book’s four parts … but this is minimal, as each section has many passages that are equally weighty, clever, and succinct.
  5. Happy Fourth of July! One of the heroes of this book is the American constitutional system: mistrust of all authority; limited government; and the rule of law, not of people. You probably can’t order Quest in time to read it on the 4th, but always remember that you heard about it in time for that holiday.

Quotations from The Quest for Cosmic Justice

From Part I, “The Quest for Cosmic Justice”:

Since “undeserved inequalities” extend beyond prejudicial decisions made by others to encompass biological differences among individuals and groups — the fact that women are usually not as large or physically strong as men, for example — and profound differences in the geographical settings in which whole races and nations have evolved culturally, not to mention individual and group differences in child-rearing practices and moral values, cosmic justice requires — or assumes — vastly more knowledge than is necessary for traditional justice. …

With justice, as with equality, the question is not whether more is better, but whether it is better at all costs. We need to consider what those who believe in the vision of cosmic justice seldom want to consider — the nature of those costs and how they change the very nature of justice itself.

Quest, p. 13, 27

From Part II, “The Mirage of Equality”:

The difficulties of satisfying envy … increase exponentially when there is no unambiguous way to say that A is better off than B in whatever dimension each values. Many parents, for example, are familiar with the situation in which each child thinks that a sibling is being treated better by the parents and therefore each has envy and resentment of the other or others. Nor can an objective third party, if one could be found, necessarily be able to declare which person has the net advantage when one is more fortunate according to one array of characteristics and possessions and the other is more fortunate according to another array of characteristics and possessions. Moreover, even in cases in which a third party regards A as clearly better off than B, it does not follow that either A or B will value and weigh the particular advantages and disadvantages the same way as this third party, much less the same as each other.

Quest, p. 91

From Part III, “The Tyranny of Visions”:

On issue after issue, the morally self-anointed visionaries have for centuries argued as if no honest disagreement were possible, as if those who opposed them were not merely in error but in sin. This has long been a hallmark of those with a cosmic vision of the world and of themselves as saviors of the world, whether they are saving it from war, overpopulation, capitalism, genetic degradation, environmental destruction, or whatever the crisis du jour might be. Given this exalted vision of their role by the anointed visionaries, those who disagree with them must be correspondingly degraded or demonized.

Quest, p. 103

From Part IV, “The Quiet Repeal of the American Revolution”:

There is no way to specify in precise general rules, known beforehand, what might be necessary [for employers] to achieve results that would meet the standards of cosmic justice. In short, there can be no rule of law for such things and courts seeking cosmic justice can no longer strike down such laws as “void for vagueness.” These edicts do not happen to be vague, they are necessarily vague. They could not be otherwise. … For purposes of cosmic justice, discrimination must be defined by retrospective results, whether “disparate impact” or “hostile environments” or failure to provide “reasonable accommodation.” This is only one of many ways in which the quest for cosmic justice is incompatible with the rule of law.

Quest, pp. 159 – 160

Happy Birthday, Prof. Sowell!

P.S. Serendipitously, after I had already written and scheduled this post, I found out that this week is Prof. Sowell’s 90th birthday! I am beyond happy that he has had such a long and prolific career. Click here for an econ blog’s birthday post about him which summarizes his thinking and makes some suggestions about how we can apply his principles of “traditional justice” (as opposed to cosmic justice) to reduce bad outcomes for black Americans.