NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Origins Of Inequality

October 5, 1998

A variety of factors and conditions work to assure that people will be different from one another and, as such, unequal. That is the thesis behind a speech recently delivered by economist Thomas Sowell before the Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco.

Huge disparities in income and wealth between racial and ethnic groups, regions, nations, continents and whole civilizations can be traced to factors as diverse as education, geography, urbanization, demographics, culture and natural wealth, to name a few. Sowell contends the question should not be why people are unequal, but why equality was ever expected in the first place.

Some examples:

  • Educational inequality is demonstrated by the fact that in the 1960s the Chinese minority in Malaysia earned more than 100 times as many engineering degrees as the Malay majority.
  • For centuries in Slavic Eastern Europe, the populations of the cities were predominantly non-Slavic, with the Slavs primarily living as peasants in the countryside, isolated from the acquisition of urban skills.
  • Thus, when they emigrated to the U.S. from Eastern and Southern Europe, they earned just 15 percent of the income of immigrants from Norway, Holland, Sweden and Britain, due to their lower skill levels.
  • The effect of geographic isolation is exemplified by the experience of the Spaniards, who found people of a Caucasian race living at a Stone Age level when they invaded the Canary Islands in the 15th century.

The availability of harbors and navigable waterways has had a tremendous influence on cultural development and the civilizing process, Sowell points out. The rivers of Western Europe connect wide areas economically and culturally -- fostering trade and the exchange of ideas. But the rivers of tropical Africa are navigable only for short stretches due to natural barriers such as waterfalls. They also are subject to seasonal droughts, while Europe's rivers are constantly fed by melting snow and reliable rains.

Europe's coastline continually twists and turns, creating numerous harbors, while Africa's coastline is smooth, with few harbors. So Europe developed a seafaring tradition along its shores, which Africa never could -- assisting the former in its civilizing process.


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