Wealth, Poverty and Politics


By Thomas Sowell

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In Wealth, Poverty, and Politics, Thomas Sowell, one of the foremost conservative public intellectuals in this country, argues that political and ideological struggles have led to dangerous confusion about income inequality in America. Pundits and politically motivated economists trumpet ambiguous statistics and sensational theories while ignoring the true determinant of income inequality: the production of wealth. We cannot properly understand inequality if we focus exclusively on the distribution of wealth and ignore wealth production factors such as geography, demography, and culture.

Sowell contends that liberals have a particular interest in misreading the data and chastises them for using income inequality as an argument for the welfare state. Refuting Thomas Piketty, Paul Krugman, and others on the left, Sowell draws on accurate empirical data to show that the inequality is not nearly as extreme or sensational as we have been led to believe.

Transcending partisanship through a careful examination of data, Wealth, Poverty, and Politics reveals the truth about the most explosive political issue of our time.


Chapter 1


Shocked as we may be today by drastic contrasts between the standards of living in modern industrial nations and the standards of living in Third World countries, such disparities have been common for thousands of years of recorded history. These disparities have extended beyond wealth to the things that create wealth—including the knowledge, skills, habits and discipline that have developed unequally in different geographic, cultural and political settings.

The ancient Greeks had geometry, philosophy, architecture and literature at a time when Britain was a land of illiterate tribal peoples, living at a primitive level. Athens had the Acropolis—whose ruins are still impressive today, thousands of years later—at a time when there was not a single building in all of Britain. The ancient Greeks had Plato, Aristotle, Euclid and other landmark figures who helped lay the intellectual foundations of Western civilization, at a time when there was not a single Briton whose name had entered the pages of history.

Scholars have estimated that there were parts of Europe in ancient times that were living at a level that Greece had transcended thousands of years earlier.1 There were other complex civilizations in the ancient world—not just in Greece but also in Egypt and China, for example—at a time when peoples in various parts of Europe and elsewhere were just beginning to learn the rudiments of agriculture.2

Vast disparities in wealth, and in wealth-creating capacity, have been common for millennia. But while large economic inequalities have persisted throughout the recorded history of the human race, the particular pattern of those inequalities has changed drastically over the centuries. While Greeks were far more advanced than Britons in ancient times, Britons were far more advanced than Greeks in the nineteenth century, when Britain led the world into the industrial age.

The Chinese were for centuries more advanced than any of the Europeans, including among their discoveries and inventions the compass, printing, paper, rudders and the porcelain plates that the West called “chinaware” or simply “china.” Cast iron was produced in China a thousand years before it was produced in Europe.3 A Chinese admiral made a voyage of discovery longer than Columbus’ voyage, generations before Columbus’ voyage, and in ships larger and more advanced than Columbus’ ships.4 But the relative positions of China and Europe also reversed over the centuries. Various other peoples, living in various other parts of the world, have had their own eras of leadership in particular fields or in advances across many specialties.

Agriculture, perhaps the most life-changing advance in the evolution of human societies, came to Europe from the Middle East in ancient times. Agriculture made cities possible, while hunter-gatherers required far too much land to provide themselves with food for them to settle permanently in such compact and densely populated communities. Moreover, for centuries cities around the world have produced a wholly disproportionate share of all the advances in the arts, sciences and technology, compared to the achievements of a similar number of people scattered in the hinterlands.5

Because Greeks were located nearer to the Middle East than the peoples of Northern Europe or Western Europe, agriculture spread to the Greeks earlier and they could become urbanized earlier—by centuries—and advanced in many ways far beyond peoples elsewhere who had not yet received the many benefits made possible by urban living. The accident of geographic location could not create genius, but it made possible a setting in which many people could develop their own mental potential far beyond what was possible among bands of hunter-gatherers roaming over vast territory, preoccupied with the pressing need to search for food.

Geography is just one of the influences behind vast economic differences among peoples and places. Moreover, these differences are not simply differences in standards of living, important as such differences are. Different geographic settings also expand or restrict the development of people’s own mental potential into what economists call their human capital by presenting different peoples with access to a wider or narrower cultural universe. These geographic settings differ not only horizontally—as between Europe, Asia and Africa, for example—but also vertically, as between peoples of the plains versus peoples living up in the mountains. As one geographic study put it:

                Mountain regions discourage the budding of genius because they are areas of isolation, confinement, remote from the great currents of men and ideas that move along the river valleys.6

Many mountain regions around the world—whether the Appalachian Mountains in the United States, the Rif Mountains of Morocco, the Pindus Mountains of Greece, the Himalayas or other mountains elsewhere—show very similar patterns of poverty and backwardness. As distinguished French historian Fernand Braudel put it, “Mountain life persistently lagged behind the plain.”7 This was especially so during the millennia before the transportation and communications revolutions of the past two centuries, which belatedly brought more of the progress of the outside world to isolated mountain villages. What these technological revolutions could not bring to the mountains, however, were the previous centuries of cultural development that other people had in more favorable environments. Peoples living in mountains could try to catch up, but of course the rest of the world would not be standing still while they were doing so.

Mountains are just one geographic feature, and geography is just one influence on human development. But whether considering geography or culture, isolation is a recurring factor in poverty and backwardness around the world, whether that is physical isolation or cultural isolation, for any number of particular reasons that will be explored in the chapters ahead.

Whatever the reasons for economic disparities among peoples and nations, such disparities have been as common in modern times as in ancient times. In the twenty-first century, Switzerland, Denmark and Germany have each had more than three times the per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Albania, Serbia or Ukraine, and Norway has had more than five times the per capita GDP of these latter countries.8 Such economic disparities are not peculiar to Europe. In Asia as well, Japan has more than three times the per capita GDP of China and more than nine times the per capita GDP of India.9 Sub-Saharan Africa has less than one-tenth the per capita GDP of the countries of the Euro zone.10

Within nations, as well as between nations, income disparities abound, whether between classes, races or other subdivisions of the human species. Reactions to these economic disparities have ranged from resignation to revolution. Because many people regard these disparities in their own country as strange, if not sinister, it is necessary to note that such disparities are not peculiar to any particular time or place. Therefore explanations of economic differences cannot be confined to factors peculiar to a particular time or place, such as modern capitalism or the industrial revolution,* much less to factors that are politically convenient or emotionally satisfying.

Factors which raise morally momentous issues, such as conquest and enslavement, cannot automatically be assumed to be equally momentous as causal explanations of current economic disparities. They may be or they may not, in particular cases. Peoples or nations may be rich or poor because (1) they produced more or produced less than others or (2) they seized more of what others had produced or had what they produced seized from them. What anyone might prefer to believe at a given place or time has nothing to do with what the hard facts are.

There is no question that the Spaniards’ conquests in the Western Hemisphere, for example, not only brutalized the conquered peoples and destroyed viable civilizations, but also drained vast amounts of existing wealth in gold and silver from the Western Hemisphere to Spain—200 tons of gold and more than 18,000 tons of silver11—the result of the looting of existing treasures from the indigenous peoples and the forced labor of that same population in gold and silver mines. Nor was Spain unique in such behavior. But the question here, however, is: To what extent can transfers of wealth explain economic differences between peoples and nations in the world today?

Spain is today one of the poorer countries in Western Europe, surpassed economically by countries like Switzerland and Norway, which have never had comparable empires. The vast wealth that poured into Spain in its “golden age” could have been invested in its economy or in its people. But it was not. It was spent. Spaniards themselves spoke of gold as pouring down on Spain like rain on a roof, flowing on away immediately.12 Nor has it been uncommon in history for a vast amount of human suffering—whether by conquered or enslaved people—to produce nothing more than a transient enrichment of a ruling elite.

The monumental moral depredations of Spain in the Western Hemisphere had very little causal effect on the long-run prosperity of the Spanish economy. As late as 1900, more than half the people in Spain were still illiterate,13 while most blacks in the United States were literate, despite having been free for less than 50 years.14 A century later, in the year 2000, the real per capita income in Spain was slightly lower than the real per capita income of black Americans.15

Moral questions and causal questions are both important. But confusing one with the other, or imagining that they can simply be combined into one politically or ideologically attractive package, is not a very promising approach to an explanation of economic differences.

Economic disparities among nations are just part of the story of economic inequalities. Large economic disparities within nations also need to be addressed. When considering economic differences among the people of a given country, there is a tendency to see these differences as issues about what is called “income distribution.”16 But real income—that is, money income adjusted for inflation—consists of the goods and services produced in the nation. To look at this output solely from the viewpoint of those receiving money for having produced those goods and services risks needless misconceptions, and serious social problems growing out of misconceptions.

The standard of living of a nation depends more on its output per capita than on the money received as income for producing that output. Otherwise, government could make us all rich, simply by printing more money. By focusing on what is called “income distribution,” many people proceed as if the government can rearrange these flows of money, so as to have incomes become more “fair”—however defined—disregarding what the repercussions of such a policy might be on the more fundamental process of producing goods and services, on which a country’s standard of living depends. But in the vision presented in the media, and often even in academia, it is as if output or wealth just exist somehow, and the really interesting question is how it is distributed.

Sometimes this preoccupation with the receipt of incomes, to the neglect of attention to the production of the output behind that receipt of incomes, can lead to attempts to explain the receipt of very large incomes by “greed”—as if an insatiable desire for vast amounts of money will somehow cause others to pay those vast amounts for the purchase of one’s goods or services.

Among the many possible causes of differences in income and wealth, whether among peoples, regions or nations, one of the most obvious is often ignored. As economist Henry Hazlitt put it:

            The real problem of poverty is not a problem of “distribution” but of production. The poor are poor not because something is being withheld from them but because, for whatever reason, they are not producing enough.17

What seemed obvious to Henry Hazlitt was not obvious to many others, who have had alternative visions, with alternative agendas as corollaries of those visions. The difference between seeing economic disparities as due to differences in the production of wealth and seeing those disparities as due to the transfer of wealth from some people to other people is fundamental.

History shows that either cause of economic disparities can prevail at particular times and places. The approach here will be to seek explanations of disparities in the production of wealth, though the transfer of wealth—whether through conquest or enslavement in the past or through the welfare state domestically or foreign aid internationally today—will also be dealt with.

When exploring the influences of geographic, cultural and other factors affecting the production of wealth, a sharp distinction must be made between influence and determinism. At one time, some people based their explanations of economic disparities among peoples and nations on geographic determinism. Places with rich natural resources, for example, were supposed to be more prosperous than places lacking such resources. It was easy enough for critics to show that this was by no means always the case, nor necessarily true in most cases, since there are poverty-stricken countries like Venezuela and Nigeria with rich natural resources and prosperous countries like Japan and Switzerland with very few natural resources. Such results have led to a dismissal, not only of geographic determinism, but also of geography as a major influence in other senses.

Geography, however, influences economic outcomes in other, very different ways. Moreover, this influence is not necessarily due to particular geographic features considered in isolation, but is often due to interactions among particular geographic features with other geographic features—as well as interactions with other, non-geographic factors such as cultural, demographic, political or other influences.

Even such a simple and undisputed geographic fact as places located nearer the poles having lower temperatures, on average, than places located nearer the equator, does not always hold up when interactions with other geographic factors are taken into account. Thus London, which is hundreds of miles farther north than Boston, has average winter temperatures warmer than those in Boston, and very similar to winter temperatures in American cities hundreds of miles south of Boston.18 The average December daily high temperature in London is the same as the average December daily high temperature in Washington, D.C., which is more than 850 miles farther south than London. The average daily low temperature in Washington is slightly lower than in London for every month from December through March.19 Latitude matters, but so too does the varying warmth of different ocean currents,* and the interaction of the two can create very different outcomes from what either would produce by itself.

When particular geographic factors interact with other, non-geographic factors as well, the outcomes can likewise be very different from what they would be if considering particular geographic, cultural, demographic or political factors in isolation. That is why influence is not the same as determinism. Since many, if not most, economic outcomes depend on more than one factor, the likelihood of all the various factors coming together in such a way as to produce equal levels of prosperity and progress among peoples and nations around the world seems very remote. Radically different geographic settings are just one of the factors making equal economic outcomes unlikely.

Cultures are another factor that differs greatly among peoples and nations, as well as among individuals and groups within a given nation. Like critics of geographic influences, critics of cultural influences have likewise sometimes resorted to an oversimplified picture of these influences. For example, an attempt to discredit the influence of cultural factors in economic outcomes by a well-known study—Why Nations Fail—rejected the idea that the culture inherited from England explained why former colonies of England like the United States, Canada and Australia were prosperous:

            Canada and the United States were English colonies, but so were Sierra Leone and Nigeria. The variation in prosperity within former English colonies is as great as that in the entire world. The English legacy is not the reason for the success of North America.20

While it is true that all these countries are former colonies of England, and thus might be described as having been influenced by the culture of England, it is also true that the people who founded Canada and the United States were Englishmen, descendants of people steeped in the culture of England as it unfolded over the centuries—while people in Sierra Leone and Nigeria were descendants of people steeped in the very different cultures of a region of sub-Saharan Africa for many centuries, and exposed to the culture of England for less than one century, during which their own indigenous cultures were by no means extinguished during the historically brief period when they were part of the British Empire.

Many former English colonies populated by non-English peoples continued to observe some aspect of the culture of England after becoming independent—lawyers wearing wigs in court, for example—but these outward observances of English traditions did not prevent these former colonies from having a fundamentally very different cultural legacy from that of England and a very different economic and political experience going forward after independence.

Believers in genetic determinism likewise seek to discredit cultural factors, which compete with their view that it is innate differences in intelligence among individuals and groups which explain differences in economic disparities among races, nations and civilizations. But genetic determinism, based on undeniable contemporary differences in various kinds of achievements and mental test scores,21 cannot explain equally undeniable radical changes in which particular races, nations or civilizations have been far ahead and which have been far behind in different periods of history—the British and the Greeks being just one example of role reversals out of many.

Nations which went from being poor and backward to reaching the front ranks of human achievement in a century—Scotland, beginning in the eighteenth century and Japan, beginning in the nineteenth century, for example—have changed faster than genetic makeup seems likely to change, and in fact with no indication of any genetic changes at all, though there are many indications of cultural changes in both these cases. Researchers may be frustrated by the fact that the origins of particular cultures may be lost in the mists of time, though their contemporary manifestations are visible. Culture also does not readily lend itself to quantification, as a contemporary genetic determinist has pointed out,22 or to statistical analysis that can show such things as correlations between IQ and Gross Domestic Product, lending an air of scientific precision. But, as statisticians have often pointed out, correlation is not causation. And, as was said long ago, “It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.”23

Whether considering cultural, geographic, political or other factors, interactions of these factors are part of the reason why understanding influences is very different from claiming determinism.

* According to the authors of Why Nations Fail, “World inequality today exists because during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries some nations were able to take advantage of the Industrial Revolution and the technologies and methods of organization that it brought while others were unable to do so.” Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (New York: Crown Business, 2012), p. 271. But economic inequalities among nations did not begin with the industrial revolution, and the international inequalities of ancient times were by no means necessarily less than the inequalities of today.

* The Gulf Stream, originating in the subtropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico, flows northeastward through the Atlantic Ocean past the British Isles, creating milder winters in Western Europe than at the same latitudes in Eastern Europe, Asia or North America.

Chapter 2


                        The world has never been a level playing field, and everything costs.

David S. Landes1

It is obvious that peoples around the world have lived and developed over the millennia in different geographic settings. What is not so obvious is how much those settings have differed from one another, and the economic and social consequences of those differences. Geography is not egalitarian.

Geographic features are not even approximately equal in different regions of the world. The disparities in geographic settings, and in the phenomena which arise from those settings, are at least as great as the income disparities that many people find so surprising. For example, far more tornadoes occur in the middle of the United States than in any other country, or in all of the other countries of the world combined.2 Most of the geysers in the world are in Yellowstone National Park.3 Earthquakes are as common around the rim of the Pacific—in both Asia and the Western Hemisphere—as they are rare around the rim of the Atlantic.4

These natural phenomena are simply illustrations of disparities in the physical effects of great variations in geographic conditions. But there are also major economic and social effects of other disparities in geographically based phenomena. The very land that people stand on is not the same in different places. Highly fertile soils that scientists call mollisols are neither evenly nor randomly distributed around the world. Such soils are found almost exclusively in the temperate zones of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and are scattered very unevenly there, but are virtually non-existent in the tropics.5

This was especially important during the ages when agriculture was the most prevalent and most important of human economic activities—which is to say, for thousands of years, except for some more fortunate regions within the most recent centuries. The economies and cultures that evolved during those millennia did so within very different economic limits in different geographic settings.

The economic effects of geographic differences are both direct, affecting standards of living, and indirect, affecting the development of peoples themselves, depending on whether a given geographic setting facilitates or impedes their communication and interactions with the rest of the human race. No society has had a monopoly on the discoveries and inventions that have advanced human beings, so for a given set of people—whether a class, a race or a nation—to be in touch with what other peoples around the world are doing has been a major advantage.

A larger cultural universe is important not simply because of the products, technologies and knowledge that are transferred—important as these are—but also, and perhaps equally or more important, because people seeing repeatedly how things have been done differently by others in different places can break through the normal human inertia that keeps people doing the same things in the same familiar ways, for generations or even centuries, as happens in many geographically isolated societies. It has been said that “intellectual force” is something that “feeds upon the nutritious food of wide comparisons.”6

Conversely, isolation tends to have the opposite effect. When the Spaniards discovered the isolated Canary Islands in the fifteenth century, they found the people there living much as people had lived in the stone age.7 Similarly when the British discovered the isolated Australian aborigines in the eighteenth century.8 In other isolated settings as well, whether in distant mountain villages or deep in tropical jungles, peoples have been found living as others had lived in earlier centuries or millennia.9

Deserts are another geographic factor isolating peoples. The largest of the world’s deserts by far is the Sahara Desert, which is a negative factor for the peoples of North Africa but a devastating handicap for the peoples to the south, black Africans in tropical, sub-Saharan Africa. This incomparably vast desert—slightly larger than the 48 contiguous states of the United States10—has been for centuries the largest single factor isolating the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa from the rest of the world. The dearth of good harbors in tropical Africa also limited contacts with overseas cultures. As Fernand Braudel put it, “external influence filtered only very slowly, drop by drop, into the vast African continent South of the Sahara.”11

Despite geographic influences, there can be no geographic determinism because, where peoples are in touch with other peoples, even an unchanging geographic setting interacts with changing human knowledge and differing human cultures that have different values and aspirations, producing very different outcomes at different times and places. Most of what are natural resources for us today were not natural resources for the cave man, who had not yet acquired the knowledge of how these things could be used for his own purposes. There have been vast deposits of petroleum in the Middle East from time immemorial. But it was only after science and technology had advanced to a level that created industrial nations elsewhere that the Middle East’s oil became a valuable asset, profoundly changing life in both the Middle East and in the industrial countries.


  • "Transcending partisanship through a careful examination of data, Wealth, Poverty, and Politics reveals the truth about the most explosive political issue of our time."—Conservative Book Club
  • "A calmly phrased but damning indictment of perhaps the world's most rhetorical blunt political instrument: class hatred."—Washington Times
  • "A true gem in terms of exposing the demagoguery and sheer ignorance of politicians and intellectuals in their claims about wealth and poverty.... Dr. Sowell's new book tosses a monkey wrench into most of the things said about income by politicians, intellectuals and assorted hustlers, plus it's a fun read."—Prof. Walter E. Williams, George Mason University, Townhall
  • "In his latest tome, [Sowell] draws from this well of research to do what he has done so well for so long: question basic assumptions behind public policy and follow the facts where they lead him."—Jason Riley, Wall Street Journal
  • "It's a scandal that economist Thomas Sowell has not been awarded the Nobel Prize. No one alive has turned out so many insightful, richly researched books. His latest is another triumph of crackling observations that underscore the ignorance of our economists and policymakers. His take on how culture, geography, politics and social factors affect how societies progress -- or don't -- will rile those addicted to political correctness but leave everyone else wiser."—Steve Forbes, Forbes Magazine
  • "Sowell has done us a great service by placing our current controversies in international context."—National Review
  • "Sowell's latest book, latest of 52 by my count, contains the kind of acute analysis and fearless commentary his readers have relied on since 1971's Economics: Analysis and Issues... his writing is crystal-clear, free of academic jargon and the kind of specialist clutter that often disfigures the writing of academics.... Most of his books remain in print and repay the time of thoughtful readers, as does Wealth, Poverty, and Politics. Santa should be aware of this."—American Spectator
  • "[Wealth, Poverty and Politics] should be one of the most influential works of the 2016 election season. This isn't just a work of characteristic brilliance from Sowell -- it's a laser-guided intellectual weapon aimed at the foundations of liberal envy politics.... Dr. Sowell's book is a masterful fusion of science and common sense on the subject of why some groups are impoverished, and what society can do to lift them out of poverty.... Every presidential candidate should read this book immediately, and require all campaign surrogates to digest it as well.... Wealth, Poverty, and Politics provides the sharp intellectual weapons necessary to cut through that argument, and its wisdom can help conservatives design policies that might actually make a difference."—Breitbart
  • "This...book will enhance and promote ongoing and important debates and discussions."—Booklist
  • "A provocative analysis of the universal causes of economic success and failure.... While Sowell offers no pat solutions, his implied argument that cultural considerations must inform any serious attempt at improving the economic prospects of an underperforming nation or group merits serious consideration."—Kirkus Reviews

On Sale
Sep 6, 2016
Page Count
576 pages
Basic Books

Thomas Sowell

About the Author

Thomas Sowell is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. For more than half a century, his writings have appeared in both popular and scholarly publications, on both sides of the Atlantic, and his books have been translated into a dozen foreign languages. After a career as an economist in the government, academia and the corporate world, he has since 1980 been a scholar in residence at the Hoover Institution, devoting his efforts to research and writing, on subjects ranging from the history and influence of intellectuals to education and social policies in countries around the world. His website is http://www.tsowell.com.

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