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Thursday, October 1, 1998

Conquests and Cultures

Sowell Insists on Looking at Things as They Really Are

Conquests and Cultures is the final book in Thomas Sowell’s trilogy exploring the formation and importance of human culture. The earlier volumes were Race and Culture (1994) and Migrations and Cultures (1996). With this volume, Sowell brings this great project to its conclusion. The book is superb, and the trilogy a monumental achievement.

Sowell’s topic here is the impact of conquest on culture. “Cultures,” he writes, “are not museum pieces. They are the working machinery of everyday life.” For better or for worse, they change over time and conquest is one of the prime agents of change. Although he refrains from making any direct attack on the trendy idea that all cultures are equal and ought to be “celebrated,” Sowell’s work is a crushing refutation of that notion. As we have come to expect from him, Sowell is interested in a dispassionate, scientific examination of culture, not in jousts with his caterwauling detractors.

The book focuses on four groups—the British, the Africans, the Slavs, and the American Indians. Rather than moralizing about the evils of conquest, which is a worldwide phenomenon not specific to any race or culture, Sowell examines its effects. Subjugation is rarely beneficial to people in the short run, but in the long run, it can have and frequently has had a positive impact on them, by bringing them into contact with cultures more conducive to progress.

The Britons are a fascinating case study. Invading Roman legions subdued the fierce but technologically and organizationally backward Celtic tribes they encountered, and for more than three centuries, England was an outpost of the Roman Empire. The people were denied “self-determination” in that they were ruled from Rome, but they also received a large infusion of Roman culture. This led to the founding of cities (Churchill remarked, “The Romans gave us London.”), heated buildings, improved agriculture, and a legal system that facilitated commerce. Unfortunately, these advantages were not rooted deeply enough to remain in the culture after the Romans left, but Roman culture made life a little less Hobbesian while it was dominant.

The modern British nation-state would, of course, become the pre-eminent practitioner of colonization, and Sowell’s analysis of the effects of British (and other European) colonial rule runs counter to the conventional wisdom. Colonies were not generally profitable, absorbing much more wealth than they produced and requiring large subsidies from the controlling nation’s taxpayers. In other words, colonies were typical government boondoggles. But the key point is the transmission of culture, and Sowell argues that the impact of Western civilization on native peoples was largely, although certainly not entirely, beneficial.

Literally lifesaving was the determined anti-slavery stand of the British government. Most slaves were captured and sold by other Africans, who had been doing that since time out of mind and saw nothing wrong in it. The British, having widely if incompletely accepted the Lockean philosophy of individual liberty, attacked the slave trade and eventually slavery itself. We might say that they were “imposing their values,” to echo a popular leftist complaint, but if it had not been for this cultural clash, slavery would have lasted much longer than it did. (Sowell notes that there are still pockets of slavery in Africa to this day.)

Another cliché among the American chattering class is that the European discovery of the Western hemisphere was an unmitigated disaster for the native peoples. Columbus Day is now an occasion for mourning and self-flagellation. But, Sowell points out, there were benefits as well as costs. Diseases that ravaged the natives were spread by whites—ruthless conquistador and benevolent missionary alike—but so was the ability to combat all disease. Liquor led to much drunkenness, but European manufactured goods, such as cloth, were superior to the products the Indians could produce themselves, and they gladly traded to get them. There certainly was inexcusable brutality against the Indians, but, given the degree of brutality that had existed among Indians for centuries, establishing the Western idea of the rule of law undoubtedly reduced the prevalence of violence in the long run.

The fact that cultural contact gave some benefits to the Indians is no justification for forced resettlements, reneging on treaties, or massacres. Sowell makes no such argument. He merely observes that history is a very mixed bag of causes and effects.

What makes Conquests and Cultures, and indeed all of Sowell’s books, so valuable is his dogged insistence on looking at things the way they really are. Intellectual fashions and emotions are not his concern; facts are. Years ago, when a critic accused him of being indifferent to the poor, he remarked, “Before one can be a partisan of the poor, he must first be a partisan of the truth.” That is the best reason to read the “culture” trilogy—its relentless pursuit of the truth, no matter whom it offends.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

  • Thomas Sowell is the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution.