Wealth, Poverty, and Politics (Book Review)

wpp-ii-coverI’m writing this review from the point of view of Christian Missions. Too often, in my opinion, Christians disconnect themselves from the context of real life, and end up living in a vacuum, mostly unaware of the world around them. Whether it is because of the love for a vision, or an idealistic view of the future, Christians can easily become guilty of the old saying: “You’re so heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good” – although I would change ‘heavenly’ to ‘spiritually’.

“[A] feeling of being on the side of the angels can be a dangerous self-indulgence in a heedless willfulness that is sometimes called idealism. This kind of idealism can replace realities with preconceptions, and make the overriding goal the victory of some abstract vision, in defiance of reality or in disregard of the fate of fellow human beings.”
(Thomas Sowell. Wealth, Poverty and Politics, pg. 420. New York: Basic Books, 2016.)

The above quote was not made by Sowell in any kind of religious/missions context, but the principle still applies. If I were teaching a missiology course at a seminary, I would make this book required reading.

The main question Sowell is asking in this book is: “Why, given that poverty is the default for humanity, are some nations wealthy?” That’s the reverse of what other poverty/economic books ask, which is: “Why are some nations poor?” To Sowell, the answer to that questions is obvious; all of humanity is flawed and ‘fallen’ and it is a ‘miracle’ that some nations get out of that fallen impoverished state at all.

Sowell looks at culture, politics, geography, history, and other factors to determine how some nations and groups of people are able to create wealth. For example, while there are large rivers in Africa, there are no rivers in Africa like the Mississippi river. The Mississippi is a slow moving river traveling along a small decline in elevation. Therefore, it is easy to travel on and transport goods on. In Africa, the largest rivers have many rapids and cascades, making it difficult to travel on. That inability to travel isolates people from economic trade and cultural trade. Some land is better for growing crops than other land. Some countries have oil, others not. Some nations have a culture of honesty and hard work, other nations view deception as necessary.

That’s really what the whole book is: looking at the various different factors of reality and trying to determine how each factor applies to the wealth, or lack thereof, of peoples, groups, and nations. My one criticism of the book is that it is too repetitive, and could have been 100 pages shorter. I read the ‘revised and enlarged edition,’ so perhaps the first edition is 100 pages shorter.

In missions the same method which Sowell uses to explain wealth and poverty can be used to explain why some nations are Christian and others are not. First off, I’m not denying the spiritual aspect of missions. The Holy Spirit kicked off the Great Commission, and continues to guide it along, but the spiritual and the physical are not two different things, but rather are two parts of the same thing: reality. We can not remove ourselves from the context of the world in which we live. Culture, geography, religion, language, etc. all play a factor in the spread of the gospel. That is a fact and can not be denied spiritually. These physical factors need to be taken into account and used as a starting point. As C.S. Lewis said, “Miracles do not, in fact, break the laws of nature.” God’s universe has an inbuilt capacity for the miraculous. “Nothing can seem extraordinary until you have discovered what is ordinary. Belief in miracles, far from depending on an ignorance of the laws of nature, is only possible in so far as those laws are known.” (Lewis)

Why is the Church growing rapidly in the Philippines, but not Thailand? What happened in South Korea, where nearly 30% of the population is Christian, that didn’t happen in North Korea? Why are the western nations, colonized by the British, the most prosperous Christian nations compared to South American nations colonized by Spain? What about India, where Christianity was supposedly introduced there 2000 years ago by the apostle Thomas? Why did Hinduism, and later Buddhism, spread so far from India into South East Asia in the centuries past?

But… this post is just a book review. I’m not going to attempt to answer those questions here.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand how the world works and why it works that way, and, using that knowledge, figure out how to predict the future and make life better for everyone.

I give it 4/5 stars. One star less than 5 for being too repetitive.

Other recommended reading:

A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell

The Missionary Movement in Christian History by Andrew F. Walls


Thomas Sowell Quotes #4

“In the most varied conditions in countries around the world – whether in Third World countries or in economically more advanced countries, and whether in countries where the majority or the minority has the higher skills – those seeking either the leadership or the votes of lagging groups tend to offer them four things:

  1. Assurance that their lags are not their fault.
  2. Assurance that their lags are the fault of some more fortunate group that they already envy and resent.
  3. Assurance that the lagging group and their culture are just as good as anybody else’s, if not better.
  4. Assurance that what the lagging group needs and deserves is a demographically defined ‘fair share’ of the economic and other benefits of society, sometimes supplemented with some kind of reparations for past injustices or some special reward for being indigenous ‘sons of the soil’.

“In addition, racial or ethnic leaders have every incentive to promote the isolation of the groups they lead – despite the fact that isolation has been a major factor in the poverty and backwardness of many different peoples around the world.

“Where a lagging group is concentrated in a particular region of a country, leaders of such groups have incentives to promote secession from the more advanced part of the country… The people themselves may also benefit physically by being spared the public embarrassment and private shame of being visibly outperformed repeatedly by others in the same economy and society.”

~from Wealth, Poverty and Politics, page 268-269

Thomas Sowell Quotes #3

“Where [democratic socialism and communism] differed was in whether the government officials who were to wield this power [to control the nation’s economy] should be elected by the general public, as advocated by democratic socialists, or chosen by some autocratic process, including dictatorship, as advocated by communists.*

“Although both socialist and communist governments began by replacing market economies with centrally planned economies in the twentieth century, by the end of that century most democratic socialist governments and most communist dictatorships had abandoned central planning after experiencing its results. Then, as many economic decisions were transferred from government officials to private individuals and organizations operating in markets, the rate of growth of output usually increased — dramatically in India and China. In both of these countries, this lifted millions of people out of dire poverty, as had happened in various other countries before. Despite the Marxian premise that the poor are poor because they are exploited by the rich, none of the Marxian dictatorships around the world with comprehensive central planning ever achieved as high a standard of living as was common in various market economies in Western Europe, North America or in such Asian nations as Japan and South Korea.

“Despite the indispensability of government for some economic activities and its value for some other economic functions, the limitations of its ability to carry out some more sweeping economic activities under comprehensive central planning are not simply the limitations of particular individuals who wield power, but include inherent limitations on what power itself can accomplish.”

* “Other central planners include fascists, who allowed private ownership of the means of production, but with these owners subject to government dictates. In Germany, a special xenophobic form of fascism was called National Socialism, more commonly known by a contraction of this party’s name in Germany as Nazis.”

~from Wealth, Poverty and Politics, page 257

Thomas Sowell Quotes #2

On Culture…

“Tangible material wealth is only a conversion of pre-existing physical material into a form that is more valued by human beings. The ability [the skills] to do so is the real wealth [which is called human capital].

“Behind such skills are cultural values that give a priority to the acquisition of those skills — and new skills as the old ones become obsolete over time, making the mastering of new skills imperative.

“Different groups living in the same external environment can have very different productivity if their internal cultural values produce very different priorities as to what they want to do, and at what sacrifices of other things.”

~from Wealth, Poverty, and Politics, page 96-97


Deceptive Simplicity


Sometimes we can use simple illustrations to explain more complex ideas. That is fine if the illustration is in fact used to explain the more complex idea. Often that’s not what happens – often we’re just shown the illustration, and because it’s simple, we think we understand the more complex situation automatically.

Take the picture above: On the left, they all have a box, but still the short guy can’t see. So, on the right, the tall guy gives him his box and all is well. That’s justice, see? Simple.

Well, if I were at a game watching over the fence and some guy needed my box to stand on, and I didn’t need it myself, of course I would give mine to him – I’m not a complete jerk. But of course, a baseball game is not what’s really the issue here. We’re talking about wealth, poverty, and social politics – much more complex issues.

How can we translate the simple illustration to the real complex problem?

We ask what each item in the illustration represents.

What do the boxes represent? Money? Power? Knowledge? All three? Something else? Why are there only three boxes? They can’t get more? Why do they all start off with one box each? Why is one guy taller than the other? Do these guys always stay the same height over the course of their lives? How is time illustrated in this picture, if at all?

What does the fence represent? Why is it the height it is? Is it shorter in other places where the short guy could see over with only one box? Why are all three guys standing right next to each other? In the real world, does the tall guy even know the short guy exists? Could the tall guy simple pass his box over to the short guy without someone else getting involved? What if the tall guy doesn’t want to give up his box? What if he’s going to need it to look over a taller section of fence further down?

What does the baseball game represent? Happiness? A house, car, and a flatscreen TV? Or just basic living needs? Who determines what poverty is? What’s being compared to what? Is the standard of living the same for all three guys? Is it essential to watch the game at all? Why don’t they buy tickets and watch inside?

These are just starter questions. As they’re answered more questions will come.

So, try answering all these questions and you’ll see that the situation is much more complicated than what the picture suggests.

Here’s a couple of other versions of the picture I found online…


Ha! Okay, evil conservatives are the problem.


Chain link fences! Of course!