World on Fire

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

World on Fire by Amy ChuaI’ve been meaning to read Amy Chua’s World on Fire for some time. Now Foseti reviews it:

Ms Chua’s argument is that countries in the developing world (with a few exceptions) are characterized by: 1) large indigenous populations that are poor and 2) market-dominant minorities. In many countries a small subset of the population controls the vast majority of the country’s wealth. This small subset — the market-dominant minority — also happens to be a distinct racial or ethnic group.

Most countries in the developed world are not characterized by such a relationship — they do not have a market-dominant minority (rather they have a market-dominant majority).

Ms Chua goes on to argue that this difference between the developing and the developed world implies that the policies that created wealth in the developed world — i.e. free markets and democracy — will not work in the developing world.

Instead, free markets will cause more wealth to accrue to the market-dominant minority. While democracy will empower the disgruntled majority. The result is likely to be ugly and violent.

Chua tries to explain with a hypothetical:

Since the creation of Microsoft, the software industry has produced the largest crop of billionaires and multibillionaires in American history.

Now imagine that all these billionaires were ethnic Chinese, and that Chinese-Americans, although just 2 percent of the population, also controlled Time Warner, General Electric, Chase Manhattan, United Airlines, Exxon Mobil, and the rest of America’s largest corporations and banks, plus Rockefeller Center and two-thirds of the country’s prime real estate.

Then imagine that the roughly 75 percent of the U.S. population who consider themselves “white” were dirt poor, owned no land, and, as a group, had experienced no upward mobility as far back as anyone can remember. If you can picture this, you will have approximated the core social dynamic that characterizes much of the non-Western world.

Foseti notes a couple of glaring flaws and wonders if Chua was too politically correct to address the truth:

She is incredibly observant with respect to racial and ethnic differences, yet she fails to notice that the same racial and ethnic groups keep rising to the top regardless of where they are. Is this really an accident? For example, the Chinese are dominant in virtually every southeast Asian economy. China itself — and the other northeast Asian countries — don’t have market-dominating minorities. Isn’t the obvious conclusion that the Chinese are smarter? Jews seem to rise to the top everywhere as well. Ms Chua not only doesn’t draw the obvious conclusion. She rejects it in one sentence.
Ms Chua is also unfortunately pro-democracy. In reading her book, the reader is confronted by lots of violence that springs from democratic movements. It should not be a stretch to conclude that such a system simply will not work in the presence of “diversity” and free markets. Ms Chua refrains from considering any alternatives — as if such a thought is verboten.


  1. My 5/19/2003 review:

    We are, the pundits tell us, living in an age characterized by globalization and democracy. People and capital move ever more freely across national boundaries, while rulers everywhere are more and more obliged to pay attention to the desires of their citizens. The common opinion in the United States, propagated by the big-ticket media, the educational system, and the political establishment, is that both globalization and democracy are wonderful things that will liberate human energies and vanquish ancient rancors.

    Well, here comes Amy Chua to explain that over a large part of the Earth’s surface, globalization and democracy are at loggerheads, and may actually be incompatible. Ms. Chua, who is a professor at Yale Law School, knows whereof she speaks. Her family comes from the small but wealthy Chinese minority of the Philippines. Globalization has been very good indeed for that minority, opening up great new opportunities for them to practice their entrepreneurial skills and allowing them to network more easily with the overseas-Chinese commercial classes in other countries. It has probably benefited non-Chinese Filipinos, too, but by nothing like as much. Seen from the viewpoint of that majority, globalization has permitted the Chinese to soar up into a stratosphere of stupendous wealth, leaving ordinary Filipinos further behind than ever. Now invite that sullen, resentful majority to practice democracy, and what do you think will happen? Prof. Chua tells us. Her wealthy aunt in the Philippines was murdered by her own chauffeur, and the local police — native Filipinos — have not the slightest interest in apprehending the killer. In their report on the incident, under “motive for murder,” they wrote the single word: Revenge.

  2. Phileas Frogg says:

    The inevitability of market-dominant minorities is merely the economic expression of the Iron Law of Oligarchy. The only question is whether that oligarchy will be constituted by a particular class, or a particular people (race/religion/ethnicity/etc).

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