Review of “World on Fire” by Amy Chua

I got an email from a reader suggesting that I read this book and it was a very good suggestion. The book is seriously flawed, but Ms Chua has some wonderful insights. One can’t help but wondering if she knows of the flaws but was too afraid of the PC police to finish her argument.

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. Or as she puts it:

the sobering thesis of this book is that the global spread of markets and democracy is a principal, aggravating cause of group hatred and ethnic violence throughout the non-Western world. In the numerous societies around the world that have a market-dominant minority, markets and democracy are not mutually reinforcing. Because markets and democracy benefit different ethnic groups in such societies, the pursuit of free market democracy produces highly unstable and combustible conditions.

Perhaps an example will help clarify the concept of a market-dominant minority:

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.

Ms Chua discusses this dynamic in many countries, including Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Zimbabwe, Burma, Vietnam, Indonesia, various Indian states, Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Peru, Guatamela, Ecuador, Mexico, Venezuela, Russia, Angola, Namibia, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Guinea, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Egypt, etc. She also discusses regional dominance by minorities in East and West Africa and the Middle East (Jews, in the last). Her analysis can also be extended to view Americans as a global market-dominant minority.

The list is quite impressive and the case is rather overwhelming. Ms Chua’s lens does a remarkably good job explaining conflict throughout much of the developing world. She even argues that most "nationalizations" are less about socialism than about taking assets from market-dominant minorities.

She makes many other interesting points along the way. For example, she argues that the US promotes very free markets and very universal elections throughout the developing world. Both are terrible ideas if the countries are characterized by the presence of market-dominant minorities (though they may work in cases where there are no market-dominant minorities, as with the Asian Tiger economies).

While the analysis appears not to be relevant to most developed economies, she notes that demographics in most developing countries are changing. Whites in the US for example, may be a market-dominant minority by the end of this century. The list of successful democracies with dominant racial minorities is not an encouraging one (since I’m pretty sure there are no countries on the list).

Unfortunately, Ms Chua’s analysis falls short on two accounts.

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:

It seems safe to say that this entrepreneurial dynamism—together with frugality, hard work, willingness to delay gratification, and intense desire to accumulate wealth almost as an end in itself—cannot be traced to any single cultural, much less genetic source.

Actually after reading her book, it seems incredible unsafe to say anything like that. The evidence to the contrary is overwhelming.

Drawing the obvious conclusion – that racial differences exist and that some racial groups will therefore consistently be more successful than others in a free market – makes her argument even more powerful and sobering. Free markets will continue to benefit some groups at the perceived expense of others. Freeing markets will therefore continually and irreconcilably exacerbate racial tensions. That is some heady shit. Too bad no one is allowed to discuss it.

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.

These flaws aside, the book is worth reading for its principled account of problems caused by diversity. Ms Chua should be applauded for being interested in racial differences and being willing to write about them. One only wishes she would have followed her conclusions to the end.


12 Responses to Review of “World on Fire” by Amy Chua

  1. Red says:

    Reading the world on fire was the first book that gave me some insight on why jews are hated and killed all over the world. It seems to be a human trait to lord economic success over other the groups even when you don’t have the military power to protect yourself.

    Her Thailand example also gives hope that creating a unified national culture through repression of the middleman minority culture is probably the way to achieve a unified society.

  2. Steve Johnson says:

    The interesting thing is that her arguments give very good support to two completely forbidden (and intertwined) conclusions:

    1) Democracy is completely dysfunctional
    2) Racial and ethnic groups are different in ability and temperament

    Two things cover up (1) – all of the highest ability groups practice democracy (they have the ability to do so without self-destructing) and that belief in (2) is forbidden! It’s funny but they’re mutually reinforcing.

  3. patung says:

    In Indonesia though historically it has been the dictators and the military who have been most likely to exploit anti-Chinese sentiment, what there is of it, … at least since 1998 I’m not aware of any political party, large or small, making any attempt to do so.

  4. Bruce Charlton says:

    It sounds like she got a lot of these ideas from Thomas Sowell during the mid-1990s – something like Race and Culture: A World View (1994) – does she happen to reference him?

    Sowell is brilliant at describing the facts, but will not accept a genetic explanation.

    However, he is an honest man, and does put forward a reasonable attempt at a cultural explanation.

    But in my view his explanation is in fact already (long since) refuted in the IQ literature of adoption studies etc.

    Or, at least, cultural explanations are already and long-since refuted at the commonsense level of analysis – but of course, if you keep introducing auxiliary hypotheses to deal with refutations, then there is no end to the process.

    BTW there is a recent little known but extremely interesting compilation of data highly relevant to this issue by Richard Lynn in a book called The Global Bell Curve.

    I recommed it very highly – in my opinion it is even better (in a scientific sense) than his very influential IQ and the Wealth of Nations.

    • Foseti says:

      She does have some footnotes which reference Sowell’s work.

      I did read *The Global Bell Curve* ( and enjoyed it.

      I also can’t understand how people as smart and observant as Sowell and Chua don’t draw the obvious conclusion.

      • Bruce Charlton says:

        Just read your review – we felt exactly the same about it.

        The amazing thing about the book is that Lynn really sets up the hypothesis so that it could have been refuted by any single one of a large number of countries – yet it never was refuted.

        You really don’t get more conclusive than that. Yet it still is apparently not enough!

        From which I infer that there never will be enough evidence, that political correctness is de facto un-refutable, and that that degree of denial of reality cannot survive.

      • Foseti says:

        I think that is the only reasonable inference.

      • Steve Johnson says:

        I’ve been testing for this in comment sections with this pair of quotes from Rushton and Jensen:

        “Studies on over 700 participants show that individuals with larger brain volumes have higher IQ scores. About two dozen studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure the volume of the human brain have found an overall correlation with IQ of greater than .40 (Rushton & Ankney, 1996; P. A.Vernon, Wickett, Bazana, & Stelmack, 2000). The correlation of .40 using MRI is much higher than the .20 correlation found in earlier research using simple head size measures, although the .20 correlation is also reliable and significant. Rushton and Ankney (1996) reviewed 32 studies correlating measures of external head size with IQ scores or with measures of educational and occupational achievement, and they found a mean r = .20 for people of all ages, both sexes, and various ethnic backgrounds, including African Americans.”

        “Race differences in average brain size are observable at birth. A study by Rushton (1997) analyzed recorded head circumference measurements and IQ scores from 50,000 children in the Collaborative Perinatal Project followed from birth to age 7 (Broman, Nichols, Shaugnessy, & Kennedy, 1987). Using the head circumference measures to calculate cranial capacity at birth, 4 months, 1 year, and 7 years, at each of these ages, the Asian American children averaged larger cranial volumes than did the White children, who averaged larger cranial volumes than did the Black children. Within each race, cranial capacity correlated with IQ scores. By age 7, the Asian American children averaged an IQ of 110; the White children, 102; and the Black children 90. Because the Asian American children were the shortest in stature and the lightest in weight while the Black children were the tallest in stature and the heaviest in weight, these average race differences in brain-size/IQ relations were not due to body size.”

        To me, this is irrefutable proof of the genetic cause of individual and racial differences in intelligence. Brain size differences are pretty clear.

        The response? People ignore it or jump right to accusations of racism.

        In practice, I think lots of people who read that silently change their minds and that most of the denial of the genetic explanation from prominent people comes from fear. When more people have been exposed to those two paragraphs that fear will break down – it’s too obvious to deny.

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  6. Anonymous says:

    She described her relatives as rich and classy and Filipinos are dirty and lazy. The truth was the chinese are very barbaric treating their servants with no regard for their dignity because they are poor. They give their servants leftovers and very little food while make them work hard and very little sleep. See how she described her aunt and how she treats the maids. The only thing that poor people have left is their dignity and if you hurt their dignity, chaos follows. The Filipinos are great people and they are not as what she described in her book, some are dirty poor but not as she described them. There must be a reason why the person who described the reason to kill her aunt was just “revenge.”

  7. […] Outside in line on the JQ is well-represented by Moldbug and Amy Chua. (They’re both smarts-over-loyalty selections of exactly the kind to raise WN hackles, of […]

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