111 Thomas Sowell on Justice

“Justice,” C.S. Lewis said, “is giving equal things to equals, and unequal things to unequals.” How to give each person what he deserves has elicited discussions from antiquity to today, and nothing more deserves careful consideration. Thomas Sowell, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University–an economist by training and one of the most prolific scholars in America– addresses the issue in The Quest for Cosmic Justice (New York: The Free Press, c. 1999). Traditionally, justice has been defined as giving to another person what is due him, with the focus on fair processes which are limited to particular interactions between actual persons. To establish the rule of law was one of the main objectives of the American Revolution and was established in the Constitution, which decrees that no one shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” In a court of law, one’s entitled to an impartial process, symbolized by a blindfolded Lady Justice holding balanced scales. A “fair fight” wherein a referee makes sure the boxers follow the rules, a “level playing field” which insures opportunities for competitors, typify traditional notions of justice.

“Cosmic justice,” on the other hand–frequently labeled “social justice”–“is a fundamentally different concept” (p. 8) which has become one of the dogmas of modernity, a totalizing vision which brooks no rivals. Cosmic justice seeks to eliminate competitive inequities, to eliminate disadvantages which might hamper certain individuals or groups. It seeks to redesign society so as to guarantee equality in generations to come–or to secure reparations for harms done in centuries past. John Rawls’ influential treatise, A Theory of Justice, informs us that “‘undeserved inequalities call for redress,’ in order to produce ‘genuine equality of opportunity'” (p. 12). If all men are by nature equal, any inequality of wealth or position suggests injustice as its source. Laws, then, are less important than the consequences of judicial decisions. So Chief Justice Earl Warren routinely “interrupted lawyers presenting legal arguments before the Supreme Court to ask ‘But is it right? Is it good?'” (p. 185), revealing his self-appointed role as a social reformer. He was a man on a mission rather than a judge entrusted with the preservation of “government of laws not of men.” Warren sought to enthrone nine judges–one of various tyrannies which have “now become part of Western democratic nations themselves. Indeed, the drive to impose that tyranny ever more widely in the United States has led to trends which can only be called the quiet repeal of the American revolution” (p. 141). In truth, once the facade of “social justice” is removed it’s little more than an updated version of an ancient vice, envy.

“Social justice” metamorphoses into “redistributive justice” and various state-imposed strategies to equalize wealth. Traditional distinctions between the “respectable poor and the disreputable poor” (p. 89) disappear; the poor simply shouldn’t be poor in a just world. Poverty reveals society’s failure. Economic quality must be imposed through taxation. Harvard Law School’s Professor Laurence Tribe criticizes the Constitution’s unjust “‘built-in bias against redistribution of wealth’ as a benefit to ‘entrenched wealth'” (p. 167). Advocates of a “good society” such as Ronald Dworkin insist that “‘a more equal society is a better society even if its citizens prefer inequality'” (p. 74). Sowell acknowledges that “no vision underlies more social and economic theories than the vision of the rich robbing the poor, whether in a given society or among nations. The belief that the poor are poor because the rich are rich is reflected in such expressions as ‘the dispossessed’ or ‘the exploited,’ as well as in more elaborate theories ranging from Marxism and Lenin’s theory of imperialism to modern ‘dependency theory'” (p. 119). Data such as Sowell presents to refute such theories apparently do little to diminish their emotional appeal. “As an economist described someone who passionately advocated particular economic policies, without the most elementary knowledge of economic analysis and with little or no concern for empirical consequences, ‘he asks not whether it is water or gasoline he is tossing on the economic fire–he asks only whether it is a well-intended act'” (p. 137).

Cosmic justice pervades modern liberalism and filters through the welfare state, pacifism, the acquittal of suspects such as O.J. Simpson, and the outcome-based education celebrated in public schools. The SAT exam is now under sustained attack because of its alleged unfairness, since different ethnic groups score differently. “Social justice” somehow dictates that everyone score the same on exams since everyone is, of course, equal. “A member of a national commission on teaching mathematics,” Sowell notes, “opposed teaching computational skills because that means ‘anointing the few’ who master these skills readily and ‘casting out the many’ who do not, and urged that we throw off ‘the discriminatory shackles of computational algorithms'” (p. 85).

To restore such objective truths as algorithms, to discourage radical reformers’ proposals to establish perfection on earth, Sowell urges us to tune out the temptations of cosmic justice.

In The Vision of the Anointed (New York: HarperCollinsPublishers, c. 1995), Sowell argued that “Dangers to a society may be mortal without being immediate. One such danger is the prevailing social vision of our time–and the dogmatism with which the ideas, assumptions, and attitudes behind the vision are held” (p. 1). Ideologies have ravaged our century. They’re been more lethal than any plagues in the past. In The Flight from Truth: The Reign of Deceit in the Age of Information, Jean-Francois Revel declared: “‘ideology . . . is an instrument of power; a defense mechanism against information; a pretext for eluding moral constraints in doing or approving evil with a clean conscience; and finally, a way of banning the criterion of experience, that is, of completely eliminating or indefinitely postponing the pragmatic criteria of success and failure'” (p. 241). Such visions are often spurious and toxic, but they offer great consolation to true believers, much akin to a religious state of grace. Social visions insulate their advocates with asbestos suits, much like Medieval knights’ suits of armor, but of a spiritual sort. “It is a vision of differential rectitude” (p. 5).

And their number is legion: advocates of eugenics, such as Margaret Sanger; socialists such as John Dewey; welfare state proponents like Lyndon B. Johnson; environmentalists such as Paul Ehrlich; contemporary “liberals” such as John Rawls. They all share a sense of being anointed, of being morally superior to lesser folks, and thus entitled to impose their views through legislation or bureaucratic dicta. However different, they agree on “several key elements,” including: 1) warnings of grave threats to society understood only by the anointed; 2) calls for radical action to avert the catastrophe; 3) insistence that only government can implement the designs of the experts; 4) contempt for “arguments to the contrary as either uninformed, irresponsible, or motivated by unworthy purposes” (p. 5). Then, inexorably, whenever the vision of the anointed is implemented, the four-step endeavor collapses into a four-stage pattern of failure. The crisis is wildly exaggerated or mis-diagnosed; the solution, however faulty, is tried; the policies enacted fail to accomplish their goals; the failure is explained away or blamed on the policies’ critics. Sowell illustrates this four-stage process by examining various “social justice” crusades of the recent past, including LBJ’s “war on poverty,” celebrated “sex education” programs, and non-punitive crime-reduction schemes.

The “war on poverty,” proposed by JFK and launched by LBJ, proposed to “give a hand, not a handout.” Actually, when the “war” was declared, poverty was declining. In 1960, only half as many people were below the poverty line as there were in 1950. Nevertheless, a crisis was declared, and a plethora of poverty programs opened the federal treasury to millions of people. Then the numbers of poverty-stricken people escalated. More spending made more folks poor! Millions more became wards of the state, dependent upon “poverty programs.” Faced with the failure of their vision, the anointed ones, however, simply declared they needed more money. To justify their views, they massaged statistics and selected media-friendly anecdotes, concocting stories such as a CBS Evening News broadcast which claimed one in eight American children would go to bed hungry. They deliberately distorted the truth, for they knew “if they told the truth, they wouldn’t get the money” (p. 33).

Sex education, designed to encourage responsible sexual behavior, followed the same pattern. Though fertility rates among teenage girls and venereal diseases were declining in the decade before 1957, Planned Parenthood et al. declared the nation faced grave crises which demanded sex education in the public schools. “In New Zealand,” for example, “a whole campaign of scare advertisements during the 1980s promoted the claim that one out of eight fathers sexually abused their own daughters, when in fact research showed that not eve one out of a hundred did so” (p. 62). But the anointed ones prevailed, and millions of dollars flowed to “family planning” clinics and schools. Accompanying the classes, pregnancy rates and venereal diseases soared like inflated condoms! Sex education encouraged the very behavior which it allegedly discouraged. Sex education did, however, succeed in one way: it effectively transformed students’ attitudes toward sex, replacing their parents’ restrictions with the permissiveness championed by the anointed devotees of sexual pleasure.

What deeply disturbs Sowell in all this is the “irrelevance of evidence.” Economists such as John Kenneth Galbraith enjoyed an infallibility in elite circles which allowed them to make sweeping generalizations, in works such as The Affluent Society, which the masses absorbed. In fact, Galbraith’s pronouncements have been factually disproven, but “None of this has made a dent in Galbraith’s reputation, his self-confidence, or his book sales. For no one has been more in tune with the vision of the anointed or more dismissive of ‘the conventional wisdom’–another term he popularized as a designation for traditional values” (p. 66). Ditto for Paul Ehrlich! For decades the Stanford scholar–author of The Population Bomb–has issued foreboding predictions, virtually none of which has proven true. Ditto for Ralph Nader! His influential publications, Sowell shows, are little more than propaganda, powerfully impacting folks who rely on emotions rather than evidence.

The anointed elite frequently claims to revere “the people,” to serve the masses. But they don’t really respect them. Indeed, they’re often condescending in their approach to folks they consider “benighted”–uneducated, religious, traditional, patriotic. “One of the high priorities of the anointed is to destroy the myths and illusions which they presume to abound among the public. Patriotism is a prime target” (p. 121). Anna Quindlen, a windchime for the anointed ones, cavalierly dismissed patriotism as “Amerimania” (p. 121). Even the folks to be “helped”–the homeless, the criminals, the disease carriers–are often reduced to serving as “mascots of the anointed, whether or not that ultimately works out to the benefit of those groups themselves” (p. 143). The villains, targets for the disdain of the anointed, include businesses and families, churches and organizations such as the Boy Scouts.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the anointed elite seeks to project an “optional reality.” Indeed, they inhabit “a world where reality itself is ‘socially constructed’ and can therefore be ‘deconstructed’ and then reassembled to one’s heart’s desire” (p. 245). Reality resides in one’s mind and can be endlessly redesigned. Human nature can be changed at will. “Those with the vision of the anointed are especially reluctant to see human nature as a source of the evils they wish to eradicate” (p. 250), so they focus on specific evils which they try to correct, thereby hoping create a new kind of man. The world itself has no given limits. Name it and claim it! Create your own reality! Imagine you can endlessly tax productive folks, the “doers,” so as to subsidize the inactivity of the “do-nots.”

The vision of the anointed, implemented in various realms of the nation’s life, is demonstrably untrue, Sowell thinks. He certainly marshals impressive, carefully documented evidence, to argue his case. “Seldom,” he says, “have so few cost so much to so many.” It’s time to tune out the rhetorical sirens which beckon us to shipwreck, to hear again Orpheus and the wisdom of her song.

Sowell’s more recent publications build upon work done earlier in studies such as A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (New York: William Morrow, c. 1987). “A vision is our sense of how the world works” (p. 14), a worldview. As Walter Lippman said, in Public Opinion: “At the core of every moral code there is a picture of human nature, a map of the universe, and a version of history. To human nature (of the sort conceived), in a universe (of the kind imagined), after a history (so understood), the rules of the code apply.”

Some visions, such as those of Adam Smith, Alexander Hamilton, and Edmund Burke, are “constrained,” limited by the givens of an objectively real world. Other visions, evident in the Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Condorcet, and William Godwin, are “unconstrained,” dreaming of “the perfectibility of man” and unending human progress. “Much of what the unconstrained vision sees as morally imperative to do, the constrained vision sees man as incapable of doing” (p. 201). The American Revolution, and the Constitution which followed, reveal a constrained vision, realistically appraising the fallenness of human nature. The French Revolution, and the successive revolutions which have troubled the world, sought to realize unconstrained visions, alluring if unattainable utopias. Thus Jefferson praised the French Revolution, despite its violent excesses, for “‘rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated'” (p. 34).

Thinkers like Burke trust tradition, custom, and common sense; they distrust abstract reason, particularly that of eccentric geniuses such as Rousseau. Given the nature of man, little genuine “progress” is possible. To folks like Rousseau, however, reason alone suffices to guide human conduct. Those with superior intellects, such as himself, should be entrusted with governing the masses who, Rousseau declared are like “‘a stupid, pusillanimous invalid'” (p. 136). Superior minds can engineer ever more perfect social and political systems. This unconstrained vision wends its way through thinkers such as George Bernard Shaw and the English Fabians, Edward Bellamy’s influential utopia, Looking Backward, John Kenneth Galbraith’s economic essays, and the legal treatises of professors Ronald Dworkin and Laurence Tribe.

“Social justice,” the effort to coerce humane efforts to help the needy, superceding the “formal justice” basic to the rule of law, looms large in the unconstrained vision. First celebrated by William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in 1793, it remains a major plank in the platform of philosophers such as John Rawls. To advocates of the constrained vision such as F.S. Hayek, however, “it is ‘absurd,’ a ‘mirage,’ ‘a hollow incantation,’ ‘a quasi-religious superstition,’ and a concept that ‘does not belong to the category of error but to that of nonsense'” (p. 191). Hayek explains that “‘the phrase “social justice” is not, as most people probably feel, an innocent expression of good will towards the less fortunate,’ but has become in practice ‘a dishonest insinuation that one ought to agree to a demand of some special interest which can given no real reason for it.’ The dangerous aspect, in Hayek’s view, is that ‘the concept of “social justice” . . . has been the Trojan Horse through which totalitarianism has entered’–Nazi Germany being just one example” (p. 195).

Folks operating within the constrained vision understand “equality” as a process, whereas the unconstrained folks focus on results. “In Burke’s words, ‘all men have equal rights; but not to equal things'” (p. 121). To William Godwin and John Rawls, however, what counts is the “equalized probabilities of achieving given results, whether in education, employment, or the courtroom” (p. 123). Grades in school must be leveled or eliminated; wages must be equalized through taxation if not central dictates; criminal defendants’ race, sex, and economic class must enter into judicial decisions. Godwin denied our right “‘to do what we will with our own,'” asserting that “‘We have in reality nothing that is strictly speaking our own'” (p. 190). Similarly, Dworkin dismisses “‘the supposed natural right to the use of property'” as well as “‘the liberty of an employer to hire workers on such terms as he wishes'” (p. 163). And Laurence Tribe “criticized court rulings which upheld the legality of applying certain physical standards to particular job applicants” since they might militate against the equality of the sexes (p. 184).

While explaining the conflict of visions, Sowell obviously advocates the constrained position compatible with his basically libertarian perspective. He writes clearly, cogently, and certainly provides categories which enable one to better grasp the way the ideas shape our world.



Then there are the “fictitious histories” designed to shape current policies for ethnic groups.

“Few histories have been rewritten,” Sowell says, “so completely and so soon as the history of the Reagan administration. [The revision, incidentally, was clearly evident in the response of Democratic politicians to President Bush’s recent address to Congress.] From innumerable outlets of the anointed–the media, academia, and the lecture platform–poured the new revised history” of the 1980s, with its alleged “tax cuts for the rich. “Yet this revisionist history the 1980s is easily refuted with widely available official statistics on the federal government’s tax receipts, spending , and deficits during the eight years of the Reagan administration” (p. 82).


Even worse, “advocacy journalism” endorses “lying for justice,” according to one writer (p. 259), so, Paul Weaver says, today’s “‘media are less a window on reality than a stage on which official and journalists perform self-scripted, self-serving fictions'” (p. 259).