Thomas Sowell on the Trouble With ‘Social Justice’

The eminent economist faults intellectuals who expect equal outcomes and treat individuals as if they were mere ‘chess pieces.’

Thomas Sowell


Thomas Sowell is best known for his insights on racial controversies, but race isn’t the main topic of most of his books in a career that spans more than six decades. Mr. Sowell, 93, is an economist who earned a doctorate from the University of Chicago, where his professors included Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and other future Nobel laureates. His specialty is the history of ideas, and his most recent book, “Social Justice Fallacies,” harks back to his writings on social theory and intellectual history, which include “Knowledge and Decisions” (1980), “The Vision of the Anointed” (1996) and “The Quest for Cosmic Justice” (1999).

In his 1987 classic, “A Conflict of Visions,” Mr. Sowell attempted to explain what drives our centuries-old ideological disputes about freedom, justice, equality and power. The contrasting “visions” in the title referred to the implicit assumptions that guide a person’s thinking. On one side you have the “constrained” vision, which sees humanity as hopelessly flawed. This view is encapsulated in Edmund Burke’s declaration that “we cannot change the nature of things and of men—but must act upon them as best we can” and in Immanuel Kant’s assertion that “from the crooked timber of humanity no truly straight thing can ever be made.”

The opposite is the “unconstrained,” or utopian, view of the human condition. It’s the belief that there are no inherent limits to what mankind can accomplish, so trade-offs are unnecessary. World peace is achievable. Social problems such as poverty, crime and racism can be not merely managed but eliminated. Mr. Sowell begins “Social Justice Fallacies” with a quote from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who expressed the essence of the unconstrained vision when he wrote of “the equality which nature established among men and the inequality which they have instituted among themselves.”

Mr. Sowell has been a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution since 1980. In a phone interview, he describes the central fallacy of social-justice advocacy as “the assumption that disparities are strange, and that in the normal course of events we would expect people to be pretty much randomly distributed in various occupations, income levels, institutions and so forth.”

He says that’s an assumption based on hope rather than experience or hard evidence. “We can read reams of social justice literature without encountering a single example of proportional representation of different groups in endeavors open to competition—in any country in the world today, or at any time over thousands of years of recorded history,” he writes in the book’s opening chapter on “equal chances fallacies.” He acknowledges that exploitation and discrimination exist and contributed to disparate outcomes. But he notes that “these vices are in fact among many influences that prevent different groups of people—whether classes, races or nations—from having equal, or even comparable, outcomes in economic terms or other terms.”

For Mr. Sowell, the tremendous variety of geographic, cultural and demographic differences among groups makes anything approximating an even distribution of preferences, habits and skills close to impossible. The progressive left holds up as a norm a state the world has never seen, and regards as an anomaly something seen in societies all over the world and down through history. “There’s this sort of mysticism that disparities must show that someone’s done something wrong” to a lagging group, Mr. Sowell says. The social-justice vision “starts off by reducing the search for causation to a search for blame. And for so much of what happens, there is no blame.”

To illustrate the point, the book’s chapter on racial fallacies cites recent census data on poverty. “Statistical differences between races are not automatically due to race—either in the sense of being caused by genetics or being a result of racial discrimination,” Mr. Sowell writes. Liberals argue that higher black poverty rates are mainly a product of slavery, Jim Crow and of lingering “systemic racism.” Yet there are pockets of the U.S. populated almost exclusively by white people who experience no racism and who nevertheless earn significantly less than blacks.

The book cites Clay and Owsley counties in Appalachian Kentucky, places “that are more than 90 percent white, where the median household income is not only less than half the median household income of white Americans in the country as a whole, but also thousands of dollars less than the median household income of black Americans in the country as a whole.”

It’s been true for some time, Mr. Sowell says, that black behavioral patterns play a bigger role in racial disparities than racism does. Black married couples have had poverty rates in the single digits for more than a quarter-century. And black married couples “in which both husband and wife were college-educated earned slightly more than white married couples where both husband and wife were college-educated.” He adds that in a landmark 1899 study of blacks in Philadelphia, the race scholar W.E.B. Du Bois “said that if white people were to lose their prejudices overnight, it would make very little difference to most black people. He said some few would get better positions than they have right now, but for the mass it would be pretty much the same.”

Noting today’s black-white wealth disparities, authors including Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ibram X. Kendi have advocated reparations in the name of social justice. So have such prominent organizations as the NAACP and Black Lives Matter. Mr. Sowell can’t take their arguments seriously. “The situation of slavery in some ways is much like the situation of conquered people,” he says. “There’s no question whatsoever that conquered people have been treated in a terrible way. Being conquered by the Romans was not a fate you would wish on anyone. But the fact is that the net result has been that those parts of Europe conquered by the Romans have been the most advanced parts of Europe for centuries.

“Similarly, when someone black says . . . ‘I’m worse off because of slavery,’ there’s no way in hell you can say that with a straight face. If you’re going to base reparations on the difference between where blacks today would be if it were not for slavery, then blacks would have to pay reparations to white people.”

Mr. Sowell is no stranger to poverty, prejudice or discrimination. He was born in segregated North Carolina in 1930, orphaned as a toddler and raised in Harlem from age 9. He never finished high school and earned his GED after serving a stint in the Marines during the Korean War. The GI bill enabled him to enroll in college, first at historically black Howard University, before moving on to Harvard, Columbia and finally the University of Chicago.

He says that whether social-justice proponents are pushing for slavery reparations or higher taxes on the rich, their real agenda is the confiscation and redistribution of wealth. Enthralled by what he calls the “chess-pieces fallacy,” progressives treat individuals like inert objects. “I got that from Adam Smith, who had a very low opinion of abstract theorists who feel they can move around people much as one moves around chess pieces,” he says.

“That fallacy takes many forms, and taxation is a classic example.” The fallacy is assuming that “tax hikes and tax revenues automatically move in the same direction, when often they move in the opposite direction.” Liberals say, “ ‘We need more money, so we’ll make the wealthy pay their fair share,’ which is never defined, of course. But the wealthy are not just going to sit there and do nothing.”

A historical example is when “the British decided they would put a new tax on the American colonies. It turns out they not only didn’t get any more revenue, but they lost the tax revenue they had been getting.” In modern times, Mr. Sowell says, studies have shown repeatedly that people and businesses move their money to avoid high tax rates, and that includes migrating from states with higher levies to states with lower levies.

Although the social-justice vision isn’t new, Mr. Sowell observes that these ideas didn’t have much currency before the 20th century, in an era when intellectual elites mostly talked among themselves and reached a far smaller segment of the population. Mass communication changed that by greatly expanding their ability to shape public opinion and, by extension, government decisions: “One example was the period between the two world wars, when intellectuals managed to convince a lot of people that the way to avoid war was to avoid an arms race, and therefore that disarmament was the key to preserving peace.”

The growing influence and arrogance of the social-justice crowd bothers Mr. Sowell, which is one of the reasons he wrote the book. “Someone once said that people on the political left think that they would do what God would do if he were as well-informed as they are,” he says. He’s especially vexed by the quashing of dissent. “The fatal danger of our times today is a growing intolerance and suppression of opinions and evidence that differ from the prevailing ideologies that dominate institutions, ranging from the academic world to the corporate world, the media and government institutions,” he writes. “Many intellectuals with high accomplishments seem to assume that those accomplishments confer validity to their notions about a broad swath of issues ranging far beyond the scope of their accomplishments.”

Mr. Sowell’s own accomplishments cover a broad swath. He’s published more than 40 books, and “Social Justice Fallacies” is his sixth since he turned 80 in 2010. What recommends it is what recommends so many of the others: clear thinking, a straightforward prose style that combines wide learning with common sense, and an uncanny ability to take our preening elites down a notch.

This opinion article was published originally by The Wall Street Journal.

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