I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy.
Thomas Sowell has been one of America’s greatest public intellectuals for over a half-century. During that span, he has published 48 books. His latest, written at age 93, is Social Justice Fallacies. He didn’t start life behind a golden typewriter; rather he was born in segregated South Carolina. He grew up in a house without running water or electricity. When he was nine, his family moved to Harlem in New York City. Both his parents were dead. He was in the care of a great-aunt and her two grown daughters. He gained admission to the highly selective Stuyvesant High School but dropped out because of financial difficulties. Drafted into the Marines during the Korean War he finished high school after discharge and eventually gained admission to Harvard. He graduated with a degree in economics magna cum laude. He then obtained a master’s degree at Columbia and then followed future Nobelist George Stigler to the University of Chicago where he encountered both Frederick Hayek and Milton Friedman. He received his PhD from the University in 1968. Since 1980, he has been a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he holds a fellowship named after Rose and Milton Friedman.
As a young man, Sowell was a Marxist, but it took only one year of working for the government for him to rethink his views on economics and human interactions to become the articulate advocate for classical liberalism and limited government that animates his extensive written output.
The latest volume is slender – only 130 pages of text. The rest are end notes and an index. It begins like the start of a 100-meter sprint. An introduction defining “Social Justice” and what it purports to be – both as a problem and a remedy – would have added to the book though the reader will have little difficulty understanding “Social Justice” as he goes through Sowell’s analysis. Also, if you’re familiar with his previous work you will find little that he hasn’t dissected in earlier writings. If you are new to Sowell’s thinking the book is a good summary of his position on key issues currently roiling the US.
The volume is divided into five chapters. The first, “Equal Chances” Fallacies examines the assumption that disparities in social and economic outcomes are the result of bias, exploitation, and discrimination. Sowell argues that while bias is real it cannot be the sole explanation for the different achievements of different ethnic groups. He gives the excellence of beer produced by people of German ancestry as an example. Germans have been brewing beer since the time of the Roman Empire so it’s not surprising that they’ve gotten very good at it. The Scots are very good at making whiskey, but cannot match the French when it comes to wine. People hold French and Italian cuisine in greater esteem than German for a reason that has nothing to do with bias. What Sowell calls reciprocal inequalities abound for causes that are explained by events unrelated to prejudice.
Income inequality between men and women is explained by different working histories. Women in their thirties who have worked continuously since leaving school earn slightly more than men and have done so for the last 50 years. Life is complicated. If you are committed to a single explanation of its different outcomes, as are social justice warriors, you are likely to get outcomes wrong. Many of society’s unequal fates have nothing to do with ethnic bias. Sowell describes the well-known phenomenon of the higher-performance firstborn children on a host of endeavors.
Geography as an explanation for performance differences was noted as far back as Adam Smith. Though Europe is much smaller than Africa it has a much longer coastline allowing for more harbors and hence more maritime trade which is much more efficient and cheaper than trade depending on land routes. Sowell quotes Fernand Braudel: “In understanding Black Africa, geography is more important than history.”
Chapter Two is Racial Fallacies. Sowell does not think that black underperformance in some areas is due to intrinsic differences in ability or to “white supremacy”. He cites the superior performance of Asian Americans both in educational and economic attainment as inconsistent with the widespread prevalence of “white supremacy”. He then cites the economic success of black married couples going back to 1959. “If black family poverty is caused by ‘systemic racism’, do racists make an exception for blacks who are married? Do racists either know or care whether blacks are married?”
His discussion of genetic determinism illustrates that it was firmly grasped by the progressives of a century ago. They believed that northern and western Europeans were genetically superior to all other ethnicities. Today’s progressives have reversed their position on the genetics of previously unfavored groups, but have preserved the central feature of progressivism, namely that all of life’s important issues, and many of lesser import, should be solved by government intervention. The poor record of the government’s performance on almost every economic, social, and regulatory aspect does not seem to concern them.
Chapter Three is Chess Piece Fallacies. It is a discussion of the view that the government should arrange results such that the travails of life and the unequal outcomes it deplores are fixed like the movement of chess pieces on a board. Sowell’s comment is deadly: “Interior decorators arrange. Governments compel. It is not a subtle distinction.”
The forced redistribution of wealth, the failure of tax revenues to rise when tax rates are increased, and the ill effects of price controls are discussed in this section. Much more is elaborated in this chapter such as the mobility of income over time. People at the bottom of income levels rarely stay there. As time passes those at the bottom tend to rise.
The fourth chapter is Knowledge Fallacies. If social issues are to be decided by fiat the key question is who makes the decision? The important thinker here was Hayek. He repeatedly observed that the economy or any other large and complex system was complicated beyond the capacity of any individual or group, no matter how well-educated or intelligent, to understand to the point where their intervention and regulation could improve the system. Rules should be those of general fairness and should be openly reached and applied. The vision of the elite as superior to the general public acting freely was a mirage that would make the general thirst for improvement worse. The Feynman quotation above encapsulates the problem of rule by elites. Expertise in one subject conveys no special authority in any other. Indeed, it often convinces both the expert and the public as to the soundness of bad ideas. “Stupid people can create problems, but it often takes brilliant people to create a real catastrophe.”
The final chapter Words, Deeds and Dangers examines problems for which no human agency is responsible. Hayek observed, “That we cannot demand justice from the cosmos.” Hayek, and presumably Sowell as well, did not think advocates of social justice were necessarily people of ill will who wished for dictatorships, “but that their passionate attacks on existing democracies could weaken those democracies to the point where others could seize dictatorial powers.”
Merit is discussed not as some wantonly dispensed good but as an explainable phenomenon largely of circumstance. The first black American to become a general in the US Air Force was the son of the first black American to become a general in the US Army. General Douglas MacArthur a Medal of Honor was the son of General Arthur MacArthur also a Medal of Honor winner. Three generations of the Bohr family were great scientists. The Manning family is now on its third generation of exceptional football players. The advantages that these family enjoy do not diminish the general well-being, it increases it by the excellence of their efforts.
That a small percentage of Americans possess a large portion of the national wealth is not by itself a bad thing. The key question is whether “the average American’s income is higher or lower because of the products created and sold by some multi-billionaire.” Sowell goes on to acknowledge the political success of accusing the rich of having gotten so by taking from the poor.
He also goes on to examine the use of racism as a politically expedient epithet. He does not deny the existence of racism past and present as a malignant force in American life. He thinks that it no longer impedes the success of young minority Americans. “If racists cannot prevent today’s minority young people from becoming pilots, the teachers union can.”
Sowell argues, more than once, that affirmative action and similar programs designed to help black Americans have harmed them. He states that the poverty rate among black Americans had started to fall in 1940 and that this rate of decline lessened with the advent of the Great Society programs. The number of single-parent black families rose as social welfare programs made it financially profitable to have children without a full-time father.
Justice needs no modifier – in fact, it is degraded by such a usage. This book, slender as it is, contains a lot of information that will challenge the conventional views of society and justice. If one’s views cannot withstand challenge they are likely imperfect in the extreme. Sowell’s views have often been countered not by facts or data, but by ad hominem responses. This book is well worth the relatively brief time it will take to read, especially if you are new to Sowell’s thought. To fully digest his work will take longer. Highly recommended.