I just finished reading Thomas Sowell’s book, The Quest for Cosmic Justice. Although it was written in 1999, it presciently addresses many of the issues we face today including identity politics, social justice and entitlements, income inequality, personal truth being more important than reality (sometimes called wokeness or being woke) and the rejection of the American Founding Principles.
Dr. Sowell is a true genius and the personification of the American Dream. The son of a housemaid whose father died shortly after he was born, he was raised by his great-aunt in North Carolina. He had little contact with white people as a child but that changed when he moved to New York City when he was nine. In New York he qualified for the prestigious Stuyvesant High School for the academically gifted (one of the schools that NYC mayor and presidential candidate Bill de Blasio is trying to eliminate, because their students “don’t look like New York City”). He had to drop out of school for financial reasons before graduating and worked odd jobs (and even tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team) before being drafted into the Marine Corps during the Korean War.
After his discharge from the Marines, Dr. Sowell initially attended historically black Howard University before a combination of letters of recommendation from his professors and high marks on his College Board exams got him into Harvard, from which he graduated magna cum Laude. He got his PhD. at the University of Chicago under the tutelage of his mentor Milton Friedman. He is now a professor at Stanford University and a fellow of the Hoover Institution.
Dr. Sowell writes about big issues in this book; cosmic justice, the nature of equality, the tyranny of visions and the impact of these forces on America.
If justice is a good thing, then cosmic justice must be a great thing. But Freidrich Hayek noted that, “nature can be neither just nor unjust.” One family emerges from the wreckage of their mobile home after a tornado and says, “our prayers were answered,” while their neighbors, who prayed equally hard, perished. Both families were equally deserving but suffered different outcomes. Nature isn’t just, nature just is.
Believers in cosmic justice don’t like such unfair outcomes. They cite John Rawls who stated that “undeserved inequality calls for redress.” We see these claims for redress in the demands for reparations for slavery, universal basic income and the Equal Rights Amendment. Dr. Sowell defines cosmic justice as the desire to rectify social inequities that people who, through no fault of their own, lack things which other people receive as windfall gains, through no virtue of their own. We have all seen Senator Elizabeth Warren convulse in anger at these inequities on the campaign trail and promise to redress them with the wealth of the one-percenters.
However, Dr. Sowell points out that the cost of cosmic justice can be very high. And it is not always a cost that can be covered by taxing the heck out of high net worth individuals or large corporations. A good example is the previously cited Bill de Blasio who wants to eliminate testing because the outcome of the testing results in too many white and Asian students and too few blacks and Hispanics in top schools. But the cost of this cosmic justice solution is that all the kids in the New York City School District are condemned to mediocrity. But it is not just the smart kids that pay the cost of this redress of academic wrongs. It is society that suffers from not inspiring the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.
Equality, much like justice, might be a laudable cosmic goal, but in practical terms it is impossible to achieve. There are so many factors that make up each person that it is inevitable that most people will be deficient in some factors and abundant in others. These factors, such as hair color, looks, physical fitness and weight in addition race, gender and sexual orientation, make it impracticable to have complete equality. Plus, you have to define what type of equality you are seeking. Would the search for equality in good looks justify a government entitlement for cosmetic surgery?
Progressives ignore the philosophical impracticality of complete equality and set up arbitrary standards by which to judge equality. We have the previously cited “look like America” standard. We also have the income inequality standard whereby certain identity groups earn less that others, a situation that calls for redress. But keep in mind that that out of the 10 highest paid athletes in the US, 8 come from one identity group (black) and 9 come from one sport (basketball, see; Social Justice Basketball). So, sometimes identity or cultural differences generate different outcomes.
Dr. Sowell points out that wealth is skewed not only by ethnic identity but also by age. Older people who have spent a lifetime saving and working their way up the corporate ladder have more income and wealth than younger people just starting out their professional career. And because the average age of the white population is older than that of blacks and Hispanics, whites would have more income and wealth, not because of the legacy of slavery or the fruit of prejudice, but because of age.
Dr. Sowell asserts that humans create visions (what Yuval Harari calls stories in his book, Homo Deus) of how the world works. This is essential because no human can comprehend all the events and understand all the data that are incorporated into life on earth. Early humans concocted visions (stories) to explain all the events that they could not understand such as; what are the sun and the moon and how do they move across the sky? We now call these visions superstitions or, perhaps, religions and ideologies. Dr. Sowell, however, further explains that when these visions defy the facts, they become dogma.
In modern times we have created numerous visions or dogmas that attempt to explain how a modern society functions. Politicians use these visions to attract followers and rely on the visions to explain why things occur even when there is no evidence to support such contentions. Autocrats use visions to strengthen their grip on power and punish or kill heretics and blasphemers who doubt their vision.
The populists substitute these visions in place of facts or truth and even go as far as denying facts or truth when they do not fit within the scope of their vision. This is why progressives are telling their adherents that they need to define their own truths. For example, Freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated, “I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.” The facts are made to fit the vision – the opposite of the scientific method that was created during the Enlightenment. Of course, visions have also led to accusations of “fake news.”
Finally, Dr. Sowell brings all these trends together to address the “Quiet Repeal of the American Revolution” by comparing the differences between the American Revolution and the French Revolution, noting that the principal difference was in the Rule of Law. The goal of the American Revolution was the liberty of each citizen of the country – a liberty that required limits on the powers of government. The French Revolution wanted to right the wrongs of society and sought to do so by empowering “representatives on mission” with unlimited authority to accomplish their goals.
The Founders of America wanted liberty for the American people and limited the powers of government because an increase in constitutional rights can only occur as a result of a reduction in government power while an increase in social justice (also known as positive rights or entitlements) requires an increase in government power (which, ipso facto, means a reduction in constitutional rights). The United States was not created to seek cosmic justice or complete equality. It was created to limit the power of government in order to guarantee the liberty of the people to seek their own goals.
And it was the limitation of government that allowed the United States to prosper and grow. Because liberty unleashed the human capital of millions of Americans to strive to achieve their own goals (their own unique American Dream). It was the power of that human capital that drove America’s success.
The seekers of Cosmic Justice believe that other values are more important than liberty. Such seekers believe that people’s work must be dedicated to the betterment of society, not for their own ends. And the government, which defines what the betterment of society entails, will use force in order to get people to submit to the government’s will. And all that human capital will become cramped and constrained and society will wither.
Dr. Sowell described the forces working against our liberty twenty years ago. In the interim, those forces have only grown stronger and the defenders of freedom keep silent. Read this book to learn more about what is going on around you. And then speak out. For liberty!