Thomas Sowell, Still on Solid Ground

REVIEW: ‘Social Justice Fallacies’ by Thomas Sowell

(Rod Searcey/Basic Books)
November 25, 2023

In economics, the law of diminishing returns states that the benefits gained from an enterprise will be proportionally smaller the more money, time, or energy is invested in it.

Thankfully this is not true in the realm of ideas, as the career of the economist Thomas Sowell attests. Now 93 years old and the author of more than 40 books, Sowell’s most recent contribution, Social Justice Fallacies, tackles the many misguided social experiments of the past few decades and their often malign fallout.

Any discussion of social justice benefits from the clarifying wisdom of Sowell, but in this book, he provides a further service beyond the forensic accounting of the mistakes made by social justice advocates in areas such as race, criminal justice, wealth redistribution, and other forms of would-be social engineering: He reminds readers of the importance of understanding the history behind contemporary ideas and he offers useful international comparisons that reveal just how myopic the debate over social justice in the United States has become. With his trademark directness in describing the facts and his wry humor, Sowell is always a pleasure to read; despite the slim size of this volume, it contains a thorough debunking of the fallacies noted in the title.

The book could not have arrived at a better time, given continued confusion over what, exactly, "social justice" means. As Sowell told one interviewer recently, social justice is a powerful idea difficult to refute "because it has no specific meaning … fighting it would be like trying to punch the fog." While lacking meaning, it does have "emotionally powerful connotations." Sowell added, "There is a strong sense that it is simply not right—that it is unjust—that some people are so much better off than others."

Sowell names each of the fallacies that follow from this assumption and explores their impact. Examining the many "equal chances fallacies" that plague current debate, for example, Sowell notes how much they rely on the misguided spirit of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. "In the kind of world envisioned by Rousseau," he writes, "all classes, races and other subdivisions of the human species would have equal chances in all endeavors—other things being equal."

Yet it is precisely those pesky "other things" that are crucial for making any calculation about the existence of inequality—and some of them, such as climate, geography, and history, are impossible to eradicate. "Among the many factors that can prevent equal human potentialities from producing equally developed capabilities are factors over which humans have very little control—such as geography—and other factors over which humans have no control at all, such as the past," Sowell writes. He notes that the most popular brands of beer in the United States were created by people of German ancestry, and "it so happens that Germans were producing beer back in the days of the Roman Empire. When a particular people has been doing a particular thing for more than a thousand years, is it surprising if they tend to be more successful in that particular endeavor than other who have had no such history?"

Such "reciprocal inequalities"—or ways in which some groups achieve outsize excellence in some areas—occur even under conditions of inequality and we should be attuned to the language used by social justice advocates when they describe them. It is easy to find headlines decrying how women and minorities are "kept out" of certain industries, he notes, but few stories about the lack of Asians in professional ice hockey.

So, too, in the discussion of race in the United States. "The seemingly invincible fallacy at the heart of the social justice vision is that large categories of people—classes, races, nations—would tend to be either equal, or at least comparable, in their outcomes in various endeavors, if it were not for some discriminatory bias that has intervened to produce the large disparities we see around us," Sowell writes. But when one looks at specific facts, as Sowell does, rather than trafficking in vague generalities, as so many social justice advocates do, uncomfortable revelations emerge. For example, as Sowell notes, "In England, the underclass is predominantly white, but it shows many social patterns very similar to the social patterns of low-income blacks in the United States, even though the English underclass has no ‘legacy of slavery’ to be used as an automatic explanation."

Similarly, on the issue of race and poverty, Sowell draws clear distinctions between assertions and evidence. "The poverty rate among black American families as a whole has long been higher than the poverty rate among white American families as a whole," he writes. "But, over a span of more than a quarter of a century since 1994, in no year has the annual poverty rate of black married-couple families been as high as 10 percent. … 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?" He also notes that the poverty rate for white, female-headed, single-parent families is more than double the poverty rate of black married-couple families.

As for the tendency of social justice advocates to argue that the current crisis of the black family is the result of the "legacy of slavery," Sowell is blunt in his criticism: If this were true, then how to explain the fact that, "for more than a hundred years after the end of slavery, most black children were born to women who were married and the children were raised in two-parent homes."

Sowell is at his most persuasive when he critiques social justice advocates’ tendency to assume that "society" should fix these purported problems by "arranging" solutions. He writes, "It is hard to imagine what institution could take on such a gigantic task, other than government," and the "innocent sounding" word "arrange" can hide many sins. "Interior decorators arrange," Sowell writes. "Governments compel. It is not a subtle distinction."

Indeed, in chapters covering "knowledge fallacies" and "chess pieces fallacies," Sowell returns to this crucial observation: "For many social issues, the most important decision is who makes the decision." In a large and heterogeneous society, people will not always agree about who is best suited to make these choices; one of democracy’s great strengths is that it gives the people a means for doing so.

Social justice advocates, however, prefer elite interventions—and such thinking has a long history. Sowell notes not only Rousseau but also the social control proposals of Progressive Era reformer John Dewey and, more recently, John Rawls. "Policies based on the social justice vision tend to assume not only a concentration of consequential knowledge in intellectual elites," Sowell writes, but believe in "taking some decisions out of the hands of the supposed victims themselves, and transferring those decisions to elite surrogates, whose supposedly greater knowledge could better protect their interests." He notes the introduction of sex education into public schools in the late 20th century as an example of elite, "expert" intervention.

When parents protested, they were not met with efforts at persuasion or fact-based reasoning, but with condescension. Sowell quotes a typical expert who claimed that "sex and sexuality have become far too complex and technical to leave to the typical parent, who is either uninformed or too bashful to share useful sexual information with his child."

This introduces an irony into our current debate over who is a threat or a protector of democracy: As Sowell notes, many elites "seem to regard themselves as promoting a more democratic society, when they preempt other people’s decisions. Their conception of democracy seems to be equalization of outcomes, by intellectual elites." This "casual contempt for ordinary people and their freedom" is one of the most corrosive side effects of the social justice vision, particularly given how often these same elites prove to be wrong in their diagnosis and treatment of social problems. "Stupid people can create problems," Sowell observes, "but it often takes brilliant people to create a real catastrophe."

This is clearest when Sowell describes the fallacies of the "words, deeds, and dangers" of social justice experiments, particularly in the criminal justice system. "A murderer may have had an unhappy childhood, but does that justify gambling other people’s lives, by turning him loose among them, after some process that has been given the name ‘rehabilitation’?" he asks. "Are high-sounding notions and fashionable catchwords important enough to risk the lives of innocent men, women and children?" Unfortunately, too many social justice-motivated progressive prosecutors and judges have answered that question in the affirmative.

How to combat the growing tide of social justice ideology? It might come as a surprise that Sowell answers this in part by quoting the late historian Paul Johnson’s advice to study history: "The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises, and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false."

But this answer captures well Sowell’s unique blend of wisdom, fact-based reasoning, and insight. He is not a partisan for any particular contemporary political project. He’s a partisan for rigorous analysis and truth-telling about the past and the present—something we have too few of these days. It is fitting that he chose as the epigraph to his book the oft-cited observation by the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: "You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts." For decades Thomas Sowell has given us both his thoughtful opinions and a solid grounding in the facts. The world is a much better place for it.

Social Justice Fallacies
by Thomas Sowell
Basic Books, 224 pp., $28

Christine Rosen is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.