Social Justice Fallacies
By Thomas Sowell.
Basic Books, 2023.
Hardcover, 224 pages, $28.

Reviewed by Edward Weech.

Over the past decade, the discourse of “social justice” has ripped through the Western world, inspiring a cultural insurgency that has undermined the legitimacy of Western history, traditions, and institutions. Embraced by an elite caste of politicians, media figures, and government bureaucrats, this ideology has made a seemingly inexorable march through public life, and become de rigueur for highly-educated Western youth. Yet it has also provoked mounting popular disquiet, resulting in growing demand for books analyzing the “woke” phenomenon or suggesting how to arrest or simply slow the process of social and cultural change. 

In that context, Thomas Sowell’s Social Justice Fallacies was eagerly awaited. One of the most respected and influential figures on the American right over the past half-century, Sowell’s numerous books on economics, politics, and history have made a significant contribution to conservative and libertarian thought. Sowell is now 93 years old, and while this book represents an understandably rare foray into the current culture wars, it is also a continuation of his longstanding efforts to expose the failings of the wider liberal-left tradition that gave rise to the current wave of militant and intolerant progressivism. 

Social Justice Fallacies promises to explain why the social justice vision is fundamentally misguided, intellectually and empirically. Over the course of five short chapters, Sowell tackles progressive misconceptions around the pursuit of equality, racial differences, the limits of government control, and the nature of knowledge and language. Readers expecting an exhaustive treatment, in the style of Sowell’s previous opuses, are liable to be disappointed: this slim volume runs only 130 pages excluding notes and index, and those well-acquainted with Sowell’s previous writing will likely find many of the ideas and arguments familiar. Yet the very brevity of Social Justice Fallacies makes it a fine introduction to Thomas Sowell for readers curious about his body of work but unsure where to begin. The chapter on knowledge, in particular, is an accessible introduction to the topic of one of Sowell’s most important but difficult books, Knowledge and Decisions

Regrettably, those with most to gain from reading Social Justice Fallacies are least likely to give it the time of day. Sowell understands the worldview of young social justice activists better than most: a Marxist in his youth, he has made exceptional efforts over many decades to understand and articulate the progressive worldview. Long familiarity helps him identify the intellectual fallacies which have been passed down between generations of radicals as if they were a prized inheritance. One of the most damaging among these was also “one of the most politically successful messages of the twentieth century.” It is “that the rich have gotten rich by taking from the poor.” This staple Marxist argument has been adopted by many other political movements, and much contemporary commentary assumes that the prosperity of some implies the exploitation of others. On the contrary, Sowell cites Herman Kahn to the effect that poor Americans generally experience a rising standard of living “because of progress created by people who are getting rich.” One reason why market economies are so successful is that they impose fewer obstacles to mutually beneficial processes of voluntary exchange; and it is a deeply unfashionable truth that, in the West, most people attain affluence by providing goods and services which other people find useful. Sowell points out that social justice advocateslike Marxists before themshow little interest in how poor people actually escape poverty, prompting the question whether they are really motivated by concern for the downtrodden, or by their “vision of the world and their own role in that vision.”

Sowell has always been skilled at turning popular assumptions on their head. Here, his interesting second chapter, “Racial Fallacies,” highlights how the progressive agenda in early twentieth-century America was partly shaped by genetic determinism, or “the belief that less successful races were genetically inferior.” Sowell suggests this dogma endured within progressive circles for many years, despite mounting evidence it was wrongas have various liberal mantras in our own time. Yet while this background unarguably suggests the pitfalls of excessive “certitude and heedlessness of evidence,” it is unlikely to provoke introspection among contemporary progressives, who are primed to interpret such episodes according to their prejudices about America’s indelibly racist past.  

Returning to a theme he has explored elsewhere, Sowell highlights the continuity between the modern progressive worldview and the egalitarian beliefs of eighteenth-century intellectuals such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Godwin, and the ideologues of the French Revolution. The ensuing centuries have seen many innovations in progressive thought, from Leninism to Critical Race Theory, but the principle of abstract equality has consistently remained at the core of the progressive vision. Sowell observes that this ideal constantly conflicts with reality, remarking for example that the “plain and simple fact that women have babies” has meant every single human society has imposed double standards on male and female sexual behaviour. Real-life obstacles have rarely deterred the ambitions of radical intellectuals, however, and Sowell captures the chilling alacrity with which progressive movements across the centuries have disregarded the freedoms, traditions, and preferences of the many to pursue their vision. 

Today, while much of the progressive agenda has been adopted by political and cultural elites, it remains largely anathema to the voting public. Public opposition renders elections and referendums uncertain means of shaping policy, but high levels of elite support mean most major public institutions have now been captured by woke ideology. This facilitates the implementation of unpopular policies de facto, without public consent. Sowell describes how, in America, this approach was anticipated by a long tradition of progressive judicial activism, with judges creating policy through legal fiat, or blocking popular legislation introduced by elected officials. Such activities are now commonplace throughout the West. Besides its direct impact on policy, progressive influence over the judiciary also helps shut down inconvenient or oppositional speech, creating a sympathetic climate for ideological lawfare which intimidates would-be dissidents and encourages self-censorship. This further suppresses the feedback mechanisms (notably, freedom of expression) which could otherwise help mitigate the destructive consequences of progressive policies.  

Sowell is adept at explaining similarities between contemporary social justice activists and previous generations of radicals, but less attuned to how progressivism has changed. This is most apparent in his final chapter”Words, Deeds and Dangers”whose argument assumes that social justice advocates “share many of the same basic concerns” as their opponents, but “do not make the same assumptions about options, causation or consequences.” This polemical strategy aims to show that progressive policies, intended to alleviate social maladies, frequently prove to be impractical and counter-productive, and cause unchecked concentration of power that may be used for purposes far removed from those originally intended. Sowell stresses that in earlier eras, F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman also emphasized that many progressives were motivated by genuine concerns about social inequality. But if cautionary tales were ever effective in debates with idealistic youth, they are surely futile at a time when utopian and millenarian thinking are so rampant. More importantly, this approach ignores how the left’s core values have evolved. 

The woke interpretation of social justice has emerged as an intolerant, missionary creed seemingly determined to change the face of the Western world. This movement has propelled much of the left in a direction that is explicitly, and sometimes vociferously, anti-Western, with adherents openly repudiating traditional Western values in favor of new values around race, sex, and gender. In the new progressive morality, the interests of historically disadvantaged groups are sacred, and override other considerations, including the interests of other groups as well as foundational Western principles such as freedom of speech and equality before the law. 

Social Justice Fallacies sometimes reflect the extent to which the left’s new values have come to shape modern conservatism itself. While it is valid to show how the consequences of progressive policies undermine their sacred values, this approach goes too far when arguments presuppose the woke hierarchy of values. For example, Sowell introduces the concept of “mismatch theory” to illustrate that affirmative action in college admissions, instead of benefiting its recipients, often hampers their progress by placing them in academic settings for which they may be unprepared. But Sowell’s argument extends to an unconvincing assertion that minority students gaining admission to prestigious universities based solely on their athletic abilities are being exploited. Such students not only risk injury, but also “the perhaps greater and longer-lasting risk to their character, from spending years pretending to get an education.” Here, Sowell’s language becomes uncharacteristically emotive, and reaches into hyperbole when describing minority students as “like human shields used to protect institutional interestsand casualties among human shields can be very high.”

Experience suggests that countering the social justice crusade requires more than better arguments, or even electoral success. This ideology has become so entrenched within the media and public institutions that elected administrations on both sides of the Atlantic have been stymied and beleaguered whenever they have tried to meaningfully oppose it. Chipping away at elite consensus over the progressive agenda instead requires a cultural turn, so that its underlying values lose the undeserved luster of high status which encourages the conversion and fealty of existing elites and future cohorts of academically-minded youth. This, in turn, means promoting a competing moral story to inspire the considerable yet largely voiceless opposition to the progressive agenda within Western populations. Galvanizing and organizing this vast constituency requires a coherent and compelling vision based upon the rediscovery, revitalization, and reassertion of classic Western values.  

Social Justice Fallacies capably refutes the social justice vision in intellectual and empirical terms, but largely avoids its moral challenge. Anyone seeking arguments to expose the logical fallacies of the social justice vision will find them here, but should be under no illusions about the limitations of that approach.

Edward Weech is a historian and librarian from London. He is author of Chinese Dreams in Romantic England: The Life and Times of Thomas Manning.

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