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

Reviewed by Gregory M. Collins.

Much as varied channels and rivulets flow from a common source of water, many conservative and classical liberal arguments in the last half fifty years criticizing utopian radicalism, social engineering, and race-conscious affirmative action, among a wide range of topics, can be traced directly or indirectly back to Thomas Sowell. It would therefore be as grave a disservice to characterize him as a “black conservative” as it would be to call Aristotle a “white eudaimonist.” Sowell, a fellow at The Hoover Institution, has been among the top thinkers, regardless of race or intellectual affiliation, in the United States for the last half century.

Social Justice Fallacies is Sowell’s latest volume in his prolific oeuvre, which numbers around fifty books. Marked by his characteristic clarity of expression accessible to the expert and the layman alike, the taut book is divided into five chapters and addresses influential premises behind the modern social justice movement. (Sowell does not use the terminology “woke,” but his arguments can easily be applied to this latter ideology as well.) These propositions include the belief that society should strive to promote equal chances, racial and ethnic discrimination is the primary cause of outcome disparities, society can be “arranged” to promote social justice, and political and intellectual elites possess sufficient knowledge to make informed decisions on behalf of individuals.

Sowell’s sharp challenges to these premises in Social Justice Fallacies provide familiar material for those who have read his prior writings. Accordingly, the book is best for those who are relatively new to Sowell’s work, for it provides a taste of many themes that have guided his political and economic thought from the 1970s to today. Social Justice Fallacies is also ideal for college-age students in the infancy of their mature intellectual development. In jargon-free prose, it forces undergraduates to question the very terms of debate established by the modern social justice movement that have commanded classroom discussions for decades. In my experiences teaching students, I have noticed that the quality of their thought is enhanced when they give serious consideration to Sowell’s arguments, even if they do not agree with them (which is usually the case).

Sowell’s principal empirical contentions in Social Justice Fallacies include: The source of social and economic disparities often cannot be reduced to racial or ethnic discrimination, and are frequently the result of a peculiar confluence of geography, luck, age, experience, and circumstance; black progress started prior to the modern civil rights movement; the modern welfare state has had disastrous effects on the black family; the minimum wage has disproportionately hurt blacks; early-twentieth American Progressivism was chiefly responsible for promoting racially-tinged genetic determinism; genetics has a negligible long-term impact on intelligence; the revolution in criminal law induced by the Warren Court contributed significantly to the spike in homicide rates; and income brackets are not static but embody streams of different people from year to year and decade to decade. 

These arguments have drawn their intellectual nourishment since the 1960s from a variety of progressivism’s critics. Taken in their totality, however, Sowell, perhaps more than any other thinker in modern U.S. history, is most responsible for presenting them to the American public in a lucid and digestible fashion. Once again, these lines of reasoning in Sowell’s thought are not new to Social Justice Fallacies. But, given the frequency with which they are ignored or diminished by many public intellectuals, Sowell’s reinforcement of them in the book lends credence to one of his favorite quotations, courtesy of Oliver Wendell Holmes, “[W]e need education in the obvious more than investigation of the obscure.”

Sowell sprinkles this commentary with vivid historical examples, a good number of which he has utilized in his prior books. The poverty rate of white single-parent homes headed by females has been more than double the poverty rate of black two-parent homes for decades. The African coastline is thousands of kilometers shorter than the European coastline, leading to fewer harbors in which ships can safely dock. Germans have been leading producers of beer across the globe for centuries. Sowell enlists such examples to underline his view that many disparities are the result of cultural patterns, geographical idiosyncrasies, and developed capabilities (as in the case of Germans and beer) that cannot be attributed to invidious discrimination. While Social Justice Fallacies weaves in a few contemporary anecdotes to bolster the empirical substance of his analysis, it would have benefited from more recent examples within the last five years or so.

The distinctive talent of Sowell in his works is to locate these empirical arguments within a broader epistemological framework underlying his political and economic thought. In perhaps the most powerful chapter, titled “Chess Board Fallacies,” Sowell deploys Adam Smith’s famous chess piece metaphor in his Theory of Moral Sentiments to describe how well-meaning government attempts to advance justice and equality—encapsulated by the Rawlsian impulse to rearrange individuals and institutions to promote egalitarianism, moving pawns to C4 and bishops to A6—frequently backfire. These counterproductive results stem from, among a variety of factors, the tendency of individuals to respond to incentive structures in a manner that escapes the narrow foresight of central planners—taxes are going to spike? Time to move!—and to the boundaries of the individual intellect.

This latter point is the heartbeat of Sowell’s epistemology. Informed by F.A. Hayek’s insights into the pretense of knowledge, Sowell persuasively shows that government officials bear inherent limitations in grasping the complicated texture of social and economic life. “Consequential knowledge,” then, is the most crucial form of knowledge for human well-being. It is the awareness of particular kinds of information, circumstances, and habits harbored by private individuals embedded in their specific social contexts that transcend the comprehension of third-party surrogate decision-makers. Immigrant populations, for instance, tend to cluster in specific neighborhoods and communities in their new country. In the mid-nineteenth century, two provinces in Spain holding only six percent of the nation’s population furnished two-thirds of Spanish immigrants to Argentina, who then chose to reside in specific neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. Almost ninety percent of Italian immigrants to Australia in the late nineteenth century hailed from an Italian area that only held ten percent of Italy’s population. Sowell demonstrates that the most intellectually gifted members of society do not possess a scintilla of this type of consequential knowledge that shapes complex migration and cultural patterns spanning the globe.

Sowell’s arguments in Social Justice Fallacies can be criticized from a progressive perspective. Can we not make a distinction between inequalities stemming from geography et al.—factors outside human beings’ control—and those from racial or ethnic discrimination? Are there not more factors in play that account for disparities beyond monocausal explanations such as minimum wage rates? What if cultural patterns themselves are, at least in part, the product of unjust discrimination (which is one of the clear implications of his famous essay “Black Rednecks and White Liberals”)? Sowell might respond (and in his other works he more or less has). Try as we might to distinguish between all forms of inequality derived from neutral and unjust factors, this will ultimately be an exercise in futility, a utopian quest for cosmic justice in an imperfect world.

It is indeed a shame modern progressives shun Sowell, because they would be sympathetic to various strands of his thought in Social Justice Fallacies and elsewhere, such as his stern rebuke of genetic and racial determinism. And Sowell’s criticism of the relevance of some questions of an Army mental test in the early 20th century—quick, name the city in which the Pierce-Arrow car was manufactured—bears an intriguing resemblance to egalitarians’ trepidations over standardized tests today (though the difference is that the egalitarians believe that such tests are examples of systemic racial injustice). Progressives might even be attracted to some of his arguments about the proud history of black education, not to mention his apolitical work on late-talking children. Even one of Sowell’s most formative arguments—disparities are not synonymous with discrimination—is consistent with the traditional understanding of diversity, known as variety. Different cultures harbor different characteristics and qualities, and this recognition need not be a gateway drug to “moral relativism.” Might Sowellian conservative and egalitarian progressives find some common ground affirming the richness of variety?

But Sowell’s arguments can also be criticized from a conservative perspective. Yes, preserving individual choice is important—but at some point does the question not transition from who is to make this choice to what choice is being made? Do not human beings have to arrive at a moral judgment in the end between different kinds of subjective preferences, between good and bad, just and unjust, to avoid the lure of epistemological agnosticism? Yes, the knowledge problem is real—but at some point does the problem become less about knowledge and more about character and religion? Yes, people respond to incentives—but is this framework too deterministic (incentive created, human being responds, repeat) to explain the complexities and contradictions of human behavior that break free from supply and demand graphs?

In my reading of Social Justice Fallacies and his other works, however, although Sowell’s sympathies certainly lie with Hayekian and public choice traditions, he is keen on avoiding the most dogmatic of libertarian tropes that temper at least some of these hypothetical conservative criticisms: Yes, two-parent families are vital to children; yes, traditional moral virtues are worth preserving; yes, social groups as well as individuals are essential to a flourishing commonwealth; yes, tough-on-crime policies reduce crime; yes, borders matter; yes, national security is necessary; yes, an intemperate faith in rationalism is dangerous; yes, technocratic intellectual epistocracies are destructive; and yes, the United States is a country with an economy, not an economy with a country.

For those interested in probing the intellectual foundations of Sowell’s political philosophy that provide the basis for these beliefs, it is best to read Knowledge and Decisions—perhaps his best book—as well as A Conflict of Visions and The Quest for Cosmic Justice. For those who want to become generally acquainted with the grooves of his thought, or who simply desire a dynamic yet pithy interrogation of sacred assumptions behind the social justice movement, Social Justice Fallacies is a tantalizing entrée. 

Gregory M. Collins is a lecturer in the Program on Ethics, Politics, and Economics at Yale University and is the author of Commerce and Manners in Edmund Burke’s Political Economy. He is currently working on a book manuscript on the idea of civil society in early black political thought.

Support the University Bookman

The Bookman is provided free of charge and without ads to all readers. Would you please consider supporting the work of the Bookman with a gift of $5? Contributions of any amount are needed and appreciated