Politics, Top Stories

Cosmic Justice and the Expectation Gap

The quest for “cosmic justice”—a term coined by the economist Thomas Sowell in his book of the same name—describes the efforts to “mitigate the undeserved misfortunes arising from the cosmos” in pursuit of perfect equality between individuals and groups. While traditional forms of justice compel individuals to abide by the same set of social and economic processes despite natural differences between people, cosmic justice imagines society as an omniscient anthropomorphic entity responsible for resolving all inequities. But when expectation fails to meet reality, the purveyors of cosmic justice imagine something nefarious is afoot, and inveigh against whichever group their ideological priors persuade them is to blame.

Although Sowell used this concept to critique the social justice Left, the quest for cosmic justice is part of a much broader phenomenon that cuts across the partisan divide: the weaponization of bitterness for personal and political gain. Americans are angrier at each other than at any time since Watergate. Republicans and Democrats harbor sharply negative attitudes towards their respective opponents that policy differences alone can’t explain, with nearly a third of each party disapproving of their children marrying between parties and nearly a quarter of each reporting the country would be better if vast swathes of the other party would drop dead.

Charles Duhigg unpacks this state of affairs in his long Atlantic essay “The Real Roots of American Rage“—fewer than half of voters said they were deeply angry at the other party’s presidential nominee in 2012. But by 2016, that proportion had shot up to 70 percent. In 2001, just eight percent of Americans told Pew they were angry at the federal government. By 2013, that number had more than tripled. And Americans, particularly the younger generations, are increasingly resentful of the rich.

But more than just partisan antipathy has been on the rise. Although hate crime statistics are notably shoddy, the spike in anti-Semitism in recent years and the prevalence of white nationalist sentiment online point to growing ethnic tensions in the country. About six in 10 Americans say race relations in the U.S. have become worse under President Trump and 65 percent of Americans say it is now more common for people to express racially insensitive views, according to Pew data. And a new flood of partisan invective follows each new cultural collision, from the bitterly contested Kavanagh hearings to the race row that engulfed the Covington kids. Politically, ethnically, culturally, and otherwise, antipathy seems to have become the baseline emotion in American life. But why?

The Expectation Gap

What we know about anger as an emotion can help us understand our collective state of acrimony. Anger is often a consequence of disappointment, according to psychology author Mary C. Lamia, allowing us “to continue idealising what could have been while consciously denigrating it.” Dr. Z Colette Edwards of the online health care blog Insight M.D. agrees: “Disappointment is directly linked to one’s expectations; when our expectations and the outcome do not match. The occasional disappointment doesn’t normally trigger anger. The unwillingness to accept the reality—that you didn’t get what you expected—is what triggers anger.” In this light, the nationwide explosion of anger can be understood as the outgrowth of a major expectation gap in our culture, the distance between what we feel entitled to and the reality of not receiving it. Anger is a means of compensating for that gap.

There is certainly reason for disappointment in the West. Millennials are the first generation anticipated to have worse social and economic outcomes than their parents in America. Life expectancy has declined over the past few years, a trend unseen since the Spanish Flu Pandemic. Levels of depression and anxiety have reached alarming levels and suicide rates have increased by about 33 percent since 1999. The majority of Americans live paycheck to paycheck according to various surveys. Entrepreneurship is in decline, with 100,000 fewer businesses started per year than just over a decade ago. Drug overdoses have overtaken car accidents as the most likely cause of accidental death in America. The economy is increasingly stratified and unequal, with lower levels of trust in our institutions and in each other.

And all of this is happening in the richest and freest country in the world. Despite our relative comfort and security in respect to most of human history, the groundswell of hostility should come as little surprise in light of the chasm between expectation and outcome.

Bitterness, Left and Right

The pursuit of cosmic justice aggravates the human proclivity for scapegoating and allows all-encompassing grand narratives to proliferate. After all, righteous anger feels good, and it is cathartic to be part of a group with a common enemy. It’s much more satisfying to write a furious op-ed about how terrible things are and the malevolence of those responsible than it is to calmly discuss or defend the trade-offs required by a given policy or cultural compromise. The human mind responds most passionately to storytelling, which necessarily involves a protagonist (us) and an antagonist (them). The psychologist Jonathan Haidt refers to this phenomenon as common enemy politics, illustrated by the Bedouin proverb “me against my brother, my brother and I against my cousin, and all of us against the stranger.”

But pursuit of cosmic injustice and the malice it inflames find expression in different ways on either side of the political aisle. On the Left, bitterness stems from the conviction that unequal outcomes between groups have been engineered by hegemonic and exploitative power brokers. The expectation gap between perfect equality and our unequal social and economic landscape leads to blame and invective rather than engagement with the complex interaction of variables that advantage some and disadvantage others. The dark green environmentalist movement, meanwhile, insists that climate change and the disruption of the natural environment are not the byproducts of progressive modernization that has largely benefited humanity, but rather the cynical apathy of venal capitalist elites. In an effort to close the expectation gap, their climate activism then becomes a religious crusade to recover Eden from its wicked rulers rather than a fact-led ecological project that requires coalition-building and cooperation.

Meanwhile on the Right, the breakdown of the family unit and the decline of social capital is chalked up to the moral zealotry and romanticism of the baby boomers’ recklessly hedonistic and selfish counterculture. If not for President Johnson’s Great Society programs, the social acceptance of single parenthood and divorce, the mainstreaming of radical progressivism, and the excesses of post-civil rights liberalism, the American Dream would have been realized and our social fabric would be intact. In this telling, the counterculture was not a natural response to Jim Crow, oppressive sexual mores, and a disastrous war in South-East Asia, but the collective convulsion of narcissistic college students and ungrateful bohemian prima donnas rebelling against their own WASP backgrounds. Conservatives can therefore explain the ascendance of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh-style talk radio, and Donald Trump as the justifiable reaction to liberal secular degeneracy—the blame for America’s problems lie at the feet of the modern Left rather than broader systemic shifts involving globalization, social liberalization, corporatism, automation, or perhaps just the entropic nature of change itself.

And on the far-Right, this cultural resentment smoulders into conspiratorial fear and paranoid loathing. The demographic decline of white majorities in the West is portrayed (often with barely disguised anti-Semitism) as a development orchestrated by a conspiracy of internationalist cosmopolitans and globalist elites.

In each case, a cosmic mistake is said to have unraveled society and a particular group is held responsible. The quest for cosmic justice is about uncovering hidden and malevolent agency, and societal problems are attributed to the characterological flaws of repugnant or overzealous decision-makers against whom we can rage with righteous fury. This provides unscrupulous demagogues and true believing fanatics with a powerful instrument of mobilization at the expense of the appreciation of complexity needed to understand and solve problems.

Beyond Bitterness

The impulse towards cosmic justice is entirely human, but it distorts reality. Life becomes something rather ugly—a theatre of marionettes manipulated by villainous puppeteers. If we could just expose and punish them—the bankers and the corporations, the warmongers and the globalists, the libertine hippies and the decadent secular liberal humanists, the migrants and the Muslims, the Zionists and the Jews—a better and redemptive world will be forthcoming.

The issues of our time demand a more serious approach. As James Baldwin wrote, “I know that people can be better than they are. We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.” Closing the cultural expectation gap and abandoning the quest for cosmic justice would help us to face reality. This is a necessary precondition to improving the conditions of our lives and our societies.


Samuel Kronen is an independent writer interested in culture, politics, and identity. You can follow him on Twitter @SalmonKromeDome

Feature image: An anti-Fascist group known as Philly Rebellion marked the arrest of more than 200 protesters one year ago at the inauguration of Dold Trump in Washington DC by taking and holding a major intersection in downtown Philadelphia on January 20th, 2018. (Photo by Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images)


  1. Maybe off topic but lucky for those in the cover photo were burning a US flag, it is protected speech. Had it been an LBGT flag it would get them 16 years in the slammer. I just don’t get this new fangled justice, cosmic justice, social justice or just plain injustice with new marketing.

  2. Being that I’m having difficulty understanding the point of this article, I felt willing to cut the author some slack but…

    "And on the far-Right, this cultural resentment smoulders into conspiratorial fear and paranoid loathing. ", as seen from some author with a leftist perspective perhaps, but I see these traits within the extremes of each side.


    " the spike in antisemitism in recent years and the prevalence of white nationalist sentiment online point to growing ethnic tensions in the country.", is accepted as fact while, 'the spike in antisemitism in recent years and increasing influx of Muslim immigration coupled with the prevalence of Islamist sentiment online point to growing ethnic tensions in the country." is verboden to even mention.
    Quite the selective cum hoc ergo propter hoc going on there.

  3. This was an exceptionally lazy and sloppy article, full of half-baked cliches and questionable assertions. The cosmic justice concept mostly doesn’t apply to the traditionalist and free-market right, who, indeed, uphold a traditional, commonsense conception of justice – common rules and adjudication in the face of natural differences. It’s not anarchy or social Darwinism. It doesn’t seek to flatten natural and historical differences among individuals and groups. That kind of justice seeks to give each its due and provide balance.

    It’s precisely the differences that the Left hates – leftism is hatred of differences. The Left’s conception of justice therefore has to reject facts, history, and objectivity. More honest and self-aware leftists will admit this.

  4. The answer is no, for those without the time to click the link. Alternately why not just view the shift in pictorial form:


    One of the most interesting phenomenon on YouTube is that the Right if Centre gravitates towards learning about economic issues, whilst the Left gravitates towards learning about social issues. This goes to the heart of the divide- because whilst the average Democrat is likely to be able to cite the fact that $4 trillion was spent bailing the finance sector out in 2008, they are far less likely to know that the US Government has already committed itself to around $127 trillion in future mandatory spending, or that the Social Security fund is set to go bust. To put that in context, the total cost of America’s forever wars was around $6.4, only a fraction of money promised by the US Government to it’s citizens in the future.

    One of two things to happen in the US- either Government spending needs to be cut, or revenue needs to be raised. Let’s deal with the latter possibility first. In general, American taxes are higher than in many OECD countries, but the important thing is the source, as this chart illustrates:

    So if Americans wants to raise taxes, then the best way would be through a consumption tax, given that raising tax rates on the highest earners, or through a Wealth Tax, would likely result in a reduction in revenue, because of the Laffer curve.

    But the real issue is that most wealthy nations are going to have look long and hard at both healthcare and social security for the retired, because the spending on these two areas dwarfs all other spending. The key has to be some form of ‘pay-us-when-you’re-dead’ zero interest credit system for both, with the Central Bank writing off any unrecoverable debt. For pensions it might even be possible to modestly increase social security payments, if one third of the payment was an accrued debt, payable upon death. For healthcare, 80% of all healthcare costs across a lifetime relate to healthcare in the final year of life- so it might be a case of the elderly receiving informed medical advice for their future quality and length of life, and then deciding to retire from life comfortably and with dignity. Please note, I am not advocating the use of coercion in this process, although another Quillette user has already highlighted a DNR situation, where a doctor used persuasion bordering on pressure…

    The growing gap between the expectations and aspirations of liberals as to what a society can do for it’s citizens, and the realisation on the part of conservatives, that we have already exceeded these rational limits, is the real cause of the growing gulf between the Left and the Right, and the sooner we can acknowledge the elephant in the room, the sooner our divided societies can begin to heal.

  5. The suggestion government should encourage old people to die is frightening. But as our budgets get increasingly squeezed, government will have incentive to get rid of our parents and grandparents.

    If the bulk of a person’s medical care comes in the last year of life, my grandmother’s death is about 4 years overdue. Perhaps that explains why during her last hospitalization, a doctor pressured her to sign a DNR after visiting hours at 9PM, when she was high on painkillers. Quebec, the socialist paradise!

    Our grandmothers’ lives might not be worth anything to the government, but they are to us. If government is going to send our elders to the glue factory (along with the Charlie Gards and Alfie Evans of the world), they should get out of the healthcare business altogether.

    Don’t kill the elderly, who have paid excessive taxes their whole lives to fund this socialist wet dream: restrict coverage to people born more than 25 years ago, and expect those younger than that to buy their own insurance, preferably with the help of lower taxes.

  6. The main point of the article (about the pernicious effect of seeking cosmic justice) seems fair, but many of the specific points seem off the mark. For example, this paragraph:

    <Although hate crime statistics are notably shoddy, the spike in antisemitism in recent years and the prevalence of white nationalist sentiment online point to growing ethnic tensions in the country. About six in ten Americans say race relations in the U.S. have become worse under President Trump and 65 percent of Americans say it is now more common for people to express racially insensitive views, according to Pew data.>

    I don’t trust these claims in particular, because defending Western civilization is now defined as “white nationalism” by our intellectual elite, and “racially insensitive” doesn’t mean real racism—it just means being politically incorrect according to biased progressive definitions. The antisemitism in Europe may be more reliable, although we don’t honestly discuss the causes.

  7. As a member of the Democratic Party for 40 years, I can attest that the party has shifted radically to the left. The Republican Party has not changed its views much. Because of what I call “hate labeling” the positions that were acceptable not long ago are now called alt-right, fascist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. So in the mainstream media there is a perception that the Republicans have gone radical right. This is gaslighting on a massive scale, and I am now voting Republican.

  8. What do you mean, “the race row that engulfed the Covington kids”? What race row? The media straight-up lied about them. The story was BREAKING: A group of Covington Catholic kids stood in general vicinity of an Indian and showed no particular reaction.

    More: https://unherd.com/2020/01/journalism-is-being-eaten-alive-by-opinion/

    “the moral zealotry and romanticism of the Baby Boomers’ recklessly hedonistic and selfish counterculture.”

    Now this is incorrect and destructive. Generational war is not the answer. It’s not “boomers” who did this, it was our ruling class. This piece is very dishonest and strawmans the Right’s position. It is far below Quillette standards, I expect authors to be intellectually honest and steelman opposing opinions instead.

    “If we could just expose and punish them—the bankers and the corporations, the warmongers and the globalists”

    This is actually an excellent idea. Bankers and corporations caused the 2008 financial crisis on purpose, with malice aforehtought. Warmongers like Bolton and globalists like Romney are a major source of conflict in the world, all of which the US taxpayer is expected to pay for.

    The base reason that American politics are so ugly is that the Left has successfully Otherized the Right. The Right, being on the receiving end of this, has figured it out and begun responding effectively. Here’s a great essay on the topic that everyone should read: http://archive.is/QRJ6m

    Its thesis is that the American Right’s ingroup is Americans while its outgroup is non-Americans. Simple, eh? However, the American Left’s ingroups are the Right’s outgroups.

    And the American Left’s outgroup is the American Right.

    It explains SO much, I really urge everyone to read the essay.

  9. What animates and angers people these days is positively silly and indicative of affluence. People in third world countries are not arguing over pronouns or if gender is a construct. They are not demanding action because a cafeteria served fried chicken and watermelon during Black History Month. They do not have faux hate crimes. The over the top anger is a product of the triviality of today’s issues. How much the government spends or this program or how much it cuts or raises taxes on that group are not life altering decisions. Is there division and acrimony, sure. However no one is being rounded up and placed in camps like the Uyghurs, homosexuals are not being tossed from buildings, women are not flogged for dressing immodestly. It is not the division that is great. It is the hyperbole over trivialities (pronoun usage, food and culture appropriation). Is the U.S. more divided now than it was in 1968 or 1862 or were those the good old days? The simple fact is affluence does not override peoples’ desires to rail, it simply makes what they rail about much more banal. These we are going to Hell in a hand basket stories are really quite amusing and have been told since the dawn of time.

    1. People who comment make up a small proportion of readers, and those who do comment skew toward those who disagree with the author in whole or in part. Your assumption that the readers are farther right than the authors is flawed.
    2. Did it ever occur to you that readers here enjoy having their views challenged, and pushing back when they disagree?
    3. Maybe it is your own bias that interprets disagreement as emotion, simple-mindedness, anger, and tribalism. Why don’t you engage in a discussion rather than making sweeping statements about other posters?
  10. Most Quillette users who post tend to dislike the extremes of the political spectrum, rather than the reasonable range from traditional conservative to Left liberal. This doesn’t necessarily mean in economic sense, because several regular users who comment are economically very Left. We even have a couple of progressives who post regularly.

    But here’s the thing. If you are one of those people who see racism everywhere, and believe that the West is an Oppressive White Patriarchy, then you are very much in the minority, in most Western countries, let alone within the ranks of Quillette users. 2% of twitter users post approximately 90% of the content, and roughly half of them are what one might call intersectional progressives. Even in Universities, the vocal tiny majority are the ones who hold a hugely disproportionate amount of cultural power, with the silent large majority simply holding their tongues out of fear, and making the correct bland statements when required.

    That very real racism exists, there can be no doubt- but it is confined to small portion of the general population, who typically hold little or no power. Trump got elected, because a huge swathe of the populace was fed up with Washington- many voted for Obama, and a significant portion of them would have voted for Bernie, given the choice. Hilary lost because she called people deplorables and was too close to Wall Street, with Mayor Pete likely to lose for the same reason. Boris Johnson won, because people hated the European bureaucracy and didn’t trust the EU to not try to pull Britain into a closer and closer Federal Europe.

    Micro-aggressions really aren’t evidence of widespread systemic racism- where it does exist, it occurs for perverse, rather than pernicious reasons. And believe it or not, when comedians make jokes in which they are the target of the joke (usually by playing into the stereotype), with homosexuality the subject- it doesn’t in any way contribute to physical attacks on the LGBT community. These are all views that are held by 90% of the population- it’s just that most people are afraid to voice them. It’s why the Left keeps losing elections- because the secret nature of the ballot box, is the one place where people can still express their real opinions.

  11. Is this your example of a cogent argument? Next time try engaging rather than projecting.

  12. You’re making yourself guilty of the same flaw. To paraphrase

    Article: tries to be above partisanship with honest intent, but is blind to it’s own annoying tropes and strawman comments.

    Commenters: various points of view on a scale are expressed, some didn’t like it some did.

    You: Quillette commenters are far right.

    Me. Shake my head.

    Having been around the Quillette forums a long time, my view is that we have a fairly even mixture of apostate leftists like me, who are now more comfortable calling ourselves classical liberals, and democratic conservatives. I now feel more comfortable hanging out intellectually with conservatives because at least they don’t hate me just for being a white man. And I think classical liberals and conservative views have a common core philosophically which is centered around the belief in the individual as the unit of society rather than the group.

    My main criticism of the article is that it didn’t contain any real attempt to move forwards. To say that people disagree is one thing, but to move forward you have to really try to examine what is going on and actually engage with people’s views. All the article tried to do was take a distant stance that doesn’t really lead anywhere. It had a good start by talking about the concept of cosmic justice and how people are prone to seeing “society” in anthropological terms as a god like figure. But then the article didn’t really add anything to this point or take it anywhere.

    I also agree with other commenters that the article does have a large number of assertions of fact that are more belief driven that evidence based. It was very astute to point out that what is labelled “white nationalism” these days is so wide ranging that the word has lost all meaning.

    It would be far more interesting for the author to actually question whether they know this for a fact, or if it’s just hearsay they have received from elsewhere.

  13. I keep seeing many posts like this one. While I personally had no real issues with the essay (although I did not find it impressive either), I am not seeing this rampant hatred and anger in the comment section so many others seem to see.

    Is there any way someone can disagree with an article about anger without others claiming that the disagreement is angry and therefore proving the articles point? Almost seems like some variety of Kafkatrapping.

  14. I’m definitely one of the ones who does this, but it isn’t a matter of purity. My problem with it is that it always is just a single, throwaway comment, unsupported and unexplored. If you want to criticize Trump, do it logically and thoroughly, don’t just assume you can throw shade and the audience will eat it up like this is Huffington Post.

Continue the discussion in Quillette Circle

352 more replies


Comments have moved to our forum


  1. Pingback: The Disturbing Truth | Chamblee54

Comments are closed.