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Inescapable Disparities

Thomas Sowell’s new book reminds us that the world has never been a level playing field and we will not be able to engineer one.

· 12 min read
Inescapable Disparities
Thomas Sowell (Image courtesy of Basic Books)

A review of Social Justice Fallacies by Thomas Sowell, 224 pages, Basic Books (September 2023)

“Whatever the condition of human beings at the beginning of the species,” writes Thomas Sowell in his new book Social Justice Fallacies, “scores of millennia had already come and gone before anyone coined the phrase social justice.” And during those vast expanses of time, “different peoples evolved differently in very different settings around the world, developing different talents that created reciprocal inequalities of achievements in different endeavors.” They did so “without necessarily creating equality, or even comparability, in any of those endeavors.”

The social-justice movement has changed all that, turning the quest for equity into a salient feature of Western culture and politics. The past century has seen this pursuit shift from the fringes of political discourse to the heart of the mainstream, and its narrative now exerts a profound influence on the arts, education, and even religious institutions. In large parts of society, it has instilled the notion that human disparities are entirely the result of oppression, exploitation, and discrimination, and that a remedial equality of outcome must therefore be pursued at all costs. But the attractive vision of an equitable future can only be constructed by ignoring evidence and repeating a litany of fallacies.

The gist of Thomas Sowell’s new work is that the flawed assumptions of social-justice activists are endangering Western societies. The entire social-justice narrative rests on misunderstandings of issues like individual and group disparities, underrepresentation, discrimination, sex and race, the welfare state, affirmative action, taxation, the minimum wage, and the legacy of slavery. It is not the existence of these mistaken beliefs that bothers Sowell but the dangerous extent to which they “prevail without being subjected to tests of either facts or logic, and the extent to which people who present empirical evidence counter to prevailing beliefs, are met with ad hominem denunciations and with efforts to suppress their evidence.”

Conflicting beliefs must be put to some test, warns Sowell, and a free society “can either destroy freedom or destroy itself in internal conflict. Both have happened all too often, in all too many places, over the centuries.”

Assertions and Myths

For decades, Sowell has written extensively about the dangers of what he calls the quest for cosmic justice, but Social Justice Fallacies is different. Here, Sowell examines the movement’s astonishing track record and argues that it has not delivered the long-promised fulfilment of its aims. To the contrary, he shows that the movement has sometimes produced catastrophic consequences, and that ostensibly compassionate policies have inflicted unintentionally cruel results, most notably the destruction of the black family.

One by one, Sowell dispels social-justice myths using evidence and facts derived from humanity’s past experience. “The study of history,” he argues, quoting historian Paul Johnson, “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.”

Exploring the movement’s evolving mindset, Sowell sheds light on the secret of its political success over the past century. “The idea [of social justice] cannot be refuted because it has no specific meaning,” explains Sowell, so “fighting it would be like trying to punch the fog.” Nevertheless, the term “has emotionally powerful connotations” that appeal to our innate sense of compassion—the sense that it is unjust if some people are better off than others.

Lucid, articulate, and thorough, Sowell reexamines oft-repeated terms like merit, racism, affirmative action, “the poor” and “the rich,” in an attempt to clarify their meanings and find out “what we agree on and disagree on.” Through multiple examples, he reveals the movement’s ethos and casts doubt on its perception of equality, and its unattainable goal of equal outcome. “In the real world” he points out, “there is seldom anything resembling the equal outcomes that might be expected if all factors affecting outcomes were the same for everyone.”

After all, “people from different backgrounds do not necessarily want to do the same things, much less invest their time and energies into developing the same kinds of skills and talents.” He invites us to consider the example of US sports, where “blacks are overrepresented in professional basketball, whites in professional tennis, and Hispanics in Major League Baseball.”

History matters too—even if two groups happen to live in identical environments today, they will not necessarily have been subject to the same environmental influences throughout history. “Scots, for example, have long been renowned for the quality of the whisky they produce, as the French have been for their wines. But the Scots cannot match the French in producing wine, because the grapes that grow in France do not thrive in Scotland’s colder climate.”

A Multitude of Fallacies

A leading social-justice fallacy assumes that human disparities are invariably caused by the exploitation and oppression of subordinate minorities by dominant majorities. But as Sowell demonstrates, many minorities have “economically outperformed dominant majorities in many countries around the world and in many periods of history—the Ottoman Empire, is one example, where none of the 40 private bankers listed in Istanbul in 1912, was a Turk, even though Turks ruled the empire. Nor was any of the 34 stockbrokers in Istanbul a Turk.” Other racial or ethnic minorities who have owned or operated more than half of whole industries include the Chinese in Malaysia, Germans in Brazil, Ibos in Nigeria, Marwaris in India, and Jews in pre-Holocaust Poland.

Another prominent fallacy assumes that certain groups are underrepresented within certain fields due to intentional, racially motivated exclusion. Sowell responds by asking: “Are Asians ‘kept out’ of professional basketball or Californians ‘kept out’ of the National Hockey League? Is equal demographic representation so widespread or so automatic in other endeavors that its absence in a particular endeavor can only be due to someone keeping particular people out?”

Comparing different ethnic groups in this way, he writes, is like comparing apples and oranges in terms of specialised education or other specialised preparations. “Asian Americans have more college degrees in engineering than either blacks or Hispanics, each of whom outnumbers Asian Americans in the U.S. population. At the Ph.D. level, Asian Americans’ engineering degrees outnumber the engineering Ph.D.s of blacks and Hispanics put together.”

Similarly, “when women are statistically ‘under-represented' in Silicon Valley, some people automatically assume that to be due to sex discrimination.” But “it so happens that the work done in Silicon Valley is based on an application of engineering skills, including computer software engineering—and American women receive less than 30 percent of the degrees in engineering, whether at the college level or the postgraduate level.” American men, on the other hand, receive fewer than 20 percent of the undergraduate degrees in education, so it is not surprising that they are underrepresented among school teachers.

Thomas Sowell: Tragic Optimist
Sydney. London. Toronto.

The Decline of the Black Family

One of the most persistent social-justice fallacies concerns the legacy of slavery, and the reflexive tendency to hold it responsible for any misfortune that befalls any black person. Sowell objects to this causal reasoning, and argues that welfare policies introduced in the 1960s must shoulder much of the blame for social problems faced by American blacks, particularly the collapse of the family. Although activists seldom acknowledge it, black Americans made striking progress in the decades before the 1960s until “demonstrable harm” was inflicted upon them by the introduction of social-justice policies.

Welfare policies, Sowell argues, led to the father absenteeism that devastated the black family. What followed was a sharp reversal of the decline in homicides, and a steep rise in the proportion of black children born to unmarried women. “For more than a hundred years after the end of slavery,” he reminds us, “most black children were born to women who were married, and the children were raised in two-parent homes.” In 1963, 23.6 percent of black children were born to single mothers. By the end of the 20th century, that figure stood at 68.7 percent.

Government policies “made fathers a negative factor for mothers seeking welfare benefits,” Sowell concludes, and this helped to produce generations of fatherless boys. “Studies of boys raised without a father have found them very much over-represented among people with pathologies. These pathologies were more highly correlated with fatherlessness than with any other factor, surpassing even race and poverty.” Clearly, there were no “equal chances” for these boys, “whether they were treated fairly or unfairly by people they encountered in institutions ranging from schools to police departments.”

The Sowell Factor

Sowell is a master at explaining complex topics with clarity and precision. The book is filled with illuminating and thought-provoking arguments and information. Consider this example:

Something else was implicit in the genetic determinism of early twentieth-century Progressivism—namely, that there was a genetically determined ceiling on the intelligence of some groups, making it imperative that they be prevented from reproducing. As late as 1944, Gunnar Myrdal reported, in his path-breaking book An American Dilemma, that belief in a low ceiling on black intelligence was common among white Americans at that time.

Unequal circumstances can begin in the womb, including nutritional differences among pregnant women that are later reflected in the IQ differences separating their children. Even children born to the same parents and raised in the same home are not equal. I was astounded to discover that the first-born children in a family have, as a group, higher average IQs, a higher rate of college completion, and are overrepresented among high achievers in a variety of endeavours. In the United States, “more than half the National Merit Scholarship finalists were a first-born child, even in five-child families.”

Other eye-openers include the fact that capabilities themselves vary not just from one person to another, but at different stages of a person’s life—“a man is not even equal to himself, either physically or mentally at different stages of his life,” Sowell notes, “much less equal to all other people in their varying stages of life.” And then there is the impact of a nation’s geography on its fate, wealth, and success to consider—hubs that experience a high flow of people tend to be sophisticated, while geographical isolation (hillbillies and canal-boat communities, for example) tends to produce deprivation and even lower IQ.

The singleminded pursuit of justice at all costs is not justice at all, Sowell argues, and will often result in injustice. The results sought by social-justice activists are what Hayek used to call “cosmic justice,” and they are not attainable “when there are differences in human fates for which clearly no human agency is responsible.” Sowell agrees that “we cannot demand justice from the cosmos,” and that “no human beings, either singly or collectively, can control the cosmos, that is, the whole universe of circumstances surrounding us and affecting everyone’s chances in life.”

Sowell is at pains to stress the large element of luck in all our lives: “Neither society nor government has either causal control, or moral responsibility extending to everything that has gone right or wrong in everybody’s life.” The appearance of a particular individual in our lives at a particular juncture, is often enough to alter the trajectory of our lives. It is simply unrealistic for anyone to expect society or government to be able to account for such instances of happenstance.

Ignorant Arrogance

The reason that social-justice activists get so much wrong, Sowell contends, is that they refuse to acknowledge the pivotal importance of factors that help to determine life outcomes for different groups, including work ethic, cultural background, history, and geography. They likewise ignore important sex differences:

Women are full-time, year-round workers significantly less often than men, the work patterns of women include more part-time work, and some whole years when many women are out of the labor force entirely, often due to staying home to take care of young children—when these and other differences in work patterns are taken into account, male-female differences in income shrink drastically, and in some cases reverse.

Another important factor that tends to be disregarded is median age. “Different groups, with different median ages varying by a decade or two, are unlikely to be equal in endeavors requiring either the physical vitality of youth or the experience that comes with age.” As soon as one reads this argument, its importance becomes self-evident. We learn that the populations in Germany, Italy, and Japan have a median age over 40, while Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Angola have median ages under 20. “It is wrong,” Sowell observes matter-of-factly, “to expect a nation where half the population are infants, young children and teenagers, to have the same human capital (work experience and education), as a nation where half the population is 40 years old or older.”

Sowell offers a stark warning to successful intellectuals, who assume their accomplishments “confer validity to their notions about a broad swath of issues, ranging far beyond the scope of their accomplishments—but stepping outside the scope of one’s expertise can be like stepping off a cliff.” Beware the highly educated and overconfident intellectual out of his element. “A high IQ and low information,” Sowell cautions, “can be a very dangerous combination, stupid people can create problems, but it often takes brilliant people to create a real catastrophe. They have already done that enough times.”

George Bernard Shaw regarded the working class as being among the “detestable” people who “have no right to live”; Professor Ronald Dworkin of Oxford University declared that “a more equal society is a better society even if its citizens prefer inequality”; French feminist Simone de Beauvoir likewise said, “No woman should be authorised to stay at home to raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.”

In the face of such arrogance, Sowell offers the wisdom of his mentor, Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman: “A society that puts equality—in the sense of equality of outcome—ahead of freedom, will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests.”

Social-Justice Fallacies

Social Justice Fallacies is a captivating book. Brave, bold, original, and painfully frank, it rests on Sowell’s unparalleled knowledge, amassed over a long lifetime of study. Now 93 years of age, he continues to dismantle sloppy ideological thinking with patient argument, carefully researched facts, perceptively illustrative examples, and telling statistics. Deeply thought out, his new work goes beyond refuting specific fallacies to provide a persuasive account of the social-justice movement's faulty premises and mindset, its pathological avoidance of reality, its hypocrisy, and its destructive arrogance. Cosmic justice may be satisfying to those who espouse its doctrines, but it does not help those it is intended to benefit.

So what are those of us who are not followers of the social-justice vision to do? “We can turn our attention,” Sowell advises, “from rhetoric to the realities of life—today it is especially important to get facts, rather than catchwords; not only current facts, but also the vast array of facts about what others have done in the past, both the successes and the failures.” After more than a century of social-justice campaigns, we are no closer to achieving the movement’s goals. Not only are we further from the promised land, but social-justice fallacies are inhibiting and sometimes reversing the progress its advocates champion.

Thomas Sowell has spent six decades as an economist and social theorist. His remarkable intellect and knowledge have made him dangerous to debate. “Television and print media wised up,” said the late Walter Williams. “You can’t win an argument with Thomas Sowell, so they just ignore what he’s written.” Brutally honest and astonishingly bright, Sowell is a man with history on his side because he has taken the trouble to study and understand it. Decades ago, he argued that electing black officials to public office would not be the answer to bridging disparities, that social activism would be the ruin of education, that the welfare state was subsidising people into dependence and more. And as all of this has come to pass, he has continued to study the consequences of the developments he foresaw.

Sowell has never been awarded the Nobel Prize, but his scholarship has transformed the thinking of leading luminaries and public intellectuals. It is time for the Nobel committee to correct a historic wrong and recognise this rare and singular mind. “The word ‘genius’ is thrown around so much that it's becoming meaningless,” Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman once noted, “but I think Tom Sowell is close to being one.”

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