The newest book from the great Thomas Sowell is a must-read.
Thomas Sowell is a national (and international) treasure. The 93-year-old Black American economist and social commentator has penned around 50 important books (of which I only have 30). His latest is another winner: Social Justice Fallacies (Basic Books, 2023). The book itself is brief, with five main fallacies discussed in just 130 pages, along with 70 pages of endnotes.
The fallacies covered involve all the trendy, woke and leftist nostrums of the day. He makes it clear that vague generalities and lofty lefty sentiments are not enough – they must be backed up by evidence and facts. And when these various fallacies are examined in detail, it turns out they have very little empirical data behind them. They are more about emoting, victimisation, and guilt-tripping.
Consider what he terms the matter of “chesspiece fallacies.” By this, he means how governments and leftist thinkers believe that humans can be shuffled about as upon a chessboard, especially in terms of things like the confiscation and redistribution of wealth. Says Sowell:
There is no question that governments, or even local looters, can redistribute wealth to some extent. But the larger issue is whether the actual effects of attempting more comprehensive and enduring confiscation and redistribution policies are likely to be successful or counterproductive.
Leaving moral issues aside for the moment, these are ultimately factual questions, for which we must seek answers in the realm of empirical evidence, rather than in theories or rhetoric.
That is always where the men get separated from the boys – or the right from the left. Conservatives are wont to back up their beliefs with the hard data, while the left tends to just want to pontificate, go on emotional benders, and shame and bully people into their way of thinking.
Thus, Sowell looks in great detail (with plenty of supporting documentation) on how things like confiscatory taxation have actually worked out – for rich and poor alike. He documents, for example, how raising taxes (especially on high-income earners) does not automatically mean more tax revenue coming in, just as a reduction in tax rates does not always reduce tax revenues. Says Sowell:
In politics, highly expensive proposals to have the government provide various benefits “free” to everyone can be very appealing to some voters, when the additional costs to the government are said to be paid for by collecting higher tax revenues from “millionaires and billionaires,” whether or not this actually turns out to be true.
Such an outcome might seem desirable to some voters, from a social justice perspective, but desirability does not preclude questions of feasibility. In politics, the goal is not truth but votes…
Race vs Family
The issue of race, of course, also arises here all the time. Sowell has penned at least a dozen books on race, economics, equality, fairness, discrimination, and the like. And once again, the empirical data must trump reckless rhetoric and mindless accusations. Here is just one case in point:
Economic differences between different groups are a special concern when discussing different rates of poverty. For example, 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.
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. And in no year in more than half a century since 1959 has the national poverty rate of Americans as a whole been as low 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?
As with other disparities, differences between races are not necessarily racial differences, either in the sense of being caused by genes or being caused by racial discrimination. Some behavioral patterns produce similar outcomes in groups that differ by race, so that these disparities in outcomes can reflect disparities in behavior — for whatever reasons — without implying either genetic determinism or societal discrimination.
Internationally, in the twenty-first century, there are a number of European nations where at least 40 percent of the births are to unmarried women — and these nations have no “legacy of slavery.” But they have expanded welfare states.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, more than a century ago, that catchwords can “delay further analysis for fifty years.” Too many catchwords have already delayed analysis longer than that – and are still doing so.
In another chapter, he continues his assessment of the political elites and social justice warriors, and how their rhetoric seldom matches reality. They can speak all they want about compassion, helping the poor, and so on, but more often than not, the things they propose actually tend to make matters worse.
But when our elites do not have to pay for the consequences of their faulty thinking and grand schemes, the downward spiral of their damaging policies is simply perpetuated. It is us mere peons who have to pay the price – who have to pick up the tab. Sowell puts it this way:
Policies based on the social justice vision tend to assume not only a concentration of consequential knowledge in intellectual elites, but also a concentration of the causes of socioeconomic disparities in such other people as heads of business, educational and other institutions.
Accordingly, the social justice agenda tends to focus its attention on correcting institutional and societal defects by having government empower surrogate decision-makers to rescue victims of various forms of mistreatment by taking many 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.
We see this happening in so many areas, and the ones who suffer most are NOT the ones pushing these nostrums and chanting the social justice mantras. We find this in countless economic matters, including things like minimum wage laws:
Fact-free moralizing is a common pattern among social justice advocates. But the fundamental problem is institutional problem, when laws allow third-party surrogate to pre-empt other people’s decisions and pay no price for being wrong, no matter how high the price paid by others, whom they are supposedly helping…
While some social justice advocates may think of minimum wage laws as a way to help low-income people, many special-interest groups in countries around the world – perhaps more experienced and informed about their own economic interests – have deliberately advocated minimum wage laws for the express purpose of pricing some low-income people out of the labor market. At one time, the groups targeted for exclusion included Japanese immigrant workers in Canada and African workers in South Africa under apartheid, among others.
Lessons from History
In his closing chapter, which looks further at issues such as racism, affirmative action, and the like, he concludes by looking at implications of the flawed social justice vision. He does not say it has gone wrong because of any concerns people have about a better world. We should want a better world. But the question always is: will the vision being promoted in fact achieve this, or actually make things worse?
Looking at the bigger picture, he says this:
The history of totalitarian dictatorships that arose in the twentieth century, and were responsible for the deaths of millions of their own people in peacetime, should be an urgent warning against putting too much power in the hands of any human beings. That some of these disastrous regimes were established with the help of many sincere and earnest people seeking high ideals and a better life for the less fortunate, should be an especially relevant warning to people seeking social justice in disregard of the dangers.
It is hard to think of any power exercised by human beings over other human beings that has not been abused. Yet we must have laws and governments, because anarchy is worse. But we cannot just keep surrendering more and more of our freedoms to politicians, bureaucrats and judges – who are what elected governments basically consist of – in exchange for plausible-sounding rhetoric that we do not bother to subject to the test of facts.
But it is exactly the “test of facts” that the social justice left is so averse to. Blaming others, pushing unhelpful tribalism, and using emotive and substance-free rhetoric is their preferred means of promoting their agendas. That can never end well.
Sowell brings this all home in his final paragraphs of the book. They will serve as the conclusion of my article as well:
With social justice advocates supposedly concerned with the fate of the poor, it may seem strange that they seem to have paid remarkably little attention to places where the poor have risen out of a poverty at a dramatic rate and on a massive scale. That at least raises the question whether the social justice advocates’ priorities are the poor themselves or the social justice advocates’ own vision of the world and their own role in that vision.
What are those of us who are not followers of the social justice vision and its agenda to do? At a minimum, we can turn our attention from rhetoric to the realities of life. As the great Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, it is especially important to get facts, rather than catchwords. These include 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. As the distinguished British historian Paul Johnson said:
“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.”
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