AMAC Exclusive – By David Lewis Schaefer
No phrase better encapsulates the dominant political ideology on American college campuses nowadays, yet has less of an identifiable, substantive meaning, than “social justice.” But in his latest book, Social Justice Fallacies, the distinguished economist and social scientist Thomas Sowell, who has authored some 40 books and many essays over the past half-century focusing on such issues as race, education, and what he calls “basic economics,” undertakes to expose the myths that underlie that term.
His method, here as in his previous writings, is to look at these topics empirically, adopting a broad historical and comparative approach to examine the actual consequences of policies like affirmative action and economic redistribution, rather than relying on ideological preconceptions.
In this short but illuminating book, Sowell, a longtime fellow at the Hoover Institution, devotes four chapters, respectively, to exposing four types of widespread fallacies. These include what he calls “equal chances” fallacies, “racial fallacies,” “chess pieces fallacies,” and “knowledge fallacies.” His concluding chapter focuses more generally on the danger that relying on words (like “social justice”) rather than considering the effects of the deeds those words are used to justify poses to human well-being.
By “equal chances” fallacies, Sowell means the misguided assumption that if only the right social policies were pursued, giving all individuals an “equal chance” at success in life, disparities in achievement and welfare among different racial or ethnic groups, or between the sexes, would disappear. This assumption, he says, is obviously belied by the fact that in American sports, “blacks are very over-represented in professional basketball, whites in professional tennis, and Hispanics in Major League Baseball” – yet nobody attributes these “disproportions” to unjust policies.
Contrary to the belief that economic inequalities must be the result of oppression, Sowell observes that many subordinate minorities (often living under non-liberal regimes) have dominated entire sectors of business and industry; for instance, Greeks and Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, the Chinese in Malaysia, Germans in Brazil, Indians in Africa, and Ibos in Nigeria. (Sowell has explored these disparities, and the disastrous results of attempts to overcome them through governmentally imposed racial preferences, in his book Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study.)
In the remainder of the chapter, Sowell identifies the various factors that generate differences in human outcomes. Among individuals, these include birth order (demonstrated to influence IQ) and growing up with or without a father.
Among racial or ethnic groups as well as nations, these factors include things like the median age of a population. Japanese Americans, for instance, have a median age of 52, and Mexican-Americans only 28, meaning that the former have on average had more time to acquire skills and wealth. Geographic differences including climate and proximity to coastlines and rivers, as well as cultural traditions of trust and the valuation of learning also influence economic outcomes.
As desirable as “equal chances for all” might seem, Sowell asks, wouldn’t we rather have medical students with the greatest potential for learning chosen over lesser-qualified peers, and airline pilots selected for expertise rather than “demographic representation of various groups”?
Most provocatively, he asks, “do we want a society in which some babies are born… as heirs of pre-packaged grievances” against others born the same day, “blighting both their lives,” rather than encouraging them to shape their own lives?
In his second chapter, Sowell notes that while “median black American family income has been lower than median white American family income for generations,” the latter is in turn surpassed by that of Asian-Americans. Moreover, the 2020 census reported “more than 9 million black Americans with higher incomes” than the average income of white Americans.
Thus, it is unlikely that unequal incomes between these groups are determined by a fixed “white supremacy.” Of far greater importance, marriage has a more significant influence on family income than race: the poverty rate of white households led by a single mother is more than double that of black married-couple families. And disparities in income within racial/ethnic groups can rival those among them.
Aside from family structures, Sowell also cites how the kinds of school children attend can generate large differences in their success rate. Minority students who attend public charter schools have often done far better than those stuck in regular (unionized) public schools, a point Sowell examined in greater detail in his book Charter Schools and Their Enemies.
Without denying the existence of racism, Sowell notes that exaggerating it, as in Barack Obama’s erroneous report that black men had been banned by the Air Force from becoming pilots, can be “counterproductive,” serving to deter individuals from making the most of their opportunities.
Strikingly, Sowell observes, successive generations of American “progressives” have distorted the facts about the reasons for differential achievement among races and ethnic groups in opposite directions during the 20th century.
In the early 1900s, acting on the thinnest evidence, progressive social scientists claimed to demonstrate that intellectual capacity was tied to race – with those of northern European ancestry at the top and southern Europeans as well as blacks at the bottom. Some went so far as to seek to discourage or prevent the “breeding” of members of the supposedly inferior races. Further research and experience thoroughly refuted these claims.
But in the later years of the 20th century, a new class of progressives went to the opposite extreme, attributing all differences in group achievement to “white racism,” ignoring the facts cited in Chapter 1. (Data on Asian-Americans, Sowell notes, are almost invariably omitted from progressive explanations of group differences, lest they refute the claim.)
The consequence of viewing all differences in outcomes between whites and blacks as proof of discrimination has been such ruinous policies as a 2014 letter issued by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice demanding an end to disparities in student discipline – without regard to variations in student behavior, to the race of teachers, and to the fact that white students “were disciplined twice as often as Asians.” Consequent reductions in disciplinary rates toward certain minorities can only damage the classroom environment, to the detriment of the majority of students of all races who want to learn.
Sowell next examines what he calls “chess pieces fallacies,” by which he means the erroneous assumption that policies aimed at goals like social justice can simply be imposed on societies without certain groups (say, the rich) reacting in ways that defeat the stated purposes of those policies. For instance, increases in state income taxes may generate decreases in overall revenues, as those in the highest brackets escape the increases by moving to other states or even countries, or by reducing their work effort.
Similarly, Sowell argues, inflationary policies resulting from government budget deficits caused by increased spending on programs designed to help the poor are regressive in their impact, since the poor are less likely to own assets like factories or real estate (which may even increase in value), and more likely to hold their savings in cash, which gradually depreciates (the “inflation tax”).
Other examples of chess-piece policies include price controls, which generate scarcities of needed goods (since they make it less worthwhile to produce them) and minimum-wage laws (which result in higher unemployment, especially among inexperienced young job seekers) and facilitate racial discrimination (since biased employers have less incentive to hire qualified minority members, being able to choose among an oversupply of applicants to fill available positions for non-economic reasons).
Finally, Sowell discusses the misleading character of statistical analyses supposedly demonstrating an absence of economic mobility in the U.S., since the share of income earned by the highest 10 percent or one percent of the population remains stagnant over time. The problem with this analysis is that it ignores the fact that the members of the different quintiles change over time, obscuring the demonstrated mobility of actual individuals – while also ignoring advances in the standard of living of even the lowest income quintile over time. Large majorities of those defined as “poor” in 2001, for instance, had air-conditioning, color TV’s, microwaves, and VCR’s – rare or even nonexistent luxuries three decades earlier.
What Sowell calls “knowledge fallacies” consist of arguments that disregard the different kinds of knowledge possessed by different people – so that highly educated intellectuals believe that their knowledge qualifies them to rule over others. The influential Oxford jurisprudential theorist Ronald Dworkin, for instance, held that “a more equal society is a better society even if its citizens prefer inequality,” while feminist pioneer Simone de Beauvoir insisted that women should be prohibited from staying home to raise their children, regardless of their preferences.
Progressive intellectuals’ presumption that they know what’s best for other people causes them to espouse policies like minimum wage laws, bans on payday lending, destructive “urban renewal,” and mandating sex education in the schools, on the ground (as two scholars put it in 1975, well before the current push to alter children’s “gender identity”), that “sex and sexuality have become far too complex and technical to leave to the typical parent.” (Far from the claim that mandatory sex education would reduce teen pregnancy and STD’s, which had previously been declining, both problems then mushroomed.)
From the start of the 20th century through today, progressives have aimed more generally to redefine “freedom” as expanding the range of governmental control over individuals’ resources and behavior for the sake of “liberating” them from unwise decision-making or economic “necessity.” Beginning with rulings of the Warren Court during the 1960s, “enlightened” jurists have also sought to enhance the rights of criminals – with ruinous effects, especially in poor neighborhoods.
In contrast to such destructive ignorance disguised as knowledge, advocates of free markets such as the Nobel Prize-winning economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman have acknowledged the dispersed character of practical knowledge, such that ordinary individuals are more likely to know what’s best for themselves and their families than ivory-tower academics and New York Times columnists.
In support of common people’s good sense, Sowell devotes his last chapter to exploring how terms like “merit,” “racism,” and “affirmative action” have been abused by social-justice partisans in ways that obstruct individual advancement, as well as the general welfare. Progressive partisans like Obama portray successful individuals as enjoying “unmerited” advantages, as if in a free economy the way to prosper is to rob other people of their welfare.
Educators claiming to combat “racism” in the schools actually prevent minority success thanks to control by self-interested teachers’ unions. (Only recently, for instance, have public schools returned to phonics, the most effective mode of reading instruction, in place of the long-discredited “look-see” method favored by education theorists.)
The prime beneficiaries of affirmative action, Sowell observes, tend to be the most prosperous members of designated minorities. And competitive academic institutions that doggedly fought to preserve racial quotas refused to release data showing the low success rate of individuals admitted as a consequence, while the public was left unaware that minority students admitted to less prestigious colleges that better fit their academic qualifications often did better, even making it through law and medical school, than others who were admitted to the Ivy League chiefly for the sake of embellishing the latter’s “diversity” profile.
Sowell’s most telling point is the disregard that many social-justice advocates have displayed for the “remarkable examples of progress of the poor” when such progress wasn’t based on the advocates’ preferred policies. If anything, his book demonstrates that social justice simply isn’t just.
David Lewis Schaefer is a Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, at College of the Holy Cross.