Thomas Sowell released his first book over a half century ago. He was 40. In September, at the age of 93, he released Social Justice Fallacies, his 48th. It is a short book, only 130 pages of text, but as is typical of Sowell, it is rigorously researched, meticulously documented, and filled with profound truths, simply stated.
Sowell was born into a poor family in rural North Carolina at the beginning of the Depression. His father died before he was born. He had no memory of his mother, who died a few years later. Taken in by a great-aunt shortly after his birth, Sowell lived in the segregated South in a house with no electricity or running hot water. When he was nine, the family moved to Harlem. Much later, Sowell came to realize how fortunate he was to have been an only child doted on by four caring adults. This was an advantage, he later wrote, “that money can’t buy” and “expensive government programs cannot create.”
Sowell attended the famously selective Stuyvesant High School in New York, but his teenage years were tumultuous, and he dropped out as his family’s financial condition and interpersonal dynamics rapidly deteriorated. By the time he was 17, his family circumstances were so grim that a court ordered he be emancipated. He moved into a shelter for homeless boys, hiding a knife under his pillow for self-defense.
Sowell was drafted into the Marines in 1951 during the Korean War. After his discharge, he worked in Washington, D.C., briefly attending night school at Howard University. Seeking a more serious academic experience, he enrolled at Harvard, earning a degree in economics in 1958. He was 28. Sowell was equally disappointed with Harvard:
Perhaps any place with such an awesome reputation was bound to be something of a disappointment. What I most disliked about Harvard was that smug assumptions were too often treated as substitutes for evidence or logic.… Unquestionably, Harvard made a major contribution to both my intellectual and social development. But when time came to leave, I felt that it was not a moment too soon.
Sowell earned a master’s from Columbia in 1959 and, nine years later, a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, where he studied under the ’27 Yankees of economics: Milton Friedman, George Stigler, Gary Becker, and Friedrich Hayek. Friedman later said, “The word ‘genius’ is thrown around so much that it’s becoming meaningless, but nevertheless I think Tom Sowell is close to being one.” Over the next 50 years, Sowell would become a renowned public intellectual and important defender of contemporary classical liberalism.
It might surprise some that Sowell, the ardent free marketeer and skeptic of government intervention, identified as a Marxist until his thirties. In his late teens, Sowell purchased a used set of encyclope-dias and turned to an entry on Marx. The philosopher’s ideas about class struggle and economic inequality neatly explained the severe social and economic disparities Sowell saw in his community. Even a class taught by Milton Friedman could not shake Sowell’s views.
But Sowell, as he would throughout his life, relentlessly pursued the truth, tested his beliefs, and let evidence guide his conclusions. His turn from Marxism began in 1960 during a summer job at the U.S. Department of Labor. While conducting an analysis of the federally regulated sugar industry in Puerto Rico, Sowell observed that every time minimum wages were raised, employment fell. Sowell had previously supported minimum-wage laws, but he came to understand that mandatory minimum wages priced people out of jobs, thus hurting those the law was meant to protect. His bureaucratic colleagues were maddeningly indifferent to this fact, indicating to Sowell that their motives were more self-interested than altruistic.
These realizations led Sowell to reconsider his opinions on the proper role of government. He began to examine the gap between intended and actual effects of government policies implemented in the name of fairness. Studying real-world examples of Marxist economic systems, including the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries, he concluded that, regardless of intent, centrally planned economies inevitably result in inefficiency, scarcity, and economic stagnation.
In his quest to understand this inevitability, Sowell identified certain fallacies tainting the assumptions made by Marx and other social-justice advocates. Sowell explores these fallacies in his new book. He has covered this territory extensively before (including in the pages of this magazine), so those familiar with his previous work will recognize much in the book.1 Still, Social Justice Fallacies serves as a useful sampler and update of his career-long examination of these assumptions and their flaws.
Sowell begins with a discussion of “Equal Chance Fallacies,” an idea he traces back to the 18th century and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau posited that, because nature endows all men equally, any inequality in outcomes must be imposed by man. In Sowell’s words,
At the heart of the social justice vision is the assumption that, because…disparities among human beings greatly exceed any differences in their innate capacities, these disparities are … proof of the effects of such human vices as exploitation and discrimination.
Or, as Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, and author of the bestselling How to Be an Antiracist, has declared, “racial inequity is evidence of racist policy.”
Logicians call this “affirming the consequent.” Others call it lazy thinking. Just because A causes B does not mean that if B occurs, it was caused by A. B may have been caused by something else. If Mary has car sickness, she’ll have nausea. But if Mary has nausea, it isn’t inevitable that she has car sickness. Maybe she just ate a bad piece of fish.
Of course, human bias can be, and tragically has been, responsible for disparate results. But, as Sowell emphasizes, human bias is only one of innumerable factors that affect human outcomes. He catalogues several. For example, Japanese Americans have a much higher median income than Mexican Americans. Those susceptible to Equal Chances Fallacies would explain that this inequity results from some racist policy, ignoring the dominant factor: The 34-year difference in the median ages of the two groups—52 for Japanese Americans, 28 for Mexican Americans. As Sowell says:
If these two groups were identical in every other respect, age differences alone would still be enough to make them differ in incomes, since middle-aged Americans have higher median incomes than Americans in their twenties.
Sowell also chides those who insist that the underrepresentation of women in Silicon Valley engineering jobs has resulted from discriminatory hiring and employment practices. On the contrary, underrepresentation should be expected, since woman represent fewer than 30 percent of those graduating with an engineering degree. In other words, the disparity is more of a supply issue than a demand issue. We should study the reason this is so, but it is clearly not the fault of the employers.
Sowell details the trajectory of progressive thinking from the early 20th century through today, noting that early progressives did not succumb to Equal Chance Fallacies. Rather, they believed that genetics determine success, and that some races are unalterably genetically superior to others. In the name of social justice, therefore, these progressives joined the eugenics movement, aimed at reducing or preventing the survival of the genetically inferior. Later in the century, progressives replaced genetic determinism with racial discrimination as the unchallengeable explanation of differences in economic and social outcomes among groups.
Sowell provides extensive evidence that both of these views are fallacious. Differences in group outcomes are not always attributable to race, “either in the sense of being caused by genetics or being a result of racial discrimination.” He highlights several other factors that may lead to disparate outcomes, including differences among groups in the proportion of single-parent households, education levels, and, as noted above, median age.
After examining erroneous beliefs about the causes of disparities, Sowell turns his attention to fallacious assumptions regarding the best action to take when confronting these disparities. “Chess Pieces Fallacies” occur when a decisionmaker implements a policy based solely on the intent behind it, thus ignoring the rational reactions of those subject to the policy.
During her presidential campaign, Senator Elizabeth Warren proposed an “Ultra-Millionaire Tax” to fight income inequality. California Assembly member Alex Lee introduced a similar wealth-tax proposal in California. In January, in an effort to increase the supply of affordable housing, the Biden administration directed the Federal Housing Finance Agency to examine ways to limit “egregious rent increases.” This year alone, 27 states increased their minimum wage in an effort to ensure all workers a living wage.
The primary aim of each of these policies is the confiscation and redistribution of wealth, whether directly, through taxation, or indirectly, through measures such as price controls, minimum-wage laws, and the like, all in the name of benefitting some harmed group. Sowell explains that these programs are worse than ineffective, often harming those they intend to benefit, because “people are not just inert chess pieces.” They react to the rules imposed upon them. Raising tax rates often decreases the amount of taxes paid by the rich, who will take steps to reduce their taxable income and assets. Imposing rent controls lowers the supply of low-cost housing, as landlords shutter existing properties and build fewer new units.
Perhaps even more insidious, by lowering the economic burden of discrimination, these policies may increase discriminatory behavior. Sowell explains that in an unfettered market, discrimination is costly to the discriminator. For example, by eliminating a class of people from the available pool, a discriminating employer artificially reduces the supply of potential employees. Reducing supply increases labor costs. As a result, employers who indulge their discriminatory impulses will have higher costs than their competitors, which actually provides them an incentive to ignore those impulses. When the government imposes a minimum wage, it drives up the cost of labor, so the additional cost of discriminating is reduced or eliminated, leading to a higher incidence of discrimination.
Finally, Sowell explores what he deems the most consequential question when addressing social-justice matters:
For many social issues, the most important decision is who makes the decision. Both social justice advocates and their critics might agree that many consequential social decisions are best made by those who have the most relevant knowledge. But they have radically different assumptions as to who in fact has the most knowledge.
Sowell believes that “Knowledge Fallacies” lead social-justice advocates to conclude wrongly that decisions by the collective will be superior to those made by individuals. He quotes a plethora of leftists, from Rousseau (comparing the masses to “a stupid pusillanimous invalid”) to Ralph Nader (who believed that “the consumer must be protected at times from his own indiscretion and vanity”), all expressing a distrust (or disdain) of the individual and a corresponding belief that elites, in the form of government, must protect the public from itself. A modern example: Kendi proposes to amend the U.S. Constitution to establish a Department of Anti-racism that would be “responsible for preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity.”
But these progressives vastly overestimate the ability of central planners to gather and process information regarding our complex and dynamic world. Building on the work of Hayek, Sowell notes that human knowledge is limited, dispersed, and context-specific. No individual or group can possess all the consequential information essential for the functioning of society. Rather, “coordination among innumerable people with innumerable fragments of consequential knowledge” is required. This means centralized decision-making will inevitably lead to erroneous decisions, misallocation of resources, and unintended adverse consequences. Too often this includes a loss of individual freedom, as underinformed elites, at no cost to themselves, override the will of the individuals affected by their decisions.
The fallacies Sowell examines throughout his book highlight the overwhelming hubris exhibited by those who blindly pursue a social-justice agenda. It is not wrong to observe that life is unfair, or that gross inequality exists throughout the world. This is obvious to many across the ideological spectrum. What causes this and what to do about it are less obvious and depend on clear thinking and a deep understanding of the facts. But the fallacies to which social-justice advocates are inclined lead them to misidentify the causes of, and misjudge the consequences of their responses to, the state of the world. Mere ignorance would not be fatal, however, if they were willing to challenge their theories and change their minds when warranted. Thomas Sowell was once a Marxist, after all. The danger posed by today’s social-justice warriors is their absolute unwillingness to test their beliefs with evidence and logic, and their utter hostility to those who dare to challenge their views. As a result, they adopt policies and programs that make things worse, sometimes catastrophically.
At the end of his book, Sowell asks:
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…. [I]t 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.
Social Justice Fallacies is a work filled with common sense, clear thinking, and clarion insights, all backed up by a vast array of facts. Like everything Sowell writes, it presents the world the way it is, rather than the way we might wish it would be.
1 Myths About Minorities, August 1979
Photo: AP Photo/Mel Evans
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