Books: “Social Justice Fallacies” by Thomas Sowell

by | Oct 8, 2023

“Many assumptions and phrases in the social justice literature are repeated endlessly, without any empirical test,” making it the “seemingly invincible fallacy at the heart of the social justice vision.”

As someone who has read much of Thomas Sowell’s work on public policy (my area of particular interest), I have learned that anything he writes on those topics is worth reading. He has never failed to not just inform me, but to add to my (admittedly limited) wisdom. For decades, rather than following fads and credulous crowds, he has led those willing to think carefully on a far more accurate and productive course. He is not hoodwinked by misunderstandings or illogical misrepresentations of market or government behavior, rhetorical twists and tricks (including redefining freedom), or statistical tools and their many possible abuses.

He is also not intimidated by the attacks of those whose desire to be gurus to, guides of or governors over people, but have had their intellectual credibility shredded by him. That is for good reason. As Hannah Gal noted in an early review of Social Justice Fallacies, Sowell has been described as “the smartest man in the room,” and as Walter Williams once said, “you can’t win an argument with Thomas Sowell.” So the left tries to ignore him and hope no one else notices, but that may be one of the strongest reasons to pay Sowell close attention.

Sowell has written a great deal on social justice in the past, so his latest book is not “all new.” But here he focuses directly on, as his book jacket says, “how many things that are thought to be true simply cannot stand up to documented facts, which are often the opposite of what is widely believed,” and the wide gap between the “social justice vision” and “whether the social justice agenda will get us to the fulfillment of that vision.”

On the opening page of this short book (barely over 200 pages in all, including 57 pages of footnotes, whose explanatory and clarifying power stands in sharp contrast to the standard operating procedure he criticizes), he talks of “other things equal.” That struck me, because my public policy analyses have led me to warn my students that economists use the “other things equal” assumption to learn about specific mechanisms and relationships, without the confusion of confounding issues, but the hard part of real-world application is often recognizing what isn’t equal, and taking it into appropriate account.

The application I use most frequently is the way government spending is often dealt with in policy discussions. Many want to count the effects of that spending (or “stimulus”) as if other things were equal. But relevant other things cannot be equal, because government has no resources of its own. It has only what it takes from residents via taxation (with regulation often but a variant of taxation), debt (which is but deferred taxation) and inflation (which is essentially a tax on Americans’ money holdings). To assume those things away with typically unstated “other things equal” assumptions that cannot be true is to guarantee we misunderstand reality.

Sowell’s insightful angle on this is that “the more other things there are, influencing outcomes, the lower the chances of all of those things being equal.” That is critical because “At the heart of the social justice vision is the assumption that, because economic and other disparities among human beings greatly exceed any differences in their innate capacities, these disparities are evidence of proof of the effects of such human vices as exploitation and discrimination,” but “we can read reams of social justice literature without encountering a single example of the proportional representation of different groups in endeavors open to competition—in any country in the world today, or at any time over thousands of years of recorded history.” In other words, given zero real world examples where other things were equal enough that proportional representation made any sense at all as a standard from which any deviation can be judged proof of malfeasance requiring coercive redress, buttressed by mountains of evidence to the contrary (much of which Sowell cites), the central assumption or premise of much of social justice discussion is false. And that faulty core premise cannot establish the truth of the conclusions so many wish to reach.

But rather than recognizing that as a sign to think more carefully before saying “therefore,” Sowell notes that instead, “Many assumptions and phrases in the social justice literature are repeated endlessly, without any empirical test,” making it the “seemingly invincible fallacy at the heart of the social justice vision.”

In addition to that fatal flaw at the origin of much social justice discussion, there is another major failing before common “therefores” are drawn. In Sowell’s words,

We might agree that “equal chances for all” would be desirable. But that in no way guarantees that we have either the knowledge or the power required to make that goal attainable, without ruinous sacrifices of other goals, ranging from freedom to survival.

All of what I have written here comes from Chapter 1 of Social Justice Fallacies. There is much more, in chapters titled, “Racial Fallacies,” “Chess Piece Fallacies,” (a reference to a famous  Adam Smith criticism of “men of system” who want to dictate what others should do), “Knowledge Fallacies” (those who like this chapter, particularly the discussion of consequential knowledge, and would like to go into further depth, should turn to Sowell’s earlier Knowledge and Decisions), and a very interesting concluding chapter, particularly its discussion of consequential knowledge, titled “Words, Deeds and Dangers.”

The last chapter includes Sowell’s insight that “For people seeking facts, rather than political or ideological goals, there are many factual tests that might be [but seldom are] applied,” which reflects one of his trademark descriptions of what lies behind so many policy failures to live up to their utopian promises—“questions not asked, much less answered.”  That, in turn leads Sowell to his “far larger point:”

A prevailing social vision does not have to produce any factual test, when rhetoric and repetition can be sufficient to accomplish their aims, especially when alternative views can be ignored and/or suppressed. It is that suppression, which is a key factor—and it is already a large and growing factor in academic, political and other institutions in our own times.

That, then turns Sowell to the question of what our children will need to “sort out the new controversial issues” now being promoted. They will need:

An education that has equipped them with the intellectual skills, knowledge and experience to confront and analyze opposing views—and subject those views to scrutiny and systematic analysis. That is precisely what they do not get when being indoctrinated with whatever is currently in vogue today. Such “education” sets up whole generations to become easy prey for whatever clever demagogues come along, with heady rhetoric that can manipulate people’s emotions.

Thomas Sowell’s Social Justice Fallacies is well worth reading. And doing so is important because “the painful reality is that no human being has either the vast range of consequential knowledge, or the overwhelming power, required to make the social justice ideal become a reality.” I don’t know of a living economist who can better help us to see our way out of betting society’s future on the proposition that it is not a reality.

Made available by the American Institute for Economic Research.

Dr. Gary Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine. His research focuses on public finance, public choice, the theory of the firm, the organization of industry and the role of liberty including the views of many classical liberals and America’s founders­. His books include Pathways to Policy Failure, Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies, Apostle of Peace, and Lines of Liberty.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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