Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Equality and Justice

I have been dipping into portions of Thomas Sowell’s excellent work, The Quest for Cosmic Justice. One of the interesting things about reading Sowell is to learn more and more about his own upbringing. He grew up in Harlem, where his family could not afford to buy books or magazines. He writes, “I can still remember being surprised at what an event it was in our family when I was promoted to the seventh grade—because no one else in the family had ever gone that far before.” He dropped out of high school, but still achieved a higher score on the SAT than the average Harvard freshman, and was admitted to Harvard. The circumstances he overcame make his work and accomplishment—and his views on equality—all the more amazing. I agree with those who call him “the most original and interesting philosopher at work in America” (Paul Johnson), “one of America’s most highly regarded thinkers” (Carol W.D’Este), “one of the wonders of the American intellectual world” (Peter Briemlow), “a unique national resource” (Washington Times), “one of the nation’s best and most trenchant minds” (Michael Novak), and “America’s foremost public intellectual” (Fred Barnes).

In The Quest for Cosmic Justice, Sowell discusses the traditional concept of justice or fairness, wherein the same rules and standards are applied to everyone. Scholars like John Rawls would say that such a conception is merely formal, not fair equality of opportunity. In order to achieve genuine equality, there must be intervention in order to alter either the prospects or the results.

Let me illustrate with an example: Olympic swimming. Imagine that I entered the competition against Michael Phelps. (Readers who know me can stop laughing now.) Same rules. Same standards. On a traditional conception of justice, this would be fair. But within the framework of those seeking “social justice,” this would be grossly unfair.

As Dinesh D’Souza writes:

Merit, no less than the old racism, produces inequality—inequality between individuals and among groups. There is no reason to expect that equality of rights for individuals necessarily translates into equality of results for groups. If different groups of runners hit the finishing tape at different times, it does not follow that the race has been rigged.

Often times the factors that lead to the inequality of outcome are said to be the fault of “society.” The redressing of such equalities is what is meant by “social justice.” But as Sowell writes:

Because ordinary Americans have not yet abandoned traditional justice, those who seek cosmic justice must try to justify it politically as meeting traditional concepts of justice. A failure to achieve the new vision of justice must be represented to the public and to the courts as “discrimination.” Tests that register the results of innumerable inequalities must be represented as being the cause of those inequalities or as deliberate efforts to perpetuate those inequalities by erecting arbitrary barriers to the advancement of the less fortunate.

Sowell continues:

The society as a whole loses when its decisions are made by character assassination, rather than by rational discussion, and when its pool of those eligible for leadership is drained by the exodus of those who are not prepared to sacrifice their good name or subject their family to humiliations for the sake of grasping the levers of power. . . .

In a sense, those caught up in the vision of cosmic justice are also among its victims. Having committed themselves to a vision and demonized all who oppose it, how are they to turn around and subject that vision to searching empirical scrutiny, much less repudiate it as evidence of its counterproductive results mount up?

For a short speech by Sowell which summarizes the heart of this book—and from which I’ve quoted in this post—click here.