Editor's Pick

“Social Justice” Is Neither Social nor Just

Social Justice Fallacies
by Thomas Sowell
Basic Books, 2023; 224 pp.

Thomas Sowell has given us a penetrating criticism of the approach to justice taken by many political philosophers, especially John Rawls and his innumerable followers. He says that they construct an image of the way society ought to be but fail to ask whether their plans are feasible. His criticism is well-taken, although he does not offer an adequate account of the rights that people have.

He says about Rawls:

In much of the social justice literature, including Professor John Rawls’ classic A Theory of Justice, various policies have been recommended, on grounds of their desirability from a moral standpoint—but often with little or no attention to the practical question of whether those policies could in fact be carried out and produce the end results desired. In a number of places, for example, Rawls referred to things that “society” should “arrange”—but without specifying the instrumentalities or the feasibilities of those arrangements.

Later, Sowell remarks that “the exaltation of desirability and neglect of feasibility, which Adam Smith criticized, is today still a major ingredient in the fundamental fallacies of the social justice vision.”

Sowell agrees with Rawls that many inequalities in people’s conditions seem arbitrary and unfair if viewed as the outcome of a plan. But once we realize that in a free market no such plan exists, it is evident that criticism of the market on the grounds that it permits unjust inequalities is misplaced. Life is just “like that,” and attempts to undo these inequalities will likely fail and have bad results.

Sowell’s argument follows Friedrich Hayek, about whom he says:

Clearly, Hayek also saw life in general as unfair, even within the free markets he advocated. But this is not the same as saying that he saw society as unfair. To Hayek, society was an “orderly structure,” but not a decision-making unit, or an institution taking action. That is what governments do. But neither society nor government comprehends or controls all the many and highly varied circumstances—including a large element of luck—that can influence the fate of individuals, classes, races, or nations.

As an example, Sowell cites studies that show first-born children tend to be more successful academically than children who have older brothers or sisters. Is this something that requires remedial action by the government? he asks. The very thought is ridiculous. We must, Sowell thinks, simply live and let live.

It is certainly true, as Sowell suggests, that issues of feasibility severely constrain what those who seek “social justice” can do, but he has not shown that these issues reduce the space for action to nothing. At times he implicitly posits a false antithesis between rejection of social justice entirely and acceptance of a comprehensive conception of social justice that he calls “cosmic justice,” which would attempt to redress all inequalities deemed undeserved. (I hasten to add that I reject social justice altogether, but to defend this position adequately requires an account of rights, which Sowell doesn’t provide.)

In support of his criticism of social justice, Sowell makes a dubious argument. People who support social justice often take as one of their prime examples the need for special programs to aid blacks because discrimination against them, both at present and in the past, has put them at a severe disadvantage compared to whites. But empirical evidence doesn’t support the claim that current inequalities in income between blacks and whites stem primarily from discriminatory treatment, he argues.

Sowell is a master of deploying evidence, and anyone who wants to challenge him about the causation of inequality faces a difficult, if not altogether impossible, task. But a supporter of social justice might argue that the requirement to redress discriminatory treatment isn’t an empirical claim about the sources of current inequality but a moral demand. People who hold this view might think that even if you are now doing very well, you are still entitled to compensation if you have suffered from discrimination. (Once more, I do not favor this view, quite the contrary; but an adequate response to it must involve moral theory.)

It’s more important, though, to bear in mind the strength of Sowell’s argument than its limits. Feasibility issues greatly limit the scope of social justice, even if they do not preclude it completely. And we can more unreservedly agree with another excellent point that Sowell makes. He says:

Ironically, many intellectual elites—then and now—seem to regard themselves as promoting a more democratic society, when they preempt other people’s decisions. . .Their conception of democracy seems to be equalization of outcomes, by intellectual elites. This would confer benefits on the less fortunate, at the expense of those whom these surrogates consider less deserving . . . [Woodrow Wilson] favored government by surrogate decision -makers, armed with superior knowledge and understanding—“executive expertness”—and unhindered by the voting public. Woodrow Wilson’s response to objections that this would deprive the people at large of the freedom to live their own lives as they saw fit, was to redefine the word “freedom.”. . . By simply depicting government-provided benefits—dispensed by surrogate decision-makers—as an additional freedom for the recipients, President Wilson made the issue of people’s loss of freedom disappear, as if by verbal sleight of hand.

Sowell has made a vital point. You are free if others do not aggress against your person and property; if they do so but give you benefits, you aren’t free. Sowell eloquently says:

The “complexities” of this Wilsonian definition of freedom are certainly understandable, since evading the obvious can become very complex. When Spartacus led an uprising of slaves, back in the days of the Roman Empire [Republic], he was not doing it to get welfare state benefits.

As Bishop Joseph Butler remarked long ago, “Everything is what it is, and not another thing.”

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