Thomas Sowell's has a large reputation, but not large enoughby Jay Nordlinger / February 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Thomas sowell has a large reputation, but not large enough. As a black, conservative intellectual in the US, he wears many hats. He writes a syndicated column, full of punchy libertarianism. He writes books on history, social policy and philosophy, almost all for the general public. And he has several academic works to his name, too-Sowell is an economist.
He is nearly 70 now. He grew up in North Carolina and Harlem, and studied at Howard, Harvard, Columbia and Chicago. At this last institution, he was a student of Milton Friedman and George Stigler. One of his more remarkable books is Ethnic America (1981), a history of immigration and social relations among Americans. If it is not yet a standard text, it should be. Marxism (1985) is a useful treatment of that critical ideology. Sowell’s trademark, in all his writing, is clarity of thought, which leads to clarity of language and an illuminating reading experience. He is a destroyer of cant, a cutter through the fog.
Consider a sample from his recent columns. After yet another school shooting, Sowell wrote: “First of all, these are not ‘senseless’ shootings. They are expressions of hatred which disregard morality and common decency, but they are very rationally planned and executed.” After a George W Bush speech on school vouchers, he wrote: “Let’s go back to square one. [Sowell is forever going back to square one; it is possibly his favourite place.] What is the money there for? To educate students. And if 10 per cent of the students leave the public school system and take 10 per cent of the money with them, how does this make any less money available per student among those remaining in the public schools?” In a column on Pat Buchanan, Sowell fulminates against the sloppy use of terms: “It does no good to scare people with bogeyman words like ‘trade deficit’ and ‘debtor nation.’ The benefits of international trade do not depend on whether you have more imports or exports… The US has been a debtor nation for most of its history-and it has had the highest standard of living in the world for most of its history.”
His latest book offers just over 200 pages, but is the burnished product of a lifetime of thinking, arguing, refining and getting it straight. The book takes the form of four essays; its opening piece, “The Quest for Cosmic Justice,” provides the book’s title. Sowell goes back to square one and feels little need to venture much further-there is so much work to be done there. He had been fiddling with a paper on concepts of justice for many years, without ever feeling that he had expressed himself with adequate clarity. Then, “in the spring of 1996, some particularly sophomoric remarks by one of my colleagues not only provoked my anger but also convinced me that there was a real need to untangle the kind of confusions that could lead any sensible adult to say the things he had said.” Sowell knuckled down. He despairs that so many of us fail to grasp basic ideas and terms, and he considers it downright dangerous that Americans do not appreciate the principles on which their freedom is founded.
Sowell is impatient to set forth definitions. If we do not speak a common language, how can we even begin to converse? “Social justice,” he notes, is a leading passion of this age. But the term is flabby. “All justice,” he writes, “is inherently social. Can someone on a desert island be either just or unjust?” Now, “traditional justice”-the proper kind of justice, suited to the here and now?s is primarily a matter of process: are the rules fair and clear, and administered impartially? Has the citizen “had his day in court”? Can he truly be said to have “had his chance”? If so, then justice, to the extent that human beings are capable of rendering it, has been done.
But then there is “cosmic justice,” the quest for which, according to Sowell, is the source of so much of our woe. This notion of justice is drenched in abstraction, concerned with the world as we might choose to refashion it from scratch, with no one smarter or luckier or more beautiful or healthier or more virtuous than anyone else. In one of his core passages, Sowell writes that “traditional justice involves the rules under which flesh-and-blood human beings interact, while cosmic justice encompasses not only contemporary individuals and groups, but also group abstractions extending over generations, or even centuries.” It would be nice, for example, to punish the people responsible for slavery, and to compensate, somehow, their victims. But “time and death cheat us of such opportunities for justice, however galling that may be.” So what are we prone to do instead? We “create new injustices among our flesh-and-blood contemporaries for the sake of symbolic expiation, so that the son or daughter of a black doctor or executive can get into an elite college ahead of the son or daughter of a white factory worker or farmer”-and only the truest believers in “the vision of cosmic justice” could possibly “take moral solace from that.”
In his final essay, “The Quiet Repeal of the American Revolution,” he returns forcefully to American first things. He reminds us that the revolution gave “the common man a voice, a veto, elbow room, and refuge from the rampaging presumptions of his ‘betters.'” The difference between the search for normal, realisable justice and the quest for cosmic justice is, roughly, that between the American and the French revolutions. Sowell complains that, in recent decades, the US has been seduced by the French model.
In these pages, every Sowellian characteristic is on display. He is the master of the devastating fact (many of them relating to race). He is often tart, without crossing the line into sarcasm, and he is a gifted epigrammist. The Quest for Cosmic Justice is a cold shower of a book. It reminds conservatives (or, if you prefer, authentic liberals) why they are that way in the first place. It rouses them from their laziness of mind and tongue. Many years ago, it was joked that Sowell and Walter Williams (also a black, conservative economist) should not be permitted to ride in the same plane together. Maybe Thomas Sowell should not be allowed to fly at all.
This review first appeared in the New York-based National Review