Social justice warriors create rubbish public policies

Social Justice Fallacies
By Thomas Sowell. Basic Books. 2023. 225 pages.

Ninety-three is a good age to see one’s book being published. All the more impressive too, when the nonagenarian in question has already had more than 40 books published.

Thomas Sowell has semi-retired but has not slowed down much. In his latest New York Times bestseller, Social Justice Fallacies, the great economist and thinker covers familiar ground by interrogating the claims of progressive ‘Social Justice Warriors’ (SJWs) when it comes to race, gender and public policy.

Sowell opens his argument by referring to the French philosopher whose writings have arguably played the central role in shaping the views of the modern Left when it comes to equality.

Quoting Rousseau’s words about the contrast between “the equality which nature established among men and the inequality which they instituted among themselves,” Sowell contends that the belief that all classes, races and groups will have equal outcomes is illusory.

“In the real world, there is seldom anything resembling the equal outcomes that might be expected if all factors affecting outcomes were the same for everyone.

Even in a society with equal opportunity — in the sense of judging each individual by the same standards — people from different backgrounds do not necessarily even want to do the same things, much less invest their time and energies into developing the same kinds of skills and talents,” he writes.

The impact of now widely-held beliefs about structural racism and sexism can be observed in the political discourse in any Western country. No longer are radical messages confined to college campuses; instead, they are being widely disseminated within newsrooms, boardrooms and parliament buildings.

The decision of the Icelandic female Prime Minister to join a nationwide strike against the gender pay gap is a notable example of this: just a few years ago, such a move would have resulted in ridicule. Today, the PM who does this is seen to exude virtue.

Equality or equity?

Sowell has already spent a lifetime using his skills as an economist and his superhuman erudition to forensically examine these issues in books like Race and Economics, Migrations and Cultures and Wealth, Poverty and Politics.

In spite of Sowell’s previous work, differences in outcomes (such as income gaps between different demographics or the underrepresentation of particular social groups in leading industries or academic institutions) are now automatically perceived as being the product of societal or institutional bigotry.

The corollary to this proposition is that governments should take whatever actions are necessary — such as the imposition of gender or racial quotas (‘positive discrimination’ as it is euphemistically known), or the expansion of various social programmes — to correct these imbalances and achieve true equality across the board.

As an example of how this occurs, Sowell points to a recent headline in a San Francisco newspaper which asks: ‘Why are Black and Latino people still kept out of tech industry?’

Here, the question implies that faceless forces within the IT sector are conspiring against certain marginalised groups.


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However, Sowell makes clear that the differences in representation within the tech sector stem from striking differences in the sorts of educational attainments which make such a career possible.

Asian Americans have more college degrees in engineering than either blacks or Hispanics,” he writes, “each of whom outnumbers Asian-Americans in the US population. At the PhD level, Asian-Americans’ engineering degrees outnumber the engineering PhDs of blacks and Hispanics put together.

Differences in income and levels of representation are bound to create more controversy in cases where minority groups are obviously faring worse than average, and the travails of Sowell’s own African-American community are a good example of this.

Underlying factors

Yet, as Sowell has explained in previous works and again here, minority communities have often excelled economically and educationally, even in cases where they lacked any political clout and where no political actions were taken to aid their rise.

Similarly, particular groups tend to be proficient in particular sectors over longer periods and across different geographic and cultural environments, with skills being handed down from generation to generation.

The ethnic Chinese community’s previous dominance in the engineering profession in Malaysia, which Sowell cites, is mirrored by the incredible achievements of Chinese communities throughout East Asia.

Likewise, Germans have dominated the beer sector in many countries, and the author points out that their Germanic ancestors were known for proficiency when it came to brewing during the era of the Roman Empire.

Sowell also emphasises the importance of factors such as geography (the availability of natural ports and navigable waterways helps to account for Europe’s faster economic progression vis-à-vis Africa) and climate.

He also takes aim at both the simplistic explanations of the SJWs and the lazy contentions of the genetic determinists, while pointing out the enormous historical ebbs and flows which have seen world-leading civilisations like Greece and Rome recede in power while former backwaters like Britain ascended.

As with the previous decline in China’s standing compared to Europe and the subsequent reversals in fortune, this certainly cannot be attributed to human biology.

Whether the topic is the minimum wage, racial quotas or housing policy, Sowell’s rigorous analysis exposes the shallow thinking of today’s ideological elite as he warns against the creation of “a society in which some babies are born into the world as heirs of pre-packaged grievances against other babies born the same day.”

This grievance has real costs attached to it, as Sowell reminds the reader again and again.

Anger at inequity fuels bad public policy, such as the minimum wage hikes that have made it harder for low-skilled people to find work, or the restrictions on housing that have made it harder for low-income people to find accommodation.

Social Justice Fallacies is short but densely packed. While it offers few surprises to those who are already familiar with Sowell’s extraordinary corpus, it remains a rewarding book for anyone concerned with the fallacies of modern discourse, and the “fallacious certitude” of those who continue to espouse them.

James Bradshaw writes on topics including history, culture, film and literature.

Image: Pexels


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