Timeless or Tired? A Critical Examination of Sowell’s ‘Social Justice Fallacies’
Before I jump into today’s article, some housekeeping:
It’s been about a month since I published an article on Substack — so sorry for the lack of productivity, especially to all my new subscribers who signed up following the Claudine Gay episode — I contracted COVID in January, which torpedoe’d my productivity for a few weeks. I am back on the grind.
Upon recovering from COVID, I had to spend a week flying from Europe to Florida to attend this fellowship conference…I am happy to announce that I have been awarded the Manhattan Institute Logos Fellowship (MILF):
Coindesk wrote an interesting piece about me, or more accurately, they wrote about how I would have won a couple of thousand dollars in crypto gambling markets if Claudine Gay stepped down as POTUS of Harvard before January 1st.
Sadly, CG stepped down on January 2nd, so my trade didn’t pay off.
True North — Canada’s top conservative outlet, wrote a piece about my Canadian involvement in the Claudine Gay affair:
I have always had a policy against writing book reviews because I find the genre boring… I don’t read other people’s book reviews… so why would I want to force other people to read a genre that I wouldn’t want to read?
Today, I broke my own rule and wrote my first book review, because an outlet offered me $200 to write about Thomas Sowell’s newest book. Upon seeing the completed product, however, they told me they were not willing to publish it. The feedback I got was:
‘The obligation that falls on the shoulders of someone reviewing a book by an elder statesman of a school of thought is to put the work in biographical and historical context; to recognize why the elder statesman has achieved his stature; and to appreciate whatever most merits attention in this late (and perhaps last) work. It's really not the kind of book that should trigger sharp polemics in a reviewer.’’
I wasn’t trying to be deliberately polemical — I love Sowell more than anyone, and didn’t set out to be negative — I just didn’t love this book, so I am not going to pretend I did. Maybe I should have written a reverential puffpiece.
Overall, this was a good learning experience for me to experiment and branch out into a new genre, but I don’t think I am about to become a professional book reviewer anytime soon. I have a few big upcoming journalism scoops in the pipeline :)
Buy the book:
I couldn't suppress a groan upon reading the first page of ‘‘Social Justice Fallacies’’ by 93-year-old legendary economist Thomas Sowell.
‘‘In American sports,’’ it begins, ‘‘blacks are very over-represented in professional basketball.’’
This is the same argument we’ve all read thousands of times before from the anti-affirmative action wing of the internet: if Asian athletes do not receive affirmative action on basketball teams, then why does it make sense for black scholars in academia?
The point is not wrong, it’s just… trite; and that triteness sets the tone for this entire book. The premise of ‘‘Social Justice Fallacies’’, which might have been a clarion call to action 40 years ago, now feels like a repetitive sermon in a world thoroughly versed in the equity vs. equality debate. While comprehensive and persuasive, this book lacks the fresh spark of originality that even a genius nonagenarian is frankly incapable of producing.
To wit, 40 years ago, in 1983, Thomas Sowell wrote a book, ‘‘The Economics and Politics of Race: An International Perspective’’, the description for which brags that ‘‘Sowell finds that the social and economic patterns among Italians in Australia and Argentina are similar in many respects to those of Italians in Italy or the United States’’. Lo and behold, on page 93 of his new book, you will find a story about how ‘‘nearly 90 percent of the Italian immigrants to Australia came from an area in Italy containing just 10 percent of that country’s population.’’
The vast majority of points made in this book are recycled similarly, and if you’ve been chewing the same piece of gristle about Italian immigrants for 40 years — even if you are making a valid point about how people sort themselves out in society — don’t expect me to swoon when you tell it again for the 41st year.
And yet, I swoon nonetheless, because when your beloved grandfather fondly tells the same story you’ve already heard 40 times, you don't roll your eyes; you sit, you listen, he's earned that deference. Thus, despite its predictability, I approached this book with a sense of duty and found a great degree of enjoyment in its familiar pages.
It’s a breeze to get through: although listed as 224 pages, 78 of those are just references, making the main text a mere 146 pages of succinct, yet thought-provoking analysis of the fallacies inherent in our contemporary cultural Marxism paradigm. The prose is not elaborate or flowery. It is written in a plainspoken and direct manner. That’s Sowell’s whole schtick; he’s the ‘‘common sense’’ maverick, and he doesn’t need to try to be anything more. This no-nonsense approach renders the book ideal for high school students seeking to swallow their first red pill, or perhaps for older adults seeking a gentle introduction to culture wars.
Describing Thomas Sowell's contributions as 'common sense' is not to diminish them; rather, it highlights a rare and valuable form of wisdom. Sowell excels in extracting clear insights from a world enamored with complexity and constant distraction. His analyses cuts to the bone of each subject he examines, with unerring precision.
Sowell's book shines brightest in weaving together a fun tapestry of anecdotes about race, gender, geography, governments, professions, schools, countries, and cultures. The book is essentially a collection of fun story after fun story. These stories work together to form an ironclad historical narrative; however, there are moments where Sowell's stories provoke skepticism. The first to come to mind is his peculiar and overly-libertarian defense of predatory payday loans in Chapter 4, which he thinks shouldn’t be capped or regulated in any way:
In the particular cases where legislated limits on what is called “interest” force payday loan businesses to go out of business, social justice reformers may go away feeling good about having ended the “exploitation” of the poor, when they have in fact simply denied the poor one of their very few options in an emergency (pg. 99)
Thomas Sowell's most significant blind spot, however, is in Chapter 2 where he critiques genetic determinism—the theory that genetic differences account for variations in racial groups' test scores.
First off, he rehashes the same arguments he’s been writing about for decades, without introducing novel insights into the discussion. None of this is new; Sowell's longstanding engagement in the discourse surrounding IQ's role in social mobility and racial disparities is well-documented. Advocates of ‘‘race realism’’ have always expressed disappointment with his steadfast argument that environmental factors are predominantly responsible for test gap scores.
Sowell’s response to the race realist crowd is not only tired and repetitive, but weak. Despite considerable mental gymnastics, he fails to build a compelling argument as to why impoverished Han Chinese and Ashkenazi Jewish children will always, no matter what, outscore wealthy Somalian and Aboriginal Australian children on IQ tests. I wouldn't expect a good response to this from an economist. No one wants to talk about it seriously.
I believe Sowell is being purposely obtuse when he acts puzzled over Asian students taking the spots of black students at a school for gifted children: he dismisses genetics altogether simply by waving his hands -- instead, he blames the overrepresentation of Asian geniuses on a nebulous cabal of ‘‘social justice advocates’’. He fails to even entertain the possibility that Asian kids are naturally smarter and better at standardized testing due, at least in part, to their genes.
As late as 1971, there were more black students than Asian students at Stuyvesant [a school for gifted children]. As of 1979, blacks were 12.9 percent of the students at Stuyvesant, but that declined to 4.8 percent by 1995. By 2012, blacks were just 1.2 percent of the students at Stuyvesant. Over a span of 33 years, the proportion of black students at Stuyvesant High School fell to less than one-tenth of what it had been before. Neither of the usual suspects— genetics or racism— can explain these developments in those years. (pg. 145)
Furthermore, Sowell appears to be disconnected from the current dynamics of the social justice discourse, a realm that evolves rapidly, often unfolding in real-time on platforms like Twitter. His references and narratives, although rich with historical significance, seem dated. For an author tackling the subject of social justice in the contemporary era, a familiarity with current influencers and issues is crucial -- he gives a nod to Ralph Nader, for example, but fails to mention any modern movers and shakers such as Trump, Biden, Tucker, or Ibram X Kendi. Few of his stories are from the past 5-10 years, missing an opportunity to address today’s most polarizing topics—such as transgenderism, climate change, and open borders. He barely talks about modern college campus culture wars.
Perhaps my expectations going into this book were skewed. The inclusion of "social justice" in the title led me to anticipate a discussion centered on contemporary social justice. However, the book leans heavily more towards historical analysis than a reflection on current societal dynamics. It is fitting, therefore, that Sowell concludes with a quotation from British historian Paul Johnson, underscoring the book's emphasis on the lessons of history.
The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false. (pg. 146)
If this turns out to be his last book, it won't be remembered as his magnum opus, but it's a decent last call. It stands as a suitable culmination of a long and earnest career committed to preaching factual analysis and clear-eyed interpretation of economic realities. I can only pray that I am half as lucid when I am 93 years old.