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Thomas Sowell, to my mind one of the truly great thinkers and writers
of our era, has a new book out, “The Quest for Cosmic Justice” (Free
Press, 211 pp., 25.00), and he’s undertaking a bit of a publicity tour,
including a visit to the Orange County Register earlier this week.

We weren’t quite sure what to expect. Sowell has a reputation for
being something of a recluse — he would almost have to be to do as much
research and writing, of such high quality, as he does. When I was a
media fellow at the Hoover Institution, where Sowell has been a senior
fellow since 1980, they gave me a secretary’s phone number for Sowell,
told me he worked mostly at home, said he might call back to set up a
meeting, but not to feel slighted if he didn’t.

I called. He didn’t call back. I found other ways to keep myself
busy.

A lot of writers can be extremely eloquent on the page but almost
tongue-tied in person. My wife is constantly complaining that it takes
me forever to answer a simple question; I can explain that I have to
sort through all the options before opening my mouth because I won’t
have a chance to go back and edit or polish, but for some reason it
doesn’t make it much easier to have a simple conversation with me. So we
wondered what kind of a talker Tom Sowell, with his reputation as a
recluse, would be.

He turns out to be a terrific talker, bubbling over with ideas and
examples drawn from all disciplines and around the world, talking almost
too fast to take notes, smiling, cracking jokes, chuckling, pausing for
breath, then launching into another topic with gusto and relish, yet
listening carefully and attentively when somebody else talks or asks a
question. We kept him longer than the appointed hour and would have gone
on all day if allowed.

His new book is a small masterpiece, distilling much of the wisdom he
has accumulated over the years and explained in more detail in some
earlier books. He argues that the reigning intellectual paradigm today
seeks not just traditional justice — which is a process of rules and
procedures whose results we accept so long as the rules are followed
even if we don’t like the outcome — but what he calls cosmic justice,
which “seeks to mitigate and make more just the undeserved misfortunes
arising from the cosmos, as well as from society.” Cosmic justice seeks
not just fair procedures open and available to all, but compensation for
the fact that some people have advantages others don’t have.

To put it another way, those with a cosmic justice vision imagine the
kind of world they would have created if they were God, then seek to
impose that vision on the world regardless of costs and regardless of
the impact on others — or even on the purported beneficiaries of their
machinations. In his third chapter he distills the argument he made in
his earlier book, “The Vision of the Anointed,” to argue that to most
such people the point is not really doing good for other people –
otherwise they would welcome constructive criticism and empirical
studies of the result of their plans and programs — but feeling good
about themselves.

Sowell argues that the quest for cosmic justice is self-defeating in
part because “the knowledge required to sort this out (who was born
advantaged and who disadvantaged) much less rectify it politically, is
staggering and superhuman. Far from society being divided into those
with a more or less standard package of benefits and those lacking those
benefits, each individual may have both windfall advantages and windfall
disadvantages, and the particular combination of windfall gains and
losses varies enormously from individual to individual.”

Speaking of the traditional understanding of justice, Sowell notes
that “to apply the same rules to everyone requires no prior knowledge of
anyone’s childhood, cultural heritage, philosophical (or sexual)
orientation, or the innumerable historical influences to which he or his
forebears may have been subjected. If there are any human beings capable
of making such complex assessments, they cannot be numerous.”

Yet we have dozens of programs based on the premise that bureaucrats
– perhaps those least capable of making such fine and complex
distinctions and judgments — should make precisely such subjective
assessments and judgments every day, and the people should accept them
meekly.

The main argument of the book is not that traditional justice and
cosmic justice are different degrees of justice, but that they are
fundamentally different and fundamentally incompatible understandings
of what justice means — and that a society in which the dominant vision
is of cosmic justice will inevitably undermine the workings of
traditional justice. Eventually, as his final chapter is titled, it
will lead to “the quiet repeal of the American revolution.”

Get the book. You’ll love it. And even if you don’t love it, you’ll
appreciate the combination of erudition and passion Sowell pours into
it.

In our conversation, we tried to get to the root of what made Thomas
Sowell such a maverick. He said he figured out that he was different,
and that he probably wouldn’t spend too much time worrying about what
other people thought of him, at about the age of three. But that
stubborn individualism led him to view himself as a Marxist for a long
time — through a 1958 magna cum laude AB in Economics from Harvard and
a Master’s from Columbia.

Until he went to work for a government agency. He was silly enough to
suggest some empirical tests of the routine work in the division of the
Department of Labor where he worked in the early 1960s — and was
greeted with a horror that went beyond simple disinclination to make
waves. “I gradually came to understand that the work done in most
government agencies is not simply independent of whether it helps the
people, harms the people, or has no impact on them — and that most
people in government are not just incurious about the impact of their
work in the real world, they are actively hostile to anybody finding
out. Because the maintenance and growth of the department is the real
purpose,” he said.

Most modern intellectuals, he noted, are engaged rather constantly in
a process of sweeping success under the rug. A hundred years ago, for
example, there were four high schools in Washington, D.C. — three white
and one black. On achievement tests, all the schools were above the
national average, and the black school scored better than two of the
white schools. But not only does nobody want to acknowledge that, hardly
anybody has the slightest interest in trying to figure out how the
school managed to achieve that kind of success — because it would
undermine the vision of black people as perpetual victims perpetually in
need of programs.

As a critic of affirmative action, Tom Sowell set out on a worldwide
research project to discover and analyze the results of ethnically-based
preference programs. He found they weren’t a modern invention but had
existed in almost every society for centuries — and almost always hurt
those they were purported to help, while creating division and
hostility.

Perhaps the most pervasive pattern, he told us, is envy and hostility
not so much toward those who were born with money and advantages, but
toward those who started off poor or disadvantaged and
managed to make their way through work and effort to achieve modest
affluence — e.g., Chinese in Malaysia, Korean shopkeepers in American
inner cities. Such people are a living rebuke to others who haven’t been
willing to sacrifice as much, or who accepted poverty and misery as
their lot, so they are hated intensely wherever they are found, in every
culture around the world. And political power is brought to bear to
punish them.

Tom Sowell is a treasure modern America may not deserve, in that
while he has learned from others and benefited from the support of
others, he has made himself into what he is through his own powerful
intellect and stubborn independence and integrity — facing opposition
from intellectual and moral pygmies the whole way. Whether we deserve
him or not, we should be grateful he exists.

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