The Quest for Cosmic Justice
by Thomas Sowell
Free Press. 214 pp. $25.00
Thomas Sowell has long been recognized as one of America’s leading conservative thinkers. In books like Knowledge and Decisions (1980), Ethnic America (1981), A Conflict of Visions (1987), Race and Culture (1995), and Migrations and Cultures (1996), he has tackled an astonishingly broad range of subjects, displaying fearlessness, intelligence, and erudition along the way.
One theme that runs through Sowell’s impressive output is the corrupt state of the contemporary liberal agenda; he has been among the most influential critics of affirmative action and other forms of racial preferences, and has written eloquently—and angrily—about the damage done to black children by the more insidious nostrums of liberal social reform. In his latest book, Sowell takes this theme one step farther by advancing a sweeping theory to explain why liberalism has been wrong—dangerously wrong, in his view—on such disparate issues as war and peace, race, capitalism, and education.
According to Sowell, today’s liberalism has abandoned the search for justice as that concept has traditionally been understood. Rather, it is engaged in a “quest for cosmic justice.” The advocates of cosmic justice seek not simply to establish equality under the law but rather to eliminate all kinds of inequality, including inequality created by nature, or the “cosmos,” itself.
Sowell adduces numerous examples of what he has in mind. In the realm of social policy, for example, instead of seeking to provide medical treatment and social services for the retarded or mentally ill, proponents of cosmic justice attempt to overcome the very fact of disability by “mainstreaming” the disabled into the educational system and the workforce. At the same time, they are completely indifferent to the hardships imposed on both the ostensible beneficiaries of their policies and society at large.
Indeed, as Sowell points out, it is often the intended beneficiaries who become the victims of cosmic justice. Thus, the widespread adoption of bilingual education, a policy aimed at rectifying the “unfair” fact that the children of most immigrants do not know English, has done inestimable damage to a generation of Hispanic students. In similar fashion, racial preferences have contributed to an affirmative-action mindset among young blacks, allowing them to reap tangible rewards while simultaneously encouraging a lack of effort.
In substituting the Utopian goal of equal outcomes for equal opportunity, the proponents of cosmic justice, Sowell contends, have also posed a serious threat to the rule of law and to the practice of democratic self-governance. Vast power has already been or may become vested in the hands of bureaucrats and judges who, for all the authority they wield, are incapable of intervening wisely or of determining who deserves their ministrations and who does not.
Unless action is taken to counter the growing influence of cosmic-justice liberals, America, Sowell concludes, will evolve into a society whose defining characteristic is “a monumental concentration of political power which reduces everyone to a client of politicians.” The economy will be suffocated, and our political freedom may stand forfeit as well. What we face, in short, is nothing less than the “quiet repeal of the American Revolution.”
Sowell is undoubtedly correct that the Utopian agenda of a major strand of contemporary liberalism has been misguided and anti-democratic, and has had and continues to have deleterious consequences for American society across the board. But whether our country is in the desperate straits he suggests is another question. As in the case of other recent, pessimistic accounts of our condition, one is ineluctably drawn to point to countervailing factors.
Thus, after experiencing a spasm of foreign-policy disarray and domestic social and economic decline during the 1970’s, American voters did do what many at the time considered unthinkable—they elected Ronald Reagan, an avowed conservative, as President. The result: victory in the cold war and a necessary, if painful, reorientation of our economy toward a high-technology global market. More recently, rejecting the elite view that nothing could be done to control violent crime and urban deterioration, American voters, to the astonishment of the liberal world, elected a generation of tough-minded mayors who have succeeded in cutting crime, luring business investment into the inner city, and enhancing the quality of urban life. Finally, fears for the future of capitalism seem especially misplaced at a time when congressional Democrats have embraced efforts at deregulation, a Democratic administration has made the promotion of American business interests a major priority, and the economy is booming as never before.
One suspects that much of Sowell’s distemper stems from the very real intractability of racial preferences. Despite the increasingly visible harm wrought by affirmative action, and despite the fact that in poll after poll Americans have expressed their opposition to this policy, the political establishment has resisted change. Liberals have devised a new rationale for affirmative action by citing the need for workplace and educational “diversity.” Republicans, for their part, duck the question out of fear of being labeled racists. Here is truly an issue on which Sowell stands on solid ground.
Still, even affirmative action has not proved wholly immune to democratic demands for a change of direction. Racial preferences in college admissions have suffered reversals in recent court decisions, not to mention the passage of anti-affirmative-action referenda in both California and the state of Washington. But beyond that, it may be that the general issue of racial justice has to be considered a special category. True, the fact that many Americans still retain feelings of guilt over our history of slavery and segregation does not excuse the dishonest and undemocratic methods used to impose preferences on American institutions. But it does suggest that those who support affirmative action do not necessarily harbor a broader covert agenda to extend state control over society as a whole.
If conservatives have learned anything from recent history, it is that success requires confidence in the American people and in the functioning of American democracy, a lesson that applies to the war of ideas no less than to electoral politics. We will surely be unable to secure further victories in that war if we overlook those battles already won. After all, it is thanks in no small measure to Thomas Sowell’s carefully reasoned and impassioned arguments over the years that we have made as much progress as we have.