A wonderful aspect of human life is our ability to discover and add to the library of knowledge built by the Poetic Justice Warriors of the past. For social justice warriors, not so much. Their pleas and methods haven’t changed in over two hundred years. But let’s give credit where its due. We normally associate social justice with remedies for socio-economic class disparities, but this isn’t true. Its much more enterprising than that. Anything that can be associated with “through no fault of their own” is fair game.
Frederic Bastiat alluded to this phenomena with The Candlemaker’s Petition, in 1830, which demanded economic protection from sunlight, but it took economist and Poetic Justice Warrior Dr. Thomas Sowell to expand on this idea, name it, and dedicate a book to it in 1999 – The Quest for Cosmic Justice. Much like economist Friedrich Hayek’s observation that all justice is social, Sowell explains that “rules and standards equally acceptable to all are often deliberately set aside in pursuit of social justice. The two concepts are mutually incompatible.”
The quest for cosmic justice expands the focus to innumerable segments of the population, living and dead, and disregards the interests of the individuals who nevertheless pay the price.
As Sowell explains, “the dangers of errors increase exponentially when we presume to know so many things and the nature of their complex interactions.”
Cosmic justice seeks to make more just the undeserved misfortunes arising from the cosmos, as well as from society. It seeks to produce cosmic justice, going beyond strictly social justice. The only clear-cut winners are those who believe in the vision it projects.
In a complex and changing society, this is hubris. And the cosmic overlords have no skin in the game. Musical satire impresario Frank Zappa describes purveyors of cosmic justice in his song Cosmik Debris, “The mystery man came over. And he said I’m outta sight. He said for a nominal service charge, I could reach nirvana tonight.” Sowell might explain the nominal service charge as “to lose what is attainable in the quest of the unattainable.” Zappa asks, “I said look here brother. Who you jiving with that cosmik debris?”
Not only does “cosmic justice encompass individuals and groups, but also group abstractions extending over generations, or even centuries. How easy it is to go wrong, by huge margins, when presuming to take into account complex historical influences.” For example,
There has been a particularly tragic consequence in the quest for cosmic justice for young black Americans. If the vision presented to them is true, why study and discipline yourself in preparation for the adult world if the deck is stacked against you anyway?
Here Zappa describes the cosmic allure of dependency and victimhood: “With the oil of Aphrodite, and the dust of the Grand Wazoo. He said you might not believe this, little fella. But it will cure your asthma too.” But not only are preference groups damaged, so are the aspirations of those who fall into groups to be sacrificed. Sowell gives specific examples of these effects and generalizes, “Individuals may cease to strive as hard for posts that they are less likely to get or may remove themselves from the whole of society.” Zappa asks the cosmic tribalists, “Now what kind of a guru are you, anyway? Look here brother, don’t waste your time on me.”
From the Modern to The Postmodern Era
Like Frederic Bastiat before him, Dr. Thomas Sowell is renowned for his ability to explain the important principles of contemporary events using plain language. According to economist Donald Boudreaux, “Sowell’s explanation of why traditional justice is better than cosmic justice is second to none. It is vintage Sowell: brilliant, sparkling, and germane.”
When the overlord responds, “But I got the crystal ball, and held it to the light,” Zappa ends the tale, “So I snatched it, all away from him. And I showed him how to do it right.” Sowell then shows us how to do it right starting with,
The greatest opposition to the role of government in the economy was the 19th century. It was also a period of unprecedented growth of private philanthropy. Such efforts had a dramatic effect in reducing crime and other social ills. They were far more effective than the more massive government-run programs that began in the 1960s.
Just as Bastiat anticipated the possibility of the American Civil War by identifying the underlying perversions of law, Sowell did the same thing by anticipating the root cause of 2008’s financial crisis – cosmic justice mortgage lending regulations. In 1993 there was “a jounalistic and political firestorm that showed black applicants for mortgage loans were turned down at a higher rate than white applicants.” As Sowell discovered,
Minority applicants had larger debt burdens, poorer credit histories, and sought loans covering a higher percentage of the value of the property. When relevant variables were held constant, all of the remaining statistical difference could be traced to loan approval rates at one bank. The government did not take legal action. It was a black-owned bank.
Regardless, the Community Reinvestment Act was expanded into more government forced lending and securitization practices. As Sowell reminds us, “A rudimentary knowledge of economics is not a requirement for a career in politics, journalism, or the judiciary.” But his most important discovery here is,
The fundamental problem is the presupposition that social groups would be proportionally represented in various activities, at various income levels, in the absence of bias or discrimination. It is difficult to find any such representation in any country, in any period of history, except where government mandates artificial statistical balance. Even when no plausible case for discrimination can be made.
The same thinking applies to income and wealth distribution in America. Here Sowell makes the stunning observation that “Everyone who is old was once young. The average wealth in older families is higher than in younger families. Most Americans do not stay in the same quintile of income distribution for as long as a decade. The poor are as transient as the rich.” None of this sits well with hubristic social class visionaries who can’t see past their statistics.
The Quest for Traditional Justice
To Aristotle, Cicero, America’s Founders, and Dr. Thomas Sowell, justice applies to individuals. To cosmic overlords, justice is collective, meaning your rights belong to the group you are assigned to, like it or not. As Ayn Rand proved, the fundamental conflict in our postmodern era is individualism vs. collectivism. Traditional justice is based on concrete principles that apply to every individual, cosmic justice is based on the floating concept of group fairness. As Sowell explains, cosmic justice is irreconcilable with personal freedom. It must categorize flesh and blood individuals into abstract categories. Reason, and Sowell tells us,
Non-political approaches do not require the fatal rigidities of law, the vision of helplessness and dependency, the demonization of those who think otherwise, or the polarization of society. Rather, they take the form of creating economic circumstances in which individuals themselves can find life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
As Poetic Justice would have it, Sowell is the most accessbile, quotable and endearing economist in the world. His many books, essays and interviews cover such a wide range of issues that he defies labels. For example, on affirmative action he says it is one of “the few policies that can be said to harm virtually every group in a different way.” His book Knowledge and Decisions was the winner of the 1980 Law and Economics Centre Prize “because of its cogent contribution to our understanding of the differences between the market process and the process of government.”