THE QUEST FOR COSMIC JUSTICE

By Thomas Sowell

Free Press. 214 pp. $25

Reviewed by Frank H. Wu

Thomas Sowell has had a distinguished career as a polemicist. A fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University and a columnist for Forbes magazine, he has had an opportunity over the past few decades to convey his conservative viewpoints to academic audiences and the general public alike. His latest book summarizes his beliefs, using studies on race and ethnicity as a starting point for a comprehensive attack on liberal idealism. It is a strong tonic.

As the author of numerous volumes that celebrate laissez-faire economics and condemn civil rights claims, including a recent bestselling trilogy analyzing history and contemporary social conditions as a function of cultural determinism, Sowell returns to familiar themes in this work: He covered similar topics in his 1995 tract The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy. His targets range from V.I. Lenin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Earl Warren to Bertrand Russell, John Dewey and John Rawls. His examples range from the price of pizza delivery in poor neighborhoods to the local funding of public schools. He is consistent: He dislikes antitrust laws as much as he does the Americans with Disabilities Act because both curtail property rights.

His thesis has two parts: "The great non sequitur of our time is that (1) things are not right and that (2) the government should make them right." He takes issue as much with descriptions of reality as he does with prescriptions for improvement.

Sowell is a realist about the explanations for apparent disparities among individuals and groups. Human behavior is rational. The free market and competitive forces ensure that it becomes and remains so. According to Sowell, if a company charges more money for products or services in low-income neighborhoods than it does in high-income areas, it probably is accounting for the risks it incurs as a price of doing business. This style of analysis, with a handful of anecdotes and selected statistics, leads Sowell to make observations that are more provocative than anything else. He acknowledges a history of racial subjugation of African Americans but concludes, "Seldom is the claim made that black Americans alive at this moment are worse off than if their ancestors had been left in Africa. . . It may be worth noting that the number of contemporary black Americans who have immigrated to Africa does not begin to approach the number of contemporary Africans who have immigrated to the United States."

Sowell also is a realist about the possibilities for change. He follows a tradition in political theory. In a Socratic dialogue on rhetoric, the character Callicles stated, "Nature itself reveals that it's a just thing for the better man and the more capable man to have a greater share than the worse man and the less capable man . . . in accordance with the law of nature, and presumably not with the one we institute." Callicles added, for effect, "Philosophy is no doubt a delightful thing, as long as one is exposed to it in moderation. . . . But if one spends more time with it than he should, it is not the undoing of mankind."

In a similar vein, Sowell repeats a hyperbolic objection to every possible advance other than the accidental: "Unlike God at the dawn of Creation, we cannot simply say, `Let there be equality!' or `Let there be justice!' " Even if we agreed on the ends to be achieved, we would be stymied by the task of devising means. We face an "intractable obstacle" to any plan for social justice: "We do not know how to do it." He may castigate his opponents for elitism and hubris, but he could scarcely be more sure of his pessimism.

From his premises, discussion and deliberation become, if not impossible, then at least futile. John Rawls may have rescued political philosophy from condemnation as purely subjective, but Sowell consigns him to the category of the merely speculative. Rawls tried to create a deliberative process for talking about a just society. He asked us to imagine ourselves behind a "veil of ignorance," meaning we would have to determine the rules we would follow before knowing our particular lot in life. In rebuttal, Sowell invokes the familiar example of a lifeboat. He suggests that even Rawls himself would prefer a concededly unjust outcome in which 200 of 300 passengers are saved to "the only just solution . . . that everyone drown."

Essentially, Sowell's brand of realism places everyone at all times and all places and under any circumstances into the figurative lifeboat. Whatever we may believe about abstract justice is generally irrelevant. How we behave about the real prospect of sinking is much more important. Further contemplation becomes only what Callicles termed "the undoing of mankind." It would be nice if we had life preservers, but because we do not have enough we may as well throw people overboard as quickly as we can.

Although Sowell is galled by compensatory justice in forms such as affirmative action, he insists just as strongly that meritocracy is only another "seductive, misleading and often pernicious concept." Like compensatory justice, meritocratic rewards are too difficult to administer. Merit comes in too many forms that cannot be meaningfully compared to each other. The relative baseball skills of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth are still subject to debate, because "defining equality . . . is ultimately a conceptual, rather than an empirical, dilemma."

For Sowell, the measure of all virtues is the marketplace, and the greatest right is private property. Traditional institutions also deserve to remain sources of authority. He does not reconcile tensions between the marketplace and traditional institutions. The decriminalization of drugs, among numerous other cases, tests whether neo-conservatives would prefer liberty and competition on the one hand, or order and restraint on the other hand. The only effort to better society that meets with Sowell's approval is private charity. He takes pains to point out that conservatives who have opposed coercive taxation to protect positive rights have been willing to donate their wealth for altruistic causes.

Sowell is likely to face prejudice. While he might anticipate that his professorial colleagues will dismiss right-wing opinions without addressing their merits, the real problem is that they will denigrate books written for popular audiences without considering their content. To the detriment of scholars and society, tenure is granted for specialized and technical research.

Yet Sowell's sustained output over the course of a career is impressive. He blends facts generated by various social science disciplines with strong ideological convictions. He deserves respect for his intellectual commitments and the seriousness of his endeavor. Ultimately and unfortunately, Sowell's doubt about all progress represents only dogmatism guided by his assumptions. While a consensus may have concluded that government cannot do everything well, he would have us believe that it can do nothing at all. He has persuaded himself from the outset that the very idea of social justice can be nothing more than a side-effect of sloppy thinking. Nonetheless, Sowell should be read. He can be refuted. He appears ready to welcome the challenge.

Frank H. Wu, an associate professor of law at Howard University, is writing a book entitled "Yellow: The Race Debate Beyond Black and White."