From the Publisher
Jay Nordlinger National Review The burnished product of a lifetime of thinking, arguing, refining, and in essence getting it straight.
David Boaz author of Libertarianism: A Primer and editor of The Libertarian Reader No one should pronounce on justice or equality again without grappling with Thomas Sowell's powerful argument. In this book, reflecting a lifetime of wide-ranging research and careful reflection, Sowell makes us understand the difference between results and processes, between "cosmic justice" and traditional justice, between the rule of law and the power to do good. The ratio of insights to words in this book is remarkably high.
Judge Robert H. Bork In The Quest for Cosmic Justice Thomas Sowell once again displays his distinctive combination of erudition, analytical power, and uncommon sense.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
One of the country's most respected conservative intellectuals, Sowell (Race and Culture, etc.) proclaims a need to clarify the notion of justice. He then hurriedly decrees an absolute dichotomy between "traditional justice"--purely procedural equal treatment--and "cosmic justice." Unfortunately, Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, never satisfactorily defines what he means by cosmic justice, using it as an elastic term. Sowell easily tears apart handpicked examples of ill-conceived cosmic justice while steering clear of serious engagement with opposing positions. Thus he attacks Supreme Court rulings such as Miranda as "attempts to seek cosmic justice in the courtroom," but it requires a much better argument than Sowell provides to see how Miranda is anything but procedural. He equates redistributive state policies with "Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot," as if Western European welfare states simply didn't exist. Sowell makes some very good points in these four essays (touching on the difficulty of defining equal performance, the necessity of considering costs in pursuing abstract ideals and the corrosive political effects of envy), but he overplays his hand. The essay called "The Tyranny of Visions" asserts that conservatives "acquire no sense of moral superiority" from their positions, a point that anyone familiar with Pat Buchanan or with Sowell himself will find hard to swallow. Certainly, a good case can be made that people use the term "justice" loosely and that many conflate procedural justice with metaphysical justice. Beyond that, however, Sowell offers a catechism for true conservative believers. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
"Much of the world today and down through centuries of history has suffered the terrible consequences of unbridled government power, the prime evil that the writers of the American constitution sought to guard against." It is this "unbridled government power" that prolific political theorist Sowell (Affirmative Action Reconsidered) fears most as something that follows necessarily when societies try to achieve "cosmic justice" (as opposed to "social justice"). "Cosmic justice," he asserts, "is not about the rules of the game" but rather about "putting particular segments of society in the position that they would have been in but for some undeserved misfortune." Referring often to 20th-century world history, he argues persuasively that whatever benefits one might hope would result from trying to right the past wrongs of the world (instead of trying to repair the present world), they are not worth the almost inevitable risks of the loss of freedom and the rise of despotism. As Sowell does so well in his other books--many of which analyze the tradeoff between freedom and equality--he presents his case in clear, convincing, and accessible language. Strongly recommended for most public and academic libraries.--Jack Forman, Mesa Coll. Lib., San Diego Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Daniel J. Silver
Mr. Sowell provides a trenchant critique of this disturbing line of thought, which has done so much harm to the basic values and commitments of most Americans.
The Wall Street Journal
A cosmic straw man is vanquished in the fight against dangerous ideals such as social justice and equality. This is not the place to look for original ideas or honest analysis. Presumably, Sowell's (Migrations and Cultures, 1996, etc.) goal is to entertain those who share his convictions rather than convince open-minded readers, and this audience will be pleased. "Cosmic justice" is presented as a fundamental departure from the "traditional" conception of justice, which Sowell claims has the "characteristic of a process," rather than of a particular outcome. He conveniently forgets to mention that this "tradition" dates back only to the emergence of liberal-democratic states and that contrasting notions of procedural vs. substantive justice remain the subject of lively debate. Admitting legitimate disagreement over even something as slippery as justice would soften the blows he aims at those who think inequality and any associated oppression raises concerns a just society should address, and Sowell is not one to temper a political argument simply to maintain intellectual integrity. He is not straightforwardly defending inequality, of course, but rather is pursuing the familiar strategy of attacking measures that could alleviate it. Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, boldly asserts that those who believe equality should be pursued through public policy "assume that politicizing inequality is free of costs and dangers." No names are mentioned, and it is indeed hard to imagine that anyone would believe there are no costs or dangers. By stating the issue in terms of extremes, however, he ducks the real issuethe challenge of weighing costs and benefitsandavoids the need for incorporating any subtlety into his discussion.
Read an Excerpt
General principles, such as "justice" or "equality," are often passionately invoked in the course of arguing about the issues of the day, but such terms usually go undefined and unexamined. Often much more could be gained by scrutinizing what we ourselves mean by such notions than by trying to convince or overwhelm others. If we understood what we were really saying, in many cases we might not say it or, if we did, we might have a better chance of making our reasons understood by those who disagree with us.
The heady rush of rhetoric and visions are the stuff of everyday politics and everyday media discussion. That makes it all the more important that, at some point, we step back and examine what it all means underneath the froth or glitter. This book is an attempt to do that.
The ideas discussed here took shape over a long period of time. The title essay evolved out of a paper I gave in St. Gallen, Switzerland, in 1982 on "Trade-Offs and Social Justice." By 1984, it was recast and elaborated at great length in another paper called "Social Justice Reconsidered," which was circulated to various people around the country, including Milton Friedman and Mancur Olson. Professor Friedman's typically incisive criticisms were followed by the opinion that "it is well worth the effort required to put it in shape." Professor Olson's comments were likewise critical and perhaps not quite as encouraging. I too understood the difficulties of that draft, which was academic and radically different in form from what appears in this book.
Over the years, "Social Justice Reconsidered" evolved into "The Quest for Cosmic Justice," completely recast yet again, but still not finished a decade later. Nor was it certain that it ever would be finished, given the various other projects I was involved in. However, in the spring of 1996, some particularly sophomoric remarks by one of my Stanford colleagues not only provoked my anger but also convinced me that there was a real need to untangle the kind of confusions that could lead any sensible adult to say the things he had said and which all too many other people were saying. I went home and immediately resumed work on the essay on cosmic justice, writing it now for the general public, rather than for an academic audience.
By the autumn of 1996, the new version was completed and I presented "The Quest for Cosmic Justice" as a lecture in New Zealand. Much to my pleasant surprise, large excerpts from it were published in the country's leading newspapers. This press coverage, as well as the enthusiastic reception of the talk by a non-academic audience, convinced me that this was something that the general public would understand perhaps more readily than some academics who are locked into the intellectual fashions of the day.
The other essays in this book also evolved over a period of years and within a similar framework of thought that now gives them a collective coherence, even though they were written to stand alone individually. The central ideas in "Visions of War and Peace" first appeared in an article of that title that I published in 1987 in the British journal Encounter. The current and much briefer version is now a section in the essay "The Tyranny of Visions."
The generosity of Milton Friedman and the late Mancur Olson in criticizing the earlier, academically oriented paper of mine is much appreciated, but of course they share no responsibility for any shortcomings of the present, very different essay, aimed at a more general audience. In a truly just world, I would also have to acknowledge my debt to my colleague whose sloppy thinking galvanized me into action. However, I shall not do so by name, in deference to collegiality and to the libel laws in a litigious society.
Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow
Copyright © 1999 by Thomas Sowell