Cosmic Justice

Dr. Thomas Sowell, Hoover Institution's distinguished senior fellow, delivered a lecture in New Zealand last year titled "The Quest for Cosmic Justice." He discussed how often we observe tragic differences in the lives of people. Some live in luxury; others live in squalor; some people have food to throw away while others are close to starvation. The most tragic inequalities occur in other countries. Albeit on a much smaller scale, there are also inequalities in the U.S. These inequalities, we're told, represent social injustices that beg for a remedy.

Social justice is an elusive term at best but most people demanding social justice are really demanding what Sowell calls "cosmic justice", a process that seeks to put "particular segments of society in the position they would have been in but for some undeserved misfortune." Pursuit of cosmic justice requires the pretense of knowledge and the wholesale dismissal of issues of costs. Sowell briefly discussed a minor example of cosmic justice from a San Francisco incident. A relative of a city supervisor called for pizza delivery. The company told him they didn't make deliveries where he lived, a high crime area. After much moral posturing, the city immediately passed a law requiring that any company making public deliveries must make deliveries all over the city.

The supervisor's relative, like the thousands of his honest neighbors, did nothing to deserve the company's decision not to deliver in their neighborhood. However, the public response shouldn't be simply "do something" unless we, like the San Francisco supervisors, disdain the costs of that something. In other words, the San Francisco city supervisors shouldn't be indifferent to the question: how many pizza deliveries are worth how many dead or injured truck drivers?

"Undeserved inequalities" go beyond prejudicial decisions; they encompass biological, geographical, and cultural differences as well. Though no fault of their own, whites don't excel in basketball and football to the degree blacks do. Through no fault of their own, blacks don't excel on academic achievement tests as well as whites do. These inequalities and their effects are often seen as social injustices begging for a remedy.

Anyone questioning the costs of the liberal cosmic justice remedy is seen as "mean-spirited." Thus, the military gives preferential treatment to women without regard to what the costs of significant strength and stamina differences between men and women might mean in a combat situation. College admission offices admit black students, with test scores well below the campus median, ignoring that policy's costs to both black and white students. The only reason the elite haven't mandated quotas for women, Japanese and other under-represented groups in the NBA and the NFL is because the folly and costs of their cosmic justice vision would be exposed.

Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman said, "A society that puts equality - in the sense of equality of outcome - ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom." The only equality consistent with freedom is equality before the law. Sowell says the only clear-cut winners in the quest for cosmic justice are those who believe they are morally and intellectually superior to the rest of us. They gain greater power. Among this century's most notable winners in the struggle for cosmic justice were: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot.

Walter E. Williams

February 1, 1997
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