Cover image for The quest for cosmic justice
The quest for cosmic justice
Sowell, Thomas, 1930-
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Publication Information:
New York : Free Press, [1999]

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ix, 214 pages ; 23 cm
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HM671 .S68 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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The Hoover Institution Senior Fellow challenges the utopian social theory that he believes has eroded basic American freedoms and made the nation weaker as a result.

Author Notes

Bestselling author Thomas Sowell has been on the faculties of leading universities across the country, an economist in the corporate world and in government, and a scholar in residence at three think tanks. His books have been translated into nine languages, and his essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, Forbes, and Fortune and are syndicated to 150 newspapers. For the past two decades, he has been a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Sowell, a prolific critic of modern liberalism, ties into one of its most annoying characteristics: the desire to right undesigned and inherent wrongs that are consequences of differences of gender, skin color, sexuality, physical and mental capability, culture, and history. That desire spurs liberals to pursue cosmic justice, aka social justice, for the sake of an ideal society, instead of ordinary justice for persons and society as they are. Affirmative action, equal pay for formally equal work, and other policies aimed at redistributing wealth express the liberal lust for cosmic justice, Sowell argues. He vehemently stresses how facetious the term redistribution is, for wealth was never distributed in the first place. Most galling to Sowell, and intensively analyzed in his Vision of the Anointed (1995), is liberals' moral rectitude about cosmic justice--their insistence that those who disagree with them are not mistaken but evil. Out of such self-righteousness, liberals use government to overturn institutions and traditions responsible for American liberty and prosperity. A conservative polemic that liberals should read and cogitate. --Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

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"Äpurely procedural equal treatmentÄand "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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

"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 booksÄmany of which analyze the tradeoff between freedom and equalityÄhe presents his case in clear, convincing, and accessible language. Strongly recommended for most public and academic libraries.ÄJack Forman, Mesa Coll. Lib., San Diego (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Preface 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. Thomas Sowell Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow Hoover Institution Stanford University Copyright © 1999 by Thomas Sowell Excerpted from The Quest for Cosmic Justice by Thomas Sowell All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

I The Quest for Cosmic Justice
II The Mirage of Equality
III The Tyranny of Visions
IV The Quiet Repeal of the American Revolution