This is not a comforting book it is a book about disturbing issues that are urgently important today and enduringly critical for the future. It rejects both "merit" and historical redress as principles for guiding public policy. It shows how "peace" movements have led to war and to needless casualties in those wars. It argues that "equality" is neither right nor wrong, but meaningless.
The Quest for Cosmic Justice shows how confused conceptions of justice end up promoting injustice, how confused conceptions of equality end up promoting inequality, and how the tyranny of social visions prevents many people from confronting the actual consequences of their own beliefs and policies. Those consequences include the steady and dangerous erosion of the fundamental principles of freedom and the quiet repeal of the American revolution.
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About the Author
Thomas Sowell is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute and the author of A Personal Odyssey, The Vision of the Anointed, Ethnic America, and several other books. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, Forbes, and Fortune and are syndicated in 150 newspapers. He lives in Stanford, California.
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
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
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
As a so called minority I agree with Mr. Sowell about 95 percent of the time. He just makes a lot of sense. I have dubbed him 'The Master of Common Sense. I just wish I had started reading his books a lot sooner
I found this to be one of Thomas Sowell's best works, a truly insightful, no holds barred look at the current social problems facing this country. Be prepared for truth and honesty and not the skewed, liberal view point that most forms of media today provide. This is a hard nosed look at this country and the consequences of our political and social decisions. I only wish we were required to read this in school. Take this book, read it to you children and read it yourself, although a dictionary is a required supplement.
Mr. Sowell has made me think more in depth than any of my professors in college. Thank you sir. Anyone who wonders why we are in our current social and economic situation in the US, need only read this book. Keep a dictionary at your side or have your computers dictionary on.... your vocabulary will be challenged and expanded.
Mr. Sowell, I along with Mr. Webster (Colligiate dictionary) have found 'Quest' to be most provocative. Anyone who would diligently read your treatise will have to agree with this statement even if they disagree with your assertions. I wish I had been exposed to your writings and philosophies when I taught high school. Must reading for any truly serious pedagogues in the area of the social sciences.
"I'd say this book should be required reading, but that would somewhat undermine the premise. So I'll just say this: If everyone would take it upon themselves to read and understand the principles presented in this book, the world would be a much better place. "
Of all the 100 or more books I've examined that purport to describe ideas that have influenced world history and/or the policies of modernday governments, this is perhaps the worst one I've ever seen. Sowell's books typically provide a weird mix of brilliancies worth memorizing and absurdities worth condemning, but in this book the bad outweighs the good by far. With the short space of this review I will describe the worst error I found. On pages 28-29 Sowell ridicules the world-famous book of philosophy titled "A Theory of Justice", by John Rawls (note: I've read that Rawls' book created a worldwide sensation in philosophy departments around the world, because it gives a coherent integration of the most influential ideas about justice). Sowell claims that Rawls' theory places so much emphasis on equality that it would require that if 300 people are on a sinking boat with only 200 life preservers, then the Theory would say that equality should be maximized by all drowning! Sowell's claim is incredibly absurd, given what Rawls actually said in that book. Rawls' theory emphasizes fairness, but NOT equality. In Rawls' examples equality is ALWAYS sacrificed to get more fairness. Rawls even uses graphs in the book to illustrate how equality should be reduced so as to increase fairness. Rawls defines "fairness" very carefully: what people would do if they all believed that they could be anyone affected by decisions, including any of the least-advantaged persons. Rawls claims that under such conditions people would naturally focus on improving the situations of the worst-off persons. His system starts with equality (as the least-fair possibility to be considered), and introduces inequalities that improve the situations of the worst-off persons. E.g., Rawls uses his method to justify capitalism (because it greatly improves the situations of the worst-off [the poor] in societies with capitalism). In the example of the sinking boat, Sowell's claim requires that Sowell also decribe how the 100 persons destined to drown are BETTER OFF if all the others DROWN. Good grief...HOW? This cannot be done, surely, and Sowell's conclusion is an absurdity. Note: with this absurd claim Sowell trashes Rawls' world-famous book with a mere 3 sentences totalling 89 words! Moreover, his hit-and-run includes a hidden stab of a knife-like lie into Rawls' reputation. I pity readers of his that unknowingly and trustingly accept such blatantly absurd nonsense. Please note: Sowell's words fail to reveal Rawls' total emphasis on a type of fairness, and that equality should always be sacrificed to increase it. Sowell's error here is so severe that I'm really forced to conclude that it was intentional: it is a lie intended to deceive his readers.