Noted professor, columnist and author Thomas Sowell is 87 years old and has added another book to his impressive output: “Discrimination and Disparities.” His writings have spanned decades, and there is little in this book that he has not written about before.
He has relentlessly argued that much of the social history of the Western world, over the past five decades, has been a history of replacing what worked with what sounded good. And in this book, he continues the assault on his usual targets, what he calls “The Vision of the Anointed” — liberals, academics, universities, the media, civil rights leaders, and the prevailing progressive dogmas of multiculturalism and social justice.
Many consider Sowell the preeminent social theorist writing on race and discrimination. He has written numbers of compelling works relating to discrimination, affirmative action, race relations, economics and history, and his writings, applauded by many and disliked by just as many, stand at the forefront of social theory.
“Discrimination and Disparities” is an empirical examination of how economic and other disparities arise in society. Economic and other outcomes differ vastly among individuals, groups and nations. Many explanations have been offered for the differences. Some believe that those with less fortunate outcomes are victims of genetics. Others believe that those who are less fortunate are victims of discrimination by the more fortunate.
This book expands on those fallacies but takes on another widespread fallacy underlying the prevailing social vision of our time — that if individual economic benefits are not due solely to individual merit, then there is justification for having politicians redistribute those benefits.
Sowell argues that in trying to understand economic and social disparities, statistics are often used, both to convey the magnitude of those disparities and try to establish their causes. He accuses many of omitting statistics that conflict with prevailing preconceptions, and believes this has become a common practice in politics, the media and academia.
One by one, the standard platitudes about discrimination and poverty fall before Sowell’s statistical assault. What he accomplishes in this book is providing clarification on some major social issues with facts and statistics that are too often selectively ignored and mired in dogmas and obfuscations.
Sowell laments the lack of empirical examinations of opposing views that has become all too common in America’s institutions. He cautions that politicians, the media and universities are devoted to promoting particular conclusions about social issues, and because of this, it seems especially important that such examinations take place or else we become a people easily stampeded by rhetoric, garnished with a few arbitrarily selected facts or numbers.
Equality of outcomes comes under withering criticism by Sowell. Much of what is said in the name of social justice implicitly assumes two things: the seemingly invincible fallacy that various groups would be equally successful in the absence of biased treatment by others; and if the more fortunate people are not completely responsible for their own good fortune, then the government — politicians, bureaucrats, and judges — will produce either efficiently better or morally superior outcomes by intervening and redistributing.
Demonstrated facts in the world of reality raise the crucial question as to whether the redistribution of income or wealth can actually be done in any comprehensible and sustainable sense. Sowell provides a crucial link between human capital — skills, habits and attitudes — and wealth. He argues that it is human capital that creates wealth and cannot be easily created by third-party decision makers. Confiscating capital wealth for the purpose of redistribution is confiscating something that will be used up over time by people with little to no human capital. And most importantly, it cannot be replenished without the human capital that created that wealth.
He is not saying that nothing can be done to offer people better opportunities — but how it is done can either be helpful or harmful, and often extremely hurtful, depending on how well policymakers understand human nature and deal with the world as it is rather than the world they wish it to be.
Sowell believes that the biggest obstacle to this happening is the social justice vision in which the fundamental problem of the less fortunate is the presence of other people’s malevolence. For some, abandoning that vision would mean abandoning a moral melodrama, starring them as virtue signaling crusaders against the forces of evil.
This book is timely in that it presages the 2020 election, where the Democratic Party presidential candidates are trying hard to out-progressive each other by considering equality of outcomes as a basic human right and calling for free college, free medical care, free childcare and a free basic income among other things.
Even one with little knowledge of economics will benefit by reading this book since Sowell writes in such a clear and convincing manner. Today, the very existence of intergroup disparity is made the subject of hysterical denunciations; but by the end of this book, any reasonable person has to understand how irrational it is to expect identical outcomes from different groups across a wide range of human experiences.
Bob Funk is a retired U.S. Marine and a retired high school principal.