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Saturday, July 1, 2000

The Quest for Cosmic Justice

Misfortune and Injustice Are Not the Same

The Quest for Cosmic Justice offers no big surprises to anyone familiar with Sowell’s work. Its theme of arrogant elites’ tyrannizing ordinary folk has sounded prominently in Sowell’s writings since at least the late 1970s. But the book percolates throughout with ingenious smaller-scale insights that make it well worth reading.

By “cosmic justice” Sowell means the relief of all misfortune. It is the broadest concept of justice going. The narrowest (and, in Sowell’s view, correct) concept of justice is the traditional one—justice defined according to the fairness of the process. If the process is unbiased and if all parties abide by the agreed-on rules, then justice prevails. Of course, traditional justice does not require that fair processes exhibit a 100 percent error-free record. Even the fairest and most scrupulous criminal-justice system, for example, will sometimes mistakenly convict innocent people and sometimes mistakenly acquit guilty ones.

Nor does traditional justice require, even when no error mars the process, that the result is one that would satisfy a benevolent omniscient designer. The fact that something in my background beyond my personal control—poor musical genes, absence of childhood piano lessons, whatever—prevented me from becoming the concert pianist that I would ideally like to be is not an injustice.

The understandable human emotion to help the less fortunate has led to a confusion of language in which “injustice” is becoming synonymous with misfortune. (Calling something an “injustice”—unlike calling some thing a “misfortune”—suggests that remedial action is appropriate.) This confusion would be merely annoying if it did not breed support for public policies that exacerbate rather than ameliorate problems. Pinpointing and explaining these unfortunate consequences of public policies is among Sowell’s chief talents.

For example, Sowell recognizes that it is regrettable that a person charged with murder suffered child abuse—child abuse that might plausibly be responsible for the murderer’s disregard for human life. But the quest for cosmic justice that prompts the court to temper its punishment of the accused because of his unfortunate past ends up unleashing even more torment and suffering. A murderer is eventually let loose who will too likely kill again. In its quest for cosmic justice the court puts innocent people at much greater risk of being denied traditional justice.

Sowell’s explanation of why traditional justice is better than cosmic justice is second to none. The reason is suggested by the title of the book—the quest for cosmic justice. People can and do venture on this quest, but it is futile. Attempts to correct today for all of the injustices as well as misfortunes of the past presume, first, that we have sufficient knowledge to succeed in this quest and, second, that those flesh-and-blood individuals who are to carry out this quest can be trusted with the enormous power necessary for such a celestial and open-ended endeavor. As Sowell explains, each presumption is wildly mistaken.

Running throughout all of Sowell’s work is his appropriate disdain for elites. For many years I had pasted to my office door the final line of Sowell’s magnificent Knowledge and Decisions: “Freedom is . . . the right of ordinary people to find elbow room for themselves and a refuge from the rampaging presumptions of their ‘betters.’” Sowell hammers home the truth that when the state tries to do anything other than ensure traditional justice it necessarily bestows unequal and frightful powers on a select few to decide the fate of the many.

But as discerning as Sowell is, The Quest for Cosmic Justice is not a flawless book. Sowell goes astray when he compares legislatures to courts. He shares with Robert Bork and other late-twentieth-century conservatives a burning abhorrence of judges who “make law”—an abhorrence, no doubt, that springs from the judicial engineering unleashed on Americans by the Warren and Burger Courts.

It is proper to lament legislating from the bench, but Sowell is too trusting of legislation made by legislatures. The real problem is legislation, not the identity of the legislature. Or, put differently, the problem with judicial activism is not that it is social engineering by judges; the problem is that it is social engineering. Any attempt at social engineering is fraught with dangers, and anyone given the power to practice such engineering necessarily enjoys too much power over the objects (namely, ordinary people) of his engineering schemes.

Despite this flaw (and a few other ones too tiny to mention), The Quest for Cosmic Justice is vintage Sowell: brilliant, sparkling, and germane.

  • Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a Mercatus Center Board Member, and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University.
  • Thomas Sowell is the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution.