It’s easy to treat reducing carbon output as the world’s priority when your life is comfortable. Things can still be tough for people in high-income countries, but the 16% of the global population who live in those countries don’t routinely go hungry or see their children die. Most are well-educated, and the average income is in the range of what was once reserved for the pinnacle of society.
Much of the rest of the world, however, is still struggling. While conditions vary, across poorer countries five million children die each year before their fifth birthdays and almost a billion people don’t get enough to eat. More than two billion have to cook and keep warm with polluting fuels such as dung and wood, which shortens their lifespans. Although most young kids are in school, education is so dismal that most children in low- and lower-middle-income countries will remain functionally illiterate.
Opportunity is restricted in particular by a lack of the cheap and plentiful energy that allowed rich nations to develop. In Africa, electricity is so rare that total monthly consumption per person is often less than what a single refrigerator uses during that time. This absence of energy access hampers industrialization and growth. Case in point: The rich world on average has 530 tractors per 10,000 acres, while the impoverished parts of Africa have fewer than one.
The problem is further exacerbated by the enormous size, scope, and complexity of modern government, which makes it difficult for even relatively knowledgeable and conscientious voters to have more than a very superficial understanding of most policy issues. Voters ignorant about the basic structure of government and about how most specific policies work are more susceptible to various types of deception and misinformation.
In his 1987 classic, “A Conflict of Visions,” Mr. Sowell attempted to explain what drives our centuries-old ideological disputes about freedom, justice, equality and power. The contrasting “visions” in the title referred to the implicit assumptions that guide a person’s thinking. On one side you have the “constrained” vision, which sees humanity as hopelessly flawed. This view is encapsulated in Edmund Burke’s declaration that “we cannot change the nature of things and of men—but must act upon them as best we can” and in Immanuel Kant’s assertion that “from the crooked timber of humanity no truly straight thing can ever be made.”
The opposite is the “unconstrained,” or utopian, view of the human condition. It’s the belief that there are no inherent limits to what mankind can accomplish, so trade-offs are unnecessary. World peace is achievable. Social problems such as poverty, crime and racism can be not merely managed but eliminated. Mr. Sowell begins “Social Justice Fallacies” with a quote from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who expressed the essence of the unconstrained vision when he wrote of “the equality which nature established among men and the inequality which they have instituted among themselves.”
For Mr. Sowell, the tremendous variety of geographic, cultural and demographic differences among groups makes anything approximating an even distribution of preferences, habits and skills close to impossible. The progressive left holds up as a norm a state the world has never seen, and regards as an anomaly something seen in societies all over the world and down through history. “There’s this sort of mysticism that disparities must show that someone’s done something wrong” to a lagging group, Mr. Sowell says. The social-justice vision “starts off by reducing the search for causation to a search for blame. And for so much of what happens, there is no blame.”
To illustrate the point, the book’s chapter on racial fallacies cites recent census data on poverty. “Statistical differences between races are not automatically due to race—either in the sense of being caused by genetics or being a result of racial discrimination,” Mr. Sowell writes. Liberals argue that higher black poverty rates are mainly a product of slavery, Jim Crow and of lingering “systemic racism.” Yet there are pockets of the U.S. populated almost exclusively by white people who experience no racism and who nevertheless earn significantly less than blacks.
He says that whether social-justice proponents are pushing for slavery reparations or higher taxes on the rich, their real agenda is the confiscation and redistribution of wealth. Enthralled by what he calls the “chess-pieces fallacy,” progressives treat individuals like inert objects. “I got that from Adam Smith, who had a very low opinion of abstract theorists who feel they can move around people much as one moves around chess pieces,” he says.
“That fallacy takes many forms, and taxation is a classic example.” The fallacy is assuming that “tax hikes and tax revenues automatically move in the same direction, when often they move in the opposite direction.” Liberals say, “ ‘We need more money, so we’ll make the wealthy pay their fair share,’ which is never defined, of course. But the wealthy are not just going to sit there and do nothing.”
Mr. Sowell’s own accomplishments cover a broad swath. He’s published more than 40 books, and “Social Justice Fallacies” is his sixth since he turned 80 in 2010. What recommends it is what recommends so many of the others: clear thinking, a straightforward prose style that combines wide learning with common sense, and an uncanny ability to take our preening elites down a notch.
Joe Biden is an economically ignorant sentimentalist who likes to say that “unions built the middle class,” but that is, as a matter of fact, not true: There never has been a time in American history when the majority of workers were unionized, and the artificially high wages and generous benefits of union jobs are paid for with reduced wages and benefits for workers elsewhere in the economy.
That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise: Unions are monopolies — they enjoy a legal privilege from the government to be the sole provider of labor in a particular market — and they display precisely those economic pathologies associated with other monopolies, i.e., they harm consumers by charging prices above the competitive market rate.
Here’s sound reasoning from Steven Greenhut: “We should all be skeptical that the same government that can’t balance a budget can revamp the dominant form of modern communications and boost young people’s self-esteem.”