Thomas Sowell is one of the most prominent American conservatives, and his The Quest for Cosmic Justice is a testament to why he’s achieved that status.
Sowell breaks down the distinction between what one could call the conservative (e.g. Austrian economics, universalist theories of law) plan to improve the lives of all Americans and the progressive (e.g. Keynesian/Rawlsian) method.
He focuses primarily on the concept of justice, and where he feels that progressives have gotten things wrong.
I will not seek to replicate Sowell’s argument, but the points that stood out to me are:
- The statistics and factors that lead into poverty (and why the Rawlsian approach should not be applied in particular to race and gender, as is in vogue with progressives)
- The distinction between traditional justice which seeks redress for grievances regarding crimes committed by individuals, and cosmic justice (which is more in line with modern “social justice” theory) which seeks to balance outcomes across a broad variety of people.
- The hazards of creating power structures required to seek cosmic justice; both in their propensity to create unintended consequences and tools for people who seek to abuse power.
Sowell’s work is brilliant at building a case and offering a well-read insight to social and political philosophies. However, if you want vibrant delivery, you may find his lectures, debates, and interviews more engaging.
In Sowell’s defense, the reason for the dryness of this book is that it is short for the level of content it delivers. While much of the book has interest, it relies more on the logic of its arguments and high-level analysis. This is not to imply that it leaves out key details. It just doesn’t have Hayek’s fervor or Steele’s personal connection that can bring some more engagement to a reader-unfriendly subject when it delves into economics.
With that said, I have more than a passing interest in economics, political philosophy, law, and cultural issues, which makes me the ideal target audience for Sowell’s work.
One note for audiences in 2020 might be to point out that Sowell refers to progressive thought primarily in the Rawlsian sense. While modern critical theorists build on this foundation, they have philosophical distinctions. Sowell’s arguments are still valid regardless, but you might find that postmodernists have different values than Rawls did.
Find it: Amazon affiliate link. I listened to the Audible version, available from the same page.
Rating: 5 out of 5
For the kids: If they have an interest in the subject. It’s not the most engaging and thrilling read, but it’s good solid stuff.
Who will enjoy it?
Political philosophy types, economists. If you’re a fan of Sowell, this is a classic work of his. It’s in the vein of Hayek’s blend of economics, political theory, and philosophy as seen in The Road to Serfdom, with a stronger emphasis on America in specific.