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Thomas Sowell on Social Justice Fallacies: Affirmative Action

Thomas Sowell on Social Justice Fallacies (full series)
“Equal Chances” Fallacy | Racial Fallacies
Knowledge Fallacies | Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action

Hogberg: In chapter five, you compare the campaign for affirmative action to the COVID Pandemic? Why is that an apt comparison?

Sowell: Oh, wow, I totally forgotten about having done that. But the pandemic, like affirmative action, is another case of third parties setting priorities for other people. Now, it’s good that we tried to save lives during the pandemic. But once politicians are given the power to preempt decisions, they’ll persist in it as long as it works for them politically. Politicians have no great incentive to avoid mistakes because it is other people who pay for those mistakes.

Hoberg: In chapter five you write that the “social justice vision often fails to show any serious interest in the progress of the less fortunate when it happens in ways unrelated to the social justice agenda.” Explain.

Sowell: We have how many hours?

I can start with the situation of blacks in the United States. The social justice narrative is that blacks came out of poverty, advanced in professional occupations, and so on as a result of the wonderful government programs that came in the 1960s. But just because you start the time series in the 1960s doesn’t mean the trend started in the 1960s. For example, the black poverty rate dropped 40 percentage points in the two decades leading up to 1960. From 1954 to 1964, the number of black professionals doubled in the U.S. All of this before the 1964 Civil Rights Act. What are the factors that led to the improvement of blacks prior to the 1960s? Well, since that doesn’t fit the social justice narrative, the political Left has no interest in it.

This happens on an international scale as well. And some of the most dramatic rises of people from poverty to affluence occurred in Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea due to free markets. At one point Hong Kong had more millionaires than the entire nation of India, despite India having 100 times the population. The problem was that India had all kinds of government controls to supposedly protect the downtrodden. It kept them downtrodden even longer. Towards the end of the 20th century, both China and India opened up their economies much more so to international markets. In both countries, literally tens of millions of people rose from poverty. You can search the social justice literature in vain for any mention of those things because they were done in ways that were the opposite of the social justice vision.

Hogberg: Finally, you give a warning about using power to achieve social justice goals. What is that warning?

Sowell: That warning is that when you give people power, beyond some point you won’t be able to take it back. Communists around the world did not come to power by saying that they wanted to set up slave labor camps and murder their opposition. They had all kinds of high moral principles. Once they got the power, though, what they did with it was the opposite of those moral principles.

Hogberg: I want to circle back to chapter one now, and talk about factors that can impact the different outcomes among different groups. Give a brief statement of how much impact each of these factors has on outcomes.

First, how about discrimination?

Sowell: At different times and places discrimination can have a huge effect, and at other times and places it will have virtually no effect.

Hogberg: Age.

Sowell: Age has a huge, huge effect. Almost always, the people with who are older have more human capital, and they produce more and have higher incomes. And different groups have different average ages, sometimes like decades. In the U.S., the difference in age between blacks and whites is not that large. The difference between Mexican Americans and Japanese is much larger, and this results in different average incomes between the two groups.

Hogberg: Culture.

Sowell: Culture is really important. Culture is our patterns of behavior. There are differences between the races that have nothing to do with race and have everything to with different behavior patterns. Blacks who are married have had a poverty rate in the low single digits for over a quarter of a century, despite blacks as a whole having a higher poverty rate than whites as a whole. The difference is not in the race; it’s in the behavior. What’s tragic is that a lot of people who promote social justice want to freeze every group in a particular culture, even if that culture is not serving a group very well. People don’t exist to serve the purposes of culture. Culture exists to serve the purposes of people.

Hogberg: Human capital.

Sowell: Human capital would be the assets you have to control yourself economically and socially. And human capital varies not only in the usual ways such as having particular skills but even such things as honesty. Honesty is a huge factor. One of the reasons that the British were able to have the Industrial Revolution is that British law had the reputation internationally as being honest and dependable. So people that might be living in Eastern Europe or South America, for example, they’d want to invest their money and wouldn’t want to lose it. They’d send their money to Britain before they’d send it elsewhere.

Hogberg: Sex.

Sowell: Women frequently have different work patterns. Women often take time out to have children and raise them and so on. So by comparing the incomes of women directly to men you’re comparing apples and oranges. When you compare men to women who have worked continuously since leaving school and into their 30s—and this was done decades ago—such women have slightly higher income than men of the same description. It’s trickier to try to compare women and men the way you compare blacks and whites. The same things that help blacks tend to help whites. But in the case of women and men, marriage tends to lower a woman’s earnings and raise a man’s. Single men make less than married men, and married women make less than single women.

Hogberg: Education.

Sowell: It depends on what the quality of the education is. I have long thought that there are actually too many people going to college, and probably too many going to high school. The argument is made that people who’ve been to college have higher incomes than people who don’t. But college really serves as a sorting device. That is, it shows that a person has what it takes to stay in college for four years and come out again, and that is probably what is driving higher incomes.

Years ago I was an economist at AT&T. While at AT&T headquarters, a senior person said to me, “You know, all of our elevator operators have to have high school diplomas.” I asked him, “Have elevators gotten more complicated over the years so that it takes more education to run them?” Of course, they hadn’t. They’d gotten simpler. All you have to do is push a button. The point being that it is very easy to make the mistake that having a degree is what creates a certain outcome. What if everybody went to college? Then you’d need a college degree to get that job as an elevator operator. And so we’ve gotten trapped into this kind of notion that it is what happens in college that leads to a higher income.

Hogberg: Finally, geography.

Sowell: It can have a huge impact. People who live in mountain villages, whether they are black on white, whether they are in the United States, Europe, Asia, Africa, you name it, those people lag far behind people who live in coastal areas. This is why in the book I mentioned the hillbilly communities. The counties in which they live are 90 to 100 percent white. And they have over a period of a half century had lower incomes than black Americans. They face zero racism. They face zero discrimination. They have no legacy of slavery, and yet they’re worse off consistently over that period of time. Which then raises the question, why then do we assume that the poverty among blacks can only be due to discrimination?

This article was published in the January 2024 issue of Capital Research magazine.

David Hogberg

David Hogberg, Ph.D., is a CRC alumnus and author of Medicare’s Victims: How the U.S. Government’s Largest Health Care Program Harms Patients and Impairs Physicians.
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