This book is about the great moral issues underlying many of the headline-making political controversies of our times. It is not a comforting book but a book about disturbing and dangerous trends. The Quest for Cosmic Justice shows how confused conceptions of justice end up promoting injustice, how confused conceptions of equality end up promoting inequality, and how the tyranny of social visions prevents many people from confronting the actual consequences of their own beliefs and policies. Those consequences include the steady and dangerous erosion of fundamental principles of freedom -- amounting to a quiet repeal of the American revolution.
The Quest for Cosmic Justice is the summation of a lifetime of study and thought about where we as a society are headed -- and why we need to change course before we do irretrievable damage.
One of the country's most respected conservative intellectuals, Sowell (Race and Culture, etc.) proclaims a need to clarify the notion of justice. He then hurriedly decrees an absolute dichotomy between "traditional justice" purely procedural equal treatment and "cosmic justice." Unfortunately, Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, never satisfactorily defines what he means by cosmic justice, using it as an elastic term. Sowell easily tears apart handpicked examples of ill-conceived cosmic justice while steering clear of serious engagement with opposing positions. Thus he attacks Supreme Court rulings such as Miranda as "attempts to seek cosmic justice in the courtroom," but it requires a much better argument than Sowell provides to see how Miranda is anything but procedural. He equates redistributive state policies with "Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot," as if Western European welfare states simply didn't exist. Sowell makes some very good points in these four essays (touching on the difficulty of defining equal performance, the necessity of considering costs in pursuing abstract ideals and the corrosive political effects of envy), but he overplays his hand. The essay called "The Tyranny of Visions" asserts that conservatives "acquire no sense of moral superiority" from their positions, a point that anyone familiar with Pat Buchanan or with Sowell himself will find hard to swallow. Certainly, a good case can be made that people use the term "justice" loosely and that many conflate procedural justice with metaphysical justice. Beyond that, however, Sowell offers a catechism for true conservative believers. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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February 05, 2002
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Excerpt from The Quest for Cosmic Justice by Thomas Sowell
General principles, such as "justice" or "equality," are often passionately invoked in the course of arguing about the issues of the day, but such terms usually go undefined and unexamined. Often much more could be gained by scrutinizing what we ourselves mean by such notions than by trying to convince or overwhelm others. If we understood what we were really saying, in many cases we might not say it or, if we did, we might have a better chance of making our reasons understood by those who disagree with us.
The heady rush of rhetoric and visions are the stuff of everyday politics and everyday media discussion. That makes it all the more important that, at some point, we step back and examine what it all means underneath the froth or glitter. This book is an attempt to do that.
The ideas discussed here took shape over a long period of time. The title essay evolved out of a paper I gave in St. Gallen, Switzerland, in 1982 on "Trade-Offs and Social Justice." By 1984, it was recast and elaborated at great length in another paper called "Social Justice Reconsidered," which was circulated to various people around the country, including Milton Friedman and Mancur Olson. Professor Friedman's typically incisive criticisms were followed by the opinion that "it is well worth the effort required to put it in shape." Professor Olson's comments were likewise critical and perhaps not quite as encouraging. I too understood the difficulties of that draft, which was academic and radically different in form from what appears in this book.