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Book Review: The Quest for Cosmic Justice


The Quest for Cosmic Justice
by Thomas Sowell (New York: The Free Press, 1999); 214 pages; $25.

On August 18, 1919, during the Russian Civil War that resulted in the triumph of communism and the creation of the Soviet Union, there appeared the following passage in the first issue of The Red Sword, a newspaper published in Kiev by the Bolshevik secret police, then known as the Cheka:

“We reject the old systems of morality and ‘humanity’ invented by the bourgeoisie to oppress and exploit the ‘lower classes.’ Our morality has no precedent, and our humanity is absolute because it rests on a new ideal. Our aim is to destroy all forms of oppression and violence. To us, everything is permitted, for we are the first to raise the sword not to oppress races and reduce them to slavery, but to liberate humanity from its shackles…. Blood? Let blood flow like water! Let blood stain forever the black pirate’s flag flown by the bourgeoisie, and let our flag be blood-red forever! For only through the death of the old world can we liberate ourselves from the return of those jackals.”

The Bolsheviks had set themselves the task to remake the world according to the Marxian vision of a classless society. But to do so required the destruction of the “exploiting” classes, an overthrow of the existing property relationships and the remolding of “the masses” into a “new socialist man.” The Bolsheviks viewed themselves as a privileged elite, led by Lenin, to remake man and mankind, and all according to a compulsory master plan. After all, said Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the first chief of the Soviet secret police, the masses “are so ignorant that they have no idea what is really in their own interest.” To achieve this task, the uninhibited spilling of oceans of blood was considered an accepted price to pay for utopia.

The underlying theme of Thomas Sowell’s new book, The Quest for Cosmic Justice, is that the idea behind the brutality of the Bolshevik nightmare is still the specter that haunts the Western world, in spite of the fall of Soviet-style socialism in eastern Europe. It is what Sowell refers to as the appeal and politics of cosmic justice. “Implicit in much discussion of a need to rectify social inequities is the notion that some segments of society, through no fault of their own, lack things which others receive as windfall gains, through no virtue of their own,” he argues. “True as this may be, the knowledge required to sort this out intellectually, much less rectify it politically, is staggering and superhuman.”

Yet the same hubris that was the defining characteristic of the Bolsheviks remains the hallmark of the intellectual elite that advocates an expanding agenda of government intervention, regulation, and redistributive welfare statism, though as yet in a much less bloodthirsty form.

Sowell reminds us of just how unique the American experiment in free government was from its very founding. Justice meant the impartial enforcement of the rule of law, in which the rule of law referred to the protection of individual liberty, private property, and freedom of association and contract. Law was meant to represent the rules within which free men might voluntarily interact, without interference from the government. The outcomes from such free interactions and associations were not of central relevance: they were merely the spontaneous and often unintended results of human action. In the market and social arenas of competition and peaceful cooperation, some might “win” and others might “lose,” but what was crucial was that each participant “played the game” according to the rules of the free society.

In the 20th century, Sowell argues, the quest for redistributive or “outcome” justice has replaced the older conception of justice among men. Not that most ordinary people are really that much concerned in everyday life if “Joe” has earned more than “Sam,” as long as there is a general sense that their relative incomes have been acquired honestly and “aboveboard” without favors, privileges, and political corruption. It is for the self-appointed and anointed intellectual elites for whom this issue predominantly matters. They dream dreams of better worlds in which each has received what he “really” deserves and to which he has a material “right,” separate from the “arbitrary” results of the market forces of supply and demand.

For purposes of this “cosmic deservedness,” as Sowell refers to it, people are no longer thought of as distinct, flesh-and-blood individuals. No, they are now arranged and classified in social, racial, and class groupings that are considered the “reality” of the world by these intellectual elites. These collective groupings then define who and what people are and determine the distributive share they deserve as a member of one of these groups.

But as Sowell cogently explains, there are no “objectively” correct answers as to what individuals within these collective groupings should receive as their just due. The types of knowledge that would be needed to do so and the interpretive capacity to evaluate the relative merits of the factors that should be weighed for making a “just” determination are beyond human ability. Only a cosmic or godlike perspective could claim to know what each of us “deserves.”

Instead, the intellectual elites claim the supposedly disinterested superiority to bear the burden of these momentous decisions. They arrogantly presume to do away with all the circumstances that make the patterns of society what they are: custom, culture, tradition, the competitive processes of the market, and the free choices of individual human beings. All these are to be set aside, with large swatches of society re-configured according to the designs of the social engineering elite.

Sowell details all the consequences that have followed and inevitably must follow from such hubris: freedom lost, and control transferred to the government, as grand political schemes are implemented with little or no thought to the cost in terms of either material standards of living or their impact on the actual human beings who must serve as the manipulated ingredients for these redistributive recipes.

The fundamental principle of the American experiment in freedom, Sowell argues, was captured in the Bill of Rights, where it was clearly stated that “Congress shall make no law….” To be exempt from the laws that government might wish to impose to restrict our peaceful conduct is the essence of constitutionally protected liberty. And it is this freedom that is being threatened in America and the world in general by those who, like the Bolsheviks, continue to claim that everything is permitted to them in the pursuit of making us and our world over into their utopian image of how they think we should be.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).