One of the great scholars of law & economics turns 90 years old today. In his long and distinguished career, Thomas Sowell has written over 40 books and countless opinion columns. He has been a professor of economics and a long-time Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He received a National Humanities Medal in 2002 for a lifetime of scholarship, which has only continued since then. His ability to look at issues with an international perspective, using the analytical tools of economics to better understand institutions, is an inspiration to us at the International Center for Law & Economics.
Here, almost as a blog post festschrift as a long-time reader of his works, I want to briefly write about how Sowell’s voluminous writings on visions, law, race, and economics could be the basis for a positive agenda to achieve a greater measure of racial justice in the United States.
The Importance of Visions
One of the most important aspects of Sowell’s work is his ability to distill wide-ranging issues into debates involving different mental models, or a “Conflict of Visions.” He calls one vision the “tragic” or “constrained” vision, which sees all humans as inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, and fundamentally self-interested even at their best. The other vision is the “utopian” or “unconstrained” vision, which sees human limitations as artifacts of social arrangements and cultures, and that there are some capable by virtue of superior knowledge and morality that can redesign society to create a better world.
An implication of the constrained vision is that the difference in knowledge and virtue between the best and the worst in society is actually quite small. As a result, no one person or group of people can be trusted with redesigning institutions which have spontaneously evolved. The best we can hope for is institutions that reasonably deter bad conduct and allow people the freedom to solve their own problems.
An important implication of the unconstrained vision, on the other hand, is that there are some who because of superior enlightenment, which Sowell calls the “Vision of the Anointed,” can redesign institutions to fundamentally change human nature, which is seen as malleable. Institutions are far more often seen as the result of deliberate human design and choice, and that failures to change them to be more just or equal is a result of immorality or lack of will.
The importance of visions to how we view things like justice and institutions makes all the difference. In the constrained view, institutions like language, culture, and even much of the law result from the “spontaneous ordering” that is the result of human action but not of human design. Limited government, markets, and tradition are all important in helping individuals coordinate action. Markets work because self-interested individuals benefit when they serve others. There are no solutions to difficult societal problems, including racism, only trade-offs.
But in the unconstrained view, limits on government power are seen as impediments to public-spirited experts creating a better society. Markets, traditions, and cultures are to be redesigned from the top down by those who are forward-looking, relying on their articulated reason. There is a belief that solutions could be imposed if only there is sufficient political will and the right people in charge. When it comes to an issue like racism, those who are sufficiently “woke” should be in charge of redesigning institutions to provide for a solution to things like systemic racism.
For Sowell, what he calls “traditional justice” is achieved by processes that hold people accountable for harms to others. Its focus is on flesh-and-blood human beings, not abstractions like all men or blacks versus whites. Differences in outcomes are not just or unjust, by this point of view, what is important is that the processes are just. These processes should focus on institutional incentives of participants. Reforms should be careful not to upset important incentive structures which have evolved over time as the best way for limited human beings to coordinate behavior.
The “Quest for Cosmic Justice,” on the other hand, flows from the unconstrained vision. Cosmic justice sees disparities between abstract groups, like whites and blacks, as unjust and in need of correction. If results from impartial processes like markets or law result in disparities, those with an unconstrained vision often see those processes as themselves racist. The conclusion is that the law should intervene to create better outcomes. This presumes considerable knowledge and morality on behalf of those who are in charge of the interventions.
For Sowell, a large part of his research project has been showing that those with the unconstrained vision often harm those they are proclaiming the intention to help in their quest for cosmic justice.
A Constrained Vision of Racial Justice
Sowell has written quite a lot on race, culture, intellectuals, economics, and public policy. One of the main thrusts of his argument about race is that attempts at cosmic justice often harm living flesh-and-blood individuals in the name of intertemporal abstractions like “social justice” for black Americans. Sowell nowhere denies that racism is an important component of understanding the history of black Americans. But his constant challenge is that racism can’t be the only variable which explains disparities. Sowell points to the importance of culture and education in building human capital to be successful in market economies. Without taking those other variables into account, there is no way to determine the extent that racism is the cause of disparities.
This has important implications for achieving racial justice today. When it comes to policies pursued in the name of racial justice, Sowell has argued that many programs often harm not only members of disfavored groups, but the members of the favored groups.
For instance, Sowell has argued that affirmative action actually harms not only flesh-and-blood white and Asian-Americans who are passed over, but also harms those African-Americans who are “mismatched” in their educational endeavors and end up failing or dropping out of schools when they could have been much better served by attending schools where they would have been very successful. Another example Sowell often points to is minimum wage legislation, which is often justified in the name of helping the downtrodden, but has the effect of harming low-skilled workers by increasing unemployment, most especially young African-American males.
Any attempts at achieving racial justice, in terms of correcting historical injustices, must take into account how changes in processes could actually end up hurting flesh-and-blood human beings, especially when those harmed are black Americans.
A Positive Agenda for Policy Reform
In Sowell’s constrained vision, a large part of the equation for African-American improvement is going to be cultural change. However, white Americans should not think that this means they have no responsibility in working towards racial justice. A positive agenda must take into consideration real harms experienced by African-Americans due to government action (and inaction). Thus, traditional justice demands institutional reforms, and in some cases, recompense.
The policy part of this equation outlined below is motivated by traditional justice concerns that hold people accountable under the rule of law for violations of constitutional rights and promotes institutional reforms to more properly align incentives.
What follows below are policy proposals aimed at achieving a greater degree of racial justice for black Americans, but fundamentally informed by the constrained vision and traditional justice concerns outlined by Sowell. Most of these proposals are not on issues Sowell has written a lot on. In fact, some proposals may actually not be something he would support, but are—in my opinion—consistent with the constrained vision and traditional justice.
Reparations for Historical Rights Violations
Sowell once wrote this in regards to reparations for black Americans:
Nevertheless, it remains painfully clear that those people who were torn from their homes in Africa in centuries past and forcibly brought across the Atlantic in chains suffered not only horribly, but unjustly. Were they and their captors still alive, the reparations and retribution owed would be staggering. Time and death, however, cheat us of such opportunities for justice, however galling that may be. We can, of course, create new injustices among our flesh-and-blood contemporaries for the sake of symbolic expiation, so that the son or daughter of a black doctor or executive can get into an elite college ahead of the son or daughter of a white factory worker or farmer, but only believers in the vision of cosmic justice are likely to take moral solace from that. We can only make our choices among alternatives actually available, and rectifying the past is not one of those options.
In other words, if the victims and perpetrators of injustice are no longer alive, it is not just to hold entire members of respective races accountable for crimes which they did not commit. However, this would presumably leave open the possibility of applying traditional justice concepts in those cases where death has not cheated us.
For instance, there are still black Americans alive who suffered from Jim Crow, as well as children and family members of those lynched. While it is too little, too late, it seems consistent with traditional justice to still seek out and prosecute criminally perpetrators who committed heinous acts but a few generations ago against still living victims. This is not unprecedented. Old Nazis are still prosecuted for crimes against Jews. A similar thing could be done in the United States.
Similarly, civil rights lawsuits for the damages caused by Jim Crow could be another way to recompense those who were harmed. Alternatively, it could be done by legislation. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was passed under President Reagan and gave living Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II some limited reparations. A similar system could be set up for living victims of Jim Crow.
Statutes of limitations may need to be changed to facilitate these criminal prosecutions and civil rights lawsuits, but it is quite clearly consistent with the idea of holding flesh-and-blood persons accountable for their unlawful actions.
Holding flesh-and-blood perpetrators accountable for rights violations should not be confused with the cosmic justice idea—that Sowell consistently decries—that says intertemporal abstractions can be held accountable for crimes. In other words, this is not holding “whites” accountable for all historical injustices to “blacks.” This is specifically giving redress to victims and deterring future bad conduct.
End Qualified Immunity
Another way to promote racial justice consistent with the constrained vision is to end one of the Warren Court’s egregious examples of judicial activism: qualified immunity. Qualified immunity is nowhere mentioned in the statute for civil rights, 42 USC § 1983. As Sowell argues in his writings, judges in the constrained vision are supposed to declare what the law is, not what they believe it should be, unlike those in the unconstrained vision who—according to Sowell— believe they have the right to amend the laws through judicial edict. The introduction of qualified immunity into the law by the activist Warren Court should be overturned.
Currently, qualified immunity effectively subsidizes police brutality, to the detriment of all Americans, but disproportionately affecting black Americans. The law & economics case against qualified immunity is pretty straightforward:
In a civil rights lawsuit, the goal is to make the victim (or their families) of a rights violation whole by monetary damages. From a legal perspective, this is necessary to give the victim justice. From an economic perspective this is necessary to deter future bad conduct and properly align ex ante incentives going forward. Under a well-functioning system, juries would, after hearing all the evidence, make a decision about whether constitutional rights were violated and the extent of damages. A functioning system of settlements would result as a common law develops determining what counts as reasonable or unreasonable uses of force. This doesn’t mean plaintiffs always win, either. Officers may be determined to be acting reasonably under the circumstances once all the evidence is presented to a jury.
However, one of the greatest obstacles to holding police officers accountable in misconduct cases is the doctrine of qualified immunity… courts have widely expanded its scope to the point that qualified immunity is now protecting officers even when their conduct violates the law, as long as the officers weren’t on clear notice from specific judicial precedent that what they did was illegal when they did it… This standard has predictably led to a situation where officer misconduct which judges and juries would likely find egregious never makes it to court. The Cato Institute’s website Unlawful Shield details many cases where federal courts found an officer’s conduct was illegal yet nonetheless protected by qualified immunity.
Immunity of this nature has profound consequences on the incentive structure facing police officers. Police officers, as well as the departments that employ them, are insufficiently accountable when gross misconduct does not get past a motion to dismiss for qualified immunity… The result is to encourage police officers to take insufficient care when making the choice about the level of force to use.
Those with a constrained vision focus on processes and incentives. In this case, it is police officers who have insufficient incentives to take reasonable care when they receive qualified immunity for their conduct.
End the Drug War
While not something he has written a lot on, Sowell has argued for the decriminalization of drugs, comparing the War on Drugs to the earlier attempts at Prohibition of alcohol. This is consistent with the constrained vision, which cares about the institutional incentives created by law.
Interestingly, work by Michelle Alexander in the second chapter of The New Jim Crow is largely consistent with Sowell’s point of view. There she argued the institutional incentives of police departments were systematically changed when the drug war was ramped up.
Alexander asks a question which is right in line with the constrained vision:
[I]t is fair to wonder why the police would choose to arrest such an astonishing percentage of the American public for minor drug crimes. The fact that police are legally allowed to engage in a wholesale roundup of nonviolent drug offenders does not answer the question why they would choose to do so, particularly when most police departments have far more serious crimes to prevent and solve. Why would police prioritize drug-law enforcement? Drug use and abuse is nothing new; in fact, it was on the decline, not on the rise, when the War on Drugs began.
Alexander locates the impetus for ramping up the drug war in federal subsidies:
In 1988, at the behest of the Reagan administration, Congress revised the program that provides federal aid to law enforcement, renaming it the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Program after a New York City police officer who was shot to death while guarding the home of a drug-case witness. The Byrne program was designed to encourage every federal grant recipient to help fight the War on Drugs. Millions of dollars in federal aid have been offered to state and local law enforcement agencies willing to wage the war. By the late 1990s, the overwhelming majority of state and local police forces in the country had availed themselves of the newly available resources and added a significant military component to buttress their drug-war operations.
On top of that, police departments were benefited by civil asset forfeiture:
As if the free military equipment, training, and cash grants were not enough, the Reagan administration provided law enforcement with yet another financial incentive to devote extraordinary resources to drug law enforcement, rather than more serious crimes: state and local law enforcement agencies were granted the authority to keep, for their own use, the vast majority of cash and assets they seize when waging the drug war. This dramatic change in policy gave state and local police an enormous stake in the War on Drugs—not in its success, but in its perpetual existence. Suddenly, police departments were capable of increasing the size of their budgets, quite substantially, simply by taking the cash, cars, and homes of people suspected of drug use or sales. Because those who were targeted were typically poor or of moderate means, they often lacked the resources to hire an attorney or pay the considerable court costs. As a result, most people who had their cash or property seized did not challenge the government’s action, especially because the government could retaliate by filing criminal charges—baseless or not.
As Alexander notes, black Americans (and other minorities) were largely targeted in this ramped up War on Drugs, noting the drug war’s effects have been to disproportionately imprison black Americans even though drug usage and sales are relatively similar across races. Police officers have incredible discretion in determining who to investigate and bring charges against. When it comes to the drug war, this discretion is magnified because the activity is largely consensual, meaning officers can’t rely on victims to come to them to start an investigation. Alexander finds the reason the criminal justice system has targeted black Americans is because of implicit bias in police officers, prosecutors, and judges, which mirrors the bias shown in media coverage and in larger white American society.
Anyone inspired by Sowell would need to determine whether this is because of racism or some other variable. It is important to note here that Sowell never denies that racism exists or is a real problem in American society. But he does challenge us to determine whether this alone is the cause of disparities. Here, Alexander makes a strong case that it is implicit racism that causes the disparities in enforcement of the War on Drugs. A race-neutral explanation could be as follows, even though it still suggests ending the War on Drugs: the enforcement costs against those unable to afford to challenge the system are lower. And black Americans are disproportionately represented among the poor in this country. As will be discussed below in the section on reforming indigent criminal defense, most prosecutions are initiated against defendants who can’t afford a lawyer. The result could be racially disparate even without a racist motivation.
Regardless of whether racism is the variable that explains the disparate impact of the War on Drugs, it should be ended. This may be an area where traditional and cosmic justice concerns can be united in an effort to reform the criminal justice system.
Reform Indigent Criminal Defense
A related aspect of how the criminal justice system has created a real barrier for far too many black Americans is the often poor quality of indigent criminal defense. Indigent defense is a large part of criminal defense in this country since a very high number of criminal prosecutions are initiated against those who are often too poor to afford a lawyer (roughly 80%). Since black Americans are disproportionately represented among the indigent and those in the criminal justice system, it should be no surprise that black Americans are disproportionately represented by public defenders in this country.
According to the constrained vision, it is important to look at the institutional incentives of public defenders. Considering the extremely high societal costs of false convictions, it is important to get these incentives right.
David Friedman and Stephen Schulhofer’s seminal article exploring the law & economics of indigent criminal defense highlighted the conflict of interest inherent in government choosing who represents criminal defendants when the government is in charge of prosecuting. They analyzed each of the models used in the United States for indigent defense from an economic point of view and found each wanting. On top of that, there is also a calculation problem inherent in government-run public defender’s offices whereby defendants may be systematically deprived of viable defense strategies because of a lack of price signals.
An interesting alternative proposed by Friedman and Schulhofer is a voucher system. This is similar to the voucher system Sowell has often touted for education. The idea would be that indigent criminal defendants get to pick the lawyer of their choosing that is part of the voucher program. The government would subsidize the provision of indigent defense, in this model, but would not actually pick the lawyer or run the public defender organization. Incentives would be more closely aligned between the defendant and counsel.
While much more could be said consistent with the constrained vision that could help flesh-and-blood black Americans, including abolishing occupational licensing, ending wage controls, promoting school choice, and ending counterproductive welfare policies, this is enough for now. Racial justice demands holding rights violators accountable and making victims whole. Racial justice also means reforming institutions to make sure incentives are right to deter conduct which harms black Americans. However, the growing desire to do something to promote racial justice in this country should not fall into the trap of cosmic justice thinking, which often ends up hurting flesh-and-blood people of all races in the present in the name of intertemporal abstractions.
Happy 90th birthday to one of the greatest law & economics scholars ever, Dr. Thomas Sowell.