Thomas Sowell on Political Terminology

27 Jun

Thomas Sowell has posted three excellent essays on, all under the titles of “A Political Glossary” (I, II, III).  I will post just a few excerpts below, but the full text can be found at  and is very worth reading.

 Sowell is a senior fellow in economics at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.  His unique perspective is influenced by him also being a black conservative.


 One of the most versatile terms in the political vocabulary is “fairness.” It has been used over a vast range of issues, from “fair trade” laws to the Fair Labor Standards Act. And recently we have heard that the rich don’t pay their “fair share” of taxes.

Some of us may want to see a definition of what is “fair.” But a concrete definition would destroy the versatility of the word, which is what makes it so useful politically.   .   .   .

[Other terms Sowell helps us understand in a political context in Part I include “racism”, “compassion”, “mean-spirited”, “greedy”, and “the hungry”.]

[Part II is all about the political meaning of the term “access”]

“Access” is one of those words. Politicians seem to be forever coming to the rescue of people who have been denied “access” to credit, college or whatever.

But what does that mean, concretely?

[Part III is all about the political term “social justice”.]

If there were a Hall of Fame for political rhetoric, the phrase “social justice” would deserve a prominent place there. It has the prime virtue of political catchwords: It means many different things to many different people.

In other words, if you are a politician, you can get lots of people, with different concrete ideas, to agree with you when you come out boldly for the vague generality of “social justice.” .   .   .   .

Many years ago, a study of black adults with high IQs found that they described their childhoods as “extremely unhappy” more often than other black adults did. There is little that politicians can do about that — except stop pretending that all problems in black communities originate in other communities.

Similar principles apply around the world. Every group trails the long shadow of its cultural heritage — and no politician or society can change the past. But they can stop leading people into the blind alley of resentments of other people. A better future often requires internal changes that pay off better than mysticism about one’s own group or about “social justice.”

[End of excerpts]

You agree, or take issue with him?





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