Thomas Sowell's Vision of Ideological Conflict
1. Introduction Why is it that political debate, unlike scientific debate, never ends and never yields general agreement? Thomas Sowell's _A Conflict of Visions_ is in many ways an attempt to answer this question. He begins with the observation, prevalent among historians of science, that before scientists try to formulate a precise theory or test it against the facts, they have an intuitive sense, a "vision," of what they think the right answer is. Sowell thinks that what is true of scientists is at least as true of political thinkers and indeed anyone with opinions on political matters: everyone has their own intuitive sense, their own vision, of how they think society works long before they make any attempt to lay down a theory or investigate the facts. In itself this would not be particularly interesting, but Sowell weds this claim to a more controversial one. According to Sowell, most political visions fall into one of two categories: the constrained and the unconstrained. Now it is important to get Sowell's intent clear at this point. He does not want to divide up ideas in such a way that they logically have to fall into one category or another. He does not want to split ideas up into, for example, those that believe A, and those that believe not-A. Instead, Sowell wants to come up with an empirical classification; he wants to show that out of a very large number of logically possible visions, a large majority of the visions that people actually hold and have held fit into just two compact boxes. 2. The Conflicting Visions, Described and Defined Now Sowell distinguishes the constrained and the unconstrained visions in two different ways. Firstly, he sketches the perspective of each vision on such broad topics as human nature, the efficacy of human reason, and economics. The unconstrained vision believes human nature is potentially perfectible; with proper institutions and upbringing, the average person would do the morally right thing regardless of external incentives. The constrained vision, in contrast, thinks that the limits for moral improvement are stringent, so it is necessary to rely on external incentives to induce good behavior. The unconstrained vision attaches strong confidence to articulated human reason; the constrained vision does not, and instead falls back on tradition. The unconstrained vision generally believes in government control of the economy; the constrained vision generally believes in the free market. Or as Sowell sums up his initial descriptions: "Running through the tradition of the unconstrained vision is the conviction that foolish or immoral choices explain the evils of the world - and that wiser or more moral and humane policies are the solution. By contrast, the constrained vision sees the evils of the world as deriving from the limited and unhappy choices available, given the inherent moral and intellectual limitations of human beings." Now Sowell's claims here are not meant to define, but merely to describe some important features of the two visions. Sowell takes up the task of definition much later in the book, when he feels ready to try to fit actual thinkers into his two categories. Why aren't the previous characteristics capable of defining the two visions? Sowell's answer is that most political thinkers do not explicitly state their underlying assumptions, which makes a definition based upon them inadequate. Quoting Sowell, "where two thinkers have virtually identical social analyses and advocacy, to include one and exclude the other from the boundaries of a particular set of visions on the basis of their elaboration or non-elaboration of their premises would be arbitrary." Instead, Sowell turns to two other criteria in his search for a definition: "the two key criteria for distinguishing constrained and unconstrained visions are (1) the locus of discretion, and (2) the mode of discretion." What exactly does Sowell mean by this? Firstly, the "locus of discretion" roughly means who it is in society that gets to make important social choices. In the unconstrained vision, it is government officials who make them for society as a collective unit. In the constrained vision, each individual makes choices about the small fraction of social questions in which he or she is immediately involved - roughly speaking, each individual makes decisions about his or her own person and own property, but not about anyone else's. Or as Sowell succinctly explains it, "the collective, surrogate decision-making of the unconstrained vision can be contrasted with the individual, self-interested discretion of the constrained vision." Secondly, the "mode of discretion" roughly means how it is that decision-makers select the proper action; the mode of discretion is the _means of knowing_ the suitable decision. For the unconstrained vision, the mode of discretion is articulated rationality. The proper way to reach a decision is for experts to think about it carefully and develop a specific social plan. The constrained vision, as Sowell explains it, puts much more emphasis on inarticulated means of knowing rather than individual human reason. By inarticulate knowledge, Sowell means things like tradition, practices which evolve over the ages rather than being created by a single mind; but also things like prices, which influence actions in desirable directions even though the actors neither know nor care about the broader effects of their choices. In sum, then, Sowell lays out two conflicting visions. Empirically (rather than by logical necessity), the large majority of political visions are either one or the other. The defining characteristics of the constrained vision are that it leaves each individual control over his own person and property, and individuals judge the best way to use their resources largely by inarticulate means such as traditions and prices. The defining characteristics of the unconstrained vision are that it leaves social resources under the control of government officials, and these officials judge the best way to use these resources by means of articulate reason, drawing up plans for society much as an engineer designs blueprints for a machine. 3. Implicit Assumptions Underlying these essential characteristics by which the visions have been defined are deeper, and often hidden, assumptions. Supporting each vision's preferred locus and mode of discretion, there are ideas abouts human nature, reason, and what Sowell calls "social processes." Now that we have Sowell's definitions of the two visions clearly in mind, we can return our attention to these underlying assumptions, which Sowell focuses on for most of the first part of the work. On the deepest level, the constrained and the unconstrained visions simply disagree about "human nature," about the essential features of the human personality. The constrained vision looks at man pessimistically: he is rarely guided by morality, he is usually prejudiced and irrational, and he usually takes every opportunity to take advantage of other people for personal gain. But perhaps more fundamentally, the constrained vision views these negative characteristics as nearly unalterable. As Sowell puts it, "The constrained vision is a tragic vision of the human condition." Mankind's problems flow necessarily from the irremovable flaws of the human character itself. The unconstrained vision looks at matters quite differently. It may very well agree with the constrained vision that mankind's moral state is currently low. But it sees this as a temporary condition which could be fixed - by moral reform, education, better social institutions, and so on. "Natural" man is essentially reasonable and good; if mankind falls short of its potential, it simply has to strive to improve itself. "Man is, in short, 'perfectible' - meaning continually improvable rather than capable of actually reaching absolute perfection." Now Sowell thinks that these two perspectives on human nature lead to different understandings of reason and knowledge itself. For the unconstrained vision, the perfectibility of man's moral character goes hand in hand with the perfectibility of his rational faculties. It sees the human intellect as extremely powerful, capable of standing outside of society and offering a comprehensive critique. And by reason, the unconstrained vision means what Sowell calls "articulated rationality": the process of defining, discussing, using logic, and so on. In many ways, the unconstrained vision of reason and knowledge sounds uncontroversial, until Sowell puts it into contrast with the view of the constrained vision. The constrained vision thinks that the human intellect is weak and unlikely to improve significantly. But fortunately, says the constrained vision, there is another source of information about the world besides defective individual reason. Edmund Burke hinted at this second source when he opined that, "We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of ages and nations." And what is this "general bank and capital of ages and nations"? First of all, there is tradition, which the constrained vision sees as the distilled product of centuries of practical experience. Secondly, there is the free market, which takes the bits and pieces of human knowledge and desires and turns them into prices, interest rates, wages, and so on. Thirdly, there is the family. Initially it seems strange to think of these _practices_ as being a sort of knowledge. The constrained vision, however, sees them as inarticulate knowledge: they show people how to act and what to do, even if they do not provide explanations that could be verbally stated. As Hayek explains, "man has certainly more often learnt to do the right thing without comprehending why it was the right thing, and he is still better served by custom than understanding." More importantly, the constrained vision thinks that the consequences of the use of inarticulate knowledge are better than those of articulate knowledge: it yields a more productive economy, better behavior, and happier people than merely "following reason" ever could. 4. Implications So far, we have only examined the first part of Sowell's book, where he lays out his theory that the large majority of political views stem from one of two visions. This is where he tries to lay down the highly abstract underpinnings of both of the two visions so that we can see why their conflict is never-ending. They disagree at the deepest possible level, not merely on isolated policy questions. The remainder of Sowell's book devotes itself to less abstract disagreements. At the deepest level, the two visions disagree about human nature, knowledge, reason, and so on; and they favor very different loci and modes of discretion. But in between this deepest level on the one hand, and current policy debates on the other, there are what we may call "intermediate-range" political disagreements. These intermediate-range disagreements are less abstract than those previously discussed, but are nevertheless sufficiently broad that the constrained and unconstrained visions have been arguing about them for a very long time. Sowell's aim in the second part of the book is to examine some of the most devisive of these intermediate-range issues through the lens of the constrained and the unconstrained visions. He groups these issues under the three headings of equality, power, and justice. In one sense, Sowell notes, both visions agree about equality. Other factors held constant, both of them prefer more equality to less. The crucial difference between them is that for the constrained vision, efforts to increase equality always have dangerous side effects; whereas for the unconstrained vision, they do not. Quoting Sowell, "Although the two visions reach very different moral conclusions, they do so not on the basis of fundamentally different moral principles but rather because of their different analysis of causes and effects." The two visions may even agree that government redistribution is desirable to counter inequality; but the constrained visionary sees this as mitigating a bad side effect of the market, whereas the unconstrained visionary is willing to condemn the market and look for a completely different social system in order to eliminate inequality. But apparently Sowell thinks that the two visions' disagreement about equality is more complex. For in addition to the fact that both visions dislike economic inequality (though they differ as to whether and how much government should do to counter it), the two visions also have two different views about what kind of equality is desirable. The unconstrained vision believes in equality of results, while the constrained vision believes in equality of process. What exactly does this distinction mean? There is equality of process when the same procedures and rules apply to everyone. There is equality of result when whatever processes are used yield identical rewards to all members of society. As Sowell explains, "As long as the process itself treats everyone the same - judges them by the same criteria, whether in employment or in the courtroom - then there is equality of opportunity or equality before the law, as far as the constrained vision is concerned. But to those with the unconstrained vision, to apply the same criteria to those with radically different wealth, education, or past opportunities is to negate the meaning of equality - as they conceive it." The important thing to notice is that the two notions of equality are not merely different, but often incompatible: if equality of process yields inequality of results, then the unconstrained visionary must perforce reject equality of process; and similarly, the constrained visionary must reject equality of result. The conflict between the two visions arises because in most cases, equal processes will yield unequal results, and so each vision finds that the other's vision of equality stands in the way of realizing its own vision of equality. If the two visions at least agree to some extent about equality, the same cannot be said about issues of power. Sowell puts many of the two visions' disagreements into this category: war, crime, and others. And as usual, the two visions disagree about not only the causes of war and crime; they also disagree about how much can be done to alleviate them. Take for example the issue of war. According to Sowell, the constrained vision sees war as the automatic result of the moral failings of human nature. "[W]ars are are perfectly rational activity from the standpoint of those who anticipate gain to themselves, their class, or their nation. That their calculations disregard the agonies of others is no surprise to those with a constrained vision of human nature." In contrast, the unconstrained vision puts the blame on irrational patriotism and especially on undemocratic institutions. The difference, Sowell explains, is that for the unconstrained vision, there is a "localization of evil." Most people are not bad, only the war-mongering leaders who drag their nations into war. Since the problem is localized, it can be solved by putting more morally advanced human beings into power. In contrast, for the constrained vision, evil is not localized, but widely dispersed throughout all of mankind. This kind of a problem has no solution; all that can be done is to try to cope with the problem of war rather than eliminate it. In consequence, the constrained vision believes that the only solution to the problem of war is a strong national defense to deter aggressors and allow one's own nation to negotiate from a position of strength; the unconstrained vision, in contrast, wants to negotiate, move towards general disarmament, and universally establish political systems conducive to peace. And the visions' outlooks on crime predictably diverge as well. Again, the constrained vision believes that crime exists simply because the human character itself is flawed. Wherever the opportunity for illegal gain exists, there will be criminals: "people commit crimes because they are people - because they put their own interests or egos above the interests, feelings, or lives of others." Traditions and the family can help curb the natural human tendencies, but can never even come close to eliminating them. The only action that a government can take to curb crime is to increase the severity and likelihood of punishment. And once again the unconstrained vision blames bad institutions, bad education, and poor economic opportunties. It sees the criminal as in many ways a victim of society's wrongdoing who lashes out in revenge. Increasing punishment simply compounds the injustice of society's prior abuse. Instead, society's institutions must be utterly reformed so that the corrupting influences that drive men to crime will disappear. More redistribution of wealth, better education, and more humane attitudes are the proper prevention for crime; rehabilitation rather than punishment is the proper solution for crime that has already happened. Ultimately, the unconstrained visionary hopes that crime will be eliminated by treating all people fairly. Let us consider a final intermediate-range issue where Sowell thinks the two visions deeply disagree: the issue of justice. For the unconstrained visionary, justice is an end in itself; individuals must be treated justly, whatever the cost to economic efficiency or other values. In contrast, for the constrained visionary, justice is important as a means: justice is necessary to promote an orderly and efficient society and economy. This is what Sowell means when he says that for the constrained vision, justice is "instrumental"; is it an instrument, a tool, for achieving other desirable goals. The unconstrained vision disagrees: justice is not merely a tool; it is intrisically desirable and worth sacrificing other ends to achieve. Sowell thinks that these two attitudes about justice reveal themselves in the bitter debate on judicial activism in U.S. Constitutional law. Justices in the unconstrained tradition believe that they have the responsibility to reform the law in order to make it more just. Justices in the constrained tradition believe that they have a responsibility to apply the law; the justice of the law they leave to the legislature and the amendment process. As in the debate about equality, the constrained vision merely wants judges to enforce certain procedures, the procedures prescribed by law; but the unconstrained vision wants judges to ensure certain results consonant with justice, even if judges must covertly change the law in order to do so. 5. Resolving the Conflict of Visions Having explored the important features of the two visions, we may now return to a more basic question: why do these differences persist? Why is it that these fundamental political disagreements never seem to end? Sowell believes that his concept of "visions" is an important piece of the puzzle. Visions are at the root of more specific disagreements, but they are hardly ever stated explicitly. Since neither side states its basic assumptions explicitly, it is very difficult to argue about them. The two visions often attach different meanings to concepts like equality, justice, and even knowledge; and so even if they appear to be discussing the same issue, they frequently simply talk past each other. From Sowell's perspective, therefore, "It is an advancement even to admit that we are dealing with a conflict of visions," because it will help clarify the basic issues to both of the quarreling political views. Part of what Sowell wants to argue is that, contrary to popular belief, the representatives of different political views do not have any significant moral disagreements. Their disagreements are purely about cause-and-effect: which policies work and which won't. "Neither the left-right dichotomy nor the dichotomy between constrained and unconstrained visions turns on the relative importance of the individual's benefit and the common good. All make the common good paramount, though they differ completely as to how it is to be achieved." As Sowell sees it, the disputants are overly quick to say that they simply have different values, because they want to insulate their differences from rational argument. Since the real dispute is actually an empirical one, Sowell believes that both visions must open themselves up to empirical refutation. One disturbing feature of _A Conflict of Visions_ arises when we ponder the fact that Sowell's other writings place him squarely within the camp of the constrained vision. Of course, Sowell does make a strong effort to make a balanced presentation of both the constrained and the unconstrained viewpoints; but does he succeed? Is he able to step outside of his own vision and write a purely descriptive account of underpinnings of the whole ideological spectrum? Even limiting ourselves to the thinkers that Sowell discusses within this work should make us seriously doubt whether he manages to objectively assess the whole political spectrum. In particular, while Sowell's presentation of the constrained vision gives a clear account of his own point of view, he seems to lump together almost all of the thinkers with whom he disagrees into a single category. Thus, if we examine Sowell's 18th-century "unconstrained" visionaries, we find that they almost invariably favored laissez-faire capitalism. By Sowell's own admission, Godwin, Condorcet, Paine, and other early examples of what he calls the "unconstrained" vision believed in the free market to the same extent - or even more so - than early constrained visionaries like Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. But when Sowell moves into the 20th-century, his prototype unconstrained visionaries are always either socialists or social democrats who haven't the slightest sympathy for free-market economics. Even if we grant Sowell that both groups agree that "articulated reason" is the proper mode of discretion, they clearly disagree about the proper locus of discretion. The problem is not simply that logically, there are more possible categories than Sowell discusses. Since he is trying to give an empirical classification, the objection would be invalid. Rather my criticism is that Sowell's classification fails empirically, even given his rather limited sample of thinkers: about half of the so-called "unconstrained visionaries" share the policy prescriptions of the pro-free-market "constrained visionaries." Or to take a second example: since Sowell clearly favors the constrained vision, it is only natural for him to assume that the visions that he discusses are internally consistent. Repeatedly, Sowell comments on how the conclusions of each vision flow clearly from its premises. But do they? For example, given the constrained visionary's belief in the value of tradition, what would he prescribe to a society whose traditions were anathema to a free market? Interestingly, Sowell himself vaguely anticipates this objection, but simply calls it a "real philosophic difficulty" and moves on: "At the extreme, the now long-standing institutions of the Soviet Union are part of the social fabric of that society, and communists who oppose reforming them are sometimes considered to be 'conservative.'" But this passage is too pregnant to ignore. It seems to imply that in many cases it is impossible for the constrained visionary to base his position upon tradition; he must make the same appeal to reason for which he faults the unconstrained visionary. Indeed, an examination of Thomas Sowell's broader work shows that he is more than willing to radically transform the world in the direction of laissez-faire, however "untraditional" such a view has become. The essential difficulty in _A Conflict of Visions_ is that despite his efforts to categorize the ideological spectrum objectively, Sowell's own vision gets in the way. This leads him to attribute far greater internal consistency to the different views than they actually possess. But more importantly, it leads him to assume that thinkers who disagree with him must agree with each other. The result is that Sowell not only fails to impartially explain the roots of ideological conflict; he also winds up ignoring the insights of many thinkers with whom he has a great deal in common. _Notes_ 1: Thomas Sowell, _A Conflict of Visions_ (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1987), pp.37-38. 2: ibid, p.97. 3: ibid, p.98. 4: ibid, p.104. 5: ibid, p.33. 6: ibid, p.26. 7: Quoted in ibid, p.42. 8: Quoted in ibid, p.41. 9: ibid, p.131. 10: ibid, p.123. 11: ibid, p.143. 12: ibid, p.146. 13: ibid, p.216. 14: ibid, pp.116-117. 15: ibid, p.117.