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."[1] 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."[2] 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."[3] 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."[4] 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."[5] 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."[6] 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."[7] 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."[8] 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."[9] 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."[10] 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."[11] 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."[12] 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,"[13] 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."[14] 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.'"[15] 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. 

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