Thomas Sowell’s Vision of Ideological Conflict_1. IntroductionWhy is it that political debate, unlike scientific debate, neverends and never yields general agreement? Thomas Sowell’s _AConflict of Visions_ is in many ways an attempt to answer thisquestion. He begins with the observation, prevalent amonghistorians of science, that before scientists try to formulate aprecise theory or test it against the facts, they have an intuitivesense, a “vision,” of what they think the right answer is. Sowellthinks that what is true of scientists is at least as true of politicalthinkers and indeed anyone with opinions on political matters:everyone has their own intuitive sense, their own vision, of howthey think society works long before they make any attempt to laydown a theory or investigate the facts. In itself this would not be particularly interesting, but Sowellweds this claim to a more controversial one. According to Sowell,most political visions fall into one of two categories: theconstrained and the unconstrained. Now it is important to getSowell’s intent clear at this point. He does not want to divide upideas in such a way that they logically have to fall into one categoryor another. He does not want to split ideas up into, for example,those that believe A, and those that believe not-A. Instead, Sowellwants to come up with an empirical classification; he wants toshow that out of a very large number of logically possible visions, alarge majority of the visions that people actually hold and have heldfit into just two compact boxes. 2. The Conflicting Visions, Described and DefinedNow Sowell distinguishes the constrained and theunconstrained visions in two different ways. Firstly, he sketchesthe perspective of each vision on such broad topics as humannature, the efficacy of human reason, and economics. Theunconstrained vision believes human nature is potentiallyperfectible; with proper institutions and upbringing, the averageperson would do the morally right thing regardless of externalincentives. The constrained vision, in contrast, thinks that thelimits for moral improvement are stringent, so it is necessary torely on external incentives to induce good behavior. Theunconstrained vision attaches strong confidence to articulatedhuman reason; the constrained vision does not, and instead falls backon tradition. The unconstrained vision generally believes ingovernment control of the economy; the constrained vision generallybelieves in the free market. Or as Sowell sums up his initialdescriptions: “Running through the tradition of the unconstrainedvision is the conviction that foolish or immoral choices explain theevils of the world – and that wiser or more moral and humanepolicies are the solution. By contrast, the constrained vision seesthe evils of the world as deriving from the limited and unhappychoices available, given the inherent moral and intellectuallimitations of human beings.”Now Sowell’s claims here are not meant to define, but merelyto describe some important features of the two visions. Sowelltakes up the task of definition much later in the book, when he feelsready to try to fit actual thinkers into his two categories. Whyaren’t the previous characteristics capable of defining the twovisions? Sowell’s answer is that most political thinkers do notexplicitly state their underlying assumptions, which makes adefinition based upon them inadequate. Quoting Sowell, “where twothinkers have virtually identical social analyses and advocacy, toinclude one and exclude the other from the boundaries of a particularset of visions on the basis of their elaboration or non-elaboration oftheir premises would be arbitrary.” Instead, Sowell turns to twoother criteria in his search for a definition: “the two key criteria fordistinguishing constrained and unconstrained visions are (1) thelocus of discretion, and (2) the mode of discretion.”What exactly does Sowell mean by this? Firstly, the “locus ofdiscretion” roughly means who it is in society that gets to makeimportant social choices. In the unconstrained vision, it isgovernment officials who make them for society as a collective unit. In the constrained vision, each individual makes choices about thesmall fraction of social questions in which he or she is immediatelyinvolved – roughly speaking, each individual makes decisions abouthis or her own person and own property, but not about anyone else’s. Or as Sowell succinctly explains it, “the collective, surrogatedecision-making of the unconstrained vision can be contrasted withthe individual, self-interested discretion of the constrainedvision.” Secondly, the “mode of discretion” roughly means how it isthat decision-makers select the proper action; the mode ofdiscretion is the _means of knowing_ the suitable decision. For theunconstrained vision, the mode of discretion is articulatedrationality. The proper way to reach a decision is for experts tothink about it carefully and develop a specific social plan. Theconstrained vision, as Sowell explains it, puts much more emphasison inarticulated means of knowing rather than individual humanreason. By inarticulate knowledge, Sowell means things liketradition, practices which evolve over the ages rather than beingcreated by a single mind; but also things like prices, whichinfluence actions in desirable directions even though the actorsneither 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 ofpolitical visions are either one or the other. The definingcharacteristics of the constrained vision are that it leaves eachindividual control over his own person and property, and individualsjudge the best way to use their resources largely by inarticulatemeans such as traditions and prices. The defining characteristics ofthe unconstrained vision are that it leaves social resources underthe control of government officials, and these officials judge thebest way to use these resources by means of articulate reason,drawing up plans for society much as an engineer designs blueprintsfor a machine. 3. Implicit AssumptionsUnderlying these essential characteristics by which thevisions 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 thetwo visions clearly in mind, we can return our attention to theseunderlying assumptions, which Sowell focuses on for most of thefirst part of the work. On the deepest level, the constrained and the unconstrainedvisions simply disagree about “human nature,” about the essentialfeatures of the human personality. The constrained vision looks atman pessimistically: he is rarely guided by morality, he is usuallyprejudiced and irrational, and he usually takes every opportunity totake advantage of other people for personal gain. But perhaps morefundamentally, the constrained vision views these negativecharacteristics as nearly unalterable. As Sowell puts it, “Theconstrained vision is a tragic vision of the human condition.” Mankind’s problems flow necessarily from the irremovable flaws ofthe human character itself. The unconstrained vision looks at matters quite differently. It may very well agree with the constrained vision thatmankind’s moral state is currently low. But it sees this as atemporary condition which could be fixed – by moral reform,education, better social institutions, and so on. “Natural” man isessentially reasonable and good; if mankind falls short of itspotential, it simply has to strive to improve itself. “Man is, inshort, ‘perfectible’ – meaning continually improvable rather thancapable of actually reaching absolute perfection.”Now Sowell thinks that these two perspectives on humannature lead to different understandings of reason and knowledgeitself. For the unconstrained vision, the perfectibility of man’smoral character goes hand in hand with the perfectibility of hisrational faculties. It sees the human intellect as extremelypowerful, capable of standing outside of society and offering acomprehensive critique. And by reason, the unconstrained visionmeans what Sowell calls “articulated rationality”: the process ofdefining, discussing, using logic, and so on. In many ways, the unconstrained vision of reason andknowledge sounds uncontroversial, until Sowell puts it into contrastwith the view of the constrained vision. The constrained visionthinks that the human intellect is weak and unlikely to improvesignificantly. But fortunately, says the constrained vision, there isanother source of information about the world besides defectiveindividual reason. Edmund Burke hinted at this second source whenhe opined that, “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each onhis own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stockin each man is small, and that the individuals would do better toavail themselves of the general bank and capital of ages andnations.” And what is this “general bank and capital of ages andnations”? First of all, there is tradition, which the constrainedvision sees as the distilled product of centuries of practicalexperience. Secondly, there is the free market, which takes the bitsand pieces of human knowledge and desires and turns them intoprices, interest rates, wages, and so on. Thirdly, there is the family. Initially it seems strange to think of these _practices_ as being a sortof knowledge. The constrained vision, however, sees them asinarticulate knowledge: they show people how to act and what to do,even if they do not provide explanations that could be verballystated. As Hayek explains, “man has certainly more often learnt todo the right thing without comprehending why it was the rightthing, and he is still better served by custom than understanding.”More importantly, the constrained vision thinks that theconsequences of the use of inarticulate knowledge are better thanthose of articulate knowledge: it yields a more productive economy,better behavior, and happier people than merely “following reason”ever could. 4. ImplicationsSo far, we have only examined the first part of Sowell’s book,where he lays out his theory that the large majority of politicalviews stem from one of two visions. This is where he tries to laydown the highly abstract underpinnings of both of the two visions sothat we can see why their conflict is never-ending. They disagree atthe deepest possible level, not merely on isolated policy questions. The remainder of Sowell’s book devotes itself to less abstractdisagreements. At the deepest level, the two visions disagree abouthuman nature, knowledge, reason, and so on; and they favor verydifferent loci and modes of discretion. But in between this deepestlevel on the one hand, and current policy debates on the other, thereare what we may call “intermediate-range” political disagreements. These intermediate-range disagreements are less abstract thanthose previously discussed, but are nevertheless sufficiently broadthat the constrained and unconstrained visions have been arguingabout them for a very long time. Sowell’s aim in the second part ofthe book is to examine some of the most devisive of theseintermediate-range issues through the lens of the constrained andthe unconstrained visions. He groups these issues under the threeheadings 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 toless. The crucial difference between them is that for theconstrained vision, efforts to increase equality always havedangerous side effects; whereas for the unconstrained vision, theydo not. Quoting Sowell, “Although the two visions reach verydifferent moral conclusions, they do so not on the basis of
fundamentally different moral principles but rather because of theirdifferent analysis of causes and effects.” The two visions mayeven agree that government redistribution is desirable to counterinequality; but the constrained visionary sees this as mitigating abad side effect of the market, whereas the unconstrained visionaryis willing to condemn the market and look for a completely differentsocial system in order to eliminate inequality. But apparently Sowell thinks that the two visions’disagreement about equality is more complex. For in addition to thefact that both visions dislike economic inequality (though theydiffer as to whether and how much government should do to counterit), the two visions also have two different views about what kindof equality is desirable. The unconstrained vision believes inequality of results, while the constrained vision believes in equalityof process. What exactly does this distinction mean? There is equality ofprocess when the same procedures and rules apply to everyone. There is equality of result when whatever processes are used yieldidentical rewards to all members of society. As Sowell explains,”As long as the process itself treats everyone the same – judgesthem by the same criteria, whether in employment or in thecourtroom – then there is equality of opportunity or equality beforethe law, as far as the constrained vision is concerned. But to thosewith the unconstrained vision, to apply the same criteria to thosewith radically different wealth, education, or past opportunities isto negate the meaning of equality – as they conceive it.” Theimportant thing to notice is that the two notions of equality are notmerely different, but often incompatible: if equality of processyields inequality of results, then the unconstrained visionary mustperforce reject equality of process; and similarly, the constrainedvisionary must reject equality of result. The conflict between thetwo visions arises because in most cases, equal processes will yieldunequal results, and so each vision finds that the other’s vision ofequality stands in the way of realizing its own vision of equality. If the two visions at least agree to some extent aboutequality, the same cannot be said about issues of power. Sowellputs many of the two visions’ disagreements into this category: war,crime, and others. And as usual, the two visions disagree about notonly the causes of war and crime; they also disagree about how muchcan be done to alleviate them. Take for example the issue of war. According to Sowell, theconstrained vision sees war as the automatic result of the moralfailings of human nature. “[W]ars are are perfectly rational activityfrom the standpoint of those who anticipate gain to themselves,their class, or their nation. That their calculations disregard theagonies of others is no surprise to those with a constrained visionof human nature.” In contrast, the unconstrained vision puts theblame on irrational patriotism and especially on undemocraticinstitutions. The difference, Sowell explains, is that for theunconstrained vision, there is a “localization of evil.” Most peopleare not bad, only the war-mongering leaders who drag their nationsinto war. Since the problem is localized, it can be solved by puttingmore morally advanced human beings into power. In contrast, for theconstrained vision, evil is not localized, but widely dispersedthroughout 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 ratherthan eliminate it. In consequence, the constrained vision believesthat the only solution to the problem of war is a strong nationaldefense to deter aggressors and allow one’s own nation to negotiatefrom a position of strength; the unconstrained vision, in contrast,wants to negotiate, move towards general disarmament, anduniversally establish political systems conducive to peace. And the visions’ outlooks on crime predictably diverge as well. Again, the constrained vision believes that crime exists simplybecause the human character itself is flawed. Wherever theopportunity for illegal gain exists, there will be criminals: “peoplecommit crimes because they are people – because they put their owninterests or egos above the interests, feelings, or lives of others.” Traditions and the family can help curb the natural humantendencies, but can never even come close to eliminating them. Theonly action that a government can take to curb crime is to increasethe severity and likelihood of punishment. And once again the unconstrained vision blames badinstitutions, bad education, and poor economic opportunties. It seesthe criminal as in many ways a victim of society’s wrongdoing wholashes out in revenge. Increasing punishment simply compounds theinjustice of society’s prior abuse. Instead, society’s institutionsmust be utterly reformed so that the corrupting influences thatdrive men to crime will disappear. More redistribution of wealth,better education, and more humane attitudes are the properprevention for crime; rehabilitation rather than punishment is theproper solution for crime that has already happened. Ultimately, theunconstrained visionary hopes that crime will be eliminated bytreating all people fairly. Let us consider a final intermediate-range issue where Sowellthinks the two visions deeply disagree: the issue of justice. For theunconstrained visionary, justice is an end in itself; individuals mustbe treated justly, whatever the cost to economic efficiency or othervalues. In contrast, for the constrained visionary, justice isimportant as a means: justice is necessary to promote an orderly andefficient society and economy. This is what Sowell means when hesays that for the constrained vision, justice is “instrumental”; is itan instrument, a tool, for achieving other desirable goals. Theunconstrained vision disagrees: justice is not merely a tool; it isintrisically desirable and worth sacrificing other ends to achieve. Sowell thinks that these two attitudes about justice revealthemselves in the bitter debate on judicial activism in U.S.Constitutional law. Justices in the unconstrained tradition believethat they have the responsibility to reform the law in order to makeit more just. Justices in the constrained tradition believe that theyhave a responsibility to apply the law; the justice of the law theyleave to the legislature and the amendment process. As in thedebate about equality, the constrained vision merely wants judges toenforce certain procedures, the procedures prescribed by law; butthe unconstrained vision wants judges to ensure certain resultsconsonant with justice, even if judges must covertly change the lawin order to do so. 5. Resolving the Conflict of VisionsHaving explored the important features of the two visions, wemay now return to a more basic question: why do these differencespersist? Why is it that these fundamental political disagreementsnever seem to end? Sowell believes that his concept of “visions” isan important piece of the puzzle. Visions are at the root of morespecific disagreements, but they are hardly ever stated explicitly. Since neither side states its basic assumptions explicitly, it is verydifficult to argue about them. The two visions often attachdifferent meanings to concepts like equality, justice, and evenknowledge; and so even if they appear to be discussing the sameissue, they frequently simply talk past each other. From Sowell’sperspective, therefore, “It is an advancement even to admit that weare dealing with a conflict of visions,” because it will helpclarify the basic issues to both of the quarreling political views. Part of what Sowell wants to argue is that, contrary topopular belief, the representatives of different political views donot have any significant moral disagreements. Their disagreementsare purely about cause-and-effect: which policies work and whichwon’t. “Neither the left-right dichotomy nor the dichotomy betweenconstrained and unconstrained visions turns on the relativeimportance of the individual’s benefit and the common good. Allmake the common good paramount, though they differ completely asto how it is to be achieved.” As Sowell sees it, the disputants areoverly quick to say that they simply have different values, becausethey want to insulate their differences from rational argument. Since the real dispute is actually an empirical one, Sowell believesthat both visions must open themselves up to empirical refutation.One disturbing feature of _A Conflict of Visions_ arises when weponder the fact that Sowell’s other writings place him squarelywithin the camp of the constrained vision. Of course, Sowell doesmake a strong effort to make a balanced presentation of both theconstrained and the unconstrained viewpoints; but does he succeed? Is he able to step outside of his own vision and write a purelydescriptive account of underpinnings of the whole ideologicalspectrum?Even limiting ourselves to the thinkers that Sowell discusseswithin this work should make us seriously doubt whether hemanages to objectively assess the whole political spectrum. Inparticular, while Sowell’s presentation of the constrained visiongives a clear account of his own point of view, he seems to lumptogether almost all of the thinkers with whom he disagrees into asingle category. Thus, if we examine Sowell’s 18th-century”unconstrained” visionaries, we find that they almost invariablyfavored laissez-faire capitalism. By Sowell’s own admission,Godwin, Condorcet, Paine, and other early examples of what he callsthe “unconstrained” vision believed in the free market to the sameextent – or even more so – than early constrained visionaries likeAdam Smith and Edmund Burke. But when Sowell moves into the20th-century, his prototype unconstrained visionaries are alwayseither socialists or social democrats who haven’t the slightestsympathy for free-market economics. Even if we grant Sowell thatboth groups agree that “articulated reason” is the proper mode ofdiscretion, they clearly disagree about the proper locus ofdiscretion. The problem is not simply that logically, there are morepossible categories than Sowell discusses. Since he is trying togive an empirical classification, the objection would be invalid. Rather my criticism is that Sowell’s classification failsempirically, even given his rather limited sample of thinkers: abouthalf of the so-called “unconstrained visionaries” share the policyprescriptions of the pro-free-market “constrained visionaries.”Or to take a second example: since Sowell clearly favors theconstrained vision, it is only natural for him to assume that thevisions that he discusses are internally consistent. Repeatedly,Sowell comments on how the conclusions of each vision flow clearlyfrom its premises. But do they? For example, given the constrainedvisionary’s belief in the value of tradition, what would he prescribe to asociety whose traditions were anathema to a free market? Interestingly, Sowell himself vaguely anticipates this objection, butsimply calls it a “real philosophic difficulty” and moves on: “At theextreme, the now long-standing institutions of the Soviet Union arepart of the social fabric of that society, and communists who opposereforming them are sometimes considered to be ‘conservative.’” But this passage is too pregnant to ignore. It seems to implythat in many cases it is impossible for the constrained visionary tobase his position upon tradition; he must make the same appeal toreason for which he faults the unconstrained visionary. Indeed, anexamination of Thomas Sowell’s broader work shows that he is morethan willing to radically transform the world in the direction oflaissez-faire, however “untraditional” such a view has become. The essential difficulty in _A Conflict of Visions_ is thatdespite his efforts to categorize the ideological spectrumobjectively, Sowell’s own vision gets in the way. This leads him toattribute far greater internal consistency to the different viewsthan they actually possess. But more importantly, it leads him toassume that thinkers who disagree with him must agree with eachother. The result is that Sowell not only fails to impartially explainthe roots of ideological conflict; he also winds up ignoring theinsights of many thinkers with whom he has a great deal in common. _Notes_1: Thomas Sowell, _A Conflict of Visions_ (New York: WilliamMorrow 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.