A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, by Thomas Sowell, William Morrow & Co., 1987 $15.95
Liberty, Vol. 1, No. 1: August 1987, pp. 29-31
In the world of ideas, there are few things quite so neat as a discrete dichotomy. Good and evil, us and them, moral and immoral, sacred and profane — the list goes on and on.
In A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell offers yet another such distinction, one involving the kinds of “social visions” that play a large part in our world of conflicting ideologies. Like most dichotomies, it is not without its problems, but it does shed a good deal of light on an area of much confusion.
“One of the curious things about political opinions,” Sowell begins, “is how often the same people line up on opposite sides of different issues.” This, he claims, is because these perennial opponents differ on the most basic level, ie. in their views on the nature of social causation. This outlook is often a “gut-feeling“ or a “precognitive act,” and is rarely abandoned by the demonstration of a conflicting fact.
Now, conveniently for Sowell, the realm of social visions is not crowded with the multitude one might expect, but is limited to two. They are the constrained and unconstrained views of human nature.
Those who think in terms of the constrained vision stress the inherent limitations of human nature, and tend to deal with social problems in terms of trade-offs, not in all-or-nothing attacks on the status quo. This does not mean that these people are necessarily conservatives. On the contrary, nearly every example Sowell gives of thinkers with this sort of vision has an extensive agenda for reform. It does mean that their view of the ways in which human beings can change emphasizes the “moral limitations of man,” and they tend to place their trust not in lofty ideals, moral suasion, or sweeping legislative programs, but in the structure of incentives that individual human beings actually face in their daily lives. Laws, morals, and “reason” (or Reason) only form a part of that structure.
Thinkers with the unconstrained vision, on the other hand, seek solutions to social problems, not trade-offs. They tend to scorn compromise, and they abhor social systems that emphasize it. Human beings are seen as potentially capable of acting with the utmost degree of care and breadth of vision; human frailties, vices and narrowness of vision are ascribed to perverse traditions, laws and ideologies — not to the nature of man.
Sowell’s “paradigm cases” of the two visions are Adam Smith and William Godwin. Two better examples could hardly be found: not only do they provide straight-forward statements of their respective visions, they also prove to be ideal catalysts for libertarians to confront their own visions, as well as their reservations about Sowell’s discussion of the problem.
His exposition is both clear and concise — something we have come to expect from this author. Nevertheless, there are some problems with the work, and several areas of possible confusion.
First, it is somewhat ironic that though Sowell’s stated intention is to explain the persistent differences in political philosophy, Smith and Godwin arrive at very similar political conclusions, despite their radically different ways of looking at the world. Both are part of the libertarian tradition.
So the use of Smith and Godwin are more likely to confuse libertarians than non-libertarians; which might limit his book’s appeal to Sowell’s libertarian brothers. Still, there may be an advantage in this seemingly infelicitous choice of examples: it highlights the limitations of the explanation and the anomalous position of libertarianism within the spectrum of political ideologies.
And Sowell recognizes this. Neither Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill fit very well into one camp or the other, and his discussions of them are very interesting. His discussion of libertarianism also explicitly recognizes the limitations of his dichotomy:
Inconsistent and hybrid visions make it impossible to equate constrained and unconstrained visions simply with the political left or right. Marxism epitomizes the political left, but not the unconstrained vision which is dominant in the non-Marxist left. Groups such as the libertarians also defy easy categorization, either on a left-right continuum or in terms of the constrained and unconstrained visions. While contemporary libertarians are identified with the tradition exemplified by F.A. Hayek and going back to Adam Smith, they are in another sense closer to William Godwin’s atomistic vision of society and decision-making dominated by rationalistic individual conscience than to the more organic conceptions of society found Smith and Hayek. . . .
Logically, one can be a thorough libertarian . . . and yet believe that private decision-making should, as a matter of morality, be directed toward altruistic purposes [as did Godwin]. It is equally consistent to see this atomistic freedom as the means to pursue purely personal well-being. In these senses, both William Godwin and Ayn Rand could be included among the contributors to libertarianism.”
I suppose this sort of explanation will not sit well with many libertarians, particularly those influenced chiefly by Rand, but I find it extremely compelling. I believe that the chief thing wrong with contemporary libertarian thought is that it does not strike a proper balance between the egoistic and altruistic extremes, and that what constitutes a “proper balance” is a constrained vision, not the unconstrained visions all too common in the movement. Unfortunately, the thinkers who I believe best made this balance, Herbert Spencer and Gustave de Molinari, are not discussed by Sowell.
Far more controversial, however, are his discussions of the “Visions of Power” in Chapter Seven. He argues that “much more of what happens in society is explained by the deliberate exertion of power — whether political, military, or economic — when the world is conceived in terms of the unconstrained vision [rather than in terms of the constrained vision]” — a statement that I admit makes me a bit uncomfortable. Much worse, however, are the discussions of war and crime under the section “Force and Violence” within that chapter. Like a mainstream economist who considers Macroeconomics before Microeconomics, Sowell treats war before crime, and his discussion of the typically constrained vision of war is essentially Reaganite. It is here that a discussion of Molinari would have been most helpful, for Molinari also believed that “wars are a perfectly rational activity from the standpoint of those who anticipate [some] gain,” but his response is considerably more ingenious than Sowell’s standard conservative rationale for a military build-up.
Of course, a “purely” constrained vision is impossible. Sowell admits that almost no one has a pure vision on either side, and I certainly do not wish to sound as though I support a rigidly “constrained” viewpoint. But I do think that one of the chief problems with so much of libertarian theorizing is that it tends to be so “unrestrained” so dogmatic and uncompromising on all levels, including its basic view of the world. A healthy dose of the constrained Weltanschauung would do the movement a world of good.
And there is probably no better place to begin than with Sowell’s introduction to the problem. Aside from the section on power, I detected only one misjudging of the quintessentially constrained vision: his labeling of the vision as a “tragic” one. The vision is not necessarily any more tragic than it is “comic”; it is simply “unromantic.” Of his characterizations of the unconstrained vision, I am quite content — though less qualified to comment, I suppose.
Students of F.A. Hayek will certainly notice that it was from Hayek that Sowell took the idea, but, I submit, it has gained something in the taking. In Hayek’s terminology, the dichotomy was between constructive and critical rationalism, but his exposition was marred by a number of problems, including straightforward advocacy of the critical, non-“constructivist” (unconstrained) vision. In A Conflict of Visions Sowell never argues for his (elsewhere declared) preference for the constrained (Hayekian) vision, but instead simply demonstrates the differences between the two visions. This contrast will, I suspect, convince more people of the Hayekian vision’s superiority than Hayek’s own arguments ever did.
Which all goes to prove at least one thing: Thomas Sowell is a first-rate thinker. His lack of pure originality is more than made up for by his consummate ability to rework the ideas of other men. “If I have seen further than others,” said Sir Isaac Newton, “it is because I stand upon the shoulders of giants.” It does not denigrate Sowell to notice just on whose shoulders he sits: what counts is the clarity with which he sees the “conflict of visions.”