A (Perennial) Conflict of Visions

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Thomas Sowell published A Conflict of Visions thirty-five years ago, the first volume in a trilogy on the nature of political  struggle. It was received with a yawn, by the establishment, at least. Sowell seemed to speak for no one but himself (and the Hoover Institution that employed him), so he could be safely ignored. In 1987, the forward progress of the Civil Rights movement had been halted. Reagan’s two elections signified an end to New Deal/Great Society government, but Newt Gingrich Republicans had yet to take control of Congress. The liberal order, decades in ascendance, was wounded but not yet felled. Certainly not in the academy, where Sowell had tried to make his mark before seeking refuge within the friendlier halls of Hoover.

I read Sowell’s book, in part, as an apologia for his apostasy. Here was a black man in America unwilling to travel the path of Civil Rights orthodoxy–and he paid for it with a kind of excommunication. He had a different vision of the way the world worked, and what freedom and equality looked like. It was a vision, he showed in his book, that was part of a long and respected tradition, just as the more liberal vision of his detractors was. The strength of the book resides in its unwillingness to assert the truth of one vision over the other. For that reason, if for no other, A Conflict of Visions, is a book for our time of “political polarization.” The most strident voices today speak as if the current situation is “unprecedented” and the threat of opposition victory is “existential”–as if the present crisis weren’t always the most important to be faced, at least by those living through it.


Still, as I settled into the book, I was concerned the book might be foisting up a false dichotomy, an oversimplification of the world into two opposing views into which all disagreements fall. Sowell calls them the constrained and the unconstrained visions and anticipates this concern by addressing it directly early in the book. “Virtually no one believes that man is 100 percent unconstrained and virtually no one believes that man is 100 percent constrained.” [39] He revisits the concern during the body of the work and again in the concluding chapter: “In much the same way, believers in an unconstrained vision do not deny that man has any limitations. They simply do not treat these limitations as decisive in theories of social phenomena….” [214] Sowell seems primarily an idealist–he is dealing in ideas, after all–but his inclinations are balanced by a consistent realism. He uses a dichotomy of two visions to understand the world, yet is mindful to avoid either/or thinking.

But what does Sowell mean by constrained and unconstrained visions? First, visions. A vision is neither a theory nor an ideology, he says. It precedes both, precedes conscious argument. He says it is first and foremost a “sense of causation” and “more like a hunch or a ‘gut feeling’ than it is like an exercise in logic or factual verification.” [16] The constrained vision finds causation in human nature, incentives, and social processes. The unconstrained vision locates it in reason, knowledge, and human perfectability. It is essentially a dichotomy of conservative vs. liberal: a “nasty, brutish, and short” view of the world vs. a “noble savage” view. But Sowell takes pains throughout the text to show that such oversimplification is misplaced. The world is not so neat. A vision is a model, after all, which, by definition, “must leave many important phenomena unexplained….” [15]

Nevertheless, knowing Sowell shares a constrained vision with the likes of Adam Smith, Alexander Hamilton, and Friedrich Hayek, I couldn’t help asking myself throughout, Is he stacking the deck? Is he putting the unconstrained vision of the likes of William Godwin, G. B. Shaw, and Ronald Dworkin in the least attractive light? Some of the citations from the unconstrained’s–Godwin, in particular–seemed starry-eyed and woefully misguided to a steel-eyed realist like myself. Was that intentional? Actually, the razor cut both ways. Sowell quotes Smith saying, “The peace and order of society is of more importance than even the relief of the miserable.” [35] Besides sounding cold-hearted, it is no more self-evident or provable than the unconstrained quotation that accompanies it: “[Revolutionary chaos and violence] is the price we pay for freedom.”


And yet, the book confirmed my self-conception as conservative, small c-, while giving me a new way of understanding my thinking. Instead of the word that comes with baggage and requires qualification of the lower case, Sowell’s c- term is tied to a long tradition and has more explanatory power. I have developed a constrained vision (though he says a vision is pre-rational, so has my predisposition always been there?) because of my understanding of human nature as fixed (evolving, perhaps, put at the glacial pace of evolution). For years, in political discussions (often in my own head) I have asked my interlocutor, But where are the incentives? Though I don’t use Smith’s term in my discourse, I fundamentally believe that humans act in their self-interest. I believe their actions have as many, if not more, unintended as intended consequences. The intention to do good does not equate with doing unalloyed good. According to the Sowell’s index, unintended consequences appears on seven pages. Incentives is found on seventeen. Human nature appears or is discussed on thirty-two. I surely hold a constrained vision of the world.


Yet there were times, while reading the book, when I felt myself not fully within the camp. Though I feel affinity for the constrained vision’s epistemic humility–another phrase I have thought or uttered consistently in recent years, though it is not used by Sowell–I found I resisted the conclusions that their assumption implied. I can follow Hayek when he objects to what we might today call social justice warriors: “The particulars of a spontaneous order cannot be just or unjust [when] the results are not intended or foreseen in their totality by anybody.” [196] Radicals today, as ever, argue as if there were a conspiracy of “them” for a very specific result. This makes no more sense to me than it did to Hayek, yet from that premise I cannot conclude that we can or should not try for certain democratically agreed on results, using democratically agreed upon policies. Government exists for just such purposes. (I am brought to mind of Alexander Hamilton, a paragon of constrained thinking in Sowell’s book who was also the Founding Father’s greatest advocate for a strong executive government.) “A mastery of social details” is not, as Hayek would have it, “inherently ‘beyond our ken.'” At least, we cannot give up trying, with appropriate humility and a pragmatist’s reliance on trial and error.

My mind was brought to Maynard Keynes, too, who wrote, somewhat cheekily, to Friedrich Hayek after the publication and popular reception of the Austrian economist’s The Road to Serfdom.

You agree that the line has to be drawn somewhere, and that the logical extreme is not possible.  But you give us no guidance whatever as to where to draw it. …you are, on your own argument, done for, since you are trying to persuade us that so soon one moves an inch in the planned direction you are necessarily launched on the slippery slope….”

We must be mindful of the limits of our knowledge and the boundlessness of unintended consequences, but we must not use that outlook–that vision–as a dogmatism to tie our hands. We should be tackling issues of childcare and preschool, healthcare and climate change, just not all at once in spitball, see-what-sticks fashion. Build Back Better is a travesty to those of the constrained vision.


In its epistemological skepticism, the constrained vision also puts little faith in the ability of individual knowledge to save humanity, as it were. Wisdom and truth come from “the experience of the many, rather than the articulation of the few.” [152] “Solutions” to old problems create new ones. (See: Steve Jobs and the iPhone.)  They imply trade-offs.  I have said as much many times in recent years. Yet the deep systemic knowledge as described by Sowell, sometimes called tradition, has never been completely reliable. There is a reason new generations react against it, creating a new syntheses, a new “traditions.” I guess that is Sowell’s point about society-wide knowledge. Science, too, is a social process. Albert Einstein is not as important as the enterprise he was a part of. And yet, who’s to deny that Einstein (and other great scientific minds) aren’t crucial in advancing our society, for good and bad. Godwin may be naïve in his faith in the power of reason: “Truth, and above all political truth, is not hard of acquisition,” requiring merely “independent and impartial discussion.” Yet Edmund Burke  protests too insistently when he contends, “We  know that we have made no discoveries, and we think  that no discoveries are to be made in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the idea of liberty….” [72, 78]

Sowell rarely uses the term, but I kept thinking of the struggle over the value of elites in today’s political climate. Today’s Trumpians would surely endorse Hobbes’s sentiments, if with updated terminology and orthography: “A plain husband-man is more Prudent in the affaires of his own house, than a Privy Counselor in the affaires of other men.” [66] The truth of the statement is undeniable on its face, though not so much when used rhetorically. The Privy Counselor (read: senator, representative, assemblyman, council member) has it as her task to attempt to know the affairs of as many of her constituents/constituent groups as she can. We want her to succeed in this task, while recognizing that it will always remain substantially outside her grasp. (And, yes, that some politicians will be influenced by venal motives to begin with.) I, too, doubt that highly educated/cultivated/civilized citizens–self-described or otherwise–are sufficient to make heaven on earth, as it were. But I do think they are necessary. The highly skilled and knowledgeable in all domains–elites–are desperately needed. They need to be respected, if not worshipped on pedestals. They need also need to respect the limits of their expertise. (The case of Hamilton is again apropos. He was, according to Sowell, “suspicious of skilled articulation, which could be ‘mere painting and exaggeration.'” Yet, it took one to know one: he was the Founding Father’s greatest and most prolific rhetorician.) [65]

In fact, Sowell grants that not all visions–or holders of visions–fall neatly into one side or the other of his dichotomy, as he has defined it. Marxism takes a highly constrained view of the world until, following the dictatorship of the proletariat, it adopts a highly unconstrained one. John Stuart Mill’s thinking was even more flexibly hybrid. Thomas Malthus’s views were so constrained he was anathema to men such as Goodwin and Condorcet. Yet, in the 1980s, when Sowell was writing, environmentalists found much to utilize in their arguments from within their unconstrained vision. American supporters of Soviet communism, abandoned its vision at once when the Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany was exposed. New Deal liberalism, a product of the unconstrained vision, was sometimes defended in later years with more constrained-vision justification: The welfare state is “here to stay.” [117] Nor are advocates of the constrained vision blindly in favor of the status quo. Smith, Burke, and Hamilton were all outspoken opponents of slavery views and supportive of colonial independence.


The elephant in the room, as it were, is the behavioral economic revolution which has occurred mostly in the years since the publication of A Conflict of Visions. Often, as I read, I would sense Sowell nosing up to the idea of confirmation bias, without naming it, since the concept/term didn’t yet exist: “Evidence for or against one’s own vision can be weighed differently, and being convinced is ultimately a subjective process.” [206] Sowell’s overall exposition is extremely logical and language dependent (as in the unconstrained vision!). His dependence on citations from economists and social thinkers relies on the “articulation of the few” (as in the unconstrained vision!). There are no psycho-social experimental studies, as from a Daniel Kahneman or a Richard Thaler. Yet A Conflict of Visions is entirely about pre-rational thinking, for it is Sowell’s very definition of visions. He may not have won a Nobel prize, but he does provide a great service by tying all of us into a larger dialogue that has been going on for at least two centuries.

And this is the crux of Sowell’s book. It exhorts us to respect the motives and sincerity of our political opponents. Liberals and conservatives can both have strong moral senses, even if they disagree about causation for how to achieve moral ends, or even what those ends should be. It reminds us, too, that we can be guilty of ignoring inconvenient facts, of constructing intellectual Rube Goldberg devices in an effort to maintain our convictions. On the other hand, Sowell makes clear that no vision can fit the facts completely. Contradictions will always arise. “Efforts to adjust and modify visions to accommodate discordant evidence are not inherently self-deception.” [214] A descent into nihilism (or critical theory!) does not follow. Nor does a lazy middle-of-the-road-ism: “It is no less arbitrary and dogmatic to declare a priori that ‘the truth lies somewhere in between.’ It may. It may not. On some highly specific issue, it might lie entirely on one side–and on another issue, with the other side.” [215]


No, Sowell is very clear that facts matter. He is also clear that facts by themselves do not take sides. The fight over their meaning will endure in perpetuity. And this is Sowell’s most important insight. We should accept that fact and accommodate ourselves to it.

It is…necessary to understand that a very fundamental conflict between two visions has persisted as a dominant ideological phenomenon for centuries, and shows no signs of disappearing. The inevitable compromises of practical day-to-day politics are more in the nature of truces than of peace treaties. Like other truces, they break down from time to time in various parts of the world amid bitter recriminations or even bloodshed. [117-118]

We must live with each other and our different visions, by all means struggle over their meaning and their implementation. With that understanding, by keeping them in creative suspension, we can minimize both the bitterness and the bloodshed.

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