A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell

A Conflict of Visions

A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles

This book was so dense with interesting ideas that it took me a long time to digest it. Sowell postulates there are two primary visions of human nature: Constrained and Unconstrained. And although it is a continuum from one pole to the other, political philosophies tend to congregate around those poles. Sowell shows how these political philosophies are derived from each Vision. Even when people agree on a set of values, their visions of human nature generate different, often radically different, political beliefs. This book goes a long way to making sense of the political divides in this country and in the world.

352 pages

Constrained Vision

  • Humans have generally selfish natures.
  • Human reason, while valuable, is quite limited.
  • Because of this, society grows by evolution, not central deliberate planning.
  • Social decisions generally involve not ‘solutions’ but ‘trade-offs’ (how much good for how much downside?)
  • Procedural fairness, rather than results-based fairness, is the key to a just society.

Unconstrained Vision

  • Human selfishness is a quality that can be overcome by reason and education.
  • Human reason, when used properly, can trump human impulses, emotions, and feelings.
  • The planned society is best. Non-planned societies = chaos.
  • While policy trade-offs might be a good short term solution, reason can discover true solutions that are equitable to all.
  • Procedural fairness is not fair so long as disparate outcomes result.

Excerpts From My Kindle

We will do almost anything for our visions, except think about them. The purpose of this book is to think about them. – location 76

The Constitution of the United States, with its elaborate checks and balances, clearly reflected the view that no one was ever to be completely trusted with power. This was in sharp contrast to the French Revolution, which gave sweeping powers, including the power of life and death, to those who spoke in the name of “the people,” expressing the Rousseauean “general will.” Even when bitterly disappointed with particular leaders, who were then deposed and executed, believers in this vision did not substantially change their political systems or beliefs, viewing the evil as localized in individuals who had betrayed the revolution. – location 344-49

A similar difference between individual and systemic rationality can be found in religious doctrines in which (1) the Deity is conceived to act directly to affect natural and human phenomena, versus (2) those in which a Providential systemic process makes life possible and beneficent without requiring Divine superintendence of details. – location 604-7

Fundamentalist religion is the most pervasive vision of central planning, though many fundamentalists may oppose human central planning as a usurpation or “playing God.” This is consistent with the fundamentalist vision of an unconstrained God and a highly constrained man. – location 609-11

For Dworkin, “a more equal society is a better society even if its citizens prefer inequality.” – location 666-67

The socially responsible businessman should, for example, hire the disadvantaged, invest in things that seem most needed by society rather than those most profitable to his firm, and turn part of the proceeds over to charitable and cultural activities, rather than pay all the proceeds out to the stockholders or plow them back into the business. The constrained vision sees such things as outside the competence of businessmen, given the wider ramifications of such decisions in a complex systemic process. According to the constrained vision of human knowledge, what is within the businessman’s competence is the running of his particular firm so as to promote its prosperity, within the law. It is the systemic effect of competition, rather than the individual intentions of businessmen, which this vision relies on to produce social benefit. – location 689-95

The writings of those with the constrained vision abound with examples of counterproductive consequences of well-intentioned policies. But to those with the unconstrained vision, this is simply seizing upon isolated mistakes that are correctable, in order to resist tendencies that are socially beneficial on the whole. However, to those with the constrained vision, these mistakes are not happenstances, but symptoms of what to expect when the inherent limitations of individuals are ignored and systemic processes for coping with these limitations are deranged by specific tinkering. – location 697-701

The common man, according to Hobbes, seldom engaged in meaningless words, which he saw as the hallmark of intellectuals. – location 809-10

Moreover, the real differences among the quality of people’s decisions were due more to systemic incentives than to their individual knowledge or sophistication: “A plain husband-man is more Prudent in the affaires of his own house, than a Privy Counselor in the affaires of other men.” – location 810-12

The constrained vision is not a static vision of the social process, nor a view that the status quo should not be altered. On the contrary, its central principle is evolution. Language does not remain unchanged, but neither is it replaced according to a new master plan. A given language may evolve over the centuries to something almost wholly different, but as a result of incremental changes, successively validated by the usage of the many rather than the planning of the few. – location 861-64

In the constrained vision, the concept of “nation building” is a fundamental misconception. Nations may grow and evolve but cannot be built. – location 1052-53

Hamilton likewise considered selfishness as an unchangeable part of human nature, so that wise social policy could, at best, “gently divert the channel, and direct it, if possible, to the public good.” – location 1076-78

The two visions judge social processes by fundamentally different criteria. In the unconstrained vision, where individual intentions and individual justice are central, it is enormously important whether individual rewards are merited or merely reflect privilege and luck. Both individual leaders and social policies ought to be chosen with a view to their dedication to the goal of ending privilege and promoting either equality or merit. But in the constrained vision, social processes are to be judged by their ability to extract the most social benefit from man’s limited potentialities at the lowest cost. – location 1082-86

Such unexpected results are not “failures” of a given system, in the constrained vision. As limitations on man and nature are inherent, so disappointments are inherent. In this vision, the question is not whether “problems” are “solved”- they will not be- but whether the best trade-offs available have been made. – location 1108-11

Rather than attempt the impossible task of following all these ramifications in each of the myriad of social visions, the discussion here will group these visions into two broad categories- the constrained vision and the unconstrained vision. These will be abstractions of convenience, recognizing that there are degrees in both visions, that a continuum has been dichotomized, that in the real world there are often elements of each inconsistently grafted on to the other, and innumerable combinations and permutations. – location 167-70

The argument is not that it is literally impossible to reduce or eliminate specific instances of inequality, but that the very processes created to do so generate other inequalities, including dangerous inequalities of power caused by expanding the role of government. – location 1546-48

Democratic socialists were not accused of plotting despotism, and were in fact regarded by Hayek as genuinely humane individuals lacking the “ruthlessness” required to achieve their social goals, but were seen by him as paving the way for others including both fascists and communists-who complete the destruction of freedom, after the principles of equality before the law and limitations on political power have been fatally undermined in pursuit of “the mirage of social justice.” – location 1639-42

The concepts of compassion, leadership, commitment, and rationality are featured prominently in the unconstrained vision. – location 1781-82

To those with the constrained vision, equality of discretion is more important than equality of condition. – location 1787

The use of force is particularly repugnant to those with the unconstrained vision, given the effectiveness they attribute to articulated reason. – location 1821-22

Like other evils, war was seen by those with the constrained vision as originating in human nature and as being contained by institutions. To those with the unconstrained vision, war was seen as being at variance with human nature and caused by institutions. – location 1843-45

The amassing of military power by a peaceful nation is dangerously counterproductive, according to the unconstrained vision, and absolutely essential to preserve peace, according to the constrained vision. – location 2188-90

These opposing views are as common today as they were in the eighteenth century- and as highly correlated with their proponents’ respective positions on unrelated domestic social issues involving income and wealth differences or crime and punishment. – location 2190-91

By contrast, the unconstrained vision necessarily sees a larger gap between current human capabilities and the ultimate intellectual and moral potential of the species. – location 2199-2200

Justice thus derived its importance from the need to preserve society- not society its raison d’etre from the need to produce justice. – location 2240-41

F. A. Hayek is one of the few writers with a constrained vision who discusses social justice at all- and he characterizes it as “absurd,” a “mirage,” “a hollow incantation,” “a quasi-religious superstition,” and a concept that “does not belong to the category of error but to that of nonsense.” – location 2485-87

The concept of social justice thus represents the extremes of the conflict of visions- an idea of the highest importance in one vision and beneath contempt in the other. – location 2489-90

Hayek treats much of the rhetoric of social justice as a confused evasion of harsh realities inherent in the processes required to move toward such goals. – location 2532-33

To Hayek, those things commonly modified by the adjective “social”- justice, conscience, democracy- are by their very nature inherently social, so that this adjective is meaningless by reason of redundancy, if the word is used in an honest and straightforward way. It is “incredibly empty of meaning,” according to Hayek, so that “to employ it was either thoughtless or fraudulent.” – location 2533-35

While Hayek regarded some advocates of social justice as cynically aware that they were really engaged in a concentration of power, the greater danger he saw in those sincerely promoting the concept with a zeal which unconsciously prepares the way for others- totalitarians- to step in after the undermining of ideological, political, and legal barriers to government power makes their task easier. – location 2568-71

Thus he regarded Nazism as “the culmination of a long evolution of thought” in Germany by socialists and others whose goals were vastly different from those of the Nazis, but who promoted the erosion of respect for legal rules in favor of the imperatives of specific social results. – location 2571-73

According to Hayek, “distributive justice” is inherently “irreconcilable with the rule of law,” and the ideal of a government of laws and not of men is all that stands between a free society and totalitarianism. He quotes a Soviet writer who declared that “communism means not the victory of socialist law, but the victory of socialism over any law.” – location 2574-77

In the constrained vision, the loci of discretion should be as widely scattered as possible, the inevitable errors resulting being accepted as a trade-off, no solution being possible. – location 3005-6


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One Response to A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell

  1. Pingback: What The Dog Saw by Malcom Gladwell | Cold Read

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