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Reality is far too complex to be comprehended by any given mind. Visions are like maps that guide us through a tangle of bewildering complexities. - Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions, pg 3
The first thing that strikes you when reading Thomas Sowell is what a fine writer he is. The initial reaction from a man of the Left at this realization is chagrin. Reactionaries often, and with no awareness of irony, justify their belligerence by appealing to tradition while simultaneously murdering the English language. It would seem any persuasive argument on the glory and necessity of preserving established culture should, in the first instance, pay homage to the rules of the language the culture being venerated writes and speaks. This is rarely the case with conservative books, especially ones by those who fashion themselves the equivalent of public intellectuals, though no right thinking dittohead would dare use the hated and maligned word intellectual (public seems to also be on the ropes).

However Sowell is far and away from this category especially for a conservative academic or perhaps an academic generally. It would seem appropriate, when making such a technical point, to cite a similarly eminent public intellectual on the Left to validate it. Chris Hedges once made the argument, in response to a question on what academics can contribute to public discourse, that he found most of what is produced in liberal universities nonsensical, obfuscatory, and completely impotent in penetrating vital subject matter. Hedges completed his critique with a maxim I find quite useful "Lucid clear language is a sign of lucid clear thought." So true and you can not read A Conflict Of Visions and not recognize Sowell as lucid clear thinker.

Though Sowell is often lucid and clear he is also often wrong.

First lets define our terms.

A vision, as the term is used here, is not a dream, a hope, a prophecy, or a moral imperative, though any of these things may ultimately derive from some particular vision. Here a vision is a sense of causation. It is more like a hunch or a "gut feeling" than it is like an exercise in logic or factual verification.
Sowell goes on from here to essentially paraphrase Keynes famous statement on the power of ideas:
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. - John Maynard Keynes, Concluding Notes, pg 383
Sowell offers the same explanation for why visions matter, though he states it in a more naturalistic manner:
From the standpoint of personal motivation, ideas may be simply the chips with which special interests, demagogues, and opportunists of various sorts play the political game. But from a broader perspective of history, these individuals and organizations can be viewed as simply carriers of ideas, much as bees inadvertently carry pollen - playing a vital role in the grand scheme of nature while pursuing a much narrower individual purpose.
Would it be rude to suggest in both instances Keynes and Sowell, being intellectuals, exaggerate the power of ideas? Certainly having the invisible hand of history as ideas puts the intellectual in quite a elevated position - since we are after all considering "narrower individual purpose" and grand schemes. Might ideas not matter so much as action or, in the more depressing case, are circumstances so undetermined and free of preordained influence? Begging the question posed by someone I can no longer remember as to whether the only difference between human beings and falling rocks is that the rocks have no illusions of being in control. In any event, I can easily forgive Sowell for any occupational hubris as, like the point on lucid writing, it is universal regardless of ideological affinity.

After defining what visions are Sowell goes on to focus on social visions and within this realm of inquiry two broad categories are enumerated: constrained and unconstrained visions.

The Constrained Vision

Here Sowell focuses on the notion of the limitations of human nature or rather a vision that factors in our inherent inability to change certain attributes about ourselves, a natural constraint. Sowell illustrates this in a unique way by highlighting the most cruel application of this vision - he references Adam Smith's Theory On Moral Sentiments in particular the passage claiming that a European man would be more concerned and distressed by the loss of his pinky than if all of China was swallowed by the sea. I have to give style points here, this is a considerably bold reference if not a preemptive strike on the rejoinder to the constrained vision - that if people acted so dispassionate towards their fellow man they would all be selfish bores. If, as King Henri-Quatre claimed, Paris is worth a mass then surely China is worth a pinky.

Sowell trumpets this very eventuality by selecting (or is our busy bee pre-selecting?) an example that discards any care for self-flattery and moves on to make a larger point, principally made by Smith though also buttressed by Burke and Hamilton, that the constrained vision casts man as deeply and irredeemably narcissistic. To Smith, as relayed by Sowell, people are incapable of loving one's neighbor as oneself and only make sacrifices to abstract concepts such as moral principles and personal honor.

It is worth noting that a lot has been discovered about human beings since Smith's time that both add and subtract from the validity of his view. Dunbar's Number, a theory in cognitive science, does claim that there is a maximum number  - or dare I say cognitive constraint - of other people an individual can maintain a social relationship with as well as emotionally connect with. The number is thought to be around 150 and within the scheme there a cognitive priorities such as children dying being more vested with emotion than elderly people dying because the brain can only express so much emotion and maintain homeostasis. An apparent self-defensive internal medicine of the mind (or so goes the theory). But the implications Smith draws from this possible natural constraint has been considerably invalidated in two hundred plus years since his writing it.

Humans are, by all accounts and evidence, social creatures who engage in social behaviors that yield moral values, one of them is helping others even at their own expense. I would not like to give a false impression of consensus on this issue but whether it be in psychology (reciprocal altruism), biology (gene selection theory) or game theory (tit for tat) Smith's narrow view of natural constraints falls short of the conclusions suggested by much of the available empirical evidence - an unfortunate occurrence for a major (or really any) figure of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Sowell reduces much of Smith and others' social vision to a belief in incentives as the key to social relations though this clearly avoids the further and truly deeper implications of Smith's critique of compassion. Sowell was not afraid to cite an extreme example of the constrained vision, what could be called a pessimistic or cynical worldview, but was apparently unimpressed enough by his own example for further analysis.

The Unconstrained Vision

For the epitome of the unconstrained vision Sowell uses William Godwin's work Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. I initially scanned my brain for any references to William Godwin and found none and researching him further just confirmed the suspicion that I had never heard of him. I wondered if this was the result of some deficiency in my education until Mr. Sowell himself noted the obscurity of this figure.

By the time two decades of warfare between the two countries were ended at Waterloo, Godwin and his work had been relegated to the periphery of intellectual life.
So the constrained vision is defined principally by Adam Smith with assistance from Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton and the unconstrained vision is defined by someone who was briefly barely relevant during the time of Napoleon and was henceforth "relegated" to the dustbin of intellectual history. Got it.
Where in Adam Smith moral and socially beneficial behavior could be evoked from man only by incentives, in William Godwin man's understanding and disposition were capable of intentionally creating social benefits. Godwin regarded the intention to benefit others as being "of the essence of virtue," and virtue in turn as being the road to human happiness.
This raises an interesting question - do motives matter in regards to results? Smith said it was fine if people were greedy and acted as such if the results were positive and Godwin believed the intention was of chief importance. In the Justice System motive and intention are always relevant - the difference between murder, manslaughter, etc. But do people really care what the motives are if something benefits them? The consequentialist approach has still not won the day even if Smith's economic views prevailed.

It later becomes clear why Sowell chose such an obscure figure as Godwin. Godwin's  ethical blindspot, as Sowell sees it, are the unintentional benefits some selfish conduct produces which Godwin does not factor in to his world view. This pairs perfectly with Smith's "invisible hand" theory as it rests on the notion of people acting out of their self-interest will unintentionally help society as a whole. Godwin, as a symbol for the unconstrained vision cares only for motives or intentions and Smith, champion of constrained man, has won fame for noting the positive side of unintended consequences.

Sowell is not presenting a straw man argument per se but he certainly reached far to find a man worth presenting.

An Important Point

Sowell's central point, not especially highlighted in this section but certainly compelling, is the argument over the nature of man - or the conflicts between the vision of human nature and here he makes a profound commentary.

Godwin referred to "men as they hereafter may be made," in contrast to Burke's view: "We cannot change the Nature of things and of men - but must act upon them the best we can."...

Visions rest ultimately on some sense of the nature of man - not simply his existing practices but his ultimate potential and ultimate limitations. Those who see the potentialities of human nature as extending far beyond what is currently manifested have a social vision quite different from those who see human beings as tragically limited creatures whose selfish and dangerous impulses can be contained only by social contrivances which themselves produce unhappy side effects.  

This conflict of vision is clear, is human nature malleable or set in stone? Are people born or made - constrained by inherent rules or designed to be unconstrained of intrinsic limitations?

For any students of 20th century history (or at least the ideas that influenced it) this point should strike a chord. While the arguments are, as evidence here, much older the "nature of man" or disagreements over said nature formed the intellectual basis for the Cold War. Geopolitics aside (asking a lot) the Soviet Union believed in The New Man essentially that given the right social conditions human nature itself would change. This complete allegiance with the environmental faction of the Nature vs. Nurture debate proved disastrous, there was no New Man just the old one with more horrible weapons and unrestrained authority. By the mid-20th century even Stalin dropped the charade and began openly celebrating Russia's nastiest Czar, Ivan the Terrible, as a leadership model - truly ironic given the revolution that brought him to power helped secure its rule by exterminating the Russian Royal Family. If what's old is new again, is it really ever new?

Sowell continues by claiming that the founders vision of America, as evidenced by the Federalist Papers, is an example of the constrained vision.

To the Federalists, evil was inherent in man, and institutions were simply ways to cope with it. Adam Smith likewise saw governent as "an imperfect remedy" for the deficiency of "wisdom and virtue" in man...

To those without the constrained vision of man, the whole elaborate system of constitutional checks and balances was a needless complication and impediment.

So those with a constrained vision of man understand the dangers of tyranny and those who believe man can me made are naive or even witting accomplices to the destruction of freedom? This is precisely his charge which Sowell, following this logic, properly make against Thomas Jefferson for his initial support of the French Revolution. But then Sowell goes on to say:
Jefferson was not completely or irrevocably committed to the unconstrained vision.
Which goes to my main criticism of this book - Sowell cherry picks, hedges and mitigates to find examples for the "unconstrained vision" that do not include well regarded persons. Jefferson absolutely fits Sowell's definition of someone who subscribes to an unconstrained vision but is mitigated from this fate for unexplained reasons. I imagine, though have no evidence to support this, that Sowell is reluctant to condemn a founder of a country he so reveres with his derogatory label, but the truth is the truth - Thomas Jefferson was a natural revolutionary with unconstrained visions of man and his nature. While it is understandable to not want to put Jefferson in one of the two categories Mr. Sowell himself creates, this lacks intellectual fortitude. Does Sowell just not want popular figures that present day people know and love to fall into his negative category?

In fairness, Sowell does throw in a few well know figures into the unconstrained camp like Voltaire, George Bernard Shaw, John Kenneth Galbraith, Justice Earl Warren, and of course Rousseau. Even one popular figure from American History, Thomas Paine (which only reminds of the hedge on Jefferson).

Knowledge, Justice, Social Process

If intellectual property laws get any more robust Mr. Sowell may need to cut a check to Mr. Godwin's descendants as Godwin once again plays the foil. Sowell identifies the constrained vision with empirical knowledge and the unconstrained vision with arrogant elite intellectual fantasy - not limited to philosophy but invading the judicial system via activist judges and theorists like Earl Warren and Benjamin Dworkin. You have to give him credit, Thomas Sowell came to play - offering a comprehensive argument that even ropes in the Supreme Court in what seems like an epic overreach. Perhaps the conflict is really between conservatives and everyone else. Other people are just unconstrained by conservative thought.

And we're here, central planning. Not surprisingly the conservative constrained vision sees central planning as problematic. Because of they view people as having considerable natural limitations, those with the constrained vision distrust people's ability to centrally plan society and social processes. Sowell invokes Hayek to make the case against central planning with the promotion of free markets which Hayek argues are a result of natural processes vs. imposed ones.

But wait a minute, hasn't Sowell been leaving a group out, a vision if you will. What do constrained visions believe about the knowledge, justice, society again?

In the constrained vision, where man - individually and collectively - lacks both the intellectual and moral prerequisites for such deliberate, comprehensive planning, order evolves historically without design, and more effectively than when it is designed.
What happened to Jesus? Or really religion at all. The church is left out of knowledge, justice, and social process visions. I guess that makes sense? People are so constrained they can not know God or plan society around his laws? I would be the last person to claim the church has a right to make those decisions but they do not even play a role in social visions according to Sowell. Hard to believe, especially since this entire discussion is about Western thinking. Before it was "Europe" it was Christendom. Just sayin'.

Sowell makes some salient points here. The constrained vision essentially endorses negative rights and the unconstrained positive rights. I found this to be one of the more persuasive sections. The best the constrained vision can do is equal justice under the law, well known rules that also limit the powerful. The unconstrained look to go beyond simple process questions and onto outcomes - Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Second Bill of Rights being a good example.

What is interesting here is the role reversal that occurs between the constrained and unconstrained in regards to freedom and human nature. Smith claims consequences are more important than intentions with the invisible hand theory but now, once power - particularly economic power - has to sacrifice, suddenly consequences are not of primary importance just the intention to provide equality of opportunity. Funny how that works out.

Dynamics of Visions

Though I disagree with some of the generalizations and examples, Sowell's intellectual framework seems pretty sound - that how you visualize or conceptualize society is connected to your more fundamental beliefs about the nature of people. The constraints of his own theory are recognized later.

No theory is literally 100 percent constrained or 100 percent unconstrained.
Sowell then, somewhat oddly, lists John Rawls as having an unconstrained vision for his Theory Of Justice . This is puzzling on many levels because Rawls is explicitly endorsing what Sowell claims is Smith and other thinkers articulation of the the constrained vision: incentives and trade-offs. Sowell's explanation is that Rawls use of society instead of the individual in his theory makes this fundamentally different - unpersuasive to say the least.

Now this is fun, Marxism does not count for either visions but is instead a "hybrid vision." Talk about missing a big pitch. If one of the most influential and important visions of the 19th and 20th century does not fit an intellectual framework how much explanatory power can the framework have?

This categorical exemption stems from Marx's deterministic pessimism lining up with the constrained vision.

Marx's temporary moral acceptance of past capitalism was based on the premise that nothing better was possible - for a certain span of past history, under the inherent constraints of those times.
So partly constrained.
But just as Marx differed from other socialists because he believed in inherent constraints, he also differed from those like Smith and Burke who conceived of those constraints as being fixed by human nature.
No full credit if you believe the limitations are material to the world rather than material to human beings as biological creatures in the world. But wait a second.

That is a distortion of Marx who actually fits quite nicely into the constrained vision. Marx's material view of history is wholly and deeply integrated into a material view of human beings - who are constrained by their material desires and whose actions are predetermined by the limits or drives of those desires. Marx is the true intellectual heir to Adam Smith and his work is openly and obviously a continuation of the Wealth of Nations. Sorry that is a fact and capitalist economics had to reject many aspects of Smith to reject Marx (the much controversial Labor Theory of Value is actually Smith's theory which Marx takes to its logical end.)

It seems here again Sowell is playing a little politics with which figures are allowed in to his categories, especially his preferred category of the constrained view. Jefferson is never completely exiled and Marx is never completely invited despite the rules of the party.


Applications and Conclusions in Part 2

Originally posted to DSWright on Tue Feb 21, 2012 at 03:38 PM PST.

Also republished by Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter.

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