Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Review: A Conflict of Visions, by Thomas Sowell

Dr. Thomas Sowell is one of those authors whose laundry lists I'd read. Reading A Conflict of Visions was one of the "Ah-ha!" moments of my life.

Sowell is an economist, newspaper columnist and Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a prolific writer on economics, public policy, history, culture and the politics of race. His opinions are often controversial and he has strong detractors and supporters. Agree or disagree, he is an opinion leader of considerable influence in our society today.

In observing arguments for and against a wide variety of positions, Dr. Sowell reports that he noticed that in many cases participants seemed to be arguing not so much against each other, but past each other. In other words, each person was arguing not against the others’ position but what they perceived those positions to be, which was often far different from the actual positions held.

Over time he refined his observations into the theory expressed in, A Conflict of Visions – Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (Basic Books, 2002). I believe this book has critical insights important for understanding the major ideological conflicts within Western civilization and has specific application to understanding the controversies concerning academic and journalistic bias.

His thesis is that prior to paradigms, world-views, theories or any rationally articulated models there is an underlying vision, defined (quoting Joseph Schumpeter) as a “pre-analytic cognitive act”. Sowell further defines a vision, “It is what we sense or feel before we have constructed any systematic reasoning that could be called a theory, much less deduced any specific consequences as hypotheses to be tested against evidence. A vision is our sense of how the world works.”

Visions are a sense of the possibilities of human reason and power to act purposefully to achieve desired ends and are broadly defined as Constrained and Unconstrained. An unconstrained vision sees articulated reason as powerful and potent to shape human society, a constrained vision sees human beings as more limited by human nature and natural law.

Dr. Sowell concedes that visions are rarely pure but range from strongly to weakly constrained or unconstrained. People may hold one sort of vision in a certain sphere of opinion and another in a different sphere, there are hybrid visions (Marx and John Stuart Mill are given examples) and people sometimes change predominant visions over their lifetimes.

It is important to note that he does not equate constrained and unconstrained visions with the Left/ Right model of the political spectrum, nor do they strongly reflect the Libertarian/ Authoritarian dichotomy. An unconstrained vision characterizes the Utopian Socialists of the early nineteenth century (such as Fourier) but is also strongly expressed by William Godwin, considered by many to be the founder of modern Anarchism, in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice.

The unconstrained vision is more often characteristic of those who would use the coercive power of the state to affect great changes in the structure of society and human nature, but it cannot be assumed that a constrained vision leads to a blind defense of the status quo. He gives the example of Adam Smith, an exemplar of a strongly constrained vision, was an advocate of sweeping social changes such as the abolition of slavery and an end to mercantilist policies.

Once grasped, Dr. Sowell’s theory makes sense of some seeming inconsistencies and contradictions in both Left and Right positions.

For example, though there is a tendency for the constrained vision to predominate among the politically Conservative and free market advocates, it is not absolute or consistent. A Conservative may argue for the superior efficacy of market processes to serve the social good (as opposed to purposeful direction of the economy) but fail to see the market for illegal drugs as subject to the same laws of supply and demand as other commodities or consider the argument that the process costs of drug prohibition may be higher than the social costs of drug addiction. In fact, the phrase “consider the argument” is misleading. It is possible that the argument simply does not exist in his perceptual universe and is interpreted as advocacy for drug use.

On the other end of the political spectrum, a thinker such as Paul Ehrlich (in The Population Bomb) may argue from the highly constrained view of Thomas Malthus on population and food resources, combined with an unconstrained view of the ability of the state to effectively control population and allocation of resources for the general good of mankind.

And we see on both the Left and Right, visionaries holding strong beliefs about the ability of humans to deliberately shape culture to reflect whichever set of values held by their respective advocates. Though much experience in the twentieth century has shown how limited the ability of men is to design culture as if it were an engineering project, and how disastrous the attempts often are, men and women of unconstrained vision persist in their advocacy of policies intended to rid society of gender defined roles on the one hand or of behavior considered “vice” on the other.

So the question arises, if the concept of the contrasting visions is hedged about with so many qualifications, is it at all useful in categorizing belief systems or explaining behavior?

I believe it is highly useful. In Western civilization there exists no serious argument about the desirability of that condition expressed by the words “freedom” and “equality”. Yet in the West we find that whenever advocates of various causes argue for their sides, their definitions do not coincide, i.e. they argue past each other.

Advocates of redistributionist policies, affirmative action to achieve more socioeconomic equality and a high degree of taxation and market regulation are seen as tending towards totalitarianism by advocates of a less intrusive government.

Contrariwise, advocates of leaving the pursuit of the social good to voluntary and market processes are seen by political opponents as apologists for powerful and rapacious economic elites in their drive to impose a quasi-royal authority on society via economic coercion.

For those who see government as a powerful engine for social engineering, it is desired results that matter. If it is possible for the state to eliminate poverty and insure socio-economic success for historically disadvantaged groups then it follows that it is immoral not to do so. Arguments that the goals lie outside the state’s competence or that process costs are too high or that the attempt itself is counterproductive will simply not register and almost inevitably must be interpreted in terms of ulterior motive.

Thus a TV journalist can make a parenthetical remark on a broadcast about how African-Americans are still not as “free” as Whites in the US. One who considers freedom to be the absence of legal coercion might ask how are they not free today when all forms of legal discrimination have been abolished by Supreme Court decisions and federal law? The answer would reflect the definition of “freedom” as opportunity, a definition that will conflate “poor and disadvantaged” with “unfree”.

The definition that limits freedom to a relationship of men in society where physical force or fraud in human relationships is made illegal with no further attempt to redress inequalities of wealth, education, opportunity etc, is sometimes derided as “freedom to starve”.

Likewise the condition called “equality” is seen by those with opposing visions as either a process or a result, leading them to almost diametrically opposite interpretations of the term. To someone of unconstrained vision who views equality as a result, the socioeconomic lagging of certain groups behind others is prima facie evidence of externally imposed inequality (such as persistent discrimination) in society. To someone who views equality as the absence of legally imposed barriers to opportunity, the outcome is the result of values and choices and irrelevant to questions of justice as seen by people of unconstrained vision.

Those with a constrained vision tend to regard socioeconomic inequalities between individuals and groups as the inevitable result of inborn human variations in ability, different cultural indoctrination in values that promote or retard economic success and individual choices. Those of unconstrained vision tend to regard them as the result of artificially imposed constraints and when inequalities persist beyond the removal of obvious constraints will keep looking for them rather than change their model of causation.

Dr. Sowell has elaborated this theory far more than can be covered in a short review. He examines in detail visions of justice, power and equality and the difference between visions and paradigms, values and theories.

What is important to the problem of both academic and journalistic bias is how contrasting visions lead to unconscious assumptions about how the world works, and how that affects their interpretation of events. For those of unconstrained vision, though socioeconomic equality may be a strongly held value, they are nonetheless going to tend strongly towards intellectual elitism. If articulated reason is held to be the most powerful force for the social good then it must follow that society should be lead by the most advanced and progressive thinkers. Those who view the collective wisdom of individuals operating within their own spheres of experience to be superior to the ability of others to direct their destinies will be seen as self-interested, reactionary and apologists for injustice.

Those who see themselves as being in the intellectual vanguard of progress will tend to be strongly attracted to the fields of teaching, liberal arts, humanities, and journalism, and moreover, will tend to regard journalism as an extension of the teaching profession.

Unconstrained visions flourish in the absence of deep experience. In business, the natural sciences and engineering, theories about the way things ought to work (within their sphere of activity) are constantly tested against the way they do in fact work: profitability, repeatable experiments and bridges that don’t fall down all serve as reality checks against extending theory further than is warranted by the facts.

An academic environment tends to insulate against experience and journalism, by the nature of the news cycle, tends to expose practitioners to a superficial kind of experience, most especially among the newsreader “talking heads” who are basically presenters rather than researchers.

The consequences of the predominance of this vision among many academics and journalists are subtle and powerful and may include:

*Dismissal of other points of view as unworthy of reporting rather than attempting to refute them, not from motives of conscious fraud but simply from failure to take them seriously, often because of…

*Attribution of motive. It noteworthy how often arguments give the “real” motive of the opposing point of view – the one thing that cannot be known for certain. Motives can be strongly inferred only by a ruthlessly honest appraisal of one’s own nature – but it is seldom the case that a partisan for a particular point of view argues that “His motive is probably thus because that is what I experience in myself.”

*Unsupported parenthetical remarks among university lecturers and telejournalists. A broadcast from location often cannot be edited due to time constraints. It is interesting to note how often among the narrative of events a sentence that is unsupported comment can be slipped in.

*The use of ad hominem attacks (both Direct and Circumstantial) on someone’s credibility, probably coming from the unconscious assumption that since articulated reason can show the way to the social good, then conclusions about how to achieve it must be consistent among reasonable people. Disagreement about means and ends are seen as coming from ulterior motives, villainy or stupidity.

Dr. Sowell sees the theory as explaining a lot about the ideological struggles of the past two centuries – and sees no end in sight for the conflict of visions. However an appreciation of the role of visions in shaping worldviews can help make sense of opposing views for those who disagree and shows us that opposing views are not capriciously chosen or necessarily stemming from ulterior motives, but are internally self-consistent within the framework of the underlying vision. One may even hope that this appreciation may lead at least to genuine argument of the points at issue rather than character assassination and attribution of rapaciously self-interested motive.

It is fairly obvious that the constrained vision is behind much economic thinking. Economics is after all fundamentally about the way that human beings allocate finite resources. It is not clear that Dr. Sowell is making a blanket condemnation of the unconstrained vision though. He has noted that in the years since he first published, Malthus (on the constrained side) has been proven consistently wrong and he has credited both William Godwin and Ayn Rand (both exponents of the doctrine of the godlike power of human reason) as contributing to the evolution of modern libertarian thought. Possibly a certain element of the unconstrained vision serves to fire the imagination and may be necessary for motivating the spirit of social reform. Only when carried to extremes does it become a demand that society be everywhere remade to conform to a vision of perfection.

It also seems evident that though America was founded by men of largely constrained vision, there have been elements of both visions in our national culture from the beginning. The Founding Fathers did in fact design our federal institutions and were quite aware that they were creating a new social order by an act of will. However, they did so with a realistic appraisal of human nature, careful research of historical confederations and built upon local institutions that had been in operation for nearly two centuries. Since our beginnings American culture has reflected both utopian and pragmatic visions, a pattern that shapes our political discourse to this day.


The following chart is drawn from some of the major points of Dr. Sowell’s theory of visions. Since it is a collection of very short abstractions, responsibility for how well it represents the author’s thought rests with me.

Constrained Vision:
Sees human nature as fixed, unchanging, selfish and ambitious, which must be subordinated to society to some extent.

Unconstrained Vision:
Sees human nature as malleable, perfectible whose uncorrupted form will be expressed in the good society.
CV: Freedom is defined as the absence of coercion by other human beings.

UV: Unfreedom seen as the absence of opportunity.
CV: Emphasis on process costs. Seeks optimum trade-offs.

UV: Emphasis on motives and the desired results. Seeks solutions.
CV: Sees tradition as expressing the accumulated experience of the culture.

UV: Sees tradition largely as outmoded superstition.
CV: Sees articulated reason as less important than “distributed knowledge” expressed in market processes. Emphasis on experience.

UV: Sees articulated reason as powerful and effective. Emphasis on logic.
CV: Seeks the social good in making allowances for human nature, such as checks and balances in government, using mutual jealousy as a counterbalance against ambition and greed on the part of the powerful.

UV: Seeks the social good in the elevation of an enlightened and progressive leadership.
CV: Preference for evolved systems.

UV: Preference for designed systems.
CV: Characterized by the belief that the evils of the world can be explained by inherent characteristics of human nature. War and crime may be rational, if immoral, choices.

UV: Characterized by the conviction that foolish or immoral choices explain the evils of the world. War and crime seen as aberrations.
CV: Tends to compare the status quo with worse alternatives.

UV: Tends to compare the status quo with hypothetical perfection.
CV: Exemplary thinkers: Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes, Edmund Burke, The Federalist, Thomas Malthus, de Tocqueville, Oliver Wendell Holmes, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman…

UV: Exemplary thinkers: William Godwin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Paine, Condorcet, Fourier, Harold Laski, Thorstein Veblen, John Kenneth Galbraith, Ronald Dworkin…


  • At 12:57 PM, Blogger Evanston2 said…

    Thank you for the breakdown.

  • At 9:53 PM, Blogger D. Frank Robinson said…

    Since I haven't read Sowell's book yet, I can't counterpoint anything you've said about his vision.

    But I did take the comparisons as a suit to try on in a mirror. I looked like an American all right. I have an unconstrained sleeve and pant leg. The vest seems constrained. Maybe it's just my vision.

    Actually, I agree with some of what I think you and Sowell agree on.

  • At 9:05 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Yeah, I've noticed that my jeans are kind of constraining myself lately.

    Those of you who are not Okies may not know that we have some extra verb tenses in our dialect. One of them is "I used ta could..." Usually used in connection with some kind of athletic endeavor.

  • At 8:53 PM, Blogger karlo jara schenone said…

    I have read in 1996 the spanish translation of the 1987 edition. It was also an Ah-ha moment for me.

  • At 7:07 PM, Blogger Les said…

    I'm currently scanning "A Conflict of Visions" and "Chomsky for beginners" and something from both books struck me as interesting.

    In the chapter and immediate paragraphs around Sowell's mentioning of Jay John, Sowell characterizes The UV as (more of less) based on the accumulated wisdom of man's experience in the world us more full of wisdom than the CV's theorizing about the same subject manner.

    But then Sowell suggests John Jay, among others, as somewhat parallel contemporaries of that times' leading practical CV (Burke). But John Jay has been noted also for advocating the use of class as a basis for determining the right to haveing an opinion that governs.

    John Jay: "Those who own the country should run it."

    If the wisdom is the accumulated social experience of mankind, how can that be congruent with the viewpoint that the elite should use propoganda to "train the minds of the people to a virtuous attachment to their government." (James Mill

    "those who own the country should run it" John Jay.


Post a Comment

<< Home