A few weeks ago my wife and I watched the 1979 film Time After Time. I hadn’t seen it in many years. At the time I was still working my way through Thomas Sowell’s magnum opus A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, so the second scene, set in H.G. Wells’ London dining room about 1894, grabbed my attention as it had not before:
H.G. Wells: Socialism is the path man must tread on the way to a utopian society.
Wells: In three generations, social utopia will have come to pass. There’ll be no war, crime or poverty. And no disease either, John. Men will live like brothers, and in equality with women as well.
John Leslie Stevenson (Jack the Ripper): I can’t agree with you. You astonish me. In the midst of all your theorizing, you ignore the facts. We live in a cosmic charnel house. Mankind has not changed in two thousand years. We hunt, we’re hunted. That’s how it is. How it will always be.
Coincidences are funny things.
About a week before I started writing this essay, as Quote of the Day I selected something by Thomas Sowell from his most recent NRO Uncommon Knowledge interview:
Peter Robinson: If you had a sentence or two to say to the Cabinet assembled around President Obama – and this cabinet holds glittering degrees from one impressive institution after another – if you could beseech them to conduct themselves in one particular way between now and the time they leave office, what would you say?
Thomas Sowell: Actually, I would say only one word: Goodbye. Because I know there’s no point talking to them.
There can be no useful debate between two people with different first principles, except on those principles themselves.
These are, essentially, the same statement. There’s “no point talking to them” because – as Sowell points out subsequently – his first principles and theirs are diametrically opposed. “A sentence or two” would be entirely inadequate and misdirected.
I’d previously read Sowell’s Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy, and I’ve read a lot of his columns, speeches and essays, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading A Conflict of Visions until now.
I wish I’d read it decades ago. The man’s a freaking genius.
In Conflict, Sowell looks at the span of Western philosophy and divides it – crudely, he acknowledges, but usefully – into two conflicting fundamental first principles he calls “social visions”: the Constrained and the Unconstrained. I’ve dealt with this concept before a few times, but this überpost is going to go into exhaustive detail. (Remember, I did warn you!)
I’m doing this for me, to get my head fully around the concept, but I hope you’ll follow along.
A social vision, Professor Sowell explains, “is our sense of how the world works.” It has been described, he says, “as a ‘pre-analytic cognitive act.’ 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 a hypothesis to be tested against evidence.” Visions are crucial, because they are “the foundations on which theories are built.” BUT: “The final structure depends not only on the foundation, but also on how carefully and consistently the framework of theory is constructed and how well buttressed it is with hard facts.”
The Constrained vision, Sowell says, is one that – at the extreme – sees the nature of Man as the character of John Leslie Stevenson describes it above, but in general it is in agreement with the part about how human nature doesn’t change with time. As the character says later in the film, we just get better at being what we have always been and always will be. Sowell quotes Alexander Hamilton:
It is the lot of all human institutions, even those of the most perfect kind, to have defects as well as excellencies — ill as well as good propensities. This results from the imperfection of the Institutor, Man.
Friedrich von Hayek explains the constrained vision succinctly in a couple of paragraphs of his own seminal work, The Road to Serfdom:
Perhaps the best illustration of the current misconceptions of the individualism of Adam Smith and his group is the common belief that they have invented the bogey of the “economic man” and that their conclusions are vitiated by their assumption of a strictly rational behavior or generally by a false rationalistic psychology. They were, of course, very far from assuming anything of the kind. It would be nearer the truth to say that in their view man was by nature lazy and indolent, improvident and wasteful, and that it was only by the force of circumstances that he could be made to behave economically or carefully to adjust his means to his ends. But even this would be unjust to the very complex and realistic view which these men took of human nature. Since it has become fashionable to deride Smith and his contemporaries for their supposedly erroneous psychology, I may perhaps venture the opinion that for all practical purposes we can still learn more about the behavior of men from the Wealth of Nations than from most of the more pretentious modern treatises on “social psychology.”
However that may be, the main point about which there can be little doubt is that Smith’s chief concern was not so much with what man might occasionally achieve when he was at his best but that he should have as little opportunity as possible to do harm when he was at his worst. It would scarcely be too much to claim that the main merit of the individualism which he and his contemporaries advocated is that it is a system under which bad men can do least harm. It is a social system which does not depend for its functioning on our finding good men for running it, or on all men becoming better than they now are, but which makes use of men in all their given variety and complexity, sometimes good and sometimes bad, sometimes intelligent and more often stupid. Their aim was a system under which it should be possible to grant freedom to all, instead of restricting it, as their French contemporaries wish, to ‘the good and wise.’
The Unconstrained vision, Sowell says (quoting William Godwin from his 1793 book Enquiry Concerning Political Justice) is one in which “man (is) capable of directly feeling other people’s needs as more important than his own, and therefore of consistently acting impartially, even when his own interests or those of his family were involved.” If true, this would of course inevitably lead to the H.G. Wells character’s vision of Utopia, but even Godwin acknowledged that while man could be what he described, he is not naturally so: “…this preference arises from a combination of circumstances and is not the necessary and invariable law of our nature.” Sowell notes that “Godwin referred to ‘men as they hereafter may be made,’ (my emphasis) in contrast to (Edmund) Burke‘s view: ‘We cannot change the Nature of things and of men — but must act upon them as best we can.’ “
In the Unconstrained vision, man is perfectible, or can at least approach perfection. But such men must be made because they do not occur naturally.
Here’s a key passage:
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. Unintentional social benefits were treated by Godwin as scarcely worthy of notice.
So in the Constrained vision human nature is flawed, and while some flaws in some – even most – men can be ameliorated with time and teaching, this does not hold true for the whole of mankind. We are imperfect, and being imperfect the systems we establish, the institutions that we build, the traditions, laws and rituals that we practice carry along with them vulnerabilities to our inherent flaws. In order to achieve social benefits those institutions, traditions, laws and rituals must offer individuals some incentive. But more, those institutions, traditions, laws and rituals must also carry protections against abuse by those in which the flaws are extreme. In the extreme Unconstrained vision, intentions are more important than results, and beneficial results without intent are “scarcely worthy of notice.”
The readers of this blog (at least the ones who regularly leave comments) are, almost without exception, followers of the Constrained vision.
ALMOST without exception.
The singular exception is “Markadelphia,” who has been doggedly commenting here since The Great Zumbo Incident of March, 2007, sparking epic-length exchanges, inspiring loads of bile and venom, but also some truly outstanding responses from my other commenters.
I’ll give Markadelphia credit, there’s not a lot of “quit” in that boy. This blog has been visited from time to time by others of that bent, however Markadelphia is our poster child for the Unconstrained vision.
I would like to say that the Unconstrained Vision is just another way of looking at the world, and harmless.
I’d like to, but I can’t. Several years back former blogger “Ironbear” wrote something that has stuck with me (link no longer available):
It would be a mistake to paint the conflict exclusively in terms of “cultural war,” or Democrats vs Republicans, or even Left vs Right. Neither Democrats/Leftists or Republicans shy away from statism… the arguments there are merely over degree of statism, uses to which statism will be put – and over who’ll hold the reins. It’s the thought that they may not be left in a position to hold the reins that drives the Democrat-Left stark raving.
This is a conflict of ideologies…
The heart of the conflict is between those to whom personal liberty is important, and those to whom liberty is not only inconsequential, but to whom personal liberty is a deadly threat.
The sincere left-liberal is fixated on the production of a certain set of outcomes. That those outcomes can only occur momentarily, and at the price of a totalitarian control of society that’s never been achieved in human history, is either incomprehensible or insignificant to him.
But the important part is this: those outcomes are, in the left-liberal’s eyes, a moral mandate. Therefore, anyone who suggests that they’re unachievable, or that the only means to those ends are inherently evil, must himself be evil. It is therefore permissible to the liberal to destroy his opposition by any means expedient.
(This behavior has most recently and vividly been illustrated by the media-wide scathing personal attacks on Sarah Palin and her family.) And here’s the problem: the Left’s Vision is defined by a moral mandate to drag us all, kicking and screaming if necessary, into that Utopia. It is, after all, for our own good. On the Right? Our Vision has no such organizing force.
To illustrate, here are a couple of comments by Markadelphia in the same thread that the Porretto citation comes from:
I would suggest that if you think they are unachievable than(sic) you are a cynic. From time to time, I feel the same way. I look at our culture right now…our obsession with people like Paris Hilton and Lindsey Lohan….how your average person’s eyes glaze over when you start talking about our debt to China and I, too, feel it is impossible.
But then I think about my kids and my students and then I know that at least I have to try.
I think that Gene Rodenberry’s(sic) vision of the future is achievable. It’s going to take a lot but I do think it is possible. People need to believe in themselves though and right now, they don’t.
Of course the Star Trek utopia promised by Gene Roddenberry (where money is no longer used, everyone has all their basic needs met, and there is “social justice” for all) is achievable! And he sees it as his job to help in dragging us (if necessary) there. (Even more, his chosen profession – public school teacher – allows him to influence children towards that end.) All we have to do is believe! Those who don’t believe may not be evil, but are at a minimum cynics who need an “attitude adjustment.”
I am once again reminded of a Lileks quote:
Personally, I’m interested in keeping other people from building Utopia, because the more you believe you can create heaven on earth the more likely you are to set up guillotines in the public square to hasten the process.
The defining test of any system is “does it work?” Sowell sets out to illustrate the differences of the two competing visions in a variety of areas affected by politics. He divides his book up into sections to illustrate the differences between the Visions on five specific topics:
Knowledge and Reason
On “knowledge and reason,” Sowell writes:
In the constrained vision, any individual’s own knowledge alone is grossly inadequate for social decision-making, and often even for his own personal decisions. A complex society and its progress are therefore possible only because of numerous social arrangements which transmit and coordinate knowledge from a tremendous range of contemporaries, as well as from the even more vast numbers of those from generations past. Knowledge as conceived in the constrained vision is predominately experience — transmitted socially in largely inarticulate forms, from prices which indicate costs, scarcities, and preference, to traditions which evolve from the day-to-day experiences of millions in each generation, winnowing out in Darwinian competition what works from what does not work.
What works from what does not work. As an engineer, I am keenly interested in what works.
And the unconstrained vision?
The unconstrained vision had no such limited view of human knowledge or its application through reason. It was the eighteenth-century exemplars of the unconstrained vision who created “the age of reason,” as expressed in the title of Thomas Paine’s famous book of that era. Reason was as paramount in their vision as experience was in the constrained vision.
Given the ability of a “cultivated mind” to apply reason directly to the facts at hand, there was no necessity to defer to the unarticulated systemic processes of the constrained vision, as expressed in the collective wisdom derived from the past.
Implicit in the unconstrained vision is a profound inequality between the conclusions of “persons of narrow views” and those with “cultivated” minds. From this it follows that progress includes raising the level of the former to that of the latter.
Here you see the beginnings of the conflict between the Left’s love of “intellectuals” and the Right’s “anti-intellectualism” as illustrated here just a few weeks ago. For those of the Constrained vision, reason holds an important place, but it is not the only place nor even necessarily the most important. Experience counts for a lot. (“BTDT, got the T-shirt.”) For those of the Unconstrained vision Reason is all, yet bound by their Vision they too often have to deliberately ignore reality that doesn’t fit. A recurring theme of this blog has been the concept of cognitive dissonance, once brilliantly expressed by Steven Den Beste:
When someone tries to use a strategy which is dictated by their ideology, and that strategy doesn’t seem to work, then they are caught in something of a cognitive bind. If they acknowledge the failure of the strategy, then they would be forced to question their ideology. If questioning the ideology is unthinkable, then the only possible conclusion is that the strategy failed because it wasn’t executed sufficiently well. They respond by turning up the power, rather than by considering alternatives. (This is sometimes referred to as ‘escalation of failure’.)
Or, as I put it, “The philosophy cannot be wrong! Do it again, ONLY HARDER!” Perusing the archives, I found another interesting example of this. From the comments to my February 2006 post Culture, let me quote “tgirsch” of the group blog Lean Left on the topic of the welfare state and its effects on segments of society:
Actually, I’m not denying that the welfare state is a contributing factor per se, but I suspect that has more to do with it being poorly implemented than with it being inherently deleterious to society.
“The philosophy cannot be wrong!” If you cannot accept the idea of a flaw in an ideology, then – regardless of the ideology – all the knowledge in the world will still result in flawed reasoning.
On “social processes” Sowell writes:
The constrained vision puts little faith in deliberate social processes, since it has little faith that any manageable set of decision-makers could effectively cope with the enormous complexities of designing a whole blueprint for an economic system, a legal system, or a system of morality or politics. The constrained vision relies instead on historically evolved social processes and evaluates them in terms of their systemic characteristics — their incentives and modes of interaction — rather than their goals or intentions. Language is perhaps the purest example of an evolved social process — a systemic order without deliberate overall design. Rules of language are indeed written down, but after the fact, codifying existing practices … languages are extremely complex and subtle and of course vital to the functioning of a society.
Language is thus the epitome of an evolved complex order, with its own systemic characteristics, inner logic, and external social consequences — but without having been deliberately designed by any individual or council. Its rationality is systemic, not individual — an evolved pattern rather than an excogitated blueprint. Language is, in effect, a model for social processes in legal, economic, political, and other systems, as viewed within the constrained vision.
In much the same way, the complex characteristics of an economic system may be analyzed in skeletal outline, after the fact, but the flesh-and-blood reality has often evolved on its own — and it is considered more efficient when markets have evolved than when “planned” by central authorities. Deliberate action or planning at the individual level is by no means precluded by the constrained vision, just as individuals choose their own words and writing style, within the scope and rules of language. What is rejected in both cases by the constrained vision is individual or intentional planning of the whole system. Man, as conceived in the constrained vision, simply is not capable of such a feat, though he is capable of the hubris of attempting it.
With respect to language, here’s a quote I’ve used a few times here from Lewis Carrol’s Through the Looking Glass:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
From the center of our civilization — our system of education, the largest single enterprise we have — the fog of thoughtlessness and imprecision spreads in all directions. People who cannot get their thoughts straight through the control of language live baffled and frustrated lives. They must accept stock answers to their most vexing questions; they are easily persuaded by flawed logic; they cannot solve their problems because they cannot express them accurately. Worst of all, they cannot even discern their plight, for to do so requires a kind of ‘discerning’ of a world not present to immediate experience, a world that ‘exists’ only in the discourse that they have not mastered.
As I have said repeatedly in this forum, it is my carefully considered judgment that this result has been due to the deliberate efforts of a small and ever-changing population of “true believers” over the course of the previous century, and the guiding purpose of that effort was to determine just “who is to be master – that’s all.” Those people are a subset of the group known as “educators.”
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. In politics as well, evolution is the keynote of the constrained vision.
The same basic view has been expressed in the twentieth century by F.A. Hayek:
Tradition is not something constant, but the product of a process of selection guided not by reason but by success.
It is not, however, a theory of the survival of the fittest individuals but of the fittest social processes.
Again, does it work?
And the unconstrained vision?
Without an underlying assumption that man’s deliberate reason is too limited to undertake comprehensive social planning, an entirely different set of conclusions emerges in field after field. If, for example, effective rational planning and direct control of an entire economic system is possible, then it is clearly more efficient to reach desired results directly in this way, rather than as the end result of circuitous and uncontrolled processes.
Sowell goes on in this vein for a bit, specifically on the topic of economics, then:
In the engineering analogy, growing out of the unconstrained vision, one can begin with society’s “needs” because it is possible to have an “objective analysis” of “what is really desirable.” The “public interest” can be specified, and therefore pursued rationally. It is then a question of assembling the relevant facts, and articulating them — “a full presentation of the items we can choose among,” — to determine how to achieve the resulting goals. Social issues thus reduce to a matter of “technical coordination” by experts. Unlike the systemic vision, in which there are inherently conflicting uses because of multiplicities of conflicting values in the populace at large, in the rationalistic vision select third parties can agree on what constitutes “needs,” “waste,” or the “spoiling” of the natural or man-made environment.
In this perspective, there are not only social solutions but often obvious solutions — though not necessarily easy solutions, given the opposition of those with a vested interest in the status quo. “Truth, and above all political truth, is not hard of acquisition,” according to Godwin. What is required is “independent and impartial discussion” by “unambitious and candid” people. “The nature of good and evil” was in Godwin’s view “one of the plainest subjects” to understand. What is needed is for “good sense, and clear and correct perceptions” to “gain ascendancy in the world.”
Very similar assessments are to be found in later writers with the unconstrained vision. Evil in the existing society is “neither incurable nor even very hard to cure when you have diagnosed it scientifically,” according to George Bernard Shaw.
I am reminded of another Markadelphia bon mot from this comment thread:
“How is it that you are able to read these people’s minds such that you know these things?”
I don’t have to read their minds. Their words speak for themselves. So do their actions. Of course, you have to be open to hearing and seeing these things and I guess I’m not sure that you are or you want to, DJ.
It’s not “some dude.” It’s me. I examine daily events in the world and usually begin by asking myself: what is the motivation behind this action? Why are they doing this? Once you know the right questions, the answers become obvious.
(My emphasis. And ’nuff said.)
Further on the topic of “social processes,” Sowell makes an important point:
All social processes — whether economic, religious, political or other — involve costs. These costs are seen very differently by those with the constrained and the unconstrained visions, just as they see differently the kinds of attitudes needed in these processes — sincerity versus fidelity, for example. These costs may be due to time or to violence, among other sources, their corresponding benefits may be apportioned justly or unjustly, and their recipients may be free or unfree. All these aspects are assessed differently in the constrained and the unconstrained visions.
He then explains one aspect of this difference that has puzzled and angered those of us who follow the Constrained vision:
The passage of time, and its irreversibility, create special decision-making difficulties, social processes, and moral principles — all of which are seen quite differently by those with the constrained and the unconstrained visions. Both recognize that decisions made at one point in time have consequences at other points in time. But the ways of coping with this fact depend upon the capabilities of human beings and especially of human knowledge and foresight.
Accretions of knowledge over time mean that individual and social decisions made under conditions of lesser knowledge have consequences under conditions of greater knowledge. To those with the unconstrained vision, this means that being bound by past decisions represents a loss of benefits made possible by later knowledge. Being bound by past decisions, whether in constitutional law cases or in marriage for life, is seen as costly and irrational.
This is the source of “liberal judicial activism,” but it explains other behaviors as well:
In the unconstrained vision, there are moral as well as practical consequences to intertemporal commitments. Gratitude, as well as loyalty and patriotism, for example, are all essentially commitments to behave differently in the future, toward individuals or societies, than one would behave on an impartial assessment of circumstances as they might exist at some future time, if those individuals and societies were encountered for the first time. Where two lives are jeopardized and only one can be saved, to save the one who is your father may be an act of loyalty but not an act of justice. Thus, in behavioral terms, gratitude and loyalty are interteporal commitments not to be impartial — not to use future knowledge and future moral assessments to produce that result which you would otherwise consider best, if confronting the same individuals for the first time. From this perspective, loyalty, promises, patriotism, gratitude, precedents, oaths of fealty, constitutions, marriage, social traditions, and international treaties are all constrictions imposed earlier, when knowledge is less, on options to be exercised later, when knowledge will be greater.
All of those things … loyalty, constitutions, marriage, etc. … have been lauded and revered by those with a constrained vision. The process costs entailed by intertemporal commitments depend on (1) how much more knowledge, rationality, and impartiality human beings are capable of bringing to bear as a result of the passage of time and (2) on the cost of accepting the disadvantages of moment-to-moment decision-making.
There is a classic science-fiction short-story about the often irrevocable consequences of decision-making that I think is illustrative of this particular topic, The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin. (I have to wonder if Tom is distantly related to William.) Highly recommended.
But here’s the crucial distinction between the Constrained and Unconstrained visions with respect to social processes, and this is a point Sowell hammers home repeatedly throughout the rest of his book:
(W)here those with an unconstrained vision see a solution, those with a constrained vision see a trade-off.
(My emphasis.) The “Global Warming” conflict is an excellent example of this. “The problem,” as defined by those with the Unconstrained vision, is that human-generated CO2 is driving an increase in global temperatures. They’ve asked themselves the right questions! These increased temperatures are detrimental to the planet, and must be corrected. The solution is simple: we must stop dumping CO2 into the atmosphere! The constrained vision says, “Wait a minute – yes, we’re dumping CO2 into the air, but what are the actual costs? How much of an effect is it having? What does the data say? Is a warming Earth really a bad thing, or are there trade-offs? How much will it cost to stop producing CO2, or to cut production substantially, and will doing so actually fix anything? And – most importantly – can any of this be conclusively proven?” Remember Fran Porretto’s admonition above? The result of questioning the “solution,” of raising any objections at all has been (until recently) “the politics of personal destruction.” The Left has used “any means expedient” to destroy the opposition, up to and including calling for Nuremberg-style trials, and the execution of “deniers.”
There’s a difference between reason and knowledge. Reason produces climate models – many, many climate models – none of which have predicted the last decade’s pause in warming. The last decade’s pause is knowledge acquired through the passage of time. It’s interesting that those with the Unconstrained vision apparently aren’t willing to use that new knowledge to modify their decisions.
Moving on, Sowell opens his chapter on the topic of equality thus:
Equality, like freedom and justice, is conceived in entirely different terms by those with the constrained vision and those with the unconstrained vision. Like freedom and justice, equality is a process characteristic in the constrained vision, and a result characteristic in the unconstrained vision.
From Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century to Friedrich Hayek in the twentieth century, the constrained vision has seen equality in terms of processes. In Burke’s words, “all men have equal rights; but not to equal things.” Alexander Hamilton likewise considered “all men” to be “entitled to a parity of privileges,” though he expected that economic inequality “would exist as long as liberty existed.”
He continues on in this vein for a bit before reaching the key point:
The constrained vision of man leads to a constrained concept of equality as a process within man’s capabilities, in contrast to a results definition of equality which would require vastly more intellectual and moral capacity than that assumed. 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. Milton Friedman exemplified this aspect of the constrained vision when he said:
A society that puts equality — in the sense of equality of outcome — ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality or freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for great purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests.
This is a point made repeatedly by myself and my commenters here, but to no avail when it comes to Markadelphia. Our first principles are too different.
But to those with the unconstrained vision, such dangers are avoidable, if not illusory, and therefore to stop at a purely formal process-equality is both needless and inexcusable. “What could be more desirable and just,” Godwin asked, than that the output of society, to which all contribute, should “with some degree of equality, be shared among them?” Both visions recognize degrees of equality, so the disagreement between them is not over absolute mathematical equality versus some degree of equalization, but rather over just what it is that is to be equalized. In the unconstrained vision, the results are to be equalized — to one degree or another — whereas the equality of a constrained vision is the equalization of processes. Godwin was prepared to concede some advantages to talents and wealth, though other believers in the unconstrained vision varied in how far they would go in this direction. What they shared was a concept of equality — of whatever degree — as being equality of result. When Godwin lamented seeing “the wealth of a province spread upon the great man’s table” while “his neighbors have not bread to satiate the cravings of hunger,” he voiced a lament echoed many times throughout the history of the unconstrained vision.”
Once again, Markadelphia gives us a contemporary example in this comment thread:
The insurance industry has enjoyed quite a good life for themselves working unfettered for all these years. Now, they are going to have to give up that third vacation home and live by a few rules . . . .
Equality of outcome, enforced by government power. But he’s a reasonable man, willing to let them keep that second vacation home. He’s no extremist!
Sowell makes another important distinction regarding the visions of equality:
So long as the process itself treats everyone the same — judges them by the same criteria, whether in employment or in a courtroom — then there is equality of opportunity or equality before the law as far as the constrained vision is concerned. But to those with the unconstrained vision, to apply the same criteria to those with radically different wealth, education, or past opportunities and cultural orientations is to negate the meaning of equality — as they conceive it. To them, equality of opportunity means equalized probabilities of achieving given results, whether in education, employment or the courtroom.
And to achieve this equality of outcome?
This may require the social process to provide compensatory advantages to some, whether in the form of special educational programs, employment preference policies, or publicly paid attorneys.
Those with the unconstrained vision see no need to neglect at least trying efforts toward equalizing the chances for particular results. But to those with the constrained vision, attempting to single out special individuals or group beneficiaries is opening the floodgates to a dangerous principle whose ramifications go beyond the intentions or control of those initiating such a process. Again, it was not argued that it is literally impossible to reduce specified inequalities seratim, but rather that the generation of new inequalities by this process defeats the overall purpose and creates additional difficulties and dangers.
Like being called “RACIST!” for making that very argument. Or in Sowell’s case, race-traitor.
Now let’s look at equality in economics. Sowell:
The issue between the two visions is not simply of the inequalities but also of the extent to which those inequalities are merited. This issue, like the others, goes back for centuries. In the eighteenth century, Godwin wrote of “a numerous class of individuals, who, though rich have neither brilliant talents nor sublime virtues.”
Variations on these themes have remained a prominent feature of the unconstrained vision. In the twentieth century, Shaw declared that “enormous fortunes are made without the least merit,” and noted that not only the poor, but many well-educated people “see successful men of business, inferior to themselves in knowledge, talent, character and public spirit, making much larger incomes.”
Markadelphia again, from yet another comment thread:
If I were an owner of a company and my salary was 5 million a year and my lowest workers made 30k a year, that would be just plain wrong. I think I can “get by” on a million a year or even less and pay my workers 80K a year. I like buying CDs and DVDs but really I don’t care what kind of car I drive or how big my house is. Most wealthy people, not all but most, are greedy and want to keep as much as money as they possibly can to wield power.
Because those with the unconstrained vision emphasize the unmerited nature of many rewards, it does not follow that those with the constrained vision assume rewards to be individually merited. Merit justifications have been very much the exception rather than the rule, and largely confined to secondary figures … The moral justification of the constrained vision is the justification of a social process, not of individuals or classes within that process. They readily concede that “inevitably some unworthy will succeed and some worthy fail,” that rewards are “based only partly on achievements and partly on mere chance.” This is a trade-off they accept, on the conviction that no solution is possible. But those with the unconstrained vision do not share that conviction and therefore find acceptance of known inequalities intolerable.
Thus our ongoing conflict, because – by definition – if something cannot be tolerated, one is forced to do something about it. Those who can tolerate it have two options – ignore those who can’t, or fight back.
But in the midst of this, Sowell points out something I found fascinating – the difference between how classic champions of each vision have viewed “the common man.” Sowell writes:
If individuals were all equal in their developed capabilities and shared the same values and goals, then equal processes could produce equal results, satisfying both visions. But neither vision believes this to be the case.
No one believed in the innate equality of human beings more than Adam Smith. He thought that men differed less than dogs, that the difference between a philosopher and a porter was purely a result of upbringing, and he rejected with contempt the doctrine that whites in America were superior to the blacks they enslaved.
Adam Smith’s sweeping egalitarianism was by no means unique among those with the constrained vision. Alexander Hamilton, for example, had similar views regarding the moral level of different groups:
Experience has by no means justified us in the supposition that there is more virtue in one class of men than in another. Look through the rich and poor of the community; the learned and the ignorant. Where does virtue predominate? The difference indeed consists, not in the quantity but kind of vices, which are incident to the various classes. . .
Ah, but the other side. . .
In an eighteenth-century world where most people were peasants, Godwin declared that “the peasant slides through life, with something of the contemptible insensibility of an oyster.” Rousseau likened the masses of the people to “a stupid, pusillanimous invalid.” According to Condorcet, the “human race still revolts the philosopher who contemplates its history.” In the twentieth century, George Bernard Shaw included the working class among the “detestable” people who “have no right to live.” He added: “I should despair if I did not know that they will all die presently, and that there is no need on earth why they should be replaced by people like themselves.”
Among contemporary economists proposing ways of advancing Third World nations out of poverty, those representing a constrained vision (P.T. Bauer and T.W. Schultz, for example) depict the peasant masses of the Third World as a repository of valuable skills and capable of substantial adaptations to changing economic conditions, if only the elite will leave them free to compete in the marketplace, while those further to the left politically, such as Gunnar Myrdal depict the peasant masses as hopelessly backward and redeemable only by the committed efforts of the educated elite.
Sound familiar? Another selection from “tgirsch” along these lines:
I’m reasonably sure that (for example) before Social Security, senior citizens collectively were one of the largest “poor” demographics, and Soc. Security largely did away with that.
There’s also the issue of how that extra money would have been distributed were it not for such social programs. Would it have been relatively evenly distributed, or would it have concentrated in a few hands? My suspicion is the latter.
If modern history teaches us anything, the majority of the people would piss away that extra money. A few would save it or invest it wisely, but most would not. If you think even half of people would use the extra money (and that is the correct term — people would have more in their pockets, according to you, without the tax than with it) to bolster their savings, I’ve got some Enron stock to sell you.
Damned stupid greedy proles! If the government didn’t take Social Security (that “extra money”) out of their paychecks, they’d just piss it away! It is only through the efforts of the sincere, intellectual elite that their “extra money” gets properly spread around, where “properly spread around” is defined as “evenly distributed” so things are “more fair.” But my how they bristle when we call it “redistribution of wealth,” and accuse us of “language manipulation” when we define something so accurately it stings.
Let us move on now to the visions of Power, since taking money from people and “spreading the wealth around” to “make things more fair” requires an exercise of power. Sowell writes:
The role of power in social decision-making has tended to be much greater in the tradition of the unconstrained vision than among those with the constrained vision. That is, 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 the terms of the unconstrained vision. As a result, unhappy social circumstances are more readily condemned morally — being the result of someone’s exertion of power — and more readily seen as things which can be changed fundamentally by the exertion of power toward different goals. The constrained vision, in which systemic processes produce many results not planned or controlled by anyone, gives power a much smaller explanatory role, thus offering fewer opportunities for moral judgments and fewer prospects for sweeping reforms to be successful in achieving their goals.
Sowell then goes on to discuss the topic of power in relation to war, crime, and politics, but first he discusses the difference between the visions on their views of reason versus force:
The causal reasons and moral justifications for force differ completely as between the constrained and unconstrained visions. Reason, as an alternative to force, likewise plays a different role in the two visions, in everything from child-rearing to international relations. It is not a difference in “value premises,” however. Both visions prefer articulated reason to force, at a given level of efficacy. But they differ greatly in their assessment of the efficacy of articulated reason. The use of force is particularly repugnant to those with the unconstrained vision, given the effectiveness they attribute to articulated reason.
And these people are overwhelmingly over-represented in the U.S. Department of State, among other places. But here’s a really fascinating bit I had not previously considered:
Given the horrors of war, and the frequent outcome in which there are no real winners, those with the unconstrained vision tend to explain the existence and recurrence of this man-made catastrophe in terms of either misunderstandings, in an intellectual sense, or of hostile or paranoid emotions raised to such a pitch as to override rationality. In short, war results from a failure of understanding, whether caused by lack of forethought, lack of communication, or emotions overriding judgment. Steps for a peace-seeking nation to take to reduce the probability of war therefore include (1) more influence for the intellectually or morally more advanced portions of the population, (2) better communications between potential enemies, (3) a muting of militant rhetoric, (4) a restraint on armament production or military alliances, either of which might produce escalating counter-measures, (5)a de-emphasis of nationalism or patriotism, and (6) negotiating outstanding differences with potential adversaries as a means of reducing possible causes of war.
That part I was familiar with. I have, after all, lived through the end of the war in Vietnam, the Iranian hostage crisis, Panama, Grenada, Gulf War I, 9/11 and its aftermath. What Sowell described in 1987 is still SOP for those of the Unconstrained vision today. What I hadn’t considered was this:
Those with the constrained vision see war in entirely different terms. According to this vision, wars are a perfectly rational activity from the standpoint of those who anticipate gain to themselves, their class, or their nation, whether or not these anticipations are often mistaken, as all human calculations may be. That their calculations disregard the agonies of others is no suprise to those with the constrained vision of human nature. From this perspective, the steps for a peace-seeking nation to take to reduce the probability of war would be the direct opposite of those proposed by people with the alternative vision: (1) raising the cost of war to potential aggressors by military preparedness and military alliances, (2) arousal of the public to awareness of dangers in times of threat, (3) promotion of patriotism and willingness to fight, as the cost of deterring attack, (4) relying on your adversaries’ awareness of your military power more so than on verbal communication, (5) negotiating only within the context of a deterrent strength and avoiding concessions to blackmail that would encourage further blackmail, and (6) relying more on the good sense and fortitude of the public at large (reflecting culturally validated experience) than on moralists and intellectuals, more readily swayed by words and fashions.
Here’s the kicker:
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.
This goes back to the Wells/Stevenson quote that opened this essay. Sowell continues:
Within (the) constrained vision, war did not require a specific explanation. Peace required explanation– and specific provisions to produce it.
And here, again, Sowell illustrates the why behind one of the major visible differences in the two visions:
One of these provisions was military power.
To Godwin, the buildup of military power and the forging of military alliances or balance-of-power policies, were likely to lead to war. Godwin deplored the cost of maintaining military forces, which included not only economic costs but also such social costs as submission to military discipline and the spread of patriotism…. Within this vision, the military man was a lesser man for his occupation.
Within the constrained vision of Adam Smith, however, the demands on a soldier, and the weight of responsibility on him for defending his people, elevated his profession to a nobler plane than others, even though Smith conceded that there is a “dimunition of humanity” when one is repeatedly in a situation where one must either kill or be killed.
This was apparently an acceptable cost – or trade-off, a solution being impossible.
(My emphasis.) Once again, the Unconstrained vision sees solutions, the Constrained vision sees only trade-offs.
Which vision works?
On crime, Sowell writes:
The underlying causes of crime have been a major preoccupation of those with the unconstrained vision of human nature. But those with the constrained vision generally do not look for any special causes of crime, any more than they look for special causes of war. For those with the constrained vision, people commit crimes because they are people — because they put their own interests or egos above the interests, feelings, or lives of others. Believers in the constrained vision emphasize social contrivances to prevent crime or punishment to deter it. But to the believer in the unconstrained vision, it is hard to understand how anyone would commit a terrible crime without some special cause at work, if only blindness.
Within this vision, people are forced to commit crimes by special reasons, whether social or psychiatric. Reducing those special reasons (poverty, discrimination, unemployment, mental illness, etc.) is therefore the way to reduce crime.
In both visions, the conclusions follow logically from the initial assumptions. Both visions also recognize that most people are horrified at certain crimes and would be morally incapable of committing them. They differ as to why this is so. The constrained vision of human nature sees this revulsion at the thought of committing certain crimes as the product of social conditioning — a sense of general morality, personal honor, and humane feelings, all cultivated by the many traditions and institutions of society. The unconstrained vision sees human nature as itself adverse to crime, and society as undermining this natural aversion through its own injustices, insensitivities, and brutality.
This difference in logic-trains also leads to an obvious difference in how to address the problem:
(I)n the constrained vision of human nature, natural incentives to commit crimes are so commonplace that artificial counter-incentives must be created and maintained — notably moral training and punishment. Adam Smith acknowledged that the infliction of punishment is itself a negative experience to humane individuals, but again it was a cost he was willing to pay –a necessary trade-off in a situation with no solution.
But whereas Smith saw the infliction of punishment as a painful duty, believers in the unconstrained vision have seen it as an unnecessary indulgence in vengeance, a “brutalizing throwback to the full horror of man’s inhumanity in an earlier time.” With this vision, the criminal is seen as a victim – a “miserable victim” in Godwin’s words — first, of the special circumstances which provoked the crime, and then of people with a lust for punishment. The criminal’s “misfortunes,” according to Godwin, “entitle him” to something better than the “supercilious and unfeeling neglect” he is likely to receive. The death penalty, especially, imposed on “these forlorn and deserted members of the community” highlights the “iniquity of civil institutions.” True, the criminal inflicted harm on others, but this was due to “circumstances” — these circumstances being the only distinction between him and the highest members of the society.
Punishment as a trade-off is barbaric within the framework of the unconstrained vision, for there is a solution at hand: rehabilitation.
I believe I made this exact point back in 2004, only I attributed the mindset to what I called the “pacifist culture.” I did not then understand that it was part and parcel of a larger and more fundamental Vision. If I’d only read this book twenty years ago. . . .
I know this post is already excruciatingly long, but there is still more to be gleaned from this chapter. Sowell writes:
In the unconstrained vision where the crucial factors in promoting the general good are sincerity and articulated knowledge and reason, the dominant influence in society should be that of those who are best in these regards. Whether specific discretion is exercised at the individual level or in the national or international collectivity is largely a question then as to how effectively the sincerity, knowledge, and reason of the most advanced in those regards influence the exercise of discretionary decision-making.
In other words, the system would work and utopia can be achieved if only the right people are in charge; the good, sincere, articulate intellectuals. You know, people like Obama. This assertion produced another entire post, The Mystery of Government, again inspired by Markadelphia, the gift that keeps on giving.
(T)hose who have shared the unconstrained vision of man in general, but who lacked Godwin’s conviction as to how effectively the wisdom and virtue of the few would spontaneously pervade the decisions of the many, wished to reserve decision-making powers in organizations more directly under the control or influence of those with the requisite wisdom and virtue. The unconstrained vision thus spans the political range from the anarchic individualism of Godwin to totalitarianism. Their common feature is the conviction that man as such is capable of deliberately planning and executing social decisions for the common good, whether or not all people or most people have developed this innate capability to the point of exercising it on their own.
And in totalitarian societies when some people won’t go along, these good, sincere, articulate, wise and virtuous intellectuals have no problem with “liquidating” them for the greater good. For example “liquidation” was OK with Walter Duranty of the New York Times. After all, not all of the Kulaks would be “physically abolished” (a euphemism for “starved to death”).
The constrained vision sees no such human capability, in either the elite or the masses, and so approaches the issue entirely differently. It is not the sincerity, knowledge, or reason of individuals that is crucial but the incentives conveyed to them through systematic processes which forces prudent trade-offs, utilization of the experience of the many, rather than the articulation of the few. It is to the evolved systemic processes — traditions, values, families, markets, for example — that those with the constrained vision look for the preservation and advancement of human life. The locus of discretion may also range from the individual to the political collectivity among adherents of the constrained vision, but the nature of that discretion is quite different from what it is among those with the unconstrained vision Where adherents of the constrained vision emphasize the freedom of individuals to make their own choices — the theme of Milton Freedman’s Free to Choose for example — it is to be a choice within the constraints provided by the incentives (such as prices) conveyed to the individual and derived from the experiences and values of others.
(My emphasis.) But these constraints, Markadelphia tells us, are the equivalent of enslavement:
You are somewhat correct in saying that I have a choice here in Minnesota for my gas and electricity. For my gas, I have a). Center Point Energy or b). Logs from the trees in my back yard. No one is forcing me to choose 1 but 2 really isn’t much of a choice either. This is what I mean when I talk about enslavement. Bilgeman made this point very well up top… Centepoint(sic) is going to raise prices this year so they can make more money. They no(sic) people don’t really have a choice so they can do whatever they want.
(That comment thread went 178 posts. I thought LabRat was going to blow a frontal lobe.) So what is freedom to the unconstrained vision?
Among contemporary followers of the unconstrained vision, individualism likewise centers on exemption of moral and intellectual pioneers from social pressures or even, in some cases, from laws. For example, conscientious objections to military service, or militant advocacy of violence in the face of perceived social injustice are among the exemptions Ronald Dworkin justifies, while denying that racial segregationists have any corresponding rights to violate civil rights laws.
So as long as you believe the right things, you should be exempt from breaking the law to achieve the right ends. Of course, only they can be the final arbiters of what the “right” ends are.
On power and the economy, Sowell goes right to the point:
It is hardly surprising that the reasons why government exercises power in the economy also differ between the two visions. In the unconstrained vision, it is a matter of intentions while in the constrained vision it is a matter of incentives. The government’s intention to protect the public interest forces it to intervene in the economy to undo the harm done by private economic power, according to the unconstrained vision. But the government’s inherent incentive to increase its own power leads it into intervention that is often both unneeded and harmful, according to the constrained vision. Incentives are central to the constrained vision — “the prime problem of politicians is not to serve the public good but to get elected to office and remain in power.”
How’s that “stimulus” working out? The bank bailouts? Ownership of GM and Chrysler?
And we’re supposed to acquiesce to the takeover of our health care?
Sowell spends a good deal of time on the last topic, Justice. I cannot do it justice (no pun intended) here. I urge you to read the book for this chapter if nothing else. I’m only going to cover two subtopics, the first being individual rights:
Both visions believe in rights. but rights as conceived in the unconstrained vision are virtually a negation of rights as conceived in the constrained vision. Social theorists in both traditions recognize that rights are not absolute, and there are variations within both visions as to the weights given one right over another when they conflict, as well as differences in the scope accorded a particular right. But the fundamental difference between the two visions is in what the very concept of rights means.
I find this section particularly interesting in light of the time and effort I’ve personally put into thinking and writing about the subject. Sowell doesn’t delve into the source or definition of rights, but in how the two Visions deal with them:
(T)he constrained vision thinks of legal boundaries within which private individuals and groups may make their own decisions, without being second-guessed by political or legal authorities as to whether those decisions are wise or foolish, noble or mean. From the standpoint of the constrained vision, the scope of those boundaries of immunity from public authority are the scope of people’s rights. This is a process conception of rights — the legal ability of people to carry on certain processes without regard to the desirability of the particular results, as judged by others.
This comports well with my understanding of rights as defined by Rand:
A ‘right’ is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.
Sowell uses property rights as his first example:
Although these rights, as zones of immunity from public authority, belong to individuals, their whole purpose is social, in the constrained vision. In that vision, the sacrifice of the individual for the social good has a long tradition going back at least as far as Adam Smith in philosophy and economics, and Holmes and Blackstone in American and British law, respectively. Yet it is precisely this tradition which has consistently emphasized the importance of individual property rights, for example. The crucial benefits of property rights have been conceived as social — as permitting an economic process with less strife, and a political process with more diffused power and influence than that possible under centralized political control of the economy.
The unconstrained vision sees things differently:
Unlike the constrained vision, which sees individual rights as instrumentalities of the social processes — their scope and limits justified by the social processes from which they are derived — the unconstrained vision sees rights as inhering in individuals for their own individual benefit and as fundamental recognitions of their humanity. Free-speech rights or property rights are therefore justified or not by their relative importance to the individuals who exercise them. Given the uneven distribution of property and the universality of speech, freedom of speech logically becomes a far more important right than property rights in this vision. Free-speech rights are thus entitled to sweeping exemptions from interventions of public authority, but not so property rights.
Issues involving property rights are seen in a results context in the unconstrained vision…. While those with a constrained vision focus on the incentive effects of a property-rights system on the economic process, those with the unconstrained vision focus on such social results as the existing distribution of property.
Sowell next considers “social justice”:
William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in 1793 may have been the first treatis on social justice. The term “political” in its title was used in the sense common at the time, referring to organized society — much as the contemporary expression “political economy” referred to the economics of society as distinguished from the economics of the household. In short, Godwin wrote on social justice, as that term is used today. Social justice as depicted by Godwin, was a pervasive and demanding duty. He said “our debt to our fellow men” includes “all the efforts we could make for their welfare, and all the relief we could supply to their necessities.” According to Godwin: “Not a talent do we possess, not a moment of time, not a shilling of property, for which we are not responsible at the tribunal of the public, which we are not obliged to pay into the general bank of common advantage.” He rejected “the supposition that we have a right, as it has been phrased, to do what we will with our own.” He denied its premise: “We have in reality nothing that is strictly speaking our own.”
However, these were all moral duties, not political duties, such as might be imposed by a welfare state or a socialist government.
It is not difficult, however, to see how the kind of social analysis pursued by Godwin . . . has led others to oppose laissez-faire economics and to have reservations about property rights, if not outright opposition to the concept. It was their faith in the power of reason to eventually make moral duties effective guides to individual conduct which made it unnecessary for Godwin or (others) to resort to government as the instrument of the sweeping social changes they sought.
I could go on, but this is as good a place to make my final point as I can find.
The Unconstrained Vision sees injustice and inequality as intolerable, and although they give lip-service to the idea that the power of reason will lead us all inevitably to enlightenment, will inevitably make us into Godwin’s vision of men who can feel others needs as more important than our own, it is indeed not difficult to see how they come to the conclusion that resorting to government power to achieve their sweeping social changes is perfectly reasonable, logical and inevitable. Their vision is an activist vision, while the constrained vision is a largely passive one, intent largely on limiting the power of government to judge or interfere with individuals exercising their individual rights.
It is, indeed, a conflict of visions, and the time for passivity is over.
Y’all got on this boat for different reasons, but y’all come to the same place. So now I’m asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything, I know this – they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people… better. And I do not hold to that. So no more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.
UPDATE: Thanks to the herculean efforts of reader John Hardin, the original comment thread for this post has been recovered and is available here.