BY GARY KAVANAGH
“It would be good to be able to say that we should dispense with visions entirely, and deal only with reality. But that may be the most Utopian vision of all. Reality is far too complex to be comprehended by any given mind.” Thomas Sowell
Thomas Sowell’s book “Conflict of Visions”, was first published in 1987. At its core it is about why it is that political questions, unlike scientific questions, do not appear to have any one answer, even assuming everyone involved has the same goal in mind, that being to promote the public good.
Sowell tells us that this can be explained through the theory that there are two primary ways to view man and the interaction between man and society. They are in his terms the constrained and unconstrained visions. These two visions are naturally in conflict with each other because they rest on incompatible assumptions about the nature of man and society; and it is to this conflict between that the book’s title refers.
The constrained vision tells us that man is limited by his past, his present, and his physiology, that he is inherently imperfect, and is driven primarily by self-interest in various guises. The unconstrained vision holds that man, whilst perhaps limited by his past and physiology, is innately good or at the very least a blank slate, and that the evils of society are products of institutions and structural incentives within a particular culture rather than a reflection of man’s basic nature or limitations. One is immediately struck that is not a new argument, as it is reminiscent of the debate about the state of nature that has exercised the followers of, among others, Hobbes and Rousseau.
Sowell also writes of a type of vision he calls the ‘hybrid vision’, of which he offers three primary examples, those being Marxism, Utilitarianism and Fascism. These ‘hybrid visions’ are stated to be visions of the nature of man and society that take from both the unconstrained and constrained visions and create something purely their own. Sowell believes that this can be done in either an internally consistent or internally inconsistent fashion, and that this will rather depend on the theory in question at any particular time.
To give an example of a hybrid vision, Sowell states that Fascism took from the constrained vision, symbols and certain beliefs, but their actions and the systems that sought to create were derived from the unconstrained vision. The fascists used key aspects of the constrained vision, loyalty to one’s people, obedience, etc and placed those under the control of a totally unconstrained leader who would reshape society, in the light of his will to remove imperfections and lead his people to retake Eden. Sowell makes an interesting argument here that, due to this synthesis of visions, both the political left and the political right see Fascism as being a product of an adversarial vision, as Sowell puts it. Essentially he argues that the left say that Fascism is a far-right doctrine, whilst the right say that Fascism shares a central component of socialism in both concept and execution. Sowell makes the further observation here that the existence of hybrid visions, and inconsistent visions, means that it simplistic to say the unconstrained is left-wing and the constrained is right-wing. He argues that Marxism is left-wing but contains elements of the constrained vision, whilst libertarianism is right-wing in general, but holds an unconstrained view of human nature.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the book is filled with quotations from, and commentary on the work of, Hobbes, Locke, Rawls, Galbraith, Edmund Burke, Hume and Rousseau, and many others. Although there is a growing tendency for academics to write only for other academics it is a great credit to Sowell’s eloquence that these long sections of the book devoted the the thinkers of the past, do not slow his pace. The book is very much designed to be read by people of varying ability and knowledge whilst still putting across its core message; that good people can disagree on political matters for understandable and defendable reasons. Sowell has the ability to discuss complicated matters in a clear way, and this is part of the reason why he is widely considered be such an important figure in the modern classical Liberal movement.
A large portion of the book concerns itself with interactions between those who hold these different visions and how they appear to each other. Sowell argues that holders of a constrained vision look at those who hold an unconstrained vision as being naive, perhaps dangerously so, but ultimately believe them to have good intentions. On the other hand holders of an unconstrained vision are mostly unable to understand the viewpoint of holders of a constrained vision. To holders of the unconstrained vision, Sowell argues, traditional institutions do not provide positive incentivisation or structural opportunity to citizens, and anyone who fights for their continued existence, must be either corrupt, in that they benefit from the system, or bigoted, in the sense that they want others to be oppressed by the system even if they do not personally benefit from the it themselves.
Conversely the constrained vision is, in its treatment of political, societal and cultural institutions, essentially Burkean in outlook in that it accepts that these institutions are imperfect, but that this imperfection does not invalidate the societal good that they do. While the constrained vision accepts that change is in an integral part of life, both individually and socially, it denies that one can just charge headlong into the void and expect things to work out.
According to Sowell, who is especially eloquent here, the constrained vision teaches that there are no solutions but only trade-offs. Moreover those informed by the constrained vision believe that any attempt to fix these institutions, on the grounds that they provide no or few benefits, can make matters worse because those seeking to affect the change do not fully understand what they are replacing. Reading Sowell’s articulation of the constrained vision I can, I can’t help thinking, be summarized by the phrase that ‘the perfect is the enemy of the great and the good alike”.
One must wonder if Sowell’s theory, for all his professions that he holds the constrained view of mankind, does not reflect a certain Utopian view of man’s rational nature and/or behavior. By positing that everyone holds particular views about human nature and the state of nature, even if only subconsciously, he showcases a view of mankind that is profoundly rational, or at very least perfectly understandable, and that suggests that politics is simply about balancing these visions through continual change and development. A more pessimistic individual could argue that politics are mostly a matter of identity, and that people’s political views but are just attempts to signal where they fit into predominant political or social culture or sub-culture. Sowell’s theory privileges rational debate. But one could perhaps more easily argue that on many political issues rational debate is not possible, or at least not likely, due to the emotive nature of the topic, the desire of people preserve their identity by aligning with one side or another, and the entrenched political narratives of particular cultures
In this connection it is worth considering the debate about abortion debate, in which one side will call their opponents murderers, and in which the other will compare their opponents to slave drivers. Both sides are equally committed and sincere, but both viewpoints can be challenged quite easily, by way of the “problem of the heap” that suggests that our understanding of personhood can only ever be subjective.
Sometimes I wonder if what would happen if one were to assemble a group of abortion activists on both sides of the argument, and asked them to make their opponents’ case as powerfully as they possibly could. I have never conducted such an experiment, but I suspect that if one did so one would discover that neither side had any real understanding of what their opponents were trying to say. And this, of course, raises questions about the to which such debates can really be called rational.
Following from that, one must query if Sowell’s theories actually apply to everyone, as he argues, rather than to a particular ‘intellectual elite’. Is Sowell right when he says that political differences, at a certain high-level theoretical level, are driven by differing views of the state of nature, but that these theories are then taken by politicians and policy formulators and fed into the medium of the public, with their attached biases, before becoming actual policies? Sowell does discuss this point briefly, as he argue that vision can be separated from one’s idea of how society should be and what policies should be adopted. He argues that adherence to a particular vision is not an either/or system. People hold these visions to varying degrees and very few people’s thought fit neatly into one category. In fact Sowell argues that is it impossible for a person to, hold a particular vision absolutely.
Finally, whilst probably not Sowell’s intention, one does wonder if these “visions” that he speaks of, are byproducts of the Christian history of the West. Is the clash between Sowell’s constrained and unconstrained visions a reflection of the deeper and older division between those who see human nature as fallen, and those who take a more optimistic view? Is our understanding of man being shaped, in a fashion we don’t realize, by the long infusion of Christian concepts into the collective unconscious of the West? Does the constrained version speak of the Fall while the unconstrained speaks of recapturing Eden?
These questions are worth asking. But Sowell fails to explore them, at least in “A Conflict of Visions.” If Sowell’s two visions do indeed indeed reflect this Christian history, what relevance can they have for those not raised in the Western tradition. Do the Chinese, for instance, hold different ‘visions’ due to the Confucian infused culture; does India hold different ‘visions’ due to the impact of Hinduism on their cultural development? One gets the feeling as one goes through the book that Sowell is aware of this but he never really delves into detail on the subject, perhaps due to his position as an American theorist writing for a predominantly American readership.
Overall “A Conflict of Visions” offers a lot to those who are interested in learning about the reasons for political differences, despite Sowell’s unabashed adherence to the constrained vision. Beyond that, and beyond the joy of simple reading Sowell’s work, “A Conflict of Visions” also conveys important practical lessons as to how we should consider our political opponents and how they view the world. A libertarian might agree with a left-wing individual on a number of social issues, and that may lead the left-winger to think the libertarian is essentially a left-winger, but if they’re counting on the libertarian chap to support left-wing policies they may be unpleasantly surprised, if, for example, they go to the libertarian and ask them to support some government-led market intervention or something of the same sort. The lesson then that Sowell teaches is that:- if you only know person’s actions, but not the drive that creates them, you do not know that person and you cannot predict their behavior with any certainty.
“Visions are like maps that guide us through a tangle of bewildering complexities. Like maps, visions have to leave out many concrete features in order to enable us to focus on a few key paths to our goals. Visions are indispensable- but dangerous, precisely to the extent that we confuse them with reality itself.” Thomas Sowell.
NOTE: Mr. Kavanagh has recently joined the board of The Edmund Burke Institute.