Why is it that two people who disagree on one matter – say, economic policy – will also show a strong tendency to disagree on everything from politics to social issues? How do we account for the radically different understanding of how the world works exhibited by those who oppose each other – politically or otherwise? Why is it that in South Africa, some see socialism as the only way forward, while others – such as Nicholas Woode-Smith – reject its viability and warn of its consequences?
Thomas Sowell’s book, A Conflict of Visions, answers these questions. The central idea is arguably one of the most brilliant in recent political philosophy. At the very least, it clearly illuminates the origin of political conflicts in the Western world over the last few hundred years, but one could argue that Sowell’s ideas are applicable to the non-Western and ancient worlds as well.
All that said, what is this great idea? It comes down to what Sowell refers to as ‘visions’.
One of the major problems we face in understanding the world is the amount of detail with which we have to cope. Our senses help us understand our immediate surroundings, but at a certain point, the available information is too much for us to process and we need abstractions to simplify things. As technology and communication have advanced, the ‘world’ that we experience has become larger, and so too has the problem of dealing with more information than we can handle.
To help us deal with all of the information, Sowell argues, everyone has what he calls a ‘vision’. Visions in Sowell’s conception are not dreams, hopes or desires for the future. Instead, a vision is a ‘pre-analytic cognitive act’ and can be thought of as a ‘gut feeling’. Put simply, a vision is a sense of how the world works – a sense of causality.
It is important to note that visions are based on implicit assumptions (or premises) that yield an internally-coherent system of logic. The extent to which these assumptions are true reveals the extent to which a given vision is most representative of reality. Equally important is the fact – according to Sowell – that we all operate with a particular vision, even if we never articulate the base assumptions to ourselves. Even those ‘practical’ people who reject ‘theories’ and ‘philosophies’ operate with visions. Everything should become clearer as these visions are discussed in more detail.
Constrained and unconstrained
Sowell broadly groups all visions into two main categories: the constrained vision and the unconstrained vision. For convenience, Sowell employs this as a dichotomy, but notes that there is really a continuous spectrum between ‘more constrained’ and ‘more unconstrained’ visions.
These visions should not be thought of in traditional political terms such as ‘left’ or ‘right’; the two visions are seen amongst those on either side of the political spectrum. One could argue that even amongst libertarians, some adhere to the constrained vision while others do the unconstrained vision – but that discussion will not be explored here. What we will consider, however, is how these visions differ on fundamental issues.
1) Two visions of human nature
In his book, Sowell first addresses how the visions differ on the subject of human nature. This is appropriate: in many ways, one’s view on human nature determines nearly all of the other positions one may hold when it comes to human affairs.
The constrained vision of human nature is exemplified by Adam Smith, who had been a professor of moral philosophy long before he even touched economics. In essence, he claimed, human nature is flawed but it is fixed. We all exhibit moral shortcomings; this is a fact of life, and it is the basic constraint under which we as humans and society operate. The Irish statesman Edmund Burke, another exemplar of the constrained vision, stated that, “We cannot change the Nature of things and of men – but we must act upon them as best we can.” If human nature is innate and cannot be changed, as those with the constrained vision believe, then all attempts to change it should be rejected.
It follows that those with the constrained vision seek to make the best of the situation, given our inherent constraints. Humans are selfish, so we need institutions that redirect that selfishness to social benefit – the laissez-faire market economy. Some of us seek power, so the government must be structured so that no single person can exert too much control – a system of checks and balances. The constrained vision seeks ‘damage limitation’ with respect to our flaws, so that we can otherwise flourish.
The unconstrained vision, on the other hand, is best seen in William Godwin. He thought that man is fundamentally a good being, and said that “man’s understanding and disposition [are] capable of intentionally creating social benefits.” In addition, Godwin stated that man is “capable of directly feeling other people’s needs as more important than his own.” In other words, human nature could reach such a point where we are all completely selfless, empathetic beings. Godwin therefore believed that human nature is malleable – as with Rousseau’s idea of perfectibilité – as it has not yet attained its potential perfection.
Godwin recognised that his ideas were not based on empirical observations, and argued that vice (that is, any behaviour we would deem morally deficient) “arises from a condition of circumstances and is not the necessary and invariable law of our nature.” This means, for example, that people are violent not because of any moral shortcomings, but rather because they are ‘subjected’ to poverty. As Martin van Staden suggests, this is an inadequate explanation.
2) Two visions of problems and ‘solutions’
One of the values held most dear to those with the constrained vision when dealing with practical, real-world problems is prudence. Every decision must be made following the careful consideration of the trade-off that would be incurred when pursuing a particular course of action. This vision is inherently cautious, and only prompts action when the cost of taking it is not too high.
As can be expected, the unconstrained vision is just the opposite. Trade-offs and prudence are not considerations to those with that vision. The focus is on attaining a ‘solution’ – a point where it is no longer necessary to make a trade-off, and where past costs, however unfortunate, are justified. This mindset is best illustrated by the words of Thomas Jefferson. Responding to the question about the innocent people who had died during the French Revolution, Jefferson stated that,
“My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs of this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated.”
The ‘solution’ was to recreate French society, and the cost – as Jefferson admits, unfortunate, but still worthwhile – was the death of many thousands of innocent people. Those surprised to learn of this quote may be relieved to hear that Jefferson later backed away from his position. Nonetheless, the unconstrained vision has little regard for ‘collateral damage’ when it moves to drastically change society.
3) Two visions of power
During a recent conversation about conquest-based strategy games (Age of Empires, Europa Universalis), one of the other Rational Standard writers said something to the effect of, “That’s why we’re libertarians! We know what we would do with the power.” This captures perfectly the constrained vision’s take on the issue of power – that individuals must be prevented from accumulating too much of it. Those with the constrained vision usually support a system of checks and balances in government.
Unsurprisingly, those with the unconstrained vision would like to see political messiahs given sweeping, unchecked power. At the very least, they believe everything would be better if only the right person were in charge – a sentiment fundamental to the recent #ZumaMustFall protests. True to the unconstrained vision, the Marquis de Condorcet, who was a significant figure during the French Revolution, continued to write negatively about the checks and balances in the American Constitution – even while he was on the run from the powerful factions in the French National Assembly.
4) Two visions of knowledge
The constrained vision places emphasis on dispersed knowledge – what Sowell calls ‘systemic rationality’. Particularly when it comes to whether the economy should be managed by government, people like F.A. Hayek have warned that no bureaucrat or team of technocrats could possibly attain the unfathomable volume of knowledge needed to guide the productive activities of millions of individuals. Instead, we should defer to the systemic rationality of a market system, where prices adjust to what millions of people are consuming and producing in order to co-ordinate economic activity.
Those with the unconstrained vision believe in the strength of ‘articulated rationality’: in essence, certain brilliant intellects, if given the power, would be able to guide how a whole society should operate – through their reasoning alone. One of the hallmarks of Marxism and its derivatives is the proposed role of intellectuals in society: they would guide economic production and political leaders, and would define and articulate ‘social’ interests. The unconstrained vision also places emphasis on the ability of articulated rationality – rather than experience – to determine what the law should be.
5) Two visions of youth and experience
The constrained vision expresses more trust in members of older generations. Taking into account the flawed view of mankind and the necessity of trade-offs and prudent decision-making, those with more life experience are usually taken to be wiser, albeit still limited in their wisdom. Those with the constrained vision have much less trust in the ability of the youth to make prudent, informed decisions. Around the time of the fees protests last year, Christiaan van Huyssteen examined some of the detrimental shortcomings of youth.
The unconstrained vision generally reveres the youth and disregards those who are older. Keeping in mind its ideas on the potential of human beings, it views the youth as untainted and pure. Owing partly to its view of knowledge and emphasis on articulated rationality, the unconstrained vision places great trust in the ability of the youth to guide society. This is no more evident than when academics and news commentators praise university students as the ‘true leaders’ of the country, especially when they engage in protest.
This article has been a very broad, high-level overview of Thomas Sowell’s ideas. It cannot possibly do those ideas justice. Nonetheless, understanding the basics of A Conflict of Visions gives one significant insights into how competing ideas on political, social and economic matters often originate. Those who are interested in and choose to engage with the broader world around them would certainly do well to add this tool to their belt.