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Sowell’s Visions

Two conflicting ideas about man underlie our beliefs about economics and politics

DECEMBER 05, 2013 by EMILE PHANEUF


Why do beliefs cluster the way they do?
 
If someone believes that only police and military should have guns, why is that person also likely to support socialized healthcare and a government-imposed minimum wage, and be unsupportive of school vouchers? In his 1987 book A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, economist Thomas Sowell put forth two conflicting visions of man that he believes explain many of the underlying reasons for the clustering of beliefs. 
 
In what he terms the "constrained vision," man is by nature flawed, selfish, and limited. Under the constrained vision, man seeks to deal with his flaws and excesses by establishing institutions of restraint: the separation of powers, constitutions, etc. Those who employ the constrained vision see abuses of power by leaders like Napoleon Bonaparte as inevitable. For this reason, limitations must be placed on power and on the institutions themselves so that it is more difficult for any individual to abuse them. The idea is to decentralize power so that man’s flaws are not catastrophic.
 
The "unconstrained vision," by contrast, sees abuses of power as being caused by not having chosen the right leaders or established the right kinds of institutions. “Implicit,” writes Sowell, “is the notion that the potential is very different from the actual, and that means exist to improve human nature toward its potential, or that such means can be evolved or discovered, so that man will do the right thing for the right reason rather than for ulterior psychic or economic rewards.” And central to the unconstrained vision is the notion that human beings are highly malleable; they can be trained in the service of some ideal.
 
Steven Pinker’s 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature builds on much of Sowell’s work. He refers to Sowell’s constrained and unconstrained visions as the "tragic" and "utopian visions," respectively. Pinker argues that much of the Unconstrained Vision is rooted in the false belief that individuals are born with no pre-programmed software (or innate human nature). This blank slate (or tabula rasa) belief, Pinker claims, was often based on good intentions; after all, if we are born equal in every way, this could also eradicate social and economic concepts of inequality, but the problem is that human behavioral sciences have already demonstrated that the human mind does, in fact, come with certain innate biological programming, which is unique for every individual. 
 
The following two paragraphs, in Pinker’s own words, explain the two visions and key intellectuals associated with each:
 
In the Tragic Vision, humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, and all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits. “Mortal things suit mortals best,” wrote Pindar; “from the crooked timber of humanity no truly straight thing can be made,” wrote Kant. The Tragic Vision is associated with Hobbes, Burke, Smith, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, the philosophers Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper, and the legal scholar Richard Posner.
 
In the Utopian Vision, psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements, and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world. Its creed might be “Some people see things as they are and ask ‘why?’; I dream things that never were and ask ‘why not?’” The quotation is often attributed to the icon of 1960s liberalism Robert F. Kennedy, but was originally penned by the Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw (who also wrote, “There is nothing that can be changed more completely than human nature when the job is taken in hand early enough”). The Utopian Vision is also associated with Rousseau, Godwin, Condorcet, Thomas Paine, the jurist Earl Warren, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, and to a lesser extent the political philosopher Ronald Dworkin.
 
None of this is to say that a given person cannot hold political beliefs characterized by both visions, as is often the case. “Not all social thinkers fit this schematic dichotomy,” writes Sowell. “John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, for example, do not fit for very different reasons . . . However, the conflict of visions is no less real because everyone has not chosen sides or irrevocably committed themselves,” he states. In Pinker’s words, “Not every ideological struggle fits [Sowell’s] scheme, but as we say in social science, he has identified a factor that can account for a large proportion of the variance.” Nonetheless, the more I examine the roots of arguments in economic or political philosophy, the more it seems that Sowell was onto something. 
 
When defending liberty in interactions with people who do not share our views, if we can get beyond the surface arguments to the underlying beliefs of others, we have a much better chance of having more meaningful discussions.
 
 

ABOUT

EMILE PHANEUF

Emile Phaneuf is an export sales manager for an Arkansas-based manufacturer in the mining industry. 

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