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Book Review: A Conflict of Visions by Reviewed by David M. Stewart

Foundation  for Economic Education

In debating political and economic issues, we usually take for granted that arguments can be won and lost in terms of the issue at hand. Yet despite much apparently relevant debate, built on theory and evidence, we still find “the repeated opposition of individuals and groups on numerous, unrelated issues.” In A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggle (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1987, 273 pp., $15.95), Thomas So-well explores the philosophical reasons why “the same familiar faces can be found glaring at each other from opposite sides of the political fence, again and again.”

Sowell’s hypothesis is that the major political struggles of our day reflect two dominant and conflicting visions of man’s nature and potential. Yet most struggles are debated on another level, without any acknowledgment of these visions. Thus “those with different visions often argue past each other, even when they accept the same rules of logic and utilize the same data, for the very same terms of discourse signify very different things.”

Sowell posits a dichotomy between “constrained” and “unconstrained” visions of man’s moral and mental natures and capacities. In the constrained vision, exemplified by Adam Smith, man has ineradicable limitations. Morally, man is egocentric, each concerned primarily with his own self-interest. This is neither lamentable nor alterable; Smith simply treated it as an “inherent fact of life, the basic constraint in his vision.”

Similarly, “any individual’s knowledge is grossly inadequate for social decision-making.” As F. A. Hayek has long maintained, one person may amass expertise in a certain field, but knowledge on a socially useful scale takes the forms of social experience-traditions, habits, skills, tools. The combination of human frailties makes Utopia unachievable. Edmund Burke summarized the constrained political vision when he wrote of “a radical infirmity in all human contrivances.”

In the unconstrained vision, man’s moral nature is, according to William Godwin (17561836), fundamentally “generous and magnanimous.” Man’s intellectual capacity, too, is limited but “indefinite.” In this view, Sowell points out, “knowledge is synonymous with articulated rationality,” the kind of timeless armchair knowledge of humanist intellectuals. With these capacities at man’s disposal, Godwin concluded, “Reason is . . . sufficient . . . for regulating the actions of mankind.”

Despite their contradicting axioms, both visions make the common good paramount, as opposed to individual self-interest. Yet they differ completely on how the common good is to be achieved.

In the constrained vision, social benefits result from the systemic effects of people pursuing their individual self-interests within the limits set by law and custom. Salutary effects emerge largely unintended. Good intentions are likely to be positively dangerous when forced on society by the overweening confidence of inherently flawed men.

In the unconstrained vision, man’s moral and intellectual capabilities allow him to put aside self-interest and to directly produce the common good. Thus George Bernard Shaw wrote that existing society is “only an artificial system susceptible of almost infinite modification in readjustment—nay, of practical demolition and substitution at the will of Man.”

The contrast between visions manifests itself politically in the constrained acceptance of “trade-offs” versus the unconstrained insistence on “solutions.” For example, the constrained vision accepts “unmerited” economic inequalities in a market economy as a trade-off for the market’s systemic production of the common goods of general prosperity and freedom, which would be destroyed by egalitarian central planning. But in pure uncon-strained visions, direct intervention can create equality with no sacrifice of freedom and general prosperity. The problem of inequality is solvable.

Given the general outline of such conflicts, it is surprising what these polar visions don’t necessarily imply. “The constrained vision [is] not synonymous with . . . acceptance of the status quo,” Sowell shows. Smith opposed slavery, advocated American independence and proposed numerous domestic reforms. Nor is the unconstrained view necessarily radical. “In supporting private property and a free market,” Sowell observes, “Godwin was at one with Smith, with Hayek, and with modern libertarianism.”

Hybrid Visions

There are also hybrid visions such as Marxism, which sees man as progressing from heavily constrained to unconstrained economic systems as the dialectic of history unfolds. Some forms of libertarianism, too, combine strong constraints on individual knowledge of market data with broad latitude for rationalistic construction of political systems. When Murray Rothbard, in For a New Liberty [1978 ed., pp. 238-239], advocates anarchism with the argument that “When we contemplate any sort of new [socio-political] system . . . we must first decide whether we want to see it brought about . . . and then consider whether the system could work. . . . [Why not] first assume that it has been established everywhere and see whether we like it?” he is writing, with Godwin, in the unconstrained tradition of rational constructivism opposed by Hayek, a classical liberal libertarian.

These examples illustrate the tremendous value of A Conflict of Visions. Sowell’s book helps us to see below the surfaces of others’ views and our own; it enables us to understand • and question more deeply. Readers familiar with Sowell’s other works will know that he is toward the “constrained” end of the spectrum, a strong advocate of classical economic and political liberty. But instead of mangling his opponents, Sowell respects the complexities of their arguments and visions (as well as those with which he is largely in agreement) and treats them without rancor. It is a rare triumph for a philosophical work to clarify so much so well.  (Mr. Stewart is an advertising copywriter and a free-lance writer in Rochester Hills, Michigan.)

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