1999-08-14: A Conflict of Visions

A Conflict of Visions

Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (1987)

by Thomas Sowell (1930-)

This very interesting book ascribes the great political dichotomies to a fundamental difference in world view, or visions, which Sowell calls the constrained vision and the unconstrained vision. Although he maintains a pose of impartial description, it is clear that he subscribes to the constrained vision. This doesn’t lessen the usefulness of the work (at least to one with a similar vision). Here is his opening paragraph:

One of the curious things about political opinions is how often the same people line up on opposite sides of different issues. The issues themselves may have no intrinsic connection with each other. They may range from military spending to drug laws to monetary policy to education. Yet the same familiar faces can be found glaring at each other from opposite sides of the political fence, again and again. It happens too often to be coincidence and it is too uncontrolled to be a plot. A closer look at the arguments on both sides shows that they are reasoning from fundamentally different premises. These different premises – often implicit – are what provide the consistency behind the repeated opposition of individuals and groups on numerous, unrelated issues. They have different visions of how the world works.

I have reservations about terminology. What Sowell calls a ‘vision’ is somewhat different from the usual dictionary meaning. It is essentially what I mean by the term ‘stance’. Here is what he says:

A vision has been described 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 hypotheses to be tested against evidence. A vision is our sense of how the world works. … Visions are the foundation on which theories are built, … Logic is an essential ingredient in the process of turning a vision into a theory, just as empirical evidence is then essential for determining the reality of that theory. … Visions are all, to some extent, simplistic – though that term is usually reserved for other people’s visions, not our own. … A vision, as the term is used here, is not a dream, a hope, a prophecy, or a moral imperative … Here a vision is a sense of causation. It is more like a hunch or “gut feeling” than it is like an exercise in logic or factual verification.

Sowell presents several aspects and ramifications of his dichotomy of visions, drawing on writings going back to at least 1759. His theory, and the evidence he uses, seems a fruitful exercise for memetics. In this report, I would like to try to present the memes that distinguish the two visions. I represent memes as sentences expressing beliefs (and values).

Ch. 2 – Constrained and Unconstrained Visions

Constrained Vision

Unconstrained Vision

The Nature of Man

Human behavior is motivated by self-interest.

Human behavior is motivated by social good.

Human nature is essentially unchanged across the ages and around the world.

Human nature is beneficially changeable.

Self-interest is a more reliable predictor of behavior than moral precepts.

Humans have the potential to act for social good, even against self-interest.

Incentives affect behavior more than moral precepts.

Man’s understanding and disposition are capable of intentionally creating social benefits.

The preference for self-interest is due to circumstances.

The intention to benefit others is the essence of virtue.

Virtue is the way to human happiness.

Trade-Offs Versus Solutions

Prudence is the careful weighing of trade-offs.

Prudence is among the highest duties.

Waking virtue in humankind is among the highest duties.

Trade-offs have greater utility than solutions.

Rewarding existing behavior patterns is antithetical to the improvement of humankind.

A solution is achieved when it is no longer necessary to make trade-offs.

Achieving a solution justifies initial sacrifices or otherwise-unacceptable transitional conditions.

Social Morality and Social Causality

Intentional creation of harm is vice.

Intentional creation of benefits is virtue.

Unintentional creation of harm is negligence

Unintentional creation of benefits arise from prudent trade-offs.

Unintentional creation of benefits is negligible

War, poverty, and crime are social evils.

Peace, wealth, and a law-abiding society are social goods.

Social evils arise from the limitations and passions of humans.

Social evils demand explanation and solutions.

The ways social goods arise demand explanation.

Social evils can be solved with sufficient moral commitment.

Strategies  to restrain social evils must have costs, leading to prudent trade-offs.

The social order requires the people to exercise their sovereign power without constraint.

The social order requires checks and balances.

Every closer approach to the ideal should be preferred.

Ideals should be weighed against the cost to achieve them.

Costs associated with processes are secondary.

Summary and Implications

Man’s ability to directly satisfy good intentions is quite limited.

Intentions (sincerity, commitment, dedication) are central.

Systemic characteristics of social processes must be considered to determine their ability to produce social goods..

The goals of social policies justify their implementation.

Social evils arise from limited and unwise choices, given inherent human moral and intellectual limitations.

Amelioration of social evils is achievable by systemic characteristics of social processes such as moral traditions, marketplace, or families.

It is clear from this summary that Sowell can’t present a logically consistent formulation of the unconstrained vision. This affects the rest of the book, and leads to frustration in attempts to understand the examples of proponents of the unconstrained vision. Nonetheless, the book remains very interesting.

Sowell recognizes that the dichotomy is somewhat artificial, or perhaps a continuum (even multi-dimensional). He justifies the dichotomy as a realistic appraisal of two degrees of inclusion of human constraints in social theories. Sowell also says:

The dichotomy is justified in yet another sense. These different ways of conceiving man and the world lead not merely to different conclusions but to sharply divergent, often diametrically opposed, conlusions on issues ranging from justice to war. There are not merely differences of visions but conflicts of visions.

Ch. 3 – Visions of Knowledge and Reason

Constrained Vision

Unconstrained Vision

The Mobilization of Knowledge

Individual knowledge is inadequate for social decision-making.

Reason is paramount.

Social progress is possible because of social arrangements which transmit knowledge  from generations past

Experience (e.g., “collective wisdom”) is greatly overrated.

Social progress is possible because of social arrangements which coordinate knowledge  among a wide range of contemporaries.

A “cultivated mind” is able to aply reason to the facts.

Knowledge is predominantly experience – transmitted socially in inarticulate forms, such as habits, skills, emotional attitudes, tools, prices, traditions, institutions. (Burke: “wisdom without reflection”)

Validation is not to be indirect, collective, and systemic but direct, individual, and intentional.

Knowledge evolves over generations of experiences, winnowing out in Darwinian evolution what works from what does not work.

The mode of validation is articulated rationality, not general acceptance based on pragmatic experience.

There is more ‘intelligence’ incorporated in the system of rules of conduct than in man’s thoughts about his surroundings.

There is a profound inequality between the conclusions of “persons with narrow views” and those with “cultivated minds”.

Progress involves raising the level of “persons with narrow views”.

Relevant comparisons are between the beliefs of one person and another, rather than between systemic processes and an articulated rationality.

Knowledge is explicitly articulated, special and concentrated in a special few.

What is needed is to infuse “just views of society” into “liberally educated and reflecting members of society”, who in turn will be “to the people guides and instructors”.

Articulated versus Systemic Rationality

LAw evolves, incorporating the experience of generations of people.

Law is made, based on the needs of the current conditions.

The concentration of power leads to abuse of power, even in the well-intentioned.

Redressing inequalities justifies the concentraton of power in the hands of the competent.

Sincerity is a minor individual virtue of little importance to achieving good ends.

The sincerity of a competent individual is crucial to achieving good ends.

Sincerity is readily conceded, but less important than the overwhelming complexity of social concerns.

Sincerity is relative to the unconstrained vision, hence seldom attributed to  those with the constrained vision.

Fidelity to an individual’s roles (structured relationships) is crucial to achieving good ends within one’s competence.

Structured roles needlessly constrict the efficacy of individual reason and sincerity.

The young are too credulous to have trustworthy judgement.

The young can apply their reason without the prejudices of the old.

Ch. 4 – Visions of Social Processes

Constrained Vision

Unconstrained Vision

Order and Design

No manageable set of decision-makers can effectively cope with the enormous complexities of designing an economic, moral, or political system

Social issues can be reduced to a matter of “technical coordination” by experts.

Social processes evolve in competition with other processes, leading to selection of the most effective systems.

Experts can choose the best social alternatives from a full presentation of relevants facts.

The real difficulties are deliberate obstruction and obfuscation by vested interests.

Current issues differ profoundly from those of the past, rendering historically evolved beliefs irrelevant.

Process Costs

The cost of making decisions without perfect knowledge can be estimated, and incorporated into decision-making.

The increase of knowledge means that decisions made at an earlier time can be revised in the light of later knowledge.

“Social science” is based on a pretentious delusion of being scientific where the prerequisites of science do not exist.

Being bound by past decisions (e.g., constitutional law cases, marriage) is costly and irrational.

Process costs (e.g., occasional unjust judicial decisions) arising from unreliable social expectations  (e.g., application of laws and customs) outweigh the value of incremental individual knowledge, applied ad hoc.

Gratitude, loyalty, and patriotism are commitments to behave differently in the future than an impartial assessment of circumstances might suggest.

Application of the unconstrained vision requires the social coordination of millions of relevant facts which, in their entirity are not known to anybody.

A judge should ignore the law when it’s application would result in an injustice.

A society is analogous to a living organism, which cannot be constructively disassembled  ad reconstructed in a different way without fatal results.

The concept of “nation-building” is a fundamental misconception; nations may grow and evolve, but cannot be built.

Freedom and Justice

Social processes should extract the most social benefit from people’s limited potential at the lowest cost.

Individual intentions and justice are central considerations.

Scarce and valuable abilities should be rewarded, including natural endowments, skills cultivated at prosperous parents’ expense, and skills and orientations acquired from a favorable family environment.

Individual rewards should be merited, not merely reflecting privilege and luck.

The injustice of paying unmerited rewards must be traded off against the injustice of depriving society of available benefits by not paying enough to provide incentives to their production and utilization.

Leaders and policies should be chosen considering their dedication to the goal of ending privilege and promoting equality or merit.

Social benefits of individual skills can be elicited without individually unmerited rewards – at least in a more-developed society. Continuing to pay vastly different rewards retards the development of such a society.

The crucial characteristic of any social system is the set of incentives confronting the individuals in it (e.g., the explicit rewards and penalties of the marketplace and the law, and the internal psychic rewards and punishments evolved by the culture and its values).

Human nature itself is the central variable to be changed by social  processes.

Human nature is not fundamentally changing.

The great obstacles to social progress are the opposition of those benefiting from the existing social order. and the blindness and inertia of others.

Systemic characteristics largely determine individual endeavors.

The obstacles can be overcome by the commitment, intelligence, and imagination of those who have grasped the possibilities open to society.

Systemic interactions (e.g., the principles and channels of causation in a competitive economy) are also essential actual outcomes.

It is necessary to analyze, prescribe, and judge processes.

It is necessary to analyze, prescribe, and judge results.

Freedom is a characteristic of the process that permits choice (formally at least).

Freedom is lacking if the participant does not possess the means to avail himself of a choice.

Equality is fairness (formally at least) in competition.

Equality means equality of result, not access.

The book opens with the following quotation:

Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day. – Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays, 1938

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