Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict Of Visions

A Conflict of VisionsIn his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Human Nature, Steven Pinker praised Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict Of Visions as the best overview of divergent political philosophies yet provided. It is to Pinker I owe my discovery of Sowell, and to Sowell I owe an expansive perspective on the history of Western political debate that is as elegant in its simplicity as it is forceful in its explanatory power. Sowell posits that all political philosophies can be roughly divided into two camps based on their presuppositions about the nature of man. The “unconstrained” vision treats humanity as having no innate nature, no predispositions or proclivities, and explains such vices as greed and violence as being the products of social institutions (capitalism or poverty, for example). The “constrained” vision, on the other hand, believes man has an innate nature that cannot be ignored or improved upon, and that social policies must therefore make allowance for our natural self-interest. Sowell charts the conflict of these visions across such battlegrounds as views on justice and equality, endeavoring not to favor one over the other but explain the nature of the disagreement.

I have had occasion, over the past few years, to see firsthand the myriad ways that differing conceptions of human nature impact upon political debate, but never before had I encountered so succinct an appraisal of the conflict or  so encompassing a description of the two main camps. Sowell grounds his book in a debate amongst 18th century political luminaries Adam Smith, William Godwin, Edmund Burke and the Marquis de Condorcet, whose conflicting ideas about human nature led all four men to advocate drastically different political programs, despite having in common a precocious morality that between them encompassed abolitionism, women’s rights, the right to self-determination of colonies and subsidized general education. The strength of Sowell’s work lies in his tracing the underlying “visions” that informed these ideas and extrapolating from them a program that is operative even today.

In the interest of brevity, I will confine myself to a discussion of equality, its importance to the two visions and their differing conceptions of it. The unconstrained vision, accepting no inherent differences in the nature and potential of mankind, measures the equality of a society in absolute terms, with the distribution of wealth, then as now, providing the ultimate test. There is also, however, a causality inherent in an unequal society. As Sowell puts it, “It was not merely that some have little and others have much. Cause and effect are involved: some have little because others have much.” No allowance is made for human ingenuity, for hard work or intelligence; everything is judged by the result. Those with the constrained vision, on the other hand, accept inequality as a regrettable but necessary aspect of a free society. They conceive of equality as a process rather than as a result, emphasizing a parity of opportunity rather than of outcome. Adam Smith, no lover of capitalists or human greed, nonetheless conceived an economic system that maximized its benefit to the public good (“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”).

The best representatives of the constrained vision in the modern age are Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, both laissez-faire economists extraordinaire, and both supremely concerned with the threat the pursuit of equality could pose to freedom. Thus Friedman writes,

A society that puts equality – in the sense of equality of outcome – ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interest.

Hayek, best known for his work The Road To Serfdom, in which he elaborated on the dangers of unchecked political power wielded in the name of benevolence, points out the inability of a governing body to coerce economic equality without simultaneously arrogating a political power that is, by its very nature, antithetical to a democratic society.

The automatic response to these arguments from those with the unconstrained vision is an attack on the sincerity or purpose of the constrained thinkers – surely they are merely advocating for a system that will most benefit them, at the expense of the poor? Sowell astutely points out that, for those with the unconstrained vision, sincerity and intelligence are extremely important, for they look to individual intellectuals or intellectual movements to provide the initial spark. They will not readily concede, for example, that Friedrich Hayek and Adam Smith were both exceptionally moral people, and, what’s more, as academic philosophers removed from the battlegrounds of capitalism, had little to gain from their advocacy. On the other hand, the constrained thinkers readily concede the integrity of their opponents.

The unconstrained thinkers, as Sowell never tires of repeating, seek solutions; the constrained thinkers look for the least painful trade-off. I include a clip of Margaret Thatcher addressing the House of Commons, where she is criticized for the growth in income inequality and cleverly retorts that, while inequality has indeed increased, so too has the general wealth and wellbeing of the poor. Whatever your politics or opinion of Thatcher (I cannot help but think her a political genius), this brief exchange encapsulates the constrained vs unconstrained conflict.

I have hardly done Sowell’s book justice; it is an exemplary work of political philosophy, far-reaching in its conclusions without giving in to bias or one-sided appraisal. I also happen to believe that the debate on human nature, so central to each of these questions, may finally give some ground to the probings of science, inevitably rendering some political positions untenable. I offer, as an example, our increasing understanding of the inherited nature of intelligence. A casual glance at IQ distribution over any large population will confound anyone subscribed to the possibility of absolute equality. If and how these newfound understandings are to be incorporated into a political program constitutes, in my judgment, the great philosophical challenge of the 21st century.