Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell, that brilliant modern renaissance man, has written a book, A Conflict of Visions, describing the two major worldviews being exhibited today. While he doesn’t quite advocate for one or the other, his clear presentation of both make one worldview clearly stand above the other. These worldviews speak to the very foundation of what people ultimately believe about human nature. As such, different opinions will naturally result from each of the visions. 

Although the world does not neatly divide into two succinct views, Sowell identifies two main visions that seem to encompass much of what we run into today. He has labeled them the Constrained View and the Unconstrained View. The heart of each viewpoint goes back to whether one believes man is basically good and perfectible and moving towards that perfection, or whether one believes man is fallen, tempted to make bad choices and that options available are always trade-offs. 

Those who hold the constrained view recognize man’s inherent failings and the vanity of trying to change human nature. Rather, the desire is to create systems that encourage responsible and moral behavior and avoid systems that don’t. 

In contrast, the unconstrained view believes that “man [is] capable of directly feeling other people’s needs as more important than his own and therefore of consistently acting impartially, even when his own interests or those of his family were involved.” This is not a description of most people, but about the very essence of man. 

Sowell goes on to detail many ways in which these two worldviews diverge. For instance, one view states that life is a series of trade-off, each with their own pros and cons. The other view believes that perfect solutions are possible, and that there will be no price to be paid if only the “correct” solution is proffered. This is perfectly seen in the difference between our Founding Fathers, who compromised and created systems of compromise because they knew a perfect solution was not possible, and the French Revolutionaries that envisioned a day when bloodshed would end, “when all people will have become equally devoted to their country and its laws.” It is pragmatism vs. utopia.

As pertains to knowledge and reason, the constrained and unconstrained visions again diverge. The constrained sees knowledge as broadly diffused among the population, not necessarily articulated, but known by experience passed down throughout the ages. In contrast, the unconstrained believes all knowledge to be attainable by individual humans and as such places great emphasis on education and discussion. To the follower of the constrained view the simple vastness of knowledge in existence makes the difference between the most educated and the most ignorant insignificant. The unconstrained believer, however, sees the most educated as the most enlightened and far above the ignorant masses. One trusts the people, the other trusts intellectuals to govern. One looks to history for wisdom, the other to youth. 

The vision each has of social processes diverges as well. Since it believes in man’s ability to conquer all knowledge, the unconstrained favors social process that are planned to achieve certain outcomes. They not only believe this is possible, but that the most advanced people can actually achieve it. Contrariwise, “[i]n the constrained vision, where man -- individually and collectively -- lacks both the intellectual and moral prerequisites for such deliberate, comprehensive planning, order evolves historically without design and more effectively when when it is designed.” With two different visions of how social processes should and do work, one result is a different understanding of freedom. While the constrained vision looks at the process to determine fairness, the other looks at the outcome. If someone is denied whatever it is they are seeking, the unconstrained chalks this up to some form of unfairness which can be remedied by the intellectuals.

Another big difference between the two competing vision manifests itself in the respective beliefs about equality. Ironically, the unconstrained view, with its devotion to the idea that man is perfectible, sees mankind in pessimistic terms. While all are capable of achieving greatness, most don’t. Therefore, the gap is very large, necessitating more and more control by the elite. While within the constrained vision, the gap between potential and actual is much smaller. The ordinary person is assumed, by virtue of the fact that he is part of the larger mass of knowledge, to be almost the equal of his intellectual superior. In fact, while the authority may boast more knowledge in his speciality, he does not have superiority over the general population in all other matters. Therefore, the elite have no right to restrict the choices of the masses. As the constrained vision holds that people are generally more equal to each other, they seek to diffuse the decision making processes equally to the wisdom of the masses. The unconstrained, believing in greater inequality at the outset, would rather equalize the final outcome. 

When it comes to the role and use of power, the different worldviews necessarily arrive at different conclusions. Those with an unconstrained view, believing as they do that people are reasonable and therefore can be reasoned with, eschew violent power and seek to find “root causes” for crime and other power mis-matches. Understanding will subdue conflict and before understanding has taken place, the elites must be given more decision-making power. In the constrained view, however, aggression is to be expected from a fallen and flawed people. The best and least invasive thing to be done is to structure society and the system to discourage bad behavior. So this view is much more likely to believe in law and order and strong national defense.

The most pernicious difference between the two visions comes in the understanding of justice. Since the unconstrained view believes “that man is capable of foreseeing and controlling the social consequences of his decisions” he must act to create just results. This places the demand, not on just or impartial rules, but on the outcome. If an outcome is deemed unfair, then actions must be taken, AND CAN BE TAKEN, that would lead to a fair result. The unconstrained vision believes man is almost omniscient in his ability to create a just world. Some rights are given precedence and others subsumed in the endless search for perfect justice. But the constrained vision believes this ad hoc form of justice to be detrimental and destabilizing to the institutions designed to provide actual justice. The constrained vision believes that man is incapable of effectively monitoring and controlling all the results of his actions. He cannot possibly understand the complex effects of this kind of erratic justice in search of a utopian ideal. 
Sowell takes no side and I believe he accurately presents both sides. For me, since I believe in a Biblical worldview that states man is fallen and flawed, the constrained view makes the most sense. The book is rich in examples and details and had me engrossed from the beginning. I cannot help but wonder how anyone can hold to the unconstrained worldview after its numerous failures and obvious counterfactuals. But, people do not want to believe we are sinners in need of a savior. They’d rather BE that savior!

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