Sowell: Summary and Implications

From A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, by Thomas Sowell, page 29.


Visions rest ultimately on some sense of the nature of man—not simply his existing practices but his ultimate potential and ultimate limitations. Those who see the potentialities of human nature as extending far beyond what is currently manifested have a social vision quite different from those who see human beings as tragically limited creatures whose selfish and dangerous impulses can be contained only by social contrivances which themselves produce unhappy side effects. William Godwin and Adam Smith are two of the clearest and most consistent exemplars of these respective social visions—the unconstrained and the constrained. Yet they are neither the first nor the last in these two long traditions of social thought.

When Rousseau said that man “is born free” but “is everywhere in chains,”69 he expressed the essence of the unconstrained vision, in which the fundamental problem is not nature or man but institutions. According to Rousseau, “men are not naturally enemies.”70 The diametrically opposite vision was presented in Hobbes’ Leviathan, where the armed power of political institutions was all that prevented the war of each against all71 that would otherwise exist among men in their natural state, where life would be “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”72 While the unconstrained vision of Condorcet led him to seek a society in which man’s “natural inclination” would coincide with the social good,73 Hayek’s constrained vision led to the conclusion that the “indispensable rules of the free society require from us much that is unpleasant”74—that is, man’s nature inherently could not coincide with the social good but must be deliberately subordinated to it, despite the unpleasantness which this entailed.

Given the wider capabilities of man in the unconstrained vision, the intentions which guide those capabilities are especially important. Words and concepts which revolve around intention—“sincerity,” “commitment,” “dedication”—have been central to discussions within the framework of the unconstrained vision for centuries, and the policies sought by this vision have often been described in terms of their intended goals: “Liberty, equality, fraternity,” “ending the exploitation of man by man,” or “social justice,” for example. But in the constrained vision, where man’s ability to directly consummate his intentions is very limited, intentions mean far less. Burke referred to “the Beneficial effects of human faults” and to “the ill consequences attending the most undoubted Virtues.”75 Adam Smith’s entire economic doctrine of laissez-faire implicitly assumed the same lack of correspondence between intention and effect, for the systemic benefits of capitalism were no part of the intention of capitalists.

In the constrained vision, social processes are described not in terms of intentions or ultimate goals, but in terms of the systemic characteristics deemed necessary to contribute to those goals—“property rights,” “free enterprise,” or “strict construction” of the Constitution, for example. It is not merely that there are different goals in the two visions but, more fundamentally, that the goals relate to different things. The unconstrained vision speaks directly in terms of desired results, the constrained vision in terms of process characteristics considered conducive to desired results, but not directly or without many unhappy side effects, which are accepted as part of a trade-off.

With all the complex differences among social thinkers as of a given time, and still more so over time, it is nevertheless possible to recognize certain key assumptions about human nature and about social causation which permit some to be grouped together as belonging to the constrained vision and others as belonging to the unconstrained vision. Although these groupings do not encompass all social theorists, they cover many important figures and enduring ideological conflicts of the past two centuries.

Running through the tradition of the unconstrained vision is the conviction that foolish or immoral choices explain the evils of the world—and that wiser or more moral and humane social policies are the solution. William Godwin’s elaboration of this unconstrained vision in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice drew upon and systematized such ideas found among numerous eighteenth-century thinkers—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Condorcet, Thomas Paine, and Holbach being notable examples. This general approach was carried forth in the nineteenth century, in their very different ways, by Saint-Simon, Robert Owen, and by George Bernard Shaw and other Fabians. Its twentieth-century echoes are found in political theorists such as Harold Laski, in economists like Thorstein Veblen and John Kenneth Galbraith, and in the law with a whole school of advocates of judicial activism, epitomized by Ronald Dworkin in theory and Earl Warren in practice.

By contrast, the constrained vision sees the evils of the world as deriving from the limited and unhappy choices available, given the inherent moral and intellectual limitations of human beings. For amelioration of these evils and the promotion of progress, they rely on the systemic characteristics of certain social processes such as moral traditions, the marketplace, or families. They conceive of these processes as evolved rather than designed—and rely on these general patterns of social interaction rather than on specific policy designed to directly produce particular results for particular individuals or groups. This constrained view of human capacities found in Adam Smith is also found in a long series of other social thinkers, ranging from Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century, through Edmund Burke and the authors of The Federalist Papers among Smith’s contemporaries, through such twentieth-century figures as Oliver Wendell Holmes in law, Milton Friedman in economics, and Friedrich A. Hayek in general social theory.

Not all social thinkers fit this schematic dichotomy. John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, for example, do not fit, for very different reasons, as will be noted in Chapter 5. Others take midway positions between the two visions, or convert from one to the other. However, the conflict of visions is no less real because everyone has not chosen sides or irrevocably committed themselves.

Despite necessary caveats, it remains an important and remarkable phenomenon that how human nature is conceived at the outset is highly correlated with the whole conception of knowledge, morality, power, time, rationality, war, freedom, and law which defines a social vision. These correlations will be explored in the chapters that follow.

Because various beliefs, theories, and systems of social thought are spread across a continuum (perhaps even a multi-dimensional continuum), it might in one sense be more appropriate to refer to less constrained visions and more constrained visions instead of the dichotomy used here. However, the dichotomy is not only more convenient but also captures an important distinction. Virtually no one believes that man is 100 percent unconstrained and virtually no one believes that man is 100 percent constrained. What puts a given thinker in the tradition of one vision rather than the other is not simply whether he refers more to man’s constraints or to his untapped potential but whether, or to what extent, constraints are built into the very structure and operation of a particular theory.

Those whose theories incorporate these constraints as a central feature have a constrained vision; those whose theories do not make these constraints an integral or central part of the analysis have an unconstrained vision. Every vision, by definition, leaves something out—indeed, leaves most things out. The dichotomy between constrained and unconstrained visions is based on whether or not inherent limitations of man are among the key elements included in the vision.

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, conclusions on issues ranging from justice to war. There are not merely differences of visions but conflicts of visions.

Comments are closed.

I Support Viewpoint Diversity


A politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities. We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.

An Interpretation of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory

This sidebar lists a series of posts which together make up an essay relating Moral Foundations Theory to today's politics, and even a little history, as viewed through The Independent Whig's six-foundation moral lens.


Venn Diagram of Liberal and Conservative Traits and Moral Foundations and

%d bloggers like this: