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Sowell: The Constrained Vision


From A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, by Thomas Sowell, starting on page 11.

The Constrained Vision

Adam Smith provided a picture of man which may help make concrete the nature of a constrained vision. Writing as a philosopher in 1759, nearly twenty years before he became famous as an economist, Smith said in his Theory of Moral Sentiments:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would react upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would, too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquility as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he would snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred million of his brethren. . . .2

The moral limitations of man in general, and his egocentricity in particular, were neither lamented by Smith nor regarded as things to be changed. They were treated as inherent facts of life, the basic constraint in his vision. The fundamental moral and social challenge was to make the best of the possibilities which existed within that constraint, rather than dissipate energies in an attempt to change human nature—an attempt that Smith treated as both vain and pointless. For example, if it were somehow possible to make the European feel poignantly the full pain of those who suffered in China, this state of mind would be “perfectly useless,” according to Smith, except to make him “miserable”,3 without being of any benefit to the Chinese. Smith said: “Nature, it seems, when she loaded us with our own sorrows, thought that they were enough, and therefore did not command us to take any further share in those of others, than what was necessary to prompt us to relieve them.”4

Instead of regarding man’s nature as something that could or should be changed, Smith attempted to determine how the moral and social benefits desired could be produced in the most efficient way, within that constraint. Smith approached the production and distribution of moral behavior in much the same way he would later approach the production and distribution of material goods. Although he was a professor of moral philosophy, his thought processes were already those of an economist. However, the constrained vision is by no means limited to economists. Smith’s contemporary in politics, Edmund Burke, perhaps best summarized the constrained vision from a political perspective when he spoke of “a radical infirmity in all human contrivances,”5 an infirmity inherent in the fundamental nature of things. Similar views were expressed by Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers:

It is the lot of all human institutions, even those of the most perfect kind, to have defects as well as excellencies—ill as well as good propensities. This results from the imperfection of the Institutor, Man.6

Returning to Adam Smith’s example, a society cannot function humanely, if at all, when each person acts as if his little finger is more important than the lives of a hundred million other human beings. But the crucial word here is act. We cannot “prefer ourselves so shamelessly and blindly to others” when we act, Adam Smith said,7 even if that is the spontaneous or natural inclination of our feelings. In practice, people on many occasions “sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others,” according to Smith,8 but this was due to such intervening factors as devotion to moral principles, to concepts of honor and nobility, rather than to loving one’s neighbor as oneself.9

Through such artificial devices, man could be persuaded to do for his own self-image or inner needs what he would not do for the good of his fellow man. In short, such concepts were seen by Smith as the most efficient way to get the moral job done at the lowest psychic cost. Despite the fact that this was a moral question, Smith’s answer was essentially economic—a system of moral incentives, a set of trade-offs rather than a real solution by changing man. One of the hallmarks of the constrained vision is that it deals in trade-offs rather than solutions.

In his later classic work, The Wealth of Nations, Smith went further. Economic benefits to society were largely unintended by individuals, but emerged systemically from the interactions of the marketplace, under the pressures of competition and the incentives of individual gain.10 Moral sentiments were necessary only for shaping the general framework of laws within which this systemic process could go on.

This was yet another way in which man, with all the limitations conceived by Smith, could be induced to produce benefits for others, for reasons ultimately reducible to self-interest. It was not an atomistic theory that individual self-interests added up to the interest of society. On the contrary, the functioning of the economy and society required each individual to do things for other people; it was simply the motivation behind these acts—whether moral or economic—which was ultimately self-centered. In both his moral and his economic analyses, Smith relied on incentives rather than dispositions to get the job done.

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