A CONFLICT OF VISIONS, by THOMAS SOWELL,

BOOK SUMMARY

Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions[1] details the role of two alternative worldviews, the constrained and unconstrained vision, and their impact on political discourse. Exemplified by Adam Smith, the constrained vision accepts as a given man’s inherent limitations and argues for the importance of positive trade-offs and process in shaping public policy (Sowell 10). The unconstrained vision, endorsed by William Godwin, argues for complete solutions to problems and outcome-oriented decision-making based on a belief in the perfectibility of man (15).

           

The distinction between these visions can be illustrated by the judicial process. A person with a constrained vision values consistency in the application of law, accepting the fact that the consistent application of an imperfect body of law will not resolve every case ideally. Justice Antonin Scalia famously remarked “The judge who always likes the result he reaches is a bad judge.”[2] Instead, proponents of this consistency seek to avoid the greater problem of partiality in judging that would naturally favor certain groups over others and perhaps do even greater harm to the marginalized groups that outcome-based decision-making would seek to protect. Adherents to the unconstrained vision, such as legal scholar Ronald Dworkin, would seek to come to the most just outcome of every case by tailoring the application of law the to the individual facts and parties of each case according to the judges’ moral views (52). On one hand, the unconstrained vision seeks ideal outcomes, but it does so by putting a great deal of faith in the capacity of judges to consistently do justice.

            The constrained view not only reflects an economic cost-benefit approach, but also takes as a given man’s fallen nature. Since man cannot act with pure motives, society should seek to make the most of an imperfect situation through policies such as the free market, which creates economic value through man’s self-interested pursuits. The free market idea is not an endorsement of greed — Sowell even points out Smith’s “repeatedly negative depictions of capitalists, unrivaled among economists until Karl Marx” (20) — but a recognition of man’s inherent limitations. This vision aligns with a Christian view of fallen human nature and suggests a distinction between the kingdoms of the church and state. The church concerns itself with man’s relationship to God and the dangers posed by sinful desires like greed. State structures such as the economy, by contrast, seek to control the external harm caused by man’s fallen nature.

            The unconstrained view, by contrast, has a more utopian aim based on the belief in man’s capacity for intellectual and moral perfection. Under this view, the differentiation between the two kingdoms essentially collapses. Unlike the constrained vision, under which the state chiefly concerns itself with the external impacts of human behavior, the unconstrained vision emphasizes the need for purity of human motives (21). Regardless of possible benefits to the society as a whole, under the unconstrained vision, a free market would allow unjust windfalls by rewarding capitalists who act purely out of self-interest. By concerning itself not only with external harm, but internal intention, the unconstrained vision would suggest a government that goes beyond the domain of the temporal state and involve itself in the realm of the church as well.

            The constrained vision runs through the structure of the United States’ Constitution. Based on the assumption that the state will seek to increase its power, the founders included both the separation of powers and checks and balances.[3] Instead of having power rest with a single national government or in a variety states, the founders created a federal system that allows for areas of both federal and state sovereignty. Likewise, rather than consolidate all legal power in a single branch of government, they granted the legislature the exclusive power to make law, the judiciary the exclusive power to apply it to individual cases, and the executive the exclusive power to carry it out. Further, branches check each other’s power through mechanisms like appointment, impeachment, and the veto. These structures fundamentally reflect a constrained vision that assumes governmental structures will jealously guard their own power with the benefit of preventing the accumulation of too much power in any one branch. In The Federalist no. XV, Hamilton grounds the purpose of government generally in man’s fallen nature, writing, “[T]he passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.” By contrast, the unconstrained vision would favor the type of expediency offered by blending branches together. In the face of congressional deadlock, the Supreme Court may update a statute through interpretation or the President may seek to make law through executive orders or agency actions. Where adherents of the constrained vision would use government structures to avoid the danger of tyranny, followers of the unconstrained vision might see those same structures as impeding necessary state action.

            At its core, this “conflict of visions” reflects a fundamental disagreement about the nature of mankind. A belief in man’s fallen nature justifies a constrained vision under which the state makes tradeoffs for the liberty and safety of its subjects and the church concerns itself with man’s redemption through Christ. An unconstrained vision relies on a belief in man’s inherent perfectibility and seeks to combine the two kingdoms into one.

[1] Sowell, Thomas. A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. Basic Books, 2007.

[2] https://www.politico.com/story/2013/01/scalia-the-constitution-is-dead-086853

[3] See, for example: The Federalist no. IX (describing the benefits of federalism) and The Federalist no. XLVII (warning of the tyranny inherent to the accumulation of multiple powers in a single branch).