Arnold Kling  

Sowell's A Conflict of Visions

Personality and Ideology: A Q... New Commanding Heights Watch...

My excuse for not reading A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell was that I had already read a fair amount of his other work, and how much new could he have to say? But John Baden pressed me to read it, and it was very worthwhile.

Everyone should read this book, but few people will, so let me try to summarize it.

I think of the book as describing two fundamental differences between left and right. One is that the right thinks that social problems primarily reflect basic constraints, while the left thinks that they reflect the failure of good to triumph over evil.

For example, on health care, I will say that as individuals we want unlimited access to medical services without having to pay for them, but that this desire faces the constraint that it is economically unsustainable. On the left, it is an article of faith that the main problem is, as someone once said to me in a Q&A session, a lack of political will. Or, as another example, the front page story in today's Washington Post is about health care industry lobbying, which fits well with the left's narrative that our health care would be fine if it were not for those evil profiteering private sector actors.

The other difference between left and right concerns information and decision-making. Richard Thaler speaks for the left.

Some critics contend that behavioral economists have neglected the obvious fact that bureaucrats make errors, too. But this misses the point. After all, wouldn't you prefer to have a qualified, albeit human, technician inspect your aircraft's engines rather than do it yourself?

He is saying that experts should make decisions for others. Sowell describes this as the "surrogate decision-maker." For the left, "society" should make decisions, and proper experts should make decisions for society. That is why Thaler is happy that the Obama Administration is going to dictate more strictly the types of mortgages people can have.

Those of us on the right think that knowledge is embedded in systems that evolve over time. The experts are not really smarter than markets.

The left believes that wise and moral experts could solve problems if not for their evil opponents. The right believes that the so-called experts do not have nearly enough knowledge to be dictating to everyone else. Think of the late William F. Buckley's remark that he would rather be ruled by a set of people randomly chosen from the Boston phone directory than by the Harvard faculty.

Overall, I come away from A Conflict of Visions very pessimistic, because my views are fundamentally different from those on the left. We will talk past each other, and no one will get anywhere. Moreover, I can see why the left would not want me to be able to experiment with a non-statist society. From their point of view, it would be immoral for me to secede from their utopia. If Patri Friedman ever creates a seastead, its inhabitants will be imprisoned for tax evasion, treason against the planet, or somesuch.

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COMMENTS (21 to date)
Grant Gould writes:

I have to say that I came away with the opposite view -- that economic freedom is a better match for the left's vision than the right's.

The perpetually increasing prosperity and the cultural dynamism created by economic growth will fit far, far better with people who believe in the unconstrained vision and in opportunities for good to beat out evil in spite of social constraints. The constrained-vision rightists will always fight economic dynamism because of affluence's ability to unglue social traditions.

What I took from Sowell is that left and right will always oppose the causes and effects of economic freedom, but that at least we might be able to market it to the left. The right will always hate the outcome.

Similarly in the matter of expert guidance -- the leftist view that expert guidance can help is in fact correct; it is the view that the experts must be chosen by "society" that is objectionable. The rightist view that nobody is any smarter than anybody else and that all of that book-larnin' is nothing but trouble and is never going to be amenable to the freedom of people to choose their own sources of guidance rather than the (traditional, generally religious) ones that "society" "chose" in the distant and dark past.

Sowell's rightist, constrained-vision types, who disdain social change and actual experts, will always turn against economic freedom when they see that it causes social change and actual expertise to emerge. Sowell's leftists, by contrast, might find that they enjoy it.

Adam writes:

I think it is wrong to interpret A Conflict of Visions as pertaining to the differences between left and right. Sowell lays out his categories very explicitly; there is constrained and unconstrained. You can just as easily have a conservative with an unconstrained vision of human nature and a liberal with a constrained vision, as the other way around.

The person who uses as a template for the unconstrained vision, for instance, is William Godwin; who is a libertarian anarchist that had as one of his influences Edmund Burke, who was a poster child for Sowell's constrained vision. Godwin is by no means a liberal in the modern American sense of the word.

Sowell is taking a much larger view than just the political debates of the moment.

Matt C writes:

Thaler's piece is well written. I think moderates will find it persuasive. I hope someone can get a rebuttal published in the NYT.

Bryan believes in experts. Obviously, he believes in markets too. But there might be some ground for interesting arguments there.

Overall, I come away from A Conflict of Visions very pessimistic . . .

Well, it's hard to be an optimistic libertarian in the U.S. these days.

I'd be interested in hearing ideas on what libertarians do have to be optimistic about. (Maybe you could get Tom Palmer to write a guest column.)

aretae writes:

First, I think it's perhaps the most powerful (for thinking) book I read this year...shifted my thinking.

Second, I agree wholeheartedly with Adam re: liberals and conservatives. It's not fundamentally about left and right. As per my Amazon review you might think of a person being either for or against the Iraq war based on either constrained or unconstrained visions. All 4 combinations are possible.

Third, I also wish to suggest that constrained and unconstrained are visions that may tint much of life, but tend to manifest on specific issues, and often a single person will have different visions of different issues. For instance, a neo-con will often have a constrained vision of health care reform, and an unconstrained vision of the Iraq war.

I wrote on Conflict of Visions and libertarianism about two weeks ago here.

Nathanael Snow writes:

They shall label Patri an atheist against their civil religion, which is what their superstition amounts to.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:


Here we are, talking past each other again.

The left sees every problem as rooted in the need for social change. Therefore you can write "increasing prosperity" is linked to "unconstrained vision", in a social sense, and, what's more, people who disagree with you deny "opportunities for good to beat out evil". Apparently I am a tool for the forces of evil. I must be stopped, then.

But a free-marketer says - you try your idea, I'll try mine. My idea might be better than yours. And, if it is, you can keep using your bad idea, freely, for as long as you like, until you are buried by reality. Lefties declare what ideas are good and bad, and use political power to coerce them - bad ideas are not allowed!

Reality is not allowed to intrude on a leftist paradise. Hence the urge to keep increasing the stakes and the purview, to squeeze out competition. This is EXACTLY the opposite of what free-marketers believe, and EXACTLY the opposite of what is required for genuine progress.

We probably even disagree on what "reality" means. I think it means that an idea is so powerful that (through its own force and nothing else) it bankrupts and displaces the entrenched interests, whether social or technical. Possibly your interpretation is that a white paper is so powerful that a bureaucracy is created to implement it planet-wide. Kind of like global warming.

Jesse writes:

Thomas Sowell wrote:

Perhaps people who are busy gushing over the Obama cult today might do well to stop and think about what it would mean for their granddaughters to live under sharia law.

That's the thing about people like Sowell: they would never stoop to thinking in black-and-white moral terms.

That's why conservatives always insist that military spending be justified by rigorous cost-benefit analyses, for example. You have to look at the probability of a catastrophic event, not just its severity.


RD writes:

If Bryan Caplan has not already mentioned it recently, he wrote a very good review on Sowell's book a while ago, but the file is not coming up on his web site anymore.

I wish Sowell had tried to branch out more for his examples of the two visions -- he kept going back to the same people for quotations.

aretae writes:

@Jeremy: While I agree that you and Gould may be talking past one another, I think that in this case, Gould has made a very good point that you have missed, while complaining about some other pieces.

Gould seems to have said that the leftists, while admittedly fighting tooth and nail against economic growth's causes NONETHELESS may be fertile ground for supporting economic growth's effects, due to their fondness for results that would undermine "tradition". Perhaps that is a path to talking with left-leaners.

@Gould: I hardly think it's fair to suggest that the right thinks that no one's smarter than anyone else. The Ph.D.s who write books like Sowell's certainly disagree. The careful line is that nobody is smarter than the collective accreted wisdom of centuries built into the system itself.

However, bravo for pointing out that "tradition" and "dynamic growth" are in real conflict...and just as in Virgina Postrel's work, the people who are attached to stasis are not going to get along with the effects of growth.

On the other hand...I think that by the time you've gotten there, you're not in left-right territory any longer.

Grant writes:

I haven't read his book, but from I've read of it here I wouldn't want to. Unless these reviews are missing something, Sowell seems to ignore the source or expertise and knowledge in society?

Obviously experts can be better-informed than lay-people; comparative advantage and all that. But the knowledge of experts doesn't just appear out of nowhere, it has to be gained via all sorts of costly methods. So the question in my mind is what economic system provides the sort of incentives for experts to cultivate knowledge and use it on behalf of non-experts?

The principal-agent problem when hiring an expert in a market extends to elections and bureaucracies as well, so I don't see governments as being able to better use available experts than markets.

R. Magni writes:

you misunderstand the importance Sowell places on tradition. It is not a static tradition that is important. Tradition can fluctuate, indeed he assumes it does in his example of arguments between x and y, where x represents previous generations. If x represented a static generation, he need not consult the knowledge of the ages, rather he could just look at the previous generation by itself. In that sense, affluence’s ability to alter tradition is of little concern, because it follows the natural ebb and flow of societal history, and as such relates to Sowell’s broader point of systemic reason. Those who share the constrained vision of man would not be perturbed by a shift in societal norms, so long as such shifts are the progeny of systemic rationality. In the case under discussion, the free market does an excellent job providing that systemic reason. Gould, you have confused an objection to societal changes stemming from articulated rationality with a systemic rationality. An individual who dictates traditions based on what he or she deems best should be seen as unpalatable, whereas shifts in tradition based societal systems are acceptable. Therefore, any objection to the right’s ability to embrace economic freedom cannot be made on the basis of some notion the right is unable to embrace any kind of change.

Additionally, the left could not be as open economic freedom, because of their support of articulated rationality. Such a method of reasoning presupposes a single optimal way of achieving prosperity, thus undermining competition and the choices of individuals (as those in power would deem individual choice unnecessary, simply because they’ve already discovered the “optimal” policies).

aretae writes:

@RD: Thanks for the suggestion to go look at Bryan's critique of Sowell. It's here. On the other hand, I think Bryan's critique is somewhat misguided, as I discuss here.

@Grant: I think the book is worth reading. It's worthwhile to note that on Amazon, there are only 5 reviews out of 60-odd that are below a 4...and that these strongly positive reviews come from both sides of the standard political spectrum. The worst reviews are ones that don't like the admittedly dry history-of-ideas approach as compared to Sowell's traditional fare, and ones who had an obviously superficial reading of the book if they read it at all.

Sarge writes:

Gould -

It looks to me like you completely missed the point Sowell was trying to make about dispersed knowledge. The Constrained Vision that Sowell describes doesn't believe that nobody is smarter than anybody else. Rather, it is a stance that experts should be considered as such only within their respective field. That's why he used the example of Burke declaring that he revered the specialist within his own field, but not beyond. Chomsky may be an expert in the field of linguistics, but that doesn't bring any additional credibility to his anarcho-syndicalist political views. So in a sense, the Constrained Vision is one of society being guided by the experts; experts in linguistics teach at universities, experts in auto maintinence are mechanics, experts in medicine are doctors, etc. These various experts are best qualified to handle their respective line of work, but not anybody elses. So the expert guidence of society in the Constrained Vision is dispersed, decentralized, and based on specialization.

Or, more briefly, if Sowell's Constrained Vision was opposed to book learning as inherently destructive as you imply, then why on earth would Sowell have even written the book? "A Conflict of Visions" is, itself, the product of a great deal of book learning which, according to you, Sowell should be shunning rather than embracing.

And your statement that those with the Constrained Vision will inherently oppose the social change brought on by the marketplace makes me suspect you haven't spent much time actually reading those rightists you are opposing. "Letters to a Young Conservative" by Dinesh D'Souza, for example, makes the point that markets had much more to do with women's liberation than political actions by feminist activists. And he said that in praise of markets, not in condemnation.

Quick caveat, I am no fan of Dinesh D'Souza. I rather despise him, actually. But my point still stands; social conservatives much more often praise the dynamic change of the market than condemn it.

The Constrained Vision is not opposed to change. It simply believes that change is best affected by decentralized market processes than by centralized dictum.

gappy writes:

If he was so stricken by "A Conflict of Visions", Arnold probably did not read "The Vision of the Anointed". The latter contains the thesis of the former, but adds US policy case studies and a description of how the unconstrained vision is enacted in policy-making. Not all the case studies are convincing, as starting in the early 90's, Sowell has become increasingly partisan. However, as a whole, "The Vision of the Anointed" is the stronger and more persuasive book.

Peter Twieg writes:

I'd agree that being able to see policies in terms of tradeoffs between competing ends rather simply implementing "good" or "evil" policies is an important characteristic of a politically-mature mind, but is Sowell seriously acting as though the Right is fundamentally more aligned with this viewpoint than the Left? Give me a break - the economically mature mindset is very rarely employed consistently by partisans of either side, and is only used instrumentally in order to concern troll the "evil" policies of the other side.

Was the right-wing view of the Iraq War informed by sophisticated cost-benefit analysis? Climate change? Not to mention social policy: Is opposition to gay marriage the result of cost-benefit analysis as well? Unlikely.

I could accept that maybe economic knowledge is correlated with right-wing views (because, like it or not, most libertarians are categorized as right-wingers), but using this incidental fact to make a feel-good generalization about right-wingers in general is pretty laughable.

El Presidente writes:


"Rather, it is a stance that experts should be considered as such only within their respective field."

"So the expert guidence of society in the Constrained Vision is dispersed, decentralized, and based on specialization."

I think you explained Sowell pretty well, but this suggests that Sowell's concerns are with respect to scale and scope. I think these are remarkably helpful considerations when deliberating on the role of government(s) and policy. As we are all aware, there can be economies and diseconomies, which should be foremost in the minds of policymakers (a legitimate specialization) as they craft policy. But, when I read his book, it seems he presents these arguments not in terms of efficient progress toward any particular goal but rather as macro-level biases and preferences based upon core beliefs. So, he seems to be saying that in our minds we are always either to the left or right of efficient scale and scope. This cannot be factually correct, and it isn't likely to be explained in any way except for differing objectives or static circumstances. I think he makes us all out to be less pragmatic than we are capable of being. He might be right, but he's not very inspiring in this book. However, he deserves credit for clearly stating that he is dealing with archetypes (I think he used a different word) for purposes of illustration and argument.

I think his insistence on these particular frames doesn't do much to advance our understanding of each other's preferences. A good diagnostic approach would discuss values as well. He seemed to present his evaluation in terms of how we see the world ("vision", i.e. perspective), not what we want to get from the world or how we would like it to look at some point in the future ("vision", i.e. foresight). In the first instance, I think he adds something to our understanding. In the second, I think he leaves a lot to be desired. Kinda makes me want to read it again though.

Nico D writes:

I'll second the commentors who point out that it's hard to actually see much "constrained vision" anywhere on the right. Could one reasonably call, say, foreign policy under the Bush administration, cheered by many conservatives, or the war on drugs the product of a constrained vision? Or for that matter, how many right-wingers really support thorough economic liberty when it really comes down to it? I'd guess maybe 10% at most- and that's if you include libertarians who describe themselves as right-wing.

Sowell would probably think of social liberalism as "unconstrained", but it strikes me that social conservatives are the ones who want to control cultural development- at least as much as some on the cultural left.

I'm afraid this analysis seems to come down to the same thing as most: an ex post rationalization for policy preferences that one already holds for a variety of reasons.

dWj writes:

Who would Thaler, running an airline, rather check his airplane engines, a mechanic chosen by himself, or one chosen by a government with little to no idiosyncratic knowledge of the circumstances of his aircraft, its flight history and plans, the airline, etc., and probably beholden to the mechanics union to boot?

El Presidente writes:


Why do you suggest that government is incapable of hiring experts? Why does the government mechanic have to be ignorant?

Sarge writes:

"I'll second the commentors who point out that it's hard to actually see much 'constrained vision' anywhere on the right. Could one reasonably call, say, foreign policy under the Bush administration, cheered by many conservatives, or the war on drugs the product of a constrained vision?"

Nico D -

As far as foreign policy goes, you are pretty much spot on. And, in point of fact, Sowell himself mentions in the book that the idea of nation building is in opposition to the Constrained Vision. Therefore an arbiter of the Constrained Vision should tend toward isolationism in the political realm. In the CV, the whole point of having a strong military is to make isolationism a viable strategy via deterrent. It's a pity that Sowell himself seems to have forgotten his own words; not just in this book, but also when he said "Before the Iraq war I was quite disturbed by some of the neoconservatives, who were saying things like, 'What is the point of being a superpower if you can't do such-and-such, take on these responsibilities?' The point of being a superpower is that people will leave you alone."

It seems to me that the quality of Sowell's commentary has gone down in recent years. But this does not take away from the important and scholarly work he has done in the past.

El Presidente -

"He seemed to present his evaluation in terms of how we see the world ('vision', i.e. perspective), not what we want to get from the world or how we would like it to look at some point in the future ('vision', i.e. foresight). In the first instance, I think he adds something to our understanding. In the second, I think he leaves a lot to be desired."

In fairness to Sowell, he did state in the intro to his book (or the most recent printing of it, anyway) that the scope of the work was entirely within the realm of the former. And you are right that the strength of the book is in dealing with archtypes. There is an inherent difficulty in definition with these matters, rather like the uncertainty principle in physics; the more precise you are in one measure, the more you can lose in another. By dealing in broad strokes, Sowell adds quite a bit of understanding from a "big picture" perspective without pretending to explain everything.

El Presidente writes:


That's fair. In my mind though, I can't see a way for him to continue his line of reasoning and integrate the former vision (perspective) with the later vision (foresight). Simply put, if we can't agree where we are, and we can't agree where we're going, we probably won't agree on how to get there if we ever get around to talking about it. As I said before, he may be right, but he isn't inspiring. Good food for thought though.

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