“It would be good to be able to say that we should dispense with visions entirely, and deal only with reality. But that may be the most utopian vision of all. Reality is far too complex to be comprehended by any given mind.”  – Thomas Sowell

A Conflict of Visions, written by Thomas Sowell and first published in 1987, is a book about why it is that political questions, unlike scientific questions, do not appear to have any one answer that is acceptable to everyone. This is an ever present problem that persists even when everyone involved has the same goal in mind, to promote the public good.

Sowell tells us that this can be explained through the theory that there are two primary ways to view man and the interaction between man and society; the constrained and unconstrained visions. These two visions are naturally in conflict with each other due to their incompatible assumptions of the nature of man and society; the conflict between them giving rise to the book’s title.

The constrained vision tells us that man is limited by his past, his present, and his physiology. Man is inherently imperfectible, and is driven primarily by self-interest. The unconstrained vision holds that man, whilst perhaps limited by his past and physiology to some degree, is innately good, or at the very least a blank slate, and that the evils of society are products of institutions and structural incentives rather than a reflection of man’s basic nature or limitations. One is immediately struck that this is very much not a new argument. It is particularly reminiscent of the debate on the state of nature that followers of the likes of Hobbes and Rousseau engaged in.

Sowell also writes of a type of vision he calls the ‘hybrid vision’, of which he offers three primary examples;Marxism, Utilitarianism, and Fascism. These ‘hybrid visions’ are visions of the nature of man and society that take from both the unconstrained and constrained visions and create something purely their own. Sowell does state that this can be done in either an internally consistent or internally inconsistent fashion, and that this will rather depend on the theory in question at any particular time. To give an example of a hybrid vision Sowell states that while Fascism took symbols and certain beliefs from the constrained vision, the actions and the systems that fascists sought to create were products of the unconstrained vision. They used key aspects of the constrained vision (loyalty to one’s people, obedience, etc) and placed them under the control of a totally unconstrained leader who would reshape society at will to remove imperfections and lead their people to the promised Utopia. Sowell makes an interesting argument here that, due to this synthesis of visions, both the political left and the political right see Fascism as being a product of an adversarial vision. Essentially he argues that the left say that Fascism is a far-right doctrine, whilst the right say that Fascism has a central component of socialism in both concept and execution, and thus it cannot be right-wing. Sowell makes the further observation here that the existence of hybrid visions and inconsistent visions, means that it is rather simplistic to say that the unconstrained vision is left-wing and the constrained vision is right-wing. He argues that Marxism is left-wing but does not purely contain elements of the unconstrained vision whilst libertarianism is generally considered to be right-wing,  but in many aspects also holds to an unconstrained view of human nature.

It should come as no surprise then, that the book is filled with quotations and commentaries on the work of Hobbes, Locke, Rawls, Galbraith, Edmund Burke, Hume and Rousseau. It is a credit to Sowell’s eloquence that these sections of the book, despite being quite lengthy in presentation, do not slow the pace of the book or give one the feeling that the book is designed purely for academics who are intimately familiar with the field. The book is very much designed to be read by people of varying ability and knowledge whilst still conveying its core message: that good people can disagree on political matters for understandable and defendable reasons. Sowell’s eloquence, and his ability to discuss complicated matters in a fashion the majority of people can understand, does highlight one of the reasons why he is considered so important to the modern Classical Liberal movement. He is both able and willing to put himself into the public discourse and to argue for the correctness of Liberal ideals in a fashion that the public can understand, as opposed to the ever growing tendency of academics to communicate in a fashion that ensures only other academics understand them.

A large portion of the book concerns itself with interactions between those who hold these different visions and how they appear to each other. Sowell argues that holders of a constrained vision look at those who hold an unconstrained vision as being naive, perhaps dangerously so, but ultimately believe them to have good intentions. Holders of an unconstrained vision are mostly unable to actually understand the viewpoint of holders of a constrained vision. To holders of the unconstrained vision, Sowell argues, institutions do not provide positive incentivisation or structural opportunity to citizens, or at least not as much as their theoretical replacements could and would provide. Anyone who fights for the continued existence of these institutions or societal structures, despite the clear evidence that these institutions privilege one over another and are integral to the continuation of societal inequality, must be one of two things. They may be compromised, in that they benefit from the system and so wish to perpetuate it, or they may be bigoted, in the sense that they want others to be oppressed by the system even if they do not personally benefit from the system. Conversely the constrained vision is, in its treatment of political, societal and cultural institutions, essentially Burkean in outlook. It accepts that these institutions are imperfect, but that this imperfection does not invalidate the societal good that they deliver, and that whilst change is in an integral part of life, both individually and as a societal or cultural entity, one cannot just charge headlong into the void and expect things to work out. Essentially in the constrained vision there are no solutions, only trade-offs. Any attempt to fix these institutions, without recognition of the benefits they provide, can lead to a situation in which the replacement does not work because it does not fully understand what it is replacing. Reading through Sowell’s description and explanation of the constrained vision, I can’t help but feel that, in many ways, the constrained visions could be summarised through the phrase ‘the perfect is the enemy of the great and the good alike”.

One must wonder if Sowell’s theory, for all his professions that he holds the constrained view of mankind, does not reflect a certain utopian view of man’s rational nature and/or behaviour. By positing that everyone holds particular views of human nature, he showcases a view of mankind that is profoundly rational, and that views political conflict as being about balancing these visions through continual change and development. A more pessimistic individual could argue that politics is mostly a matter of identity and that the vast majority of people’s opinions on political matters are not sufficiently understood by even the people who hold them, and that politics is more an attempt to signal to their peers or to otherwise fit in with a predominant political or social culture or subculture. Sowell’s theory privileges rational debate, but one could easily argue that on many political issues rational debate is not possible due to the emotive nature of certain topics, the desire to preserve one’s identity by aligning with one’s chosen group, and the entrenched political narrative. Consider the abortion debate. One side could call you a murderer, the other could call you a slaver. Both sides are equally committed and sincere in their adherence to their viewpoints, but at the same time, both viewpoints can be challenged quite easily.The nature of the problem resembles a Sorites paradox and ensures that no incontrovertible final answer will be reached on the subject. I do wonder if one could take every pro-life activist, and every pro-choice activist, and get them to explain their opponent’s viewpoint in the strongest form possible, and why that argument is incorrect and they themselves are correct, how many of them would even be aware of the arguments that their opponents hold, beyond the most base level of understanding.

Having said that, one must query if Sowell’s theories actually apply to everyone, as he argues, rather than just to a particular ‘intellectual elite’ that has considered their stance on human nature. It is possible that Sowell is fundamentally right in his hypothesis that political differences, at a certain high-level of conceptualisation, are driven by differing views of the state of nature, but that these same theories are then taken by politicians and policy formulators and fed through the medium of the public (along with their attached biases) before becoming actual policies. Sowell does discuss this point briefly, and he proposes that vision can be separated from one’s idea of how society should be and what politics should be adopted. He concludes that adherence to a particular vision is very much not a 0-1 system, and that people hold these visions to varying degrees. In fact, Sowell argues that it is impossible for a person to hold a particular vision absolutely.

Finally, whilst probably not Sowell’s intention, one does wonder if these visions are byproducts of the Christian history of the West, one finds in arguments on the state of nature, and the theory of constrained and unconstrained visions, what is essentially an argument about man’s biblical fall from grace. This might lead the reader to ask a series of questions; Is our understanding of man being unconsciously shaped by the long infusion of Christian concepts into the collective tradition of the West? Does the constrained vision speak of the Fall whilst the unconstrained speaks of recapturing Eden? It is worth questioning, and Sowell does not, at least in A Conflict of Visions, if these visions are due to this Christian history. If so, what about the visions in other regions of the world, particularly those who were not conquered by one of the religions of the Book. Do the Chinese, for instance, hold different ‘visions’ due to the Confucian infused culture; does India hold different ‘visions’ due to the impact of Hinduism on their cultural development? One gets the feeling as one goes through the book that Sowell is aware of this but he never really delves into detail on the subject.

Overall A Conflict of Visions offers rather a lot to those who are interested in learning more about  why political differences exist, both in its own unique work and in Sowell’s explanation of more classical theories concerning man’s place in society and man himself. It is a rather fair book in its handling of both visions, despite Sowell’s public statements of adherence to the constrained vision. Beyond that, and beyond the joy of simply reading Sowell’s work, it also conveys important practical lessons as to how we should consider our political opponents and how they view the world. A libertarian might agree with a left-wing individual on a number of social issues, and that may lead the left-winger to think the libertarian is essentially a left-winger, but if they’re counting on the libertarian chap to support all left-wing policies, they may be unpleasantly surprised with the libertarian’s answer after they’ve asked him to support government-led market intervention.

If you only know people’s actions, but not the drive that creates them, you do not truly know that person, and you will not be able to predict their behaviour with any certainty outside of previously observed experiences.

“Visions are like maps that guide us through a tangle of bewildering complexities. Like maps, visions have to leave out many concrete features in order to enable us to focus on a few key paths to our goals. Visions are indispensable—but dangerous, precisely to the extent that we confuse them with reality itself.”Thomas Sowell


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Burkean Journal.