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Sowell and the Unrestrained Right
Thomas Sowell's 'A Conflict of Visions' offers us a warning that if the Right ceases to be based upon a constrained vision of society, it ceases to be a meaningful alternative to the progressive Left.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions.
Published in 1987 by the celebrated economist Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions is a timeless book – one that seeks to frame the great political debate of the centuries in a way that is true for every age and every place. Of course, that very sentence only makes sense to one side of that debate – the other side cannot fathom how any idea could possibly remain true for every time and place.
One side of this debate (the constrained vision) is characterized by a vision of constancy – one in which circumstance and technology may change radically, but human nature does not. The other side (the unconstrained vision) has a vision of the ever-present possibility that utopia may be achieved on Earth, a vision in which human beings have no natural constraints so long as there is sincerity (i.e., if everyone just really wanted peace on Earth we might achieve it), and unity of effort — the logical implication of which is that it is the skeptics who are standing in the way of utopia’s realization.
The debate hinges on what each side emphasizes and de-emphasizes, rather than outright refusal to engage with the other side’s premises. While some today will claim that human nature and reality are literally social constructs, most in the unconstrained tradition will admit that human nature exists, but will claim that it is confined to trivialities (ex., humans all eat, sleep, urinate, defecate, etc.), and therefore could not serve as a basis for political life.
On the other side, few in the constrained tradition argue that human beings can never learn or change. Most argue that (in the mirror image of the other side’s argument about human nature) the things that change are often the unimportant things, and the most important facts of human life never change. For example, while we can increase human lifespan, we will never eliminate death.
The constrained vision typically characterizes the political Right throughout nations and empires, and the unconstrained vision characterizes the political Left. Sowell points out that it isn’t simply true that Right and Left always and everywhere map neatly onto the two visions. He explains that visions, like models in science, can only imperfectly explain reality. They approximate the truth.
Sowell gives examples of thinkers who did not fit neatly into either vision (John Stuart Mill), as well as ideologies, such as Marxism and fascism, that contained elements of both. Marxism, for example, is constrained in its vision of the past and unconstrained in its vision of the future. In the oppressive past, mankind was brutally limited by circumstance and technology. In the liberated future, enlightened humans will be able to achieve an anarchist communist utopia. Fascism, on the other hand, is more complicated, but it is unconstrained in its vision of what the state and the supreme leader can achieve, and of what society can achieve through total unity of effort and will. It is constrained in its emphasis on violence and in its typical allegiances, which are those seemingly irrational ones occurring naturally in the human breast (place, nationality, etc.).
Sowell also demonstrates how different thinkers within one tradition could come to wildly different conclusions based on slightly different assumptions about initial conditions. Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes, Edmund Burke, Thomas Malthus, and Friedrich Hayek were all constrained thinkers. Edward Bellamy, John Kenneth Galbraith, George Bernard Shaw, and Thomas Paine were all unconstrained thinkers.
Both on the Left, and increasingly on the New Right, there are voices who express deep skepticism that a book written in 1987 could possibly tell us anything about contemporary politics. Admittedly, some of these voices are simply expressing the callowness of youth – the natural tendency of some young people in all times and places to insist that the past is dead and nothing can be learned from it. This natural tendency is typically combined with a distaste for reading books, a fascination with that which is new, and a preference for the latest entertainment technology – whether that be cards and dice, or social media. But regardless of the reasons for such skepticism, they are wrong, of course, and their insistence upon this skepticism tells us much about the vision of the world they (often unconsciously) operate within.
Because these visions are primary, coming before values and well before policies and politicians, an understanding of them can shed light upon contemporary politics. As I read the book, I couldn’t help but note areas where its lessons applied to modern debates. Perhaps because it is only natural for a man to be concerned with his own place and time and context, and although he is not merely a creature of his historical circumstances, he is by nature a creature most enthralled by that which is immediate and pressing to his own life.
In order to illustrate the lessons of the book in a way that readers will (hopefully) grasp readily, I’d like to consider its implications for one such debate. While I could never do justice to the book, and this essay is no substitute for reading it yourself, I hope that you will come away understanding not merely a little something about the politics of today, but also something of the conflict of visions itself.
The New Right
It is common among the new nationalists to insist that they have stumbled upon a truer, older form of conservatism that is to the right of the “centrist” or “liberal” ideologies of fusionism and libertarianism. While a deep exploration of this argument is beyond the scope of this essay, it is perhaps an implicit acceptance of the argument (made by the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin), that fascism and communism defined the polar ends of the political spectrum.
But Sowell points out that fascism is a hybrid vision that bears strong elements of both the constrained and unconstrained visions, giving thinkers on both the Right (Hayek, Jonah Goldberg) and the Left good reason to “see fascism as the logical extension of the adversary’s vision” (p. 126).
Fascism, or ultranationalism, was a hybrid vision because it was unconstrained in its locus of discretion (supreme leader) and constrained in its mode of discretion (emotional, irrational ties like race and nationality). “It is only when both the locus of discretion and the mode of discretion consistently reflect the underlying assumptions of either the constrained or the unconstrained vision that a given social philosophy can be unambiguously placed under either rubric” (p. 111-112).
The unconstrained vision argues that social decisions are “collective decisions by given individuals acting as surrogates entrusted with the well-being of others,” whereas the constrained vision prefers to allow social decisions to occur naturally by “whatever systemic interaction produces from the innumerable individuals exercising their own individual discretion in their own individual interests” (p. 106). Thus, the locus of discretion in the former is the surrogate empowered to act as the Platonic guardian of the collective will of the people, whereas the locus of discretion in the latter is the self-interested individual making decisions for his or her own life.
The unconstrained vision emphasizes decisions made for the common good on rationalistic grounds. Conversely, in the constrained vision “social decisions evolve systemically from the interactions of individual discretion, exercised for individual benefit… such as in a competitive market economy” (p. 106).
The New Right emphasizes the rejection of rationalism, and embraces human nature. But it prefers not to leave the exercise of discretion up to the self-interested individual and rather wishes to empower surrogates to act on behalf of the masses in pursuing the common good. It rejects the mode of societal decision-making that Sowell argues characterizes the constrained vision – that is, the emergent and unplanned direction that comes out of the chaotic interactions of millions of individuals who do not consciously seek to further the common good, but seek rather their own good.
This is most clearly seen in judicial philosophy. Common Good Constitutionalism is the New Right’s legal theory, which rejects strict adherence to text and tradition as ‘value neutral’ or ‘positivist.’ Instead, judges are to call upon their own understanding of morality when making decisions. And yet, according to Sowell, this is not a constrained approach to interpreting the law. Rather, the “black letter law” of William Blackstone, in which judges apply the law instead of sitting above it, is the approach of those who believe in the fallibility of human nature and who doubt the ability of individual judges to put aside their biases when making collective decisions for the common good.
Black letter law favors the “evolved systemic rationality” of legal tradition over the “explicitly excogitated individual rationality” of judges seeking to ascertain the common good on their own. We see again the constrained preference for decision-making that evolves naturally over time via a process of trial and error, rather than reason that is axiomatic and worked out from first principles. Both conservatives, and nationalists, sometimes claim to be the true adherents to this principle, accusing their opponents of forgetting it.
Common good constitutionalism at least pays lip service to the English common law tradition at times, of which Blackstone is perhaps the foremost jurisprudential figure. However, Blackstone did not merely advocate following “doctrines that are not set down in any written statute or ordinance but depend merely upon immemorial usage” (i.e., common law), but also “urged following the original intentions of those who wrote the law, seeking to ‘interpret the will of the legislator…’ by taking his words ‘in their usual and most known signification’ establishing their meaning ‘from the context’ if necessary and only as a last resort ‘when the words are dubious’ trying to carry out the intent or spirit of the law” (p. 199-200). In other words, Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia didn’t invent the idea of using original legislative intent to guide judicial decision-making.
This historical resonance of originalist thinking goes against the common claim of Common good constitutionalists that originalism has little precedent – that the Founders weren’t originalists, and used their own beliefs about natural law to guide judicial thinking. While there is likely some truth to this claim, it isn’t the whole story. Appellate judge J. Harvey Wilkinson, in Cosmic Constitutional Theory, cites ample evidence that “originalism has been around, in some form or another, since the first days of the Founding” (Wilkinson, p. 34).
It isn’t just judicial decisions where the New Right likes to mock process and procedure. Supposedly, the rule of law, with its due process and neutrality, holds conservatives back, forcing them to keep their gloves on while the Left fights unfairly. Of anything in liberalism, it is perhaps this that most earns the scorn of nationalist critics.
And of anything in liberalism, it is perhaps this that most earns the scorn of progressives and socialists. “Damn the rules, we know what is right and we are going to do it,” has been the rallying cry for radicals and revolutionaries and technocrats and social reformers throughout the ages.
And yet it is the constrained men and women who know that we do not in fact just know how to do the right thing, and that it is the rules that might possibly be the only thing we have that keeps us from doing the wrong thing. The hallmark of constrained thinking is an emphasis on process and procedure.
Unconstrained thinkers, who believe in results, think it is silly to care so much about how something is done when there are so many problems in the world to be solved, so many battles to be won. Constrained thinkers know that many of those problems cannot be solved (results can never be guaranteed – making it a fool’s errand to focus on them). Often, every attempt to achieve a desired result will fail, and the only outcome will be unintended consequences which cause more harm than good.
This is why constrained thinkers believe in leaving things well enough alone, focusing on that which can be controlled (process, rules), preserving that which has been tried and tested and is known to work well, showing skepticism towards that which is new and untested, and generally letting problems work themselves out in the emergent equilibrium of the marketplace. If we cannot trust men and women (including experts) to solve societal problems, we must let the common good come via natural bottom-up processes.
Perhaps nowhere is the debate between nationalists and conservatives over process vs. substance more fraught than the question of free speech, especially online. One Supreme Court case that is commonly cited in this debate is Marsh v. Alabama, in which the Court overruled a trespass conviction (for protestors at a shopping center) on free speech grounds. Sowell explores this case by drawing out the distinction between the constrained and unconstrained approach to rights.
The unconstrained argument in favor of the court’s ruling was that state action was necessary to protect the substantive rights of the protestors to exercise their freedom of speech, in order to prevent private actors (the owners of the mall) from inflicting injury upon them. This argument is often cited by those who wish to get rid of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which says that online platforms are not liable for the content published by individual users. State action (i.e., courts ruling in favor of lawsuits against social media platforms over the content published on their sites), populists tell us, is necessary to protect the speech of participants in Facebook and Twitter’s ‘public square.’
Yet, as Sowell points out, the justices operating under the constrained vision dissented from the majority opinion in Marsh, on the grounds that “the only question is whether the legal boundaries of property rights were rightly drawn, not what substantive result occurred within the bounds of discretion permitted by the owner” (p. 188). In other words, the First Amendment applies to the government, and it does not compel state action in order to require businesses to allow their property to be used as forums for anyone to say anything. This demonstrates that property rights figure heavily in the constrained vision and are rejected by the unconstrained vision.
Freedom and Equality
Sowell points out that when the cultural zeitgeist is dominated by one particular vision, the other vision must use the language of their opponents’ values when defining concepts. This is where debates about “true” freedom or “true” equality come from.
While these debates weren’t merely semantic, and there is something to be learned from the philosophical contortions each side went into to explain their redefinitions of the other side’s value (in other words, as a philosophical exercise, we do learn something interesting about freedom from the debates over what it really means, even if these debates are the product of the Left being forced to justify their own ends by redefining the Right’s ends as not really “true freedom”), understanding that they arise out of the redefinition of words does shed some light on what is otherwise sometimes a lofty, abstruse, and contentious debate.
For example, Sowell quotes Marx and Engels as arguing that, “only in community with others has each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible” (p. 117). They derided liberty as “bourgeois freedom,” and argued that true freedom occurred only in their own preferred society (pure communism).
Whether it is merely rhetorical (i.e., each side feels compelled to speak in the language of the day in order to win converts) or is a product of humans’ natural discomfort at ceding goods to their ideological opponents (people would rather argue that all good things go together than that their vision for society emphasizes certain goods to the detriment of others), few people are comfortable with saying “I don’t want freedom. I want equality,” or “I don’t want equality. I want freedom.” Instead, they argue that “real freedom occurs only in my preferred society where we have full equality” or “true equality only happens when we have liberty.”
We hear similar arguments today from those who argue that communitarian freedom, rather than political and economic liberty, is true freedom. Some of these people are part of the New Right.
Others on the New Right feel freer to mock liberty, including Rusty Reno and Patrick Deneen. Deneen has sneered at the idea that “free minds and free markets,” a popular slogan among libertarians and readers of the Wall Street Journal, is a conservative or right-wing idea. Yet Sowell points out that it is the constrained vision which believes individuals should be “free to choose,” and the unconstrained vision which believes individuals are incapable of choosing.
Interestingly, this stems in part from the disagreement over equality. “It is not over the degree of equality,” Sowell tells us, “that the two visions are in conflict, but over what it is that is to be equalized” (p. 155). The unconstrained vision would prefer to equalize “the material conditions of life” whereas the constrained vision sees individuals as equal in their ability to exercise discretion over their own lives.
“No one,” Sowell writes, drawing on A Theory of Moral Sentiments, “believed in the innate equality of human beings more than Adam Smith” (p. 147). But he meant an equality of process (“freedom of civil and economic action”), rather than an equality of social results (status, wealth). In part, this was because he believed that differences in intelligence and common sense (even between “a philosopher and a porter”) were relatively small and unimportant. In other words, rather than a left-wing idea, the belief that “all men are created equal” reflects a deeply constrained vision in which every human being is both a sinner and created in the image of God.
On the other hand, the unconstrained vision sees human beings as far more unequal in knowledge and intelligence. While unconstrained thinkers lament aristocracy and privilege, they nonetheless think it matters more than their ideological opponents think it matters. The key difference is on the question of whether or not there is a theoretical upper limit to the amount of wisdom, knowledge, intelligence, and moral superiority, that a single human being can have. It is only natural that the vision that emphasizes the limited nature of human beings would see those limits as forcing a kind of fundamental equality upon everyone, an equality which cannot be transcended by class, wealth, or education.
Paradoxically, then, it is the unconstrained vision that sees aristocratic elites as more capable of governing. While this vision “has featured egalitarianism as a conviction that people should share more equally in the material and other benefits of society, it tends to see the existing capabilities of people as far more unequal than does the constrained vision” (p. 150). Thus, the Left desires equality of results, but believes that society must appoint surrogates to ensure that. Progressives call these surrogates experts and nationalists call them something else, but both accept the premise that benighted elites (in possession of unique scientific, or moral knowledge) must be appointed to guide society towards a better common future.
Because “the unconstrained vision necessarily sees a larger gap between current human capabilities and the ultimate intellectual and moral potential of the species… it is the duty of elites to seek more influence on the course of events” (p. 190). Therefore the “fetishistic abdication of responsibility” by those who defer to tradition and institutions (including the American constitutional system of government) is treated with “scorn” by those operating out of an unconstrained worldview.
In 2023, both the New Right and the progressive Left are united in mocking the “restorationists” who believe in conserving the American Founding. Scorn is the natural attitude of anyone who “conceives it to be within the capabilities of man to control the exercise of power and to limit it to socially desirable results,” towards those who define power narrowly as the “ability to reduce pre-existing options” (rather than the ability to force behavior change) (p. 190). Because if power can truly change behavior, it would be naïve to narrowly constrain it, and even more naïve to fail to see power’s potential.
But the restorationists (who, up until a minute ago, were called “conservatives”) believe that “monitoring the desirability of myriad individual results is in general beyond the capabilities of any individual or council,” which means that “efforts to produce social benefits must focus on general processes and… restricting the ability of some to reduce the options of others” (p. 190). The constrained view, then, is that it is naïve to believe that power can accomplish more than this.
This brings us, in an interesting way, to individualism. The New Right claims to reject individualism, but they seem to believe that some individuals (i.e., judges applying natural law, leaders claiming to speak for the working class, etc.) must be less constrained than others (i.e., the rest of us).
Sowell tells us that “neither vision advocates that all individuals be utterly free to act without regard to others.” Instead, “individualism takes on entirely different meanings within the two visions” (p. 190).
“In the constrained vision, individualism means leaving the individual free to choose among the systemically generated opportunities, rewards, and penalties derived from other similarly free individuals without being subjected to articulated conclusions imposed by the power of organized entities, such as government, labor unions, or cartels. But in the unconstrained vision, individualism refers to (1) the right of ordinary individuals to participate in the articulated decisions of collective entities, and (2) of those with the requisite wisdom and virtue to have some exemption from either the systemic or organized constraints” (p. 190-191).
Thus, instead of offering a “strong alternative” to the weak-tea of classical liberalism, nationalism offers the same alternative as every other unconstrained vision, merely with different elites channeling the collective will.
Which brings us to the definitional question most fraught today: what does it mean to be “liberal” or “conservative?” Sowell points out that, “neither the left-right dichotomy nor the dichotomy between constrained and unconstrained visions turns on the relative importance of the individual’s benefit and the common good,” rather what “divides them” are “different empirical assumptions as to human nature and social cause and effect” (p. 128).
It isn’t the common good, then, that distinguishes “common good conservatism.” Neither is it a preference for change or the status quo which defines the debate.
Sowell points to the well-known example of the 1980s Soviet Union, where communists who wanted to preserve “the long-standing institutions” and “social fabric of society” were called “conservatives.” In modern America, progressives who want to conserve the modern welfare state are the opponents of change, and right-wingers who want market-based reforms are on the side of radical change (p. 128-129).
The true debate, then, is not over change, but rather over visions. Legal precedents and institutions which reflect an unconstrained vision can be opposed by those with a constrained vision without any contradiction. Ideologies that depend on surrogates channeling the collective will of the people towards the common good by restricting the options (i.e., limiting the freedom of choice) of individuals are not constrained. A real alternative to the unconstrained vision offered by the progressive left cannot be an “unconstrained conservatism.” Insofar as nationalism isn’t a constrained vision, then, it is a weak-tea alternative to the Left. Only a constrained vision can present itself as opposite to progressivism.
There are those who would like to have us believe that the “real” political spectrum runs from some sort of unconstrained “far-right” vision all the way to an unconstrained far-left vision, with the constrained vision occupying the mushy middle.
But that isn’t the lesson of Sowell’s book. The real deep and enduring conflict that has persisted throughout the centuries is between one side defined by a constrained worldview and one side defined by an unconstrained worldview. These visions of reality come, according to Sowell, before “value premises.” They are the foundation of philosophical ideologies. Values are secondary – that is, they spring out of one vision or another (rather than visions springing out of values).
An unconstrained vision with right-wing cultural values and an unconstrained vision with left-wing cultural values, therefore, are not polar opposites but warring cousins over the same side of the philosophical divide. The political spectrum cannot run between two competing visions of society which differ only on second-order questions but are in total agreement upon the first-order things.
If nationalism shares the same definitions as the Left, the same foundational premises about the locus of discretion and the place of the individual within a society, the same mocking attitude towards rules and process, and the “fetishistic abdication of responsibility” among those who defer to the traditions and institutions of the American political order, it cannot be said to offer a meaningful alternative to the Left.
The stunning conclusion of reading A Conflict of Visions through the eyes of the contemporary political debate is this: that if the right ceases to put forth a platform based upon a constrained vision of society, it ceases to be a meaningful alternative to the progressive Left.
Post Script – An Uneven Battle
In his conclusory chapter, Sowell explains that there is a fundamental asymmetry between the visions.
“The relationship between the two visions reflects not only logical differences, but the historical ascendancy of one or the other vision at a given time. Because some key concepts used by both sides were first defined primarily in terms of the constrained vision,” the Left had to explain that “real” freedom and equality meant something more compatible with their vision of society. Meanwhile, “the later ascendency of the unconstrained vision forced those with the constrained vision into a defensive posture in which they tried to reestablish the former, more limited definitions of such terms as process characteristics” (p. 256).
This rearguard action will sound familiar to the Right of the twentieth century, just as the subversive character of the nineteenth-century unconstrained thinkers will sound familiar to leftists.
Each side views the other as a mistaken adversary, but each must necessarily come up with different reasons for their opponents’ mistakes based on their own suppositions about the way the world works. In a vision in which it is possible for human beings to achieve a utopia of the common good upon Earth if they just try hard enough, “the presence of highly educated and intelligent people diametrically opposed to policies aimed at such common good is” chalked up to “bad faith, venality, or other moral or intellectual deficiencies” (including psychological or psychosexual disorders) (p. 256-257).
By contrast, those of us who believe in the inherent limits of human nature aren’t surprised at all that there would be people who disagree with us, people who are badly mistaken about the way the world works, people who genuinely want very much to build a better world but who nonetheless fail at doing so. “Well meaning but mistaken” and “unrealistic” are common descriptions (p. 257).
In the way they define societal and individual goods, in the way that they define themselves and each other, the constrained and unconstrained visions operate based on different logic, each of which is foreign to the other, akin to a foreign language. Which is why the philosophical divide cannot be between two competing versions of the same vision, but rather must be between the visions themselves.
Process and rules and individuals doing what they choose sound weak when the other side is offering you “true” freedom and full equality and the common good. But if human beings are so flawed that process and rules and individual decision-making are the only things we can meaningfully have, then they aren’t “value-neutral” but rather the hallmarks of one side’s idea of the best society.
Throughout this essay, I have focused on the contemporary Right, but I hope you can see by now that I haven’t merely been talking about the Right. The most interesting debates are always within Right and Left, not between them, and the recent rise of the nationalist New Right has enlivened these debates. In illustrating where I believe the nationalists have departed from the Right and embraced the unconstrained vision of the Left, I have tried to illuminate not only the Right but the Left as well.
A Conflict of Visions is not a book about which side of the debate is better. Sowell gives the unconstrained vision its due, and does not pause in his analysis to give advice to his own side or dispute the arguments of his opponents. Perhaps because he operated out of a constrained worldview, Sowell viewed the debate as eternal, never fully won or fully lost – the emergent product of systemic interactions between billions of individual human beings, limited by nature but filled with certain natural desires, communicating across millennia. Sowell (like each of us) was within the debate, not above it or outside of it, and the knowledge that it was beyond his control gave him the liberty to explore its contours without seeking to impose himself upon it.
Reading A Conflict of Visions will be invaluable for conservatives seeking to understand progressivism, conservatism, nationalism, and their own preconceptions. It will be especially invaluable to leftists who struggle to understand what makes right-wingers tick. Above all, it will help any reader to better understand the terms of the debate and to frame contemporary politics within an older context – a context which has endured for centuries and will endure long after you and I are dead.