A Conflict of Visions

Thomas Sowell wrote A Conflict of Visions in which he describes two conflicting visions of how the world works that seem to have existed in conflict with each other for all time.  He described these conflicting ways of thinking as the constrained vision and the unconstrained vision.  Those who hold with the constrained vision believe that society is best organized around the order that will emerge organically from the hundreds, thousands or millions of voluntary interactions between people acting in what they each believe to be in their own best interests.  The constrained vision is a way of thinking that accepts the notion that the perfect is usually the enemy of the good.

The unconstrained vision yearns for perfection and believes it is possible if only the right people are in charge of running everything.  The unconstrained vision believes in the perfection of mankind and all that’s needed to achieve it is to get exactly the right sort of government and the right sort of people in charge of it.  Those of unconstrained thinking are deeply distrustful of the masses and believe that left to their own choices they will inevitably screw up their own lives and the rest of society as well.

Sowell posits that these two general ways of looking at the world are not new, they are conflicting themes that have run through human societies from time immemorial.  For most of that time it has been the unconstrained vision that has been dominant.  Sowell doesn’t exactly say so but would probably agree that there is a third way of thinking that also exists and is probably the one held by the largest number of individuals in any society.  These are the people who don’t think much about anything, least of all metaphysical concepts about social organizing principles.  It really doesn’t matter though because people probably care less for the reasons of why and how their daily needs are met than that they are or are not met.  If those needs are being met on even a subsistence level this group can probably be persuaded that they are getting their daily bread only because of the largess of the government and their benevolent leaders.

That the unconstrained vision is and will always be the most dominant can be easily explained. It’s the one that most easily allows a small group of individuals to hold power over everyone else. The constrained vision can only be dominant when there is no ruling class wanting to live off the economic productivity of the country class.  That would only be the case when the government is headed up by people content to mostly leave everyone else alone. That’s never.

Matt Ridley is another writer that holds world views in the manner of Thomas Sowell in his companion book, The Vision of the Anointed, and has sold millions of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society.  Ridley recently reviewed William Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts.  This quote from Ridley’s review is representative of the constrained vision:

The decades-old view that conscious policy design offers the best hope for ending poverty, is just another a form of creationism, embodying the fallacy of intelligent design – that because something is ordered and intricate, it must have been ordained by an intelligent mind. In fact, as Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek (and Charles Darwin) realised, no expert can ever know enough to rival the information that emerges from the spontaneous interactions of many people.


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