Thomas Sowell: A Conflict of Visions

Every now and then you’re lucky enough to stumble across a book that at once gives you an entirely new framework for understanding the world, while at the same time completely affirming everything you’ve been thinking. It’s a book that gives voice to the inchoate thoughts in your head, in just the way you’ve been hoping, while putting those thoughts into their place in what you are shown has been an ongoing conversation for centuries. It’s a book that both puts your thoughts and feelings into a historical context, but also liberates you from the stagnant and limiting ways of thinking of your own era. In my view, that’s why we read.

In my previous two posts, I wrote about another book that helped me to escape from one of those confining “boxes” — in my case, it was the “box” of postmodern Critical Theory. James Lindsey and Helen Pluckrose helped me identify the origins of that box in the work of postmodern writers, particularly Michel Foucault. But if I had to say, there’s another book that’s helped me go even deeper to the heart of the issue — a book that has allowed me not only to escape the box, but to escape the room in which the box is kept. That book is A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell.

Sowell’s thesis is that at a fundamental level, all human beings subscribe to one of two contrasting views of humanity which inform at a very deep level the nature of their political opinions. Read this way, the Critical Theorist’s ethical imperative to battle imbalances of power originates in a belief that power can and should be held equally by all groups. The critique of the liberal system that Jonathan Rauch cites (the Egalitarian or the Radical Egalitarian Critique) is based in a belief, according to Sowell, that a radically pluralistic society is possible in which no one’s beliefs are marginalized; marginalized views should be given extra credence in a kind of epistemological affirmative action — they should be “played back into the game” for a set period — that is until they too are accepted right alongside the truth claims of the already-powerful — and finally a utopian world will exist in which all claims to truth are accepted on equal grounds. This view of humanity goes deeper than any of the schools of thought that have promulgated it: Critical Theory, for example. It is a more fundamental belief about the potential and the nature of human beings. Thomas Sowell calls this the “unconstrained vision” of humanity.

And this is only the epistemological side of it. Its a view that touches every aspect of politics, morality, and personal conduct. The unconstrained vision is essentially a utopian vision of human nature. Human beings are inherently capable of a great deal more than the annals of history or the achievements of all the world’s civilizations seem to suggest. Humans are capable of rationally directing their affairs, to the point that rational policy makers can implement a given policy and expect to see just the results that they had planned for. Humans are also capable of almost unlimited amounts of self-sacrifice in the name of moral goals and distributive justice. Seen in this light a policy goal such as affirmative action is both possible and will accomplish just the goals it sets out to do: humans, properly trained to see the morality and justice of such a policy, are perfectly capable of accepting great sacrifices in their own situations in order to advance the circumstances of others they don’t know personally. Meanwhile, the goals of such a policy — to increase the material and cultural capital of certain groups — are very much achievable under this policy: if humans will simply accede to the demands of the policy, the rational design of the policy will prove effective in just the ways it was designed. And most importantly, the effectiveness of the policy is to measured not in procedural justice — the operation of a fair system of opportunity — but in distributive justice — the product of fair outcomes.

Thomas Sowell (@ThomasSowell) | Twitter
(Author Thomas Sowell)

On the other side, according to Sowell, is the “constrained vision” of humanity, also called (by other writers) the “tragic vision.” In this way of seeing the world, human beings are inherently limited: in their capacity to make moral decisions at the expense of their own interests, in their ability to affect rational change on complex social and political problems, and in their ability even to make wise individual decisions at any stage beyond the immediately local level. Instead of looking for distributive justice — equal results — the constrained vision looks for procedural justice — equal access and opportunity. Instead of solutions, the constrained vision seeks trade-offs. Since human beings are inherently limited in being able to achieve perfect justice and are often anything but rational in their conduct, wise public policy seeks to exact the best that it can from these inherently limited creatures. It simply seeks to identify the tradeoffs inherent in any given course, and to take the best it can get. See this way, the constrained vision looks at a program such as affirmative action with skepticism because this vision believes that human actors, always self-interested, and rarely acting in a purely rational fashion, will react differently to a policy than expected, and will thereby create unintended consequences of this policy — consequences that are often worse than the original ill the policy was intended to correct.

A good example of this, of course, is the classic formulation called “Campbell’s Law.” I won’t explain it in detail, but suffice to say, it’s a theory that allows for the tail to wag the dog: anytime you put serious weight on one social indicator, humans become incentivized to act differently and then the indicator is no longer an objective measurement of reality — it’s a determiner of reality.

A specific example of Campbell’s Law and of the constrained vision’s view of public policy is the 2002 No Child Left Behind educational law. Creators of it, adherents of the unconstrained vision, saw participants in the educational process — teachers, administrators, parents and children — as chess pieces whose behavior could be manipulated in a straightforward, rational fashion: more accountability would produce better results. Their state goals were solutions, not tradeoffs: they envisioned not only better access to quality educational experiences, but equal educational outcomes, as measured in equal levels of growth and achievement on test scores among a variety of economic and racial groups.

What happened of course is that human actors were unwittingly incentivized to bend reality toward the device that was supposed to measure reality. Hence you had widespread cheating scandals and school curricula that narrowed further and further until they were little more than test prep.

The entire liberal system of knowledge production — Rauch’s liberal science — is an example of the constrained vision, because although it does see objective truth as possible, it sees individual human beings as inherently limited in their ability to determine it on their own, and therefore requiring the “checking” by as many others as possible. It’s also fixated on procedural justice — open access to the liberal system prioritizing no special group or identity, and treating all comers fairly in subjecting all of them to scrupulous standards. Although it ultimately only views as any known truth as provisionally known, and although it does marginalize the vast majority of beliefs that enter the arena, it sees the alternatives to such a system as even worse.

A key point here is the challenge of how fast a society can make social change. The liberal system demands democratic persuasion and therefore incrementalism. While the unconstrained vision believes that change can be essentially mandated by enlightened elites — “those who have advanced furthers toward the ultimate potential of man” (in Sowell’s words) — who create rational policy seeking equal outcomes, the constrained vision believes that such mandates produce unexpected consequences that are even worse than the initial state, and that any change introduced by fiat is unlikely to be a genuine and lasting change. Instead, real change is possible — and the constrained vision does believe that social improvement is both an important and possible goal — yet it’s best facilitated through the organic evolution of social processes that can optimize humans’ limited potential by boxing them in, canceling out humans’ worse impulses and smartly incentivizing their best. The desire to create (or rather to “foster”) organically evolving, rather uncontrolled processes — rather than to instate rationally designed, sweeping solutions — is based in the idea that although individual humans are limited in their ability to understand complex issues, they are very adept at making decisions effecting their immediate well-being based on their immediate surroundings — far better at doing so than any remote, higher authority. Therefore, why not harness this expertise, set individuals loose to make the best decisions locally possible, but ensure that such a system gently bends humans toward civilization rather than anarchy.

Everything about this book is fascinating. To be honest, I am still processing it, several months after reading it, and after many short dips back in to bathe in the insights on each page of Sowell’s writing. For example, here is a short passage about the differing views toward war between the constrained and unconstrained visions:

“Like other evils, war was seen by those with the constrained vision as originating in human nature and as being contained by institutions. To those with the unconstrained vision . . . there must clearly be some cause of evils, but insofar as these causes are not so widely diffused as to be part of human nature in general, then those in whom the evils are localized can be removed, opposed, or neutralized, so as to produce a solution” (159).

Meanwhile, “within [the] constrained vision, war did not require a specific explanation. Peace required explanation — and specific provisions to produce it” (161).

I think about such insights whenever I read an article calling for any sort of large-scale social goal that has likely never been attained in world history — the ending of all hatred, say, the equality of outcomes across many and varied social groups, the proportional representation of every different group across any number of different, unique settings. I cannot help thinking to myself, “It’s not discrimination that requires explanation, it’s tolerance across groups that requires explanation — and specific provisions to produce it.”

When I think more broadly about the Trump era, I think about this point, too: it’s not Trump’s ugly populism — his tribal appeals to nativism and racism, his autocratic tendencies, his focus on fear of the Other — it’s not this that requires explanation. In fact, that’s the historical rule. Go back and read your Plato. Or for that matter, go read The Federalist Papers, which Sowell explicitly cites several times as a prime example of the constrained vision, including in this very section on war: “War, as seen in the constrained vision of The Federalist Papers, seemed to require virtually no explanation.” It’s not Trump who requires explanation, it’s our nation up until Trump. It’s our own multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-everything experiment in peaceful democratic self-rule that requires historical explanation.

This sort of thing is easy to forget, but Sowell, with his wonderful historical examples, never lets us.


One of the most important disagreements between the visions is the question of the wisdom of the few, advanced human beings (in the unconstrained vision) versus the systemic, accumulated wisdom of the many (in the constrained vision). Of the systemically-generated wisdom of the constrained vision, Sowell writes, “These cultural distillations of knowledge were not considered infallible or immutable — which would have been a solution instead of a trade-off — but rather as a tested body of experience that worked, and which was to be changed only after the most circumspect, and perhaps even reluctant, examination.

“We should attend to the defects of the social order, according to [Edmund] Burke, with the same trepidation with which we would tend the wounds of our father. They are not to be ignored, but neither are they a mandate for experiment or hasty inspiration” (38).

The constrained process does evolve its views — otherwise there would be “no basis for the confidence in tradition and enduring institutions” — but that’s just the point: the process evolves slowly, via the wisdom of many participants actively choosing what works — rather than evolving rashly via the wisdom of a few actors choosing what seems rational or just.

This could not be more in line with my own latent beliefs. This describes to me just the unease that I have with calls for dramatic reform in all aspects of life, but especially in my own field of education. I have much more respect for the wisdom of tradition than to wish to see the whole system scrapped because a few would-be reformers decide that they can better solve entrenched problems than centuries of good people working hard on the same issues.

While I support new blood and new ideas being pumped into the dialogue, it’s just that which I desire: the Madisonian pitting of new ambition against ambition, duking it out in the arena in a systemic process for determining the best answers, not the ability of one loud reformer with a bee in his bonnet to get to redefine all educational practice and policy.


Perhaps the most fascinating section of the book, and the one that most starkly divides adherents of the two visions, is the section on social justice. As Sowell writes, “The concept of social justice thus represents the extremes of the conflict of visions — an idea of the highest importance in one vision and beneath contempt in the other” (215). On the one hand, social justice occupies a preeminent place in the unconstrained vision, which believes that because all citizens are inherently entitled to “some share of the wealth produced by a society, simply by virtue of being members of that society, and irrespective of any individual contributions made or not made to the production of that wealth” (216) not as a matter of charity, but as a matter of justice. Income redistribution is conceived, of course, as a statistical result, rather than as a systemic process. The constrained vision, on the other hand, believes several things. First, it believes that attempts to expect justice from what is fundamentally an impersonal process (such as that of the marketplace) is essentially a meaningless exercise in anthropomorphism. Also, constrained visionaries, epitomized by FA Hayek, treat “much of the rhetoric of social justice as confused evasion of harsh realities inherent in the processes required to move to such goals” (218). Once again, the belief is that any kind of process is so complex that no individual humans can understand or accurately predict the results of their actions. In seeking to institute a policy of increased taxation, for example, a government forgets that wealthy citizens may react by finding loopholes in the system so that they don’t have to pay the money, creating even greater disparities in income levels. The notion of arguing for specific results — as the unconstrained do — is essentially meaningless and futile because the results of complex processes are impossible to predict and to rationally determine. Meanwhile, the imposition of the heavy hand of control on the process to attain these results itself creates unintended problems, such as a high level of imposition by the government on citizens.

For Hayek, the notion of perceiving “society” as a “‘thinking, collective entity’ capable of producing specifically desired social results presupposed a mastery of social details inherently ‘beyond our ken'” (220).

In Hayek’s view, according to Sowell, human freedom depends on rules which carve out areas free from government incursion, and which are the very opposite of the rights to social justice supported by the unconstrained vision in order to produce social results to which various groups are, for them, entitled. The question for Hayek is simply not whether these groups are entitled, because for him the attempt to redistribute results so heavy handedly is both dangerous to freedom and futile because its results cannot be anticipated.

Where the unconstrained vision would see it possible, for example, to provide reparations to citizens, given the capacity of human beings to muster sufficient moral commitment and selflessness for this cause, the constrained vision sees this as simply impossible, beyond what human beings are inherently capable of, and likely to produce even more disastrous results in response, ones that we simply cannot anticipate. In Sowell’s view, for the constrained vision, social justice, as conceived by equality of results, is just as irrelevant as talking about “square circles” (221).


Equality of results versus equality of treatment. This is one of the largest differences in the views of the two visions. And no surprisingly, it comes to a head in the area of free speech, which is really the area of so-called “neutral” principles. Yet how can such constitutional principles be considered neutral, according to the unconstrained vision, when the results they allot are so different?


“Much of what the unconstrained vision see as morally imperative to do, the constrained vision sees man as incapable of doing.”

That’s a fitting quote to end this rather lengthy post, and a good place to end in thinking about the fascinating contrast of fundamental visions that Sowell lays out in this book.

On the one hand, the unconstrained vision is appealing. It throws down a strong moral imperative, asks for equality of results, and believes that, given proper moral commitment, humans can accomplish lofty goals of justice, power-sharing, and real, substantive freedom. You can see this type of thinking at work in so many influential modern works within the Critical Theory movement and within the modern movement for social justice. I think of Ta-Nehisi Coates call for reparations for slavery and Jim Crow, of Robin DiAngelo’s call for a kind of perpetual self-flogging and penitence (emotion as well as material) on the part of white people, or of Ibram Kendi’s apparently simple invocation of discrimination lying at the heart of any disparity of outcome between racial groups, and his reminder that the only way to atone for past discrimination is future discrimination. More broadly, I think about the whole conception of a kind of normative critique by critical theorists in general of modern society as insufficiently focused on immediate acts of redistribution of wealth, or weighty interventions by judicial or legislative bodies to equalize the results of court decisions or social policies, the objections to free speech on the part of activists who claim that neutral principles protect only the powerful, and the general belief that any society that seems to favor one group over another is inherently unjust and in need of dramatic overhaul. All of this, for Sowell, represents the unconstrained vision.

But it’s not possible, says the constrained vision. On the surface, this sounds like a cop-out. It’s like when people say, “Sure, I’m all in favor of restricting speech rights for evil people — but since it’s impossible to write a speech code that restricts the “right” people, this invalidates all speech codes.” But . . . just because something isn’t possible doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aim for it, right?

But it’s more than that, says the constrained vision. Trying to force man to be something other than what he is — that’s not just counterproductive, but it brings trade-offs that are often even worse than the original inequality. It’s a more realistic vision, surely, and there’s something both more and less appealing about that. Everyone loves the idea that humans can accomplish great things given the right commitment, of course, and to think otherwise feels tantamount to giving up.

The other than that’s odd is that right now in the United States, at least among educated people, to say that you’re worried about anything getting in the way of peoples’ equality feels righteous; but saying you’re worried about the power of government expanding and getting in the way of peoples’ freedom makes you sound like an anti-vaxxer, anti-masking Trumpian troglodyte. To argue that there’s something wrong with dramatic government intervention because you don’t want your choices restricted in this fashion, or even to argue that it’s legitimate that human beings are not chess pieces — and will react unfavorably to governmental coercion, even for a noble cause, does feel almost as though you’re declaring yourself, publicly, to be against all that is good and noble.

I am — like Sowell, it’s plain to see from reading this book — an adherent of the constrained vision, through and through. But at the same time, I’ll be thinking about the implications of that, particularly in our modern world in the wake of the Trump Era, for some time.

It’s a fascinating book.