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Down from Liberalism

Thomas Sowell is an economist who has attracted much attention for his conservative views. Sowell writes a widely syndicated newspaper column, in which one finds a steady stream of spirited attacks on liberal ideas and policies.1

For example, Sowell attacks businessmen who oppose apartheid by divesting themselves and their companies of holdings in South Africa; the effect, he writes in his column, is to deprive the blacks there of both jobs and training. In the US, state-sponsored programs of “slum clearance,” he thinks, reduce the options of the poor who live in slums by forcing them to spend more for housing and less on food, clothing, and other goods.

One might regard these attacks as a series of unrelated disputes about the probable consequences of various policies. Sowell, however, sees a larger pattern. Liberals, he says, characteristically believe that there are solutions to all social problems. They are quick to intervene in pursuit of the outcomes demanded by their conception of social justice, while ignoring the larger processes that are at work. As a result, they wind up hurting the very people whom they wish to help. In A Conflict of Visions this theme is developed into a general criticism of liberal thinking in political philosophy, legal theory, and social policy. This criticism is presented in the form of an analysis of the fundamental difference between the political positions that people take.

Sowell observes that people who agree on one issue frequently agree on others as well. The same people are often found on the same sides of controversies over such diverse questions as military spending, drug laws, monetary policy, and international aid. A Conflict of Visions tries to explain how these alignments come about. One familiar explanation appeals to differences in the breadth of sympathetic concern: some people are strongly moved by the fate of people different from themselves, such as the poor, drug addicts, and victims of famine, while others are strongly concerned only with members of a narrower group with whom they identify. A second common explanation sees the difference as moral: a disagreement over what rights people have, what obligations citizens, individually and collectively, have to others at home or abroad, and what political institutions must do for their citizens if they are to be accepted as legitimate.

A basic thesis of A Conflict of Visions is that both of these explanations are mistaken. The fundamental difference separating liberals and conservatives, according to Sowell, is a difference in “visions,” that is, in very general views about how the world works, what possibilities are open to us, and how much it is possible for us to know. People who hold different visions also tend to have different moral views, but these moral differences, Sowell contends, are not fundamental. Rather, they are consequences of more basic disagreements about causality and knowledge.

The conflict referred to in the title of Sowell’s book is between two such visions. According to what he calls the “constrained vision,” human beings are inevitably limited in both sympathy and knowledge. No amount of progress will produce human beings who are consistently altruistic or are capable of knowing more than a very limited amount about the world or even about the consequences of their own actions. The constrained vision sees the evils in the world—such as war, poverty, and crime—as the unavoidable result of these limitations. “If human options are not inherently constrained,” he writes,

then the presence of such repugnant and disastrous phenomena virtually cries out for explanation—and for solutions. But if the limitations and passions of man himself are at the heart of these painful phenomena, then what requires explanation are the ways in which they have been avoided or minimized.

This “vision” emphasizes the permanent need for social institutions to provide incentives that remedy the deep deficiencies in human motivation and to make decisions that are beyond the capacities of even the ablest persons. Adam Smith is cited as the main exponent of the constrained vision, and Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek are two of its contemporary representatives.

It is no coincidence that those whom Sowell cites as proponents of the constrained vision are mainly economists (Edmund Burke is the chief exception). The institution that they study, the perfectly competitive market, is the best example we have of a social mechanism that, by providing a structure of incentives, elicits from the independent actions of many individual agents “decisions” that are wiser (that is, in this case, more efficient) than the results they could expect to achieve by the direct exercise of their own reason.

The constrained vision is obviously modeled on this familiar economic idea, and Sowell’s defenses of that vision echo the objections that economists usually raise against any attempt to “improve upon” the market through ad hoc legislation such as fair trade laws or price controls. His aim is to restate these objections in a more general form. The resulting constrained vision is supposed to express the shared insight underlying otherwise disparate strands of conservative thought: what unites laissez-faire economics, Burkean traditionalism, and the jurisprudence of judicial restraint, for Sowell, is an acknowledgment of our moral and intellectual limitations, and recognition of the consequent need for public processes that have a wisdom greater than that of any person.

The opposing “unconstrained vision” allegedly expressed by John K. Galbraith, John Rawls, Laurence Tribe, and others, is, Sowell argues, based on faith in the moral perfectibility of mankind and in the power of human reason. According to this vision, many of the evils in the world are the result of remediable moral defects and avoidable ignorance. Because human beings are morally perfectible, institutions like criminal laws and competitive markets that shape their behavior through external incentives are of at most temporary importance; such restraints can be dispensed with as mankind improves. Even now, the unconstrained vision takes it to be possible for the best among us to discover, by the use of “articulated rationality” (that is, by laying out a chain of reasons supporting a specific conclusion), what the best social policy is. This faith in reason, according to Sowell, leads those who hold the unconstrained vision to approach social problems through seeking “more direct control by those with the requisite expertise and commitment to the public interest,” the latest in this line being advocates of “industrial policy.”

William Godwin, the early utilitarian anarchist, is cited as the clearest exponent of the unconstrained vision. Indeed, the index of A Conflict of Visions contains more entries for Godwin than for any other writer. Since few people today would regard themselves as followers of Godwin, or even influenced by him, this emphasis is surprising. Sowell’s thesis, however, is that the optimism that makes Godwin’s views seem somewhat foolish can be found, in diminished degree, in the work of contemporary liberals such as Dworkin, Galbraith, Rawls, and Tribe. He maintains that it is their qualified acceptance of this unconstrained vision (rather than any difference in sympathy or in “value premises”) that makes these liberals differ fundamentally from their conservative opponents.

While it is clear where his sympathies lie, Sowell maintains that his purpose in A Conflict of Visions is not to argue for one of the visions he describes but rather to understand the nature of enduring differences in political outlook. What would follow if his explanation of these differences were correct? One consequence, he notes, is a different view of the possibility of resolving political disagreement. Since political visions are a kind of factual belief, political disagreement would in principle be more susceptible to argument if it rested on differences in vision than it would be if it rested on differences in fundamental “value premises.”

Sowell’s thesis also has a second consequence, one that makes it appealing to conservatives. The two explanations of the difference between left and right that I mentioned at the outset—range of sympathy and sense of social obligation—are quite widely accepted, at least by liberals, and this leads to a comfortable assumption of moral superiority on the part of those who see themselves as left of center. These explanations of the difference between right and left make it quite natural for some liberals to refer to themselves as “the party of humanity,” and one seldom hears, from either right or left, a reference to “bleeding-heart conservatives.” Perhaps this is only just, but I doubt that many liberals realize how sanctimonious this easy assumption of moral superiority makes them sound, or how bitterly it is resented by those whom it condemns.

This resentment is forcefully expressed in Sowell’s writing, and his book is for that reason salutary reading for liberals, even if, as we shall see, much of what it says about their views is false. The explanatory thesis of A Conflict of Visions can be seen as an attempt to turn the tables on liberals by replacing their claim of moral superiority with a conservative claim of intellectual superiority (and greater modesty and truer democratic spirit as well). Conservatives who accept Sowell’s explanatory thesis can take comfort in the view that they are not hard-hearted, only hardheaded.

For this strategy to succeed two things must be true. Contemporary liberals must actually hold some version of the unconstrained vision, and the distinctive elements in their moral position must follow from and be dependent upon this commitment. As applied to the liberal theorists whom Sowell most often mentions, however, both of these claims are quite clearly false.

Consider first the question of human nature and the human condition. Describing the constrained vision, Sowell writes:

For a constrained vision, it is necessary not only that (1) man’s resources, both internal and external, are insufficient to satisfy his desires, but also that (2) individuals will not accept limits on the satisfaction of their own desires commensurate with what is socially available, except when inherent social constraints are forcibly imposed on them as individuals through various social mechanisms such as prices…or [through] moral traditions and social pressures which limit the amount of psychic pain people inflict on each other.

Sowell wants his readers to believe that such a vision is alien to the thinking of such liberal philosophers as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin. But he has misread them. The passage I have quoted is virtually identical with what Rawls says about the conditions that must obtain in order for the notion of justice, which is the subject of his book, to have any application. Following Hume, Rawls takes the “circumstances of justice” to be (1) that, while material resources are not so scarce as to make cooperative activity useless, these goods “fall far short of the demands men put forward”; and (2) that, while human beings are willing to cooperate with others when they can benefit from doing so, they are not altruists and cannot be assumed to care about one another’s welfare.2

  1. 1

    His columns are collected in Compassion Versus Guilt, published last year by William Morrow.

  2. 2

    John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 126–128. The reference to Hume is to A Treatise of Human Nature, Book III, Part II, Section ii.

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