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
Similar assumptions are widely shared by other liberals whom Sowell cites. It is a central element in Dworkin’s view, for example, that treating citizens as equals requires the recognition of rights as “trumps,” that is, as constraints on legislative authority and on administrative discretion. His defense of these constraints is that they are necessary as protections against the deep-rooted tendency of human beings to undervalue the interests of those whom they disagree with or disapprove of.3 There is no suggestion in Dworkin’s writings that he takes these imperfections in human nature, which give rise to the need for rights, to be only temporary.
Both Rawls and Dworkin thus accept some of the central assumptions of the constrained vision, but they reject the conservative political views which that vision is supposed to entail. It is instructive to compare this actual divergence of opinion with Sowell’s account of it. According to Sowell, fundamental terms such as freedom, justice, power, and equality “are defined in profoundly different ways” by those who hold the constrained vision and by those who hold the unconstrained vision. This difference is not a matter of differing “value premises,” he argues; rather, the proponents of the constrained vision see these terms as applying to processes, while their opponents take them to apply directly to results. This difference is in turn a consequence of the differing views of the possibilities and limits of human knowledge and motives that define the two visions.
Thus, for example, Sowell says that for holders of the unconstrained vision one’s degree of freedom is “the degree to which one’s desires can be realized, without regard to whether the obstacles to full realization be the deliberately imposed restrictions of government or the lack of circumstantial prerequisites.” According to the constrained vision, on the other hand, “a social process has freedom to the extent that it refrains from interfering with the choices of individuals—whether or not the circumstances of those individuals provide them with many options or few.”
Similarly, according to the unconstrained vision, “justice is…a question of outcomes, and the justice or injustice of a society can therefore be determined directly by those outcomes, whether they be the result of conscious decisions, social attitudes, or circumstances inherited from the past.” But for the constrained vision, “a social process has justice to the extent that its rules are just, regardless of the variety of outcomes resulting from the application of those rules.” Thus he can compare justice to a footrace:
If a footrace is conducted under fair conditions, then the result is just, whether that result is the same person winning again and again or a different winner each time. Results do not define justice in the constrained vision.
To those with the unconstrained vision, the best results should be sought directly.
The distinction between processes and results is a familiar theme in contemporary political debate. Robert Nozick, for example, has famously inveighed against conceptions of justice based on results. Nozick argues that a particular pattern of distribution—such as, for example, a particular degree of equality—cannot be maintained without “continuous interference with people’s lives.”4 His conclusion is that, since this kind of interference is unacceptable, all theories that identify justice with some “end-state,” rather than with a process, must be rejected.
Similarly, in the debate over affirmative action, much has been made of the distinction between “equality of opportunity” and “equality of result,” the latter being found objectionable by many largely on the ground that its pursuit would involve interfering with people’s liberty and disappointing their reasonable expectations. Sowell’s image of a footrace invokes this familiar theme. A person who expends the energy to compete in a race, of whatever kind, does so on the basis of some idea about how the prize will be awarded—for example, that it will go to the first person to cross the finish line. Someone who decides on this basis to enter a race and who runs hard and wins, will be understandably angry if at the end the awards are made on entirely different grounds, whether these are grounds of favoritism, perceived merit, or some conception of equality based on results.
The charge of ignoring processes and concentrating exclusively on results therefore has considerable moral force. As applied to the contemporary theorists whom Sowell identifies with the unconstrained vision, however, this charge is false. Here as elsewhere, Sowell has misread Rawls. Rawls emphasizes that the notion of justice with which he is concerned is an instance of what he calls “pure procedural justice.”5 In his view, if the basic institutions of society satisfy the appropriate principles of justice then the distributions of income and other goods that result from the working of these institutions are just, whatever they may be. There is no criterion for the justice of distributions considered apart from the institutions that produce them.
Rawls is thus in complete agreement with Sowell’s summary statement of the “constrained” view of justice. The disagreement between Rawls, and, say, Milton Friedman, is over what the rules of a “social process” must be like in order to qualify as “just.” Similarly, the difference between the two definitions of freedom that I have quoted from Sowell has nothing to do with the distinction between process and result: either definition could be applied to processes or to results with equal ease. They differ over how much society owes people—over which impediments to the realization of people’s aims render processes or results morally objectionable.
The debate over affirmative action involves disagreements of both these kinds, but what makes that question particularly difficult and painful is the conflict between, on the one hand, the expectations of individually blameless participants in a flawed process and, on the other, the goal of making that process more just. In order to understand the debate, therefore, we must see that both sides are appealing, in different ways, to the values of both processes and results.
What distinguishes the writers whom Sowell identifies as partisans of the constrained vision is not a regard for process in general but a commitment to particular processes and, especially, to a view of why these processes should be valued. This reading makes sense of some of Sowell’s remarks that would otherwise seem contradictory. For example, while he says that contemporary liberals are concerned with results, as opposed to processes, he also says that they tend to ignore what he calls “process costs”:
Modern defenders of legal technicalities which allow criminals to escape punishment who declare, “That is the price we pay for freedom,” or defenders of revolutions who say, “You can’t make omelettes without breaking eggs,” are contemporary exemplars of an unconstrained vision which has historically treated process costs as secondary.
When liberals maintain that certain outcomes (such as gross inequalities of wealth or power) are outrageous and call for revision of the legal or economic processes that produce them, Sowell describes this as an (excessive) concern with results. But when conservatives do the same (as when they criticize legal procedures for overlooking the “rights of victims”), he counts this as a realistic recognition that “process costs” must not be ignored.
The difference lies in the particular process that is being criticized and in the nature of the costs that are at issue. The rights of defendants only protect people who are accused of crimes; but the costs of less effective law enforcement are borne by “society as a whole.” Sowell remarks at several points in the book that under the constrained vision all justification for laws or policies ultimately depends on contributions to overall social good. For him, even my rights to own the house I have bought, or the land it occupies, and other property rights are
justified within the constrained vision not by any morally superior claims of the individual over society, but precisely by claims for the efficiency or expediency of making social decisions through the systemic incentives of market processes rather than by central planning [italics added].6
The “whole purpose” of property rights, Sowell argues, is “social.” Such rights permit
an economic process with greater efficiency, a social process with less strife, and a political process with more diffused power and influence than that possible under centralized political control of the economy. The beneficiaries of such processes are conceived to be the population at large, and the justification or lack of justification of property rights is made to rest on that basis.
He says that under the unconstrained vision, by contrast, rights and justice are valued because they protect the individual, even against the interest of society as a whole. Rights are seen as inhering in individuals for their “own individual benefit.”
This is a plausible description of an important difference between some liberal and conservative points of view, so plausible that it is puzzling how Sowell could go on to say 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. All make the common good paramount, though they differ completely as to how it is to be achieved. In short, it is not a moral “value premise” which divides them but their different empirical assumptions as to human nature and social cause and effect.
What Sowell has in mind here appears to be this. A person who puts forward explicit conditions that political, legal, and economic institutions must satisfy—whether these conditions are of the sort offered by Rawls or by Dworkin or of the very different kind advocated by Nozick—is making a claim about “the common good” in the broad sense in which Sowell uses this term. Representatives of the constrained vision are also concerned with this good. The difference between them, according to Sowell, is that while the person who advocates principles of justice must be claiming to have discovered, through the use of his or her own reason, what the common good is (at least in part), the constrained opponent makes no such claim, but asks only that the determination of the common good be left to a “process.” They thus agree that the goal is “the common good” but disagree over how this goal is to be defined and achieved.7
This description obscures and distorts the nature of contemporary political debate. In appealing to the idea of a process for discovering “the common good,” Sowell invokes a powerful moral idea that is shared by most liberals. Rawls and Dworkin, for example, are also proceduralists about the good, at least as far as political theory is concerned. That is, they do not think that a political theory, or a set of political institutions, should be founded on a specific conception of how individual human lives should be lived.8 The aim of their theories is, rather, to describe the kind of institutions within which people can best work out their own ideas of how to live individually and of what they want their collective life to be like. Such theories draw a sharp line between questions about “the right”—that is, about what a just political system must be like—and questions about “the good,” which citizens are to answer for themselves within such a system. The interpretation of this liberal project is currently the subject of lively debate, and many have questioned whether the justification of political institutions can be kept independent of controversial questions about religion and the ends of human life in the way that theories like Rawls’s and Dworkin’s would require.9
One thing that is clear, however, is that even if questions of the good, in this special sense, can be left aside for the purposes of political theory, there remain many competing answers, even among liberals, to the question of what defensible institutions must be like. This is what liberals and conservatives really disagree about, and it is entirely appropriate for Sowell to take sides in this debate. What he does, however, is to misrepresent the nature of the disagreement. When liberals (or libertarians) set out their conceptions of just political and economic institutions, he accuses them of arrogantly attempting to impose their own notions of the public good. He describes proponents of the constrained vision, on the other hand, not as making competing claims about the good but as modestly leaving all such questions to be answered by a larger process. But which processes should be employed for this purpose? This is precisely the question at issue, and conservatives, no less than anyone else, are advancing particular answers to it. Sowell’s description of the debate has the effect of granting conservative answers a special status. Rather than being considered on a par with other political proposals, the processes conservatives favor are to be accepted as given—beyond the power of human reason to improve upon. 10
This point can be sharpened by comparing it to a very similar objection that can be raised against the liberals whom Sowell is attacking. Cultural conservatives and religious fundamentalists, for example, might argue as follows: liberals claim that their theory leaves open important questions about how human life should best be lived, and they claim as well that the members of a society are to work out their own answers to such questions within a system of just institutions. But the liberals are telling us what this system must be like; and the institutions that they call just—ones in which, for example, the distribution of sexually explicit books, films, and magazines is constitutionally protected—are by no means neutral. The ways of life that we favor are unlikely to last long in such a system. Why, then, should we accept it? Why should the liberals be the ones who choose the process through which all other questions of value are to be decided?
This is a serious challenge, and a familiar one. It illustrates, among other things, that conservatives are not always on the side of “process.” The present point, however, is that liberals are in a much better position to answer this challenge if they have acknowledged from the outset that the choice of basic political and social institutions is, in the most general sense, a moral question. They can then say, truly, that they are not trying to dictate this choice; rather, they are arguing that certain institutions should be preferred because they represent the best way of being fair to people with divergent values. Opponents of liberal institutions are not, therefore, simply ruled out of court: they can argue that liberal institutions are not in fact fair or, perhaps, that fairness to opposing positions is not what we should be seeking.
By contrast, Sowell and others who represent his constrained vision are in a much weaker position when faced with the challenge raised above. Insofar as they claim that all questions of value are to be answered through certain processes, and that the choice of these processes in turn is not a matter of “value premises,” they are left in the position of claiming that the processes that they favor should simply be accepted. Opposing arguments are ruled out as inappropriate attempts to anticipate or improve upon the results of these processes.
Sowell is misled, I believe, by his own basic strategy of taking familiar controversies about the market as the model for understanding a wide range of fundamental political disagreements. To begin with, the central virtues of competitive markets are not a matter of dispute among most of the theorists whom Sowell discusses. Rawls and Dworkin, for example, make clear their respect for the efficiency of markets as mechanisms for gathering information and allocating resources.11 What they question is the importance to be given to this kind of efficiency, as compared to other values such as equity and individual autonomy, when we are justifying economic and legal systems. The controversy is thus a moral one that cannot be avoided simply by “leaving it to the process” (i.e., to the market), since to do that would be already to decide the matter.12 The market is not a neutral means for deciding all social questions, and those who have doubts about its proper role need not claim that they can “do better” than the market in the sense of producing a more efficient outcome.
Sowell’s strategy is also misleading in a further way: it overlooks important differences between competitive markets and other processes that he mentions, such as the common law, constitutional government, and the processes through which traditions and languages evolve. Three distinctive features of the market are important here. First, the ideal of the perfectly competitive market is a precise theoretical notion. No actual social institution can be identified with this ideal—since any such institution involves particular legal forms of property and contract, particular imperfections in knowledge, and particular limitations on freedom of entry into the market. But it is frequently quite clear which conditions move a system closer to perfect competition and which ones disrupt it.
Second, market institutions (even actual, imperfect ones) produce their outcomes mechanically: prices and employment levels emerge as the result of competition, leaving little need for interpretation. Third, the efficiency of these outcomes is supposed to be a product of the process itself, not something with which any of the participants need be consciously concerned: agents in the perfectly competitive market are assumed to be assiduous pursuers of their own interests, but there is no need for anyone at any stage even to address the question of what would be best from a social point of view.
Consider, by contrast, the processes through which languages and customs evolve. Sowell cites as an example of the constrained vision the idea that the current form of a language and the current form of social institutions such as the family should be treated with particular respect because they are the result of processes of evolution extending back over many centuries. These processes draw on a vast wealth of experience, he says, and their results have thus been shaped to fit human needs more effectively than anything we could hope to create in their place through attempts at ad hoc redesign.
As Sowell himself admits, however, it is not obvious how the results of this process are to be identified. At what point should we say that a new practice has been “selected” as the latest stage in the development of a tradition? Must conservatives defend the use of first names in public places, for example, as something that has now become part of our tradition? Even more troubling is the fact that if the products of cultural evolution do embody the collective wisdom of the past centuries this must be because the cultural forms that won out at prior stages in this process were the ones that people found particularly satisfactory. The process will thus have the virtues Sowell claims for it only if its participants decide among rival practices at least partly on the basis of their perceived merits. It follows that if partisans of the constrained vision try to preserve the English language (or the institution of the family) in what they take to be its current form, and if they do this not at all because of what they judge to be the intrinsic merits of this form but simply because of its historical pedigree, then they are not respecting the evolutionary process but thwarting and obstructing it.
The lesson to be drawn from this apparent paradox is that the sharp distinction that Sowell draws between accepting the authority of a tradition and relying on “articulated rationality” cannot be maintained. A decision about which practices to regard as the continuation of our tradition must include an element of judgment about what is best.13
Similar problems arise in Sowell’s discussion of systems of law and constitutional government. In contrast to the ideal of a perfectly competitive market, such systems are far from unique even in theory. There is room for considerable disagreement about how the complex values that a given legal and constitutional tradition encompasses are to be understood, and for even more debate about how these values can best be realized in practice. Moreover, participants in legal and political institutions must be consciously concerned with these very questions. Legal thinking involves a process of self-conscious interpretation, and constitutional government cannot work unless citizens address the question of how their political values should be understood to apply to their changing situation. The conservatives whom Sowell associates with the constrained vision are committed to particular answers to these questions. The liberals whom he criticizes offer different answers, but Sowell does not acknowledge that this is what they are doing. Rather, he accuses them of rejecting legitimate processes altogether and of advocating elitist “surrogate decision-making,” in which they make decisions for the rest of society.
He objects, for example, to Laurence Tribe’s argument that in the light of changed conditions—the decline of public streets and parks as meeting places, the rise of shopping centers, the high cost of access to electronic broadcasting, advertising, newspapers, and other methods of communication—the First Amendment should be taken to protect the right to pass out leaflets in privately owned shopping centers in violation of the owner’s prohibitions.14 Sowell characterizes this as an example of justice viewed as a matter of “substantive results.” It could just as well be described, however, as a defense of process, that is, as the claim that the opportunity to pass out leaflets in shopping centers must be protected if our institutions are to embody a fair process of democratic government, in accordance with the intention of the Constitution in general and the First Amendment in particular. As Tribe goes on to say, the Court must attend to “the prospects for realizing free speech values” because “those values are essential to the character of our constitutional order.”15
It is true that Tribe, in other passages that Sowell cites, is highly critical of an approach to constitutional law that would unduly emphasize process as opposed to substance. But in those passages Tribe is not denying the importance of process or denying that much of the Constitution is concerned with matters of procedure.16 What he is attacking is the idea that constitutional interpreters can avoid “inevitable controversial claims about substantive rights.”17
His point is that even many procedural parts of the Constitution cannot be interpreted without confronting potentially controversial questions about values such as fairness, which these processes are intended to protect. Conservatives and liberals can reasonably disagree about the answers to these questions, but this disagreement is not clarified by Sowell’s suggestion that those who do not accept the conservative’s answers as definitive thereby show diminished regard for “process” or are committed to extravagant claims about human reason.
The conflict to which the title of Sowell’s book refers is supposed to be a conflict between the outlook of contemporary liberals such as Rawls, Dworkin, and Tribe and the outlook of “classical” liberals in the tradition founded by Adam Smith. What a reading of the book actually suggests, however, is that contemporary liberals have more in common with this older liberal tradition, and hence with conservatives such as Hayek and Friedman who consider themselves a part of it, than is usually supposed. The common core that unites the two kinds of liberals, and separates them from their more radical opponents, is partially captured in the assumptions about human nature and its possibilities that Sowell misleadingly identifies with the constrained vision.
Another common element, which separates liberals of both kinds from many conservatives who share these “constrained” assumptions, is a belief that social institutions should serve as a relatively neutral setting within which individuals can work out their own conceptions of personal and collective good. Different kinds of liberals disagree, however, about how this ideal can best be realized—about what processes we should use to work out our common good. They also disagree, as Rawls and Nozick do, about the kinds of assistance and protection that social institutions must offer the people living under them if these institutions are to be considered defensible. These disagreements in moral and political values are fundamental. Factual disagreements about how to bring about specific results that we all desire are also important; but our understanding of political differences will be obscured if we focus only on conflicts of “vision,” as Sowell conceives them.
April 28, 1988
His columns are collected in Compassion Versus Guilt, published last year by William Morrow. ↩
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. ↩
See Ronald Dworkin, A Matter of Principle (Harvard University Press, 1984), pp. 196–197. ↩
Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Basic Books, 1974), p. 163. Sowell does not refer to Nozick, perhaps because, as we shall see below, his reasons for valuing process are quite different from those Nozick offers. ↩
A Theory of Justice, p. 86. ↩
As Sowell observes, this view is “incompatible with the atomism of thoroughgoing libertarians,” who are thus not among the adherents of the constrained vision. ↩
The reason for valuing processes which Sowell advances here is thus quite different from the moral reasons, such as the protection of individual liberty and the stability of expectations, which Nozick and others have appealed to. Indeed, appeal to such reasons is ruled out by respect for process as I am suggesting Sowell understands it, since a person who offers reasons of this kind is, in Sowell’s view, claiming to know where the “common good” lies. ↩
Dworkin has taken this to be the central principle of liberalism. See his essay, “Liberalism,” reprinted as Chapter 8 of A Matter of Principle, especially pp. 191–192. ↩
See, for example, Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge University Press, 1982) and, on the other side, Rawls’s articles “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 14 (1985) and “The Idea of Overlapping Consensus,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 7 (1987). ↩
In this respect the constrained vision involves what Roberto Unger and other members of the Critical Legal Studies Movement have called “objectivism.” See Unger, The Critical Legal Studies Movement (Harvard University Press, 1986), especially Chapters 1 and 2 and pp. 97–99. It is striking that while Unger accuses Dworkin and other liberal theorists of trying to uphold formalism and objectivism Sowell appears to fault them precisely for rejecting these views. (On formalism, see note 13 below.) ↩
See A Theory of Justice, sections 12, 13, 42, 43, and Dworkin’s “What Is Equality? Part II,” Philosophy & Public Affairs (Fall 1981). ↩
Especially since, as many have pointed out, the preferences “revealed” in market behavior do not in general express the full range of an individual’s values. See A.K. Sen, “Behavior and the Concept of Preference,” in his Choice, Welfare and Measurement (MIT Press, 1982) pp. 54–73. ↩
Both this general point and its application to the special case of legal traditions are made clearly and forcefully by Ronald Dworkin in Law’s Empire (Harvard University Press, 1986). In discussing Dworkin’s views, as elsewhere, Sowell ignores this argument, and assumes the truth of a kind of legal formalism—that is, the view that what the law requires can be determined in a purely technical way, without appeal to moral or other evaluative argument. For a rejection of this view by a jurist whom Sowell praises and associates with the constrained vision, see Richard A. Posner, “The Case Against Strict Constructionism: What Am I? A Potted Plant?” in The New Republic (September 28, 1987), pp. 23–25. ↩
Laurence Tribe, Constitutional Choices (Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 197–198. ↩
Constitutional Choices, p. 198. ↩
Constitutional Choices, p. 11. ↩
Constitutional Choices, p. 19. ↩