A Conflict of Visions
by Thomas Sowell

Sowell defines two opposite visions, which he calls the constrained and the unconstrained visions. He compares them as they affect people's opinions on law, political issues, military defense, economics, knowledge and reason, freedom, equality, etc. His treatment is systematic, insightful, and clearly expressed. The conservative and the liberal positions, which seem often to be self-contradictory and full of unrelated opinions on miscellaneous issues, are shown to fit neatly into the constrained and the unconstrained views and, therefore, to display a logical consistency that we never knew they had.

He uses Adam Smith as the prototype of the constrained vision and William Godwin as the prototype of the unconstrained vision. I wish he had used Edmund Burke instead of Adam Smith, because he reinforces the misconception that Smith advocated self-interest and that he was not sentimental.

Sowell could have chosen other visions to analyze (he admits this), but perhaps no other dichotomy would have been as useful. It is clear to me that he chose these two visions because Sowell himself is a Hayekian holder of the constrained vision, after having been a Marxist with an unconstrained vision. He minimizes the differences in goals between the two visions, probably because his own goals did not change when he switched from the unconstrained to the constrained vision. He emphasizes that the conflicting visions differ in choice of means. He assumes that social utility is a standard acceptable to almost everybody, regardless of their basic vision. This reduces social policy to economics. Sowell, of course, is an economist.

Sowell's dichotomy does not map the libertarian philosophy very well. I think we need at least a two-dimensional vision. The belief in natural rights sometimes fits in with the constrained vision (free market, private property, inequality of results) and sometimes agrees with the liberal position (free speech, free thinking, idealism).

Year Read: 1987


Back to Libertarian Essays by Roy Halliday
Back to Nonfiction Book Notes
Back to Fiction Book Notes
Back to Book Notes by Author

This page was last updated on October 1, 2011.
This site is maintained by Roy Halliday. If you have any comments or suggestions, please send them to royhalliday@mindspring.com.