Unconstrained Conservatives (and Constrained Liberals):

Peter Robinson's column on Thomas Sowell and "A Conflict of Visions" focused me on a point that I hadn't thought of previously. A Conflict of Visions originally was written back in the 1980s and Peter's idea in the interview was to try to frame the 2008 election through the lens of the constrained and unconstrained visions, so some larger principles were obscured.

For those who haven't read the book, but want the one paragraph summary, a book review by Charles Murray captures the distinction tolerably well (although quite oversimplified):

Its thesis: The policy arguments between liberals and conservatives, socialists and libertarians, do not arise just from differences in priorities regarding freedom, equality, and security. At root, they draw from different conceptions of the nature of man. The Left holds an unconstrained vision: Given the right political and economic arrangements, human beings can be improved, even perfected. Success is defined by what people have the potential of becoming, not by people as they are. The Right holds a constrained vision: People come to society with innate characteristics that cannot be reshaped and must instead be accommodated. Success in political and economic policy must be defined in light of those innate characteristics.

The "constrained" and "unconstrained" visions often map onto "conservative" and "liberal" ideologies. But not invariably. And a point that I hadn't really thought of previously was that one of the strange things about George W. Bush is that in many ways although he calls himself a conservative (I express no opinion here whether that is accurate) I think his fundamental vision is an unconstrained vision. Some of his signature initiatives such as "No Child Left Behind" and the Iraq War animated by really quite a utopian mindset--the former by a really bold assumption about the intellectual capabilities of every child the latter by the aspiration of nation-building. What is important is not whether he was right or wrong in these cases (the nature of a conflict of visions is that they are different, not correct or incorrect), but rather that they reflect an unconstrained vision of the world.

It is also possible to be a liberal with a constrained vision--Daniel Patrick Moynihan, I think was a good example of a liberal with a constrained vision. As perhaps was Harry Truman, although I know less about his particular policies.

Sowell dumps on Obama as a prototype of an unconstrained vision and Robinson's questions frame McCain as a constrained vision guy. But while I think this is accurate with respect to Obama, McCain is far from a pure exemplar of the constrained vision. In particular, McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform is a prototype of an unconstrained vision--the utopian belief that we can take self-interest out of politics and that if left to their own devices politicians will pursue the "public interest" in an unbiased manner. It would be hard to think of a better example of legislation inspired by an unconstrained vision. Similarly, McCain's apparent belief that the financial crisis was caused by some "greedy" bad guys on Wall Street doing bad things is almost a parody of the unconstrained vision.

I note one other point in passing--I recall when the book was published, libertarians criticized it because they thought that Sowell had left them out by focusing on what they read as just conservative and liberal ideologies. I think that this criticism is misplaced. Visions cut deeper than political ideologies. Political libertarians tend to fall into Sowell's two categories. Libertarians of a Hayek/Friedman bent are fundamentally constrained vision people, seeing the world through the lens of scarcity, conflict, and tradeoffs. Rights-based libertarians of a Rand/Nozick bent I think are generally unconstrained vision, seeing the world as largely in harmony and cooperation. Of course, they borrow from one another, but I think that libertarians are generally animated by one of the two visions.

The real point of Sowell's book, is just to describe these visions, not to prove that one or the other is "correct."

BTW, the Robinson column was the aftermath of an interview that Peter did with Sowell last week that I happened to be able to see when it was being filmed (I understand that it will go up on the National Review Online website at some point). Sowell mentioned to me that "Conflict of Visions" was his favorite book and that when he set out to write it, he thought that "Conflict of Visions" would be as long as "Knowledge and Decisions" turned out to be and vice-versa. His personal graciousness and humility were really touching as well.

I also asked Sowell whether he had ever come across Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." I think that Pirsig's distinction between the "classical" and the "romantic" view is conceptually similar to Sowell's distinction between the constrained and unconstrained visions. He said he had not read it.


A reader alerts me that Julian Sanchez anticipated some of these points about GWB's unconstrained vision, especially about the Iraq War, a little while back. If I read Julian correctly, one key point he makes is that it is neoconservatism that has introduced the unconstrained vision into "conservative" thought, which strikes me as a perceptive insight.