pageok
pageok
pageok
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.

Update:

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.

Charlie (Colorado) (mail):
Todd, I think you're (along with others) missing a third possible position: that whether someone wants to be "perfected" is their own damn business.
10.24.2008 6:25pm
Obvious (mail):
In part, I think Sowell offered this view of visions as explaining what might otherwise be a strange phenomenon. There is a grouping of views, or positions, people have that are not logically required. For example, there is no particular reason why supporters of abortion rights are (almost always) opponents of 2nd amendment rights. No reason why those who support home schooling and tax credits for education also tend to support a strong military.

Sowell's argument was that one's vision of the world and man's place in it logically explained why these different positions lump together. As such, it's a more substantive argument than just labeling it "ideology".
10.24.2008 6:25pm
Ricardo (mail):
Another way in which Bush has shown signs of an unconstrained view of the world is in his concentration of power in the executive branch. This quite literally reflects the belief that whomever the American people elect President should be unconstrained in what he does as long as he asserts his actions are in the name of national security. The constrained vision, on the other hand, would hold that the American system of government must have checks and balances in place so that constitutional government can survive even a power-tripping or malevolent president.

And I should note that Sowell himself has generally been a supporter of giving the President the power to authorize the abuse of foreign detainees, among other things.
10.24.2008 6:26pm
Zywicki (mail):
Obvious: Nicely said. I think the idea of "grouping" positions that do not seem logically related is the element of it that libertarians tend to find unpersuasive.

Ricardo: I had actually thought that I might include Bush's expansive view of executive power as another possible example, but I wasn't certain. But I do think that it is a plausible example.
10.24.2008 6:31pm
M (mail):
One can only hope that Murry is over-simplifying, since it's hard to believe that any serious adults take as simplistic a view as he presents there, either on the "liberal" or the "conservative" side.
10.24.2008 6:35pm
c.gray (mail):

Another way in which Bush has shown signs of an unconstrained view of the world is in his concentration of power in the executive branch. This quite literally reflects the belief that whomever the American people elect President should be unconstrained in what he does as long as he asserts his actions are in the name of national security.


I think the people who argue Bush's actions have been somehow exceptional fail to appreciate just how much presidents from Lincoln through Kennedy largely got away with on national security grounds, how vigorously every president since has resisted the shrinkage of the imperial presidency, and the natural political consequences of the atmosphere of sheer CYA-inspired terror and finger-pointing that developed among the political class and permanent government in the aftermath of 9-11-2001.
10.24.2008 6:45pm
Anderson (mail):
Well, great. Thomas Sowell has caught up to Edmund Burke. What a brilliant thinker Sowell must be.

In the, oh, 200+ years since the French Revolution, most of us have gotten used to a more sensible alternative to the either/or of infinitely malleable vs. naturally limited. Education, health measures, and general prosperity can indeed improve people in many respects, but the nature and consistency of that improvement is fast in some respects, slow in others, and glacial at points.

Arguments about "innate characteristics that cannot be reshaped and must instead be accommodated" have historically been used to justify the subjection of women, foreigners, and blacks. The trick is to jump rather quickly to your assumptions about what is "innate."
10.24.2008 6:53pm
Anderson (mail):
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.

OH, LORD, I missed that particular embarrassment.

Classic/romantic
Traditional/radical
constrained/unconstrained
conservative/liberal
authoritarian/democratic
other-directed/inner-directed
Coke/Pepsi

Thinking in trite dualisms is not particularly challenging. Neither is recycling them for easily-awed conservative readers who are sufficiently ignorant of the history of ideas that "classic/romantic" is something they acquired from the Little Pink Book of Mr. Pirsig.
10.24.2008 6:56pm
RobMS (mail):
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.


I absolutely disagree. The belief of McCain-Feingold supporters is that contributing money to political campaigns corrupts politicians and that rather than merely outlaw corruption, we must limit the contributions.

This is the opposite of an unconstrained vision. The whole point is that giving money to political campaigns is inherently corrupting. Since that cannot be eliminated by outlawing corruption, it must be avoided by limiting contributions.

To rephrase it in Charles Murray's terms, the innate characteristic [that contributions corrupt politicians] cannot be reshaped and must instead be accommodated by limiting the amount of contributions.
10.24.2008 6:56pm
badimitation (mail):
I thought the interesting part of Murray's review was his observation that post-80's, politics has reached a "what are we fighting over?" stage. An illustration of this was my discussion with the mgr. of a Planned Parenthood office. I asked her why, in view of the plethora of available contraceptives, we continue take the issue of abortion availability from state voters. Her answer: black men won't allow black women to use contraception.
10.24.2008 6:56pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
In the, oh, 200+ years since the French Revolution, most of us have gotten used to a more sensible alternative to the either/or of infinitely malleable vs. naturally limited. Education, health measures, and general prosperity can indeed improve people in many respects, but the nature and consistency of that improvement is fast in some respects, slow in others, and glacial at points.
While you seem to be attempting to find a middle ground, I remain unpersuaded. My objection is that in my view, that which is most relevant, the perfectability of man, is least apt to change. In particular, the one trait that I see as critical here is that of greed. I would suggest that if man is inherently greedy (which I believe), then much government action is doomed to failure.

I would further suggest that one big reason that communism failed, and will continue to fail, is that it presupposes that greed can be trained out of us as humans (And the totalitarian side is argued as being temporary, until that condition occurs).
10.24.2008 7:17pm
astrangerwithcandy (mail):

Thinking in trite dualisms is not particularly challenging. Neither is recycling them for easily-awed conservative readers who are sufficiently ignorant of the history of ideas that "classic/romantic" is something they acquired from the Little Pink Book of Mr. Pirsig.


anderson, ill let you find the irony in that paragraph.
10.24.2008 7:21pm
astrangerwithcandy (mail):
follow-up, does it ever become exhausting being the smartest man alive?
10.24.2008 7:23pm
DDG:
Another area where similar concepts come up (and Sowell may discuss it in his book; its been years since I read it) is the nature/nurture divide -- the "blank slate" versus innate nature.

It produces one of the more profound ironies of modern life: liberals (unconstrained vision) tend to be pro-Darwin to the extent that natural selection provides a naturalistic, anti-creation explanation for life. Many religious conservatives are anti-Darwin for precisely the same reasons. But liberals tend to reject what Darwinism (through modern evolutionary biology) <i>says</i> about certain immutable features of humanity that conservative frequently accept (but without Darwin) -- including differences between men and women, genetic intelligence potential and the like. Larry Summers was pilloried (by left-ish non-scientists) for saying things that most life scientists (regardless of affiliation) accept without question. Strange world.
10.24.2008 7:33pm
Nelson Lund (mail):

[T]he nature of a conflict of visions is that they are different, not correct or incorrect


If they're based on "different conceptions of the nature of man," how can they be neither correct or incorrect? They could both be incorrect, or they could both be partially correct, but I don't see how they could just be "different," at least not in the way that chocolate and vanilla are just different.
10.24.2008 7:39pm
Perseus (mail):
Thinking in trite dualisms is not particularly challenging.

Nor is trite blather about getting beyond dualism.
10.24.2008 7:40pm
Lily (mail):
"whether someone wants to be "perfected" is their own damn business"

Exactly.

Constrained, Uncontrained - whatever. It comes down to this simple fact: Some people cannot resist the temptation to tell others how to live. And, apparently, to use the full force of government to achieve this end.

Further: Neither George W Bush nor John McCain are conservatives.
10.24.2008 8:20pm
BobDoyle (mail):
Kudos astrangerwithcandy, your two posts win the thread and probably win posts of the month -- maybe even the year!
10.24.2008 8:33pm
ARCraig (mail):
Sounds a lot like the more specific distinction Gene Healy made in his excellent book The Cult of the Presidency between the "great" presidents, who were equally fond of grandiose rhetoric and executive aggrandizement (TR, Wilson, FDR, etc.) and those presidents usually considered "poor" or "weak", because they were generally content to just do their job and preside over peace and prosperity (Cleveland, Harding, Coolidge, etc.). I think there's a correlation there, perhaps. The only two post-WWII Presidents I can see as being constrained are Eisenhower (who fits more in the 'humble chief magistrate' category) and Nixon- who is a glaring exception. He undeniably had a very pessimistic, constrained view of humanity yet was notorious for his belief in the righteousness of Presidential power. In fact, one could argue that his perspective influenced that in the form of the paranoia driving some of his abuses.

Then again, tracing it back to the Founding Fathers and you got the opposite. It's the people who are cynical about human nature- Hamilton, Washington, and particularly Adams- who lined up on the side of a strong government as opposed to the Jeffersonian mindset which was fundamentally very positive about human nature, and thus supported diffusing power as much as possible amongst the people at large and to a more local, democratic model for government (which is good from their perspective because there are more good people than bad people).

I think the shift is simply indicative of the fact that these perspectives can be, and are, used to rationalize pretty much any position. There are plenty of unconstrained libertarians who fall somewhere in the fuzzy border zone between libertarianism and conservatism, for example. Such as Ron Paul, who is unconstrained in his perspective and sees government as an undesirable, artificial constraint on the potential ability of human nature.
10.24.2008 8:37pm
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
Those who wish to make pronouncements in the nature/nurture debate as it relates to the constrained and unconstrained visions would do well to keep up with recent science in the area. Steven Pinker is excellent on both knowledge and presentation.
10.24.2008 8:53pm
KeithK (mail):
Keep in mind that Sowell does not claim that people can be cleanly split into constrained and unconstrained camps. It's a continuum and individuals fall at different points along the line. Obama's rhetoric seems to place him pretty far twoards the unconstrained side. Neither Bush nor McCain would be similarly far towards the constrained side.
10.24.2008 9:02pm
Oren:

Nor is trite blather about getting beyond dualism.

I loled.

Some people cannot resist the temptation to tell others how to live. And, apparently, to use the full force of government to achieve this end.

This is even more trite than dualism. Everyone wants to constrain the actions of others. In our minds, though, we have ideas about precisely the scope of what we may constrain (murder, rape, arson) and what we may not constrain (prayer, abortion, guns). When pressed for a systematic rules for classification and a structural system for actually making those decisions, however, most people fail to follow through. In essence, we know what a legitimate exercise of government action is when we see it, but we refuse to define it.

That leads to the obvious situation we have now -- people disagree on what the proper scope of government is.
10.24.2008 9:04pm
Oren:



If they're based on "different conceptions of the nature of man," how can they be neither correct or incorrect? They could both be incorrect, or they could both be partially correct, but I don't see how they could just be "different," at least not in the way that chocolate and vanilla are just different.

Because the various descriptions of the same object do not attempt to answer the same question. To use an analogy from Gilbert Ryle (who is awesome, btw), they aren't competing for the same spot on the bench.
10.24.2008 9:07pm
Oren:

Steven Pinker is excellent on both knowledge and presentation.

Seconded. His lecture on how we are actually living in the best time in recorded history is amazing.
10.24.2008 9:07pm
DDG:
I liked "the Language Instinct", "How the Mind Works, and "The Blank Slate". He's not always right, but he's engaging.
10.24.2008 9:49pm
Twill (mail):

Isn't this "constrained(unconstrained)" really just a slightly skewed version of "man is basically good(evil)"?

And isn't it more likely that man is basically wishy-washy, rather than intrinsically good or evil?

I think a realistic look at human activity shows that people have natural drives, can be molded within a wide range of activity, and are never as good or as evil as one might hope. Self service is more common than not, and society does well to convince as many people as possible that their selves are served by helping others.



By the way, nothing is perfectable in this particular universe. See "Laws of thermodynamics".
10.24.2008 10:12pm
Nelson Lund (mail):
Oren:

What are the two different questions?
10.24.2008 10:12pm
FredB:
So, the whole world is binary. What a simpleminded philosophy this post has. This post, in fact, demonstrates a quality of stupidity, not political discourse that's either liberal or conservative.
10.24.2008 10:42pm
MarkField (mail):

I liked "the Language Instinct", "How the Mind Works, and "The Blank Slate". He's not always right, but he's engaging.


I thought "The Language Instinct" and "Words and Rules" were fantastic. "How the Mind Works" is fair to poor and "The Blank Slate" is absolute dreck.

Pinker is an excellent writer, and when he sticks to his area of expertise (linguistics), there are few better science writers for the lay public. But the two books I criticized were on a topics outside his area of expertise, and he just lacks the familiarity to make a convincing argument. If you want that side of the debate, Richard Dawkins is much better.


Sounds a lot like the more specific distinction Gene Healy made in his excellent book The Cult of the Presidency between the "great" presidents, who were equally fond of grandiose rhetoric and executive aggrandizement (TR, Wilson, FDR, etc.) and those presidents usually considered "poor" or "weak", because they were generally content to just do their job and preside over peace and prosperity (Cleveland, Harding, Coolidge, etc.).


The inclusion of Cleveland in this list seems odd. His second term was hardly a time of prosperity -- the Panic of 1893 was a very serious depression. And while the nation was at peace with foreign nations, domestic peace was pretty rare; his two terms were marked by a great deal of labor and racial strife.


The only two post-WWII Presidents I can see as being constrained are Eisenhower (who fits more in the 'humble chief magistrate' category) and Nixon


Ford and Carter seem to fit also. Even Clinton in his policies, though not perhaps in his rhetoric.
10.24.2008 11:04pm
byomtov (mail):
The Left holds an unconstrained vision: Given the right political and economic arrangements, human beings can be improved, even perfected... The Right holds a constrained vision: People come to society with innate characteristics that cannot be reshaped and must instead be accommodated.

I have no idea what Murray is talking about.

It seems to me that both conservatives and liberals advocate (oppose) changes in political and economic arrangements that they feel will improve (worsen) matters relative to where they are now.

How this constrained/unconstrained distinction plays into that I don't see. Take a current hot-button issue - gay marriage. How do opposing views on that question fit into this framework?
10.24.2008 11:46pm
ARCraig (mail):

The inclusion of Cleveland in this list seems odd


It's true his wasn't exactly a time of peace, love, and happiness, but he did have a very much a hands-off approach to the Presidency compared to the Republicans that preceded and followed him. Though I don't really know enough about the man's personal perspective to comment on whether he not it was constrained.



Ford and Carter seem to fit also. Even Clinton in his policies, though not perhaps in his rhetoric.


I agree about Ford, I just forgot him (easy to do, which isn't a bad thing for a President). I think Carter was too much of an idealist, though. The "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" narrative that's been woven around his presidency is certainly overblown, but I think it does get at some truth- Carter does have a kind of naive utopian strain. As for Clinton, I agree the kind of pragmatic centrism with which he governed is the kind of thing you'd generally expect from someone with a more constrained perspective, but I think when it comes to analyzing perspective rhetoric is a much more useful indicator than policies.
10.25.2008 12:19am
Mark in Texas (mail):
byomtov: I have no idea what Murray is talking about.

Liberals believe that life on a tropical island would be like the movie "Blue Lagoon".

Conservatives believe that life on a tropical island wold be like "Lord of the Flies".
10.25.2008 1:15am
Freer:
Whereas thinking people know it depends on whether, it's a couple in love or a group of young boys.
10.25.2008 1:24am
David Warner:
Freer,

"Whereas thinking people know it depends on whether, it's a couple in love or a group of young boys."

I think someones been doing too much thinking and not enough being part of a couple in love...
10.25.2008 2:11am
peter jackson (mail) (www):
First off, I don't think Murray really does justice to the constrained vision in the blurb. The constrained vision is predicated upon the notion that human beings, relative to world in which we live, are constrained in their abilities to bring about desirable outcomes. Yes, humans can bring about some desirable outcomes, but only in a finite number of certain ways. Central to this vision of the way the world works is Hayek's knowledge problem, and an innate understanding and acceptance of universal ignorance and the inexorability of risk in all human endeavor. Sowell summarizes this core vision of how the world works as the general understanding that everything one intends comes into conflict with that which everyone else intends, and the outcome nearly always winds up one that no one explicitly intended.

The unconstrained vision, on the other hand, is predicated upon rationalism and the abiding belief that humans have, especially when organized in functional groups, the intelligence and other wherewithal necessary to essentially run the world as we see fit, producing desirable outcomes as a matter of course. Sowell's shorthand for this premise is "the will is the deed." And of course if this is true, then it is also necessarily true that the deed is the will. This is why someone of the constrained vision will look at, say, a vagrant and see someone brought to that unhappy circumstance by the unpredictable confluence of an over-fondness for beer, lot's of unwise choices and circumstantial misfortune. Someone of the unconstrained vision looks at a vagrant and sees a victim that someone—greedy corporations, the bourgeoisie, whoever—either malevolently intended to harm or negligently and unnecessarily allowed to come to harm.
10.25.2008 2:49am
jim47:

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.


I very much second and agree with TZ on this statement. One of the most fascinating things about the libertarian movement is the way that this divide plays out in very subtle ways. I would venture to say that you could even find Volokh Conspirators clearly on either side of this line.
10.25.2008 4:53am
~aardvark (mail):
Todd (and, to some extent, Ricardo),

I am baffled how you can ascribe a vision to GWB. The guy is an exemplar of small-minded, micro-managing, self-serving mental midget. His "vision" consists of getting his "subordinates" showing up at meetings on time--not in what they have to say once they get there.

You might have implied the vision of his "team", but that has not been consistent throughout the term. Ascribing the context of any legislation to the "vision" of the President is also questionable since it is not made in a vacuum. For one, it represents a compromise between the two parties in the legislative branch with the ascent of the Executive, but it need not bear an imprint of the Executive at all. In NCLB case, the "vision" hardly came from the White House. But even had it come from GWB, it was hardly unconstrained--NCLB contains the most restrictive and forceful penalty provisions of any education legislation in US history. Although there is a bit of carrot in the pot--it is largely underfunded--there is plenty of stick.

The same applies to the "vision" of the power of the executive. It's not based on an unconstrained utopian view at all--the base is purely Straussian, assuming that those who are currently in charge are smarter than everyone else and they will stay in power indeterminately for the same reason. They would certainly shudder if they ever considered that those they disagree with could come to power under the same terms and now the chickens are coming home to roost. The view was based on lack of forethought, not on an unconstrained vision.

AVI, Oren et al.

An important thing to realize about Pinker's popular books is that they are largely based on an opinion--opinion well articulated and backed by evidence, but an opinion nonetheless. Pinker is indeed extremely erudite and is an innovative thinker, but he is far from being always right. Moving from the more constrained scientific medium to that of popular literature allows him to be more speculative. The same is true of others--Dennett and Dawkins, for example.
10.25.2008 7:03am
Brian Mac:

In the, oh, 200+ years since the French Revolution, most of us have gotten used to a more sensible alternative to the either/or of infinitely malleable vs. naturally limited. Education, health measures, and general prosperity can indeed improve people in many respects, but the nature and consistency of that improvement is fast in some respects, slow in others, and glacial at points.

Ahh, we can abandon this particular trite dualism, because it turns out that the truth lies 'somewhere in between.' Hegel would be so proud!
10.25.2008 9:15am
Ricardo (mail):
The same applies to the "vision" of the power of the executive. It's not based on an unconstrained utopian view at all--the base is purely Straussian, assuming that those who are currently in charge are smarter than everyone else and they will stay in power indeterminately for the same reason.

This is true -- I was trying to be charitable in my interpretation of Bush/Cheney expansion of executive power. But an alternative interpretation is that Bush and Cheney are elitists who think they possess unique wisdom and intelligence and should therefore be trusted with what amounts to unlimited power in the national security realm. But we may soon get to see whether their cheerleaders were acting on principle or not if President Obama becomes a reality in January 2009.

c.gray, the point is that the Bush Administration has made claims that really are without precedent -- for instance, in their claim in 2002 that they could detain indefinitely American citizens arrested on U.S. soil who they designated enemy combatants without Congressional authorization. I would suggest the book "The Fate of Liberty" which shows that the Lincoln administration was in fact very restrained in some of its actions during the Civil War. For instance, Lincoln insisted that Confederate soldiers be granted prisoner of war status despite not being under a legal obligation to do so -- that stands in sharp contrast to some of Bush's wartime decisions.

There are several other examples, but the point is that the Bush Administration has acted to overturn not only constitutional or legal limitations on executive power but also unwritten limits that past Presidents have accepted out of respect for preserving tradition.
10.25.2008 9:49am
byomtov (mail):
Liberals believe that life on a tropical island would be like the movie "Blue Lagoon".

Conservatives believe that life on a tropical island wold be like "Lord of the Flies".


Huh?

That really doesn't fit with the idea that "liberals want to regulate everything." "Blue lagoon" (I haven't seen it, but assume it's a paradisical story) sounds more like the libertarian, or "small-government conservative" vision.

Peter Jackson,

Your explanation helps, but I don't see how the vagrant example works. If I believe "the will is the deed" then wouldn't I believe that the vagrant had the ability to pull himself out of his situation?
10.25.2008 10:10am
Ben Franklin (mail):
The constrained vs. unconstrained argument seems a bit silly to me. Indeed I was shocked to see conservatives put on the constrained side of the equation since that wouldn't have been my first impulse. If you look at which philosophy assumes people are limited by their innate flaws to only achieving a certain station in life then that would certainly be the left rather than the right. Every social program has as its basis the idea that some people just can't help themselves. They are so innately flawed that they need help from their betters to make it through life. They have to have outside assistance to earn a living, raise their kids, decide which foods to eat or even wipe their own butts (or at least to determine how much toilet paper to use when they do so). Lax law enforcement is a consequence of seeing criminals as being products of their environment... objects that are acted upon rather than individuals who choose what they will and what they won't do based upon their own desires and morality.

Conservatives and libertarians on the other hand seem to believe that people are quite capable of making decisions about how they will spend their money or what activities they will engage in without assistance from the elite and that each person can attain a station limited more by how hard they work than how easily they can game the system to get a handout to cover for their innate inability to function in a self-sufficient manner.

Libertarians would find nothing odd about thinking the Iraqis could govern themselves better than a dictator or an oppressive central government.

So all of the Bush-whacking and thread jacking aside, I think that the most basic assumptions of the argument at hand are wrong. Sowell is a really bright guy and gets a lot more things right than wrong but I think this particular argument is a bit of a clunker.
10.25.2008 10:41am
Gideon7 (mail):
Sowell's argument makes sense from a Christian viewpoint (IMHO). There is no need to point out that religious belief correlates well with conservatism. Christianity is founded on the basis of Man's inability to save himself on his own, and his need for redemption from a Higher Power. Luther's concept of Sola Fide / Sola Gratia and Calvin's doctrine of Total Depravity are the foundations of much of mainstream and evangelical Christian belief.
10.25.2008 11:06am
David Warner:
Gideon7,

"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

Phillipians 4:13

Unconstrained at one remove.
10.25.2008 3:19pm
Angus Lander (mail):
Sowell's constrained/unconstrained distinction -- insofar as it posits that liberals are liberals (and conservatives are conservatives) based on their evaluation of a vague, complicated empirical question -- suggests something else: many prefer one ideology to another because they're in the grips of a few inchoate notions.

To take an example: I suspect ardent welfare supporters tend to have in mind, when they imagine the average welfare recipient, a truly destitute victim of circumstance (and otherwise sympathetic character - grateful, kind, etc.). Conversely, they imagine rich people as callous beneficiaries of luck (who are, incidentally, golf playing womanizers). The same, mutatis mutandis, tends to hold for those who find welfare objectionable; recipients are all welfare queens and the rich are all Hank Rearden.

Certainly people on both side of (e.g.) the question of income redistribution muster actual arguments in favor of their positions, and the most thoughtful probably are moved by a dispassionate review of those arguments to the view they favor. But I'd hazard that for many whether they are a liberal or a conservative hinges on what sort of person they think of when they hear "poor" and "rich."
10.25.2008 6:05pm
peter jackson (mail) (www):

Peter Jackson,

Your explanation helps, but I don't see how the vagrant example works. If I believe "the will is the deed" then wouldn't I believe that the vagrant had the ability to pull himself out of his situation?



Because power is relative. A single person's power is no match against that of a rich organized interest. If a person is powerful, then multiple people in cahoots are that much more powerful. I probably could have come up with a better example, but the point is that those of the unconstrained vision almost never observe a social outcome, good or bad, that they don't ultimately feel was intended by someone. Holders of the constrained vision OTOH are more likely to believe that outcomes are almost never intended by anyone, and thus the "fault" of no one in partular.

Also, when one believes that running the world as we see fit is well within the scope of applied human intelligence, then human intelligence takes on a disproportionate social importance; intelligence becomes the difference between success and failure. Within the logic of the constrained vision, however, since humanity is already seen as so powerfully constrained by nature, the relative social importance of the difference in intelligence between a prince and a rag picker isn't very significant.
10.25.2008 7:44pm
David Warner:
Peter Jackson,

Your theory is appealing, but I'm not so sure that many coming from the unconstrained direction believe that any human intervention is necessary at all. On the contrary, in their view it was likely human intervention in the Rousseauean ideal state of nature that caused the problem in the first place, and so therein lies the fault.

The constrained see prosperity as the exception to the general historical rule of poverty, with a Hobbesian state of nature, so thus encourage actions which foster prosperity.

Who's to blame vs whom to laud. So we get things like IDEA, which punish communities for not investing, on average, 3 to 4 times as many resources on special needs students as other students, even if the community in question wishes a different distribution out of simple fairness or to better train its future leaders to find ways to lift it out of poverty. In unconstrained land, there's no need to lift, we're naturally prosperous and must only be vigilant lest the greedy hoard that natural wealth to themselves.
10.25.2008 9:35pm
Anderson (mail):
Hegel would be so proud!

Oh, pooh. Hegel was someone who thought he could prove the rational basis for the number of planets orbiting the sun ... this of course before the discovery of Neptune.

Where nature is unbending, and where "nature" is really "nurture," is a matter for empirical evaluation. Like the number of planets. Or whether Sowell's skin color makes him uniquely suited to "bear exposure to the tropical sun."
10.27.2008 1:12pm
mischief (mail):

whether someone wants to be "perfected" is their own damn business"


Constrained vision.

If you believed in the unconstrained vision, you would think that everyone could persuaded to be perfected.
10.27.2008 1:52pm
Seerak (mail):
The "constrained" versus "unconstrained" distinction is a false alternative, originating in collectivism and a bad definition of "tabula rasa".

Human *nature*, that is the nature of all human beings, is indeed "constrained" -- constrained by the facts of what human beings *are*. Human nature is a metaphysical given and a natural phenomenon, just like anything else in nature, and as such is immutable. (If we actually did significantly alter humans genetically, what we would be dealing with is something new, outside what we usually mean by Homo sapiens). Man is Man, and he is not malleable in the manner that the Left imagines him to be.

However, one given aspect of human nature is free will. Individual human character is unconstrained; that is, there is no limit to an individual's ability to author his own soul, for good or evil. This is the true meaning of "tabula rasa". There are no innate ideas whatsoever, no automatic knowledge. This means that each individual is both capable. of authoring their own souls, and morally responsible for the results.

The "slate" in "tabula rasa" itself is "constrained" by its nature; what we each choose to write on it, the "content of our character", is not.
10.28.2008 4:55pm