Thomas Sowell Revisited: Constrained versus Unconstrained Visions

Back in 1987, Thomas Sowell published a book that merited far more attention than it received: A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (New York: William Morrow & Co.). A revised edition was published in 2007.

I believed, back when I first read the book in either 1990 or 1991, that Sowell had hit on something of major importance–possibly one of the few dichotomies worth taking seriously. This was his distinction between “constrained” and “unconstrained” visions. Here is the difference:

For amelioration of … the human condition, the constrained vision relies on certain social processes such as moral traditions, the marketplace, or families.

By contrast:

When Rousseau said that “man is born free” but “is everywhere in chains” he expressed the essence of the unconstrained vision, in which the fundamental problem is not nature but institutions.

This offers a philosophically important insight into why some societal arrangements succeed, at least somewhat, while others fail miserably.

All we have to do is add an element of realism: nature, including human nature, is such that certain beliefs, certain practices, certain sets of arrangements–in a word, certain systems–accord with its principles, while others either ignore those principles or openly flout them. Doing the latter is akin, in some respects, to banging your head against a brick wall. It’s going to hurt, but it’s not going to affect the wall.

According to Dr. Sowell, the left-liberal welfare state has failed miserably. It has failed blacks especially even if it was aimed at them primarily. 

What he advises: if you disagree, just look at the data, which he draws from civilizations and communities worldwide. He shows that there are cases of groups who have succeeded spectacularly despite blatant discrimination by the powers-that-be. In the case of American blacks, we saw economic improvement through the 1940s and 1950s, despite the legacy of Jim Crow.

According to Dr. Sowell, these improvements continued through the 1960s and 1970s, reflecting this earlier momentum, not civil rights legislation.

But then, several decades of genuine progress began to slow, halt, and actually reverse itself. American blacks began, if anything, to slip backwards educationally and culturally, despite affirmative action.

Dr. Sowell blames the increasing grip of the unconstrained vision of the left-liberal mindset, the chief legacy of which was the welfare state. Eventually, as the lack of continued progress became noticeable, a victim mindset developed and grew.

Previous to this era, blacks had suffered discrimination but their families tended to stay together and their neighborhoods did not suffer from the rampant crime that came to afflict them later. This was not due to anything white people were doing. It was due to the moral and educational breakdown that always accompanies an unconstrained vision. When the political class and its servants make the assumption that institutions, or “systemic racism,” are at fault, they set about to change those institutions, or change the entire system–not the beliefs and practices that accord with what healthy communities need. With moral breakdown comes familial breakdown, out-of-wedlock births, etc. And when welfare-state policies tie payments directly to paternal absenteeism as well as number of children, perverse incentives set in and multiply.

In the same fashion, if government pays people to stay and home and not work, most will stay at home and not work. (This isn’t rocket science.)

Not to mention what was happening in higher education. For the past 40 years blacks have been incentivized into increasing resentment against whites–indeed, against anyone, white, Asian, etc., who has accomplished something with his life. This is part of the victim mindset. Lack of a stable family structure, moreover, is always associated with a rising temptation to criminal activity, especially if there are no male role models with sound values.

As Dr. Sowell observes, this is not just America. Distinct patterns are observed in societies all over the world–meaning that they reflect discoverable realities of the human condition, and nature herself. For example, when official policy favors one group at the expense of another for a long enough period of time, inflicting actual harm on members of the disfavored group, the result is divisions that eventually threaten to explode.

What makes the constrained vision the more valid one is that the world we inhabit does in fact impose constraints on what is socially, politically, and economically possible. The fact that we must produce the means of our sustenance and that we respond to incentives is a place to begin. I would add that human beings cannot simply exist, whatever their station in life, without a sense that there is some purpose for their doing so, and that grounding this purpose in transient historical, cultural, or economic factors is insufficient. Real conservatism recognizes that this purpose must be grounded in a transcendent reality and that reality’s God.

The danger the West now faces–all races–is that insane efforts by the far left to maintain an unconstrained vision, we’ve literally thrown facts, truth, and logic out the window in favor of fantasies like “systemic racism” and “white privilege,” or “gender” fluidity. The far left believes it can “cancel” history by taking down historical monuments deemed “racist.”

I will end this note with the observation that we are approaching what may be the most dangerous epoch in all of U.S. history, even more dangerous than the period that led up to the War Between the States. The danger is that regardless of who wins Election 2020, the other side is going to cry foul and claim the election was stolen. Some are already laying the groundwork for an allegation of this kind if Donald Trump should be reelected.

This is the snowballing of Sowell’s unconstrained vision, which proceeded from the welfare state and affirmative action up through political correctness, ending up with present-day “cancel culture” in which radical-left groups such as Antifa and Black Lives Matter are resorting to vandalism and open violence to exact their will, often aided and abetted by Democrats in city governments while mainstream Republicans cower in fear, doing nothing. Police, under withering attack since George Floyd’s death, seem on the verge of abdicating, in large cities at least.

Is it possible to restore a constrained vision? Yes, but more and more of us are concluding that with higher education having collapsed, mainstream culture having collapsed, and much of mainstream political economy now servicing the enemies of such principles, the only way to do it will be from the outside, on the margins, eventually working back in and rebuilding institutions once the wrecking ball now swinging has finished its destructive course wreaking havoc.

One can only hope that a philosopher can play a role starting this rebuilding.

Listen to Dr. Sowell discuss his views in this video.

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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