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304 pages, Paperback
First published January 1, 1986
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...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...
The opposing “unconstrained vision”...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.”
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.
There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”