Over the past few decades, economist Thomas Sowell has been one of the most effective, yet under-appreciated, proponents of conservative and libertarian economic thought. He is also one of our most powerful critics of the often destructive and harmful effects of liberal economic policies.
Sowell frames the differences between the left and the right as a “conflict of visions”, a political divide separated by “constrained” and “unconstrained” visions. As Wikipedia helpfully summarizes this view:
The Unconstrained Vision — Sowell argues that the unconstrained vision relies heavily on the belief that human nature is essentially good. Those with an unconstrained vision distrust decentralized processes and are impatient with large institutions and systemic processes that constrain human action. They believe there is an ideal solution to every problem, and that compromise is never acceptable. Collateral damage is merely the price of moving forward on the road to perfection. Sowell often refers to them as “the self anointed.” Ultimately they believe that man is morally perfectible. Because of this, they believe that there exist some people who are further along the path of moral development, have overcome self-interest and are immune to the influence of power and therefore can act as surrogate decision-makers for the rest of society.
The Constrained Vision — Sowell argues that the constrained vision relies heavily on belief that human nature is essentially unchanging and that man is naturally inherently self-interested, regardless of the best intentions. Those with a constrained vision prefer the systematic processes of the rule of law and experience of tradition. Compromise is essential because there are no ideal solutions, only trade-offs. Those with a constrained vision favor solid empirical evidence and time-tested structures and processes over intervention and personal experience. Ultimately, the constrained vision demands checks and balances and refuses to accept that all people could put aside their innate self-interest.
Sowell’s framing isn’t exactly new, of course. It’s mostly a modern elucidation of the argument between the secular utopianism of eighteenth century philosopher Rousseau and the Christian realism of the fourth century philosopher Augustine. But by keeping this “conflict of visions” framework in mind when discussing economic issues we can improve our political discussions, clarify our ideological differences, and improve our rhetorical effectiveness.
In a 2005 interview, Sowell discusses the characteristics that define liberals and conservatives:
Near the end of the video he offers three questions that can help us clarify many economic and social debates:
I’ve often said there are three questions that would destroy most of the arguments on the left.
The first is: ‘Compared to what?’
The second is: ‘At what cost?’
And the third is: ‘What hard evidence do you have?’
Now there are very few ideas on the left that can pass all of those…”
Too often in debates on economic issues, we conservatives tend to simply present our side of the issue and assume because our views are commensensical (and they mostly are) that merely hearing them will cause rational people to accept them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Instead, we need to let those who disagree with us figure out for themselves why their preferred policies won’t work.
Asking Sowell’s questions—“Compared to what?” “At what cost?”, “What hard evidence do you have?”—won’t help us win every political argument. But they can help reveal why the “unconstrained vision” is unworkable and ineffective at increasing human flourishing.
(Video link via: Jeff Rutherford)