A Conflict of Visions
Ideological Origins of Political Struggles
by Thomas Sowell

Review by
Sarah Emily Jordan

Morrow: New York, 1987
273 pages

revised edition (this edition reviewed) —
Basic Books: New York, 2007

329 pages

October 2010

Constrained versus unconstrained

As I have become increasingly more interested and involved in politics I have immersed myself in a lot of books. In order to really come to know what I believe for myself I feel the need to study it out. One of the most important books that anyone can read, especially to understand the political ideological divide is A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles by Thomas Sowell. Mr. Sowell is one of my favorite authors. His genius is that he can explain an issue so thoroughly and clearly that it makes it easy to understand.

A Conflict of Visions presents two opposing visions, Constrained, a tragic vision of the human condition; and Unconstrained, a moral vision of human intentions, which are viewed as ultimately decisive.

My best suggestion for understanding these two visions and their roles in ideological struggle is to read the book, but I will attempt to break down some of the concepts.

Free processes or designed benefits

The Constrained vision is a view that humans are imperfect and that they cannot become perfect. But, that given appropriate incentives mankind can evolve and create and deal justly with one another. Sowell in discussing this vision turns quite a bit to Adam Smith, the economist who wrote The Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith believed in incentives and trade-offs, as Sowell explains,

Economic benefits to society were largely unintended by individuals, but emerged systemically from the interactions of the marketplace, under the pressures of competition and the incentives of individual gain. (p, 14)

The Unconstrained vision is a view that humans are perfectible by man made means. Sowell in discussing this vision refers to William Godwin, author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). Sowell explains,

Where in Adam Smith moral and socially beneficial behavior could be evoked from man only by incentives, in William Godwin man's understanding and disposition were capable of intentionally creating social benefits. (p, 15)

A Conflict of Visions is divided into nine chapters to discuss both patterns and applications of these visions. In one of these chapters Sowell discusses knowledge and reason:

In short, starting from different conceptions of how much a given individual can know and understand, the constrained and the unconstrained visions arrive at opposite conclusions as to whether the best social decisions are to be made by those with the most individual knowledge of a special kind or by systemic processes that mobilize and coordinate knowledge scattered among the many, in individually unimpressive amounts. (p, 46-47)

Thus the Unconstrained vision looks towards the few to possess enough knowledge to bring about a utopian ideal, while the Constrained vision looks towards the many to bring about processes that will benefit the whole.

Sowell also discusses visions of social processes. When it comes to these processes the Unconstrained vision looks towards results, while the Constrained vision looks to the process. For the Unconstrained vision the ultimate result would be a utopia-like society where there is no suffering. While the Constrained vision understands that utopia is not possible, but rather that humankind is ever going through processes of trade-offs and evolving, not as in survival of the fittest individuals, but rather the survival of the fittest social processes.

Political theories & hybrid visions

Thomas Sowell makes it clear that no one political theory fits perfectly in to one or the other of the visions. He explains,

What puts a given thinker in the tradition of one vision rather than the other is not simply whether he refers more to man's constraints or to his untapped potential but whether, or to what extent, constraints are built into the very structure and operation of a particular theory. (p, 34).

He discusses the varieties and dynamics of visions and in particular refers to hybrid visions. The most notable hybrid is Marxism, which looks at Constrained means to bring about Unconstrained dreams.

When it comes to the idea of equality there is a clear separation of the two visions. For the Constrained vision equality means equal opportunity to succeed or fail. For the Unconstrained vision equality means equal things.

We must be clear on this critical difference between these two visions in their goal of either processes or results. Sowell explains the contrast between process-goals and result-goals:

In contrast to the constrained vision, which seeks to analyze, prescribe or judge only processes, the unconstrained vision seeks to analyze, prescribe, or judge results — income distribution, social mobility, and equal or unequal treatment by a variety of institutions, for example. (p. 94)

He further explains this contrast in terms of the view of freedom,

... one is not "really" free, in the unconstrained vision, merely because the political process does not legally confine one's actions. If the actual means of achieving one's goals are lacking, then there is no freedom in result, even if there is freedom in the process. (p. 94).

By contrast,

Equality of results for those who have contributed to production, abstained from production, and hampered production is offensive to an equality of process, in the constrained vision. (p. 95)

It is also very important to note that the ideological search for results can sometimes lead to the rationalization of certain means in order to get there,

... where the Unconstrained vision of human potential postulates more resistant frictions en route to realizing the goal, falsehood and force become not merely rights but duties, for the enormous benefits of an irreversible breakthrough go on for centuries, over which time the initial costs are to be amortized. (p. 62)

In other words, in the Unconstrained vision the ends can justify the means.

Contrasting power in the two visions, Sowell makes a point of discussing it militarily:

The amassing of military power by a peaceful nation is dangerously counterproductive, according to the unconstrained vision, and absolutely essential to preserve peace, according to the constrained vision. (p. 189)

For the Constrained vision, power is viewed in terms of protecting safety, peace and freedom, but particularly government power ought to be limited in order to best let processes proceed. For the Unconstrained vision power is viewed in terms of what it can do to further the cause of its hoped-for results. Thus power can be used to control or force behavioral and/or societal change.

What is "social justice"?

Sowell also discusses the idea of social justice, in particular as it relates to the Unconstrained vision,

Whatever its mechanisms or details, social justice has been the dominant theme of the Unconstrained vision from Godwin to Rawls.

He further explains that

Central to the concept of social justice is the notion that individuals are entitled to some share of the wealth produced by a society, simply by virtue of being members of that society and irrespective of any individual contributions made or not made to the production of that wealth. (p, 215-216)

Sowell invokes F. A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom to express the Constrained vision's view:

The dangerous aspect in Hayek's view is that "the concept of "social justice" ... has been the Trojan Horse which totalitarianism has entered" — Nazi Germany being just one example. ...

The hidden — and dangerous — significance of the demand for social justice, in Hayek's view, was that it implied a drastic change in whole processes under the bland guise of a mere preference for better distribution. (p. 219)

Thomas Sowell does a terrific job of detailing both visions without swaying the reader towards one vision or the other. In fact as I read I realized that I have elements of both in my own paradigm. Sowell writes that "What fundamentally distinguishes the two visions is their respective perceptions of human potential." I personally believe that man has great potential and has accomplished many great things, and will continue to do so. At the same time I recognize that man is fallen, and that there are some characteristics that can only be completely taken away by a Divine act, certainly not by man.

I appreciate that Sowell gives examples throughout of the differing visions; the most pertinent to me was the difference between the American and French Revolutions. The American Revolution was more in line with a Constrained vision. Once freedom was won, the Founders set about to create a government of trade-offs, checks and balances and limited powers. They believed that the best way to prosper was to set up a system where man could best evolve in social processes without the constraint or direction of their government. The French Revolution was an attempt to equalize a society by equal things, equal possessions and such. Every one was "Citizen" So-and-So, starting of course with Robespierre, who believed himself intellectual enough to equalize his society. But the government created was one of force rather than of an allowance of processes.


I am a religious person and a religious example came to me as I was reading A Conflict of Visions. For me it is a choice of Gardens. First off, the Garden of Eden, the best example of a utopia. The Unconstrained vision to me is the impossible search for the gateway back into the Garden of Eden. There is little recognition that though Eden may have been beautiful and absolute bliss there was no way of enjoying that innocence because there was no opposition, nothing to compare it to. Bliss is not happiness, neither is it success or growth. The other Garden that comes to mind is the Garden of Gethsemane where Christ suffered for the sins of mankind. We will all have suffering by virtue of our humanity. But it need not be something despised or completely done away with. Indeed suffering becomes one of the most essential ways in which we grow. That does not mean we seek it out, but it also does not mean we shun it. I believe that man can reach great potential if he is allowed to grow, and that he can reach his highest potential if he reaches for the Divine in his quest for greatness. Thus, my paradigm may be best explained as Constrained in that we cannot possibly be perfected in this life, but that by the grace of God (and not by man-made means) our potential is Unconstrained. I also believe that government's role should only be in protecting our rights to reach and grow and succeed or fail.

Thomas Sowell has done a masterful job in explaining the roots of political struggle in A Conflict of Visions. I don't just highly recommend it, I believe it is essential reading for anyone wishing to delve into politics or any study of sociological processes.


© 2010 Sarah Emily Jordan

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