Sunday, April 29, 2007

Thomas Sowell May Be On To Something With 'Constrained/Uncontrained' Visions

I’ve been fairly busy today writing but I took a little time to check the Blog rolls and noted that in “Rants and Raves”, Stephanie Browne (Norman, Oklahoma) posted her review of Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles” (Perseus Books Group, New paperback edition: from Amazon for $14.78).

From a brief blurb, Sowell divides the political spectrum dominating social science arguments as “the ‘constrained vision’, which views man as unchanged, limited and dependent on evolved social processes (market economies, constitutional law, etc.); and the ‘unconstrained vision’, which argues for man's potential and perfectibility, and the possibility of rational planning for social solutions. Examining the views of thinkers who reflect these constrained (Adam Smith) and unconstrained (William Godwin) visions, Sowell shows how the powerful and subjective visions give rise to carefully constructed social theories. His discussion of how these conflicting attitudes ultimately produce clashes over equality, social justice and other issues is instructive.”

The paragraph that caught my eye in Stephanie Brown’s excellent review says:

The unconstrained vision is more often characteristic of those who would use the coercive power of the state to affect great changes in the structure of society and human nature, but it cannot be assumed that a constrained vision leads to a blind defense of the status quo. He gives the example of Adam Smith, an exemplar of a strongly constrained vision, was an advocate of sweeping social changes such as the abolition of slavery and an end to mercantilist policies.”

And her summary, plus Sowell’s example, shows the ‘weakness’ of placing as set of visions for an identified person as well known as Adam Smith, across all of his views, and I suspect those of most persons who might try to place themselves in ‘constrained’ or ‘unconstrained’ segments of the spectrum, is that people might display sets of characteristics of constrained and unconstrained visions, depending on the issues under their scrutiny at any particular moment.

This is a general problem we find in ‘personality profiling’: we’ve all got at least one personality, but most of us have the characteristics of several personalities within our repertoires. I found this the case when examining proposals for ‘personality profiling’ in negotiation behaviours (Rubin and Brown’s ‘interpersonal orientations’ and ‘competitive’, ‘collaborative’ behaviours) in my former ‘day job’ teaching negotiation at the Business School.

Stephanie provides a most useful service in providing her version in a detailed chart summarising Sowell’s visions, and reading through it I found myself agreeing that the constrained visions she abstracted more closely represented how I stood on the issues she identified, than the unconstrained visions. I agree, therefore, that someone affected (infected?) by Adam Smith’s philosophy and evident behaviour would be classed as having a ‘constrained vision’.

Sowell recognises this too, in his example of Adam Smith that Stephanie quotes, that Smith was “an exemplar of a strongly constrained vision”, and “was an advocate of sweeping social changes such as the abolition of slavery and an end to mercantilist policies.”

Secular democracy exacerbates the trend to changes in the status quo because changing policies is endemic in democracy because governing parties win and lose power regularly. Smith didn’t think that slavery would be abolished because it was entrenched in many societies from Eastern Europe and Russia, through the Arab middle- and near-East, large swathes of Africa south of the Sahara, India, China and Asia, and latterly in the America’s. In Western Europe, slavery was practised less, except in the galleys and the colonies. Slavery was declared illegal within Scotland in 1778 and a little later in England too (both countries had and have seaprate legal systems).

After the fall of Rome, slavery was dismantled in its classical form (and the form most vivid in the cultural memory – though it continued for a thousand years afterwards in the aforementioned regions larely unnoticed), to be replaced with feudal serfdom until that withered after the 15th century, a sort of part-way form of slavery that eventually gave way to tenant farmers.

While pessimistic about the chances of countries where slavery was entrenched (though critical of it economically), he was not much more optimistic about abolishing mercantile political economy. He thought to remove it entirely was akin to believing in ‘Utopia’ and ‘Oceania’, but nevertheless he considered much of its laws and regulations could be dismantled if enough legislators could be persuaded. And he set out to persuade them but did not do so by demanding ‘sweeping’ changes.

Smith’s advocacy of certain policies was not that of a political agitator or campaigner. He analysed society in order to understand it; not to change it (that was Marx’s claim). He provided the moral and economic evidence for change, but not to an urgent timetable. In Wealth Of Nations he cautioned against ‘sweeping’ changes by such as removing protectionist policies (better not to introduce any more of them) that caused distress for labouring people if implemented too quickly, preferring change to come ‘slowly and gradually’ to give people time to adjust.

Hence, within the ‘constrained’ vision there is a fair amount of practical good sense for legislators to consider; for the ‘unconstrained visionaries’ he cautioned against ‘men of system’, who had answers for everything and saw human society as a great ‘chessboard’ and who in their ‘conceit’ forget that people act under ‘motions of their own’ and not like wooden chess pieces.

On this basis, and after reading earlier books of his, I think Sowell may be onto something in his ‘Conflict of Visions’, and his book looks interesting enough for me, and perhaps for you, to acquire a copy.


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