I have promised a series of posts on Thomas Sowell’s revelatory book A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. The book has given me critical insights into the way people think about various issues, and I now find it hard to consider any political issue without seeing it through the lens of Sowell’s constrained/unconstrained dichotomy. Since the this dichotomy is becoming an integral part of my day-to-day analysis, you might as well become familiar with it.
I have delivered three posts so far, here, here, and here. Here is part 4. The last post I did was a bit meandering, muddled, and inconclusive — so today, by contrast, I am tacking an issue that is quite clear and straightforward. The post is a bit long, to be sure, but the concepts are very simple and easy to understand.
A couple of people suggested that I do a post on each of the 20 questions I included in my quiz. That might be a bit too ambitious, but I will certainly do a few. Today I would like to discuss a point that may be obvious but is an absolutely central and unshakable belief of mine: my belief in the free market. I thought I would illustrate the point with question 3, which explains part of my thinking, and then move on to the critical relationship between a free market and the very concept of political freedom. As I will show below, the latter simply cannot exist without the former.
Here’s question 3 from my quiz:
a. I want to get government out of the people’s way, and let people make their own decisions for themselves. The knowledge any one human can possess is limited, and I prefer to rely on a process that coordinates information scattered throughout society, rather than relying on experts.
b. Government has a role in improving people’s lives. Part of the reason is that certain people possess concentrated specialized knowledge, and I would prefer to entrust decisions to those people, rather than to the masses.
Here, I am quite clearly from the constrained vision (and have become more so over time, as I have learned more about Austrian economics.). Here is a (very slightly) less-doctrinaire-than-today Patterico, from December 2008:
I’m skeptical of government intervention in economic affairs, because I believe they can lead to unintended consequences that are hard to predict. And I’m generally a believer in free-market principles. The idea is that the free market is the economic system most compatible with freedom, because rather than putting our trust in government to manage the economy, I believe we should trust the collective wisdom of consumers to make whatever decisions are best for them. As those decisions multiply, markets form as if by magic — and (in theory at least) it causes the best businesses to flourish while less useful ones fail. Put simply, a collection of choices, freely made, forms our markets.
This is a straightforward articulation of the “constrained vision” as applied to economics. As I have described in my recent posts on Sowell’s book, the believer in the “constrained vision” trusts mankind as a whole, far more than he trusts individuals or small groups. This view has implications for his views of all manner of social policies.
As for economics, the holder of the “constrained vision” rejects rule by a handful of experts relying on their purportedly superior vision, command of the facts, and rational explanations for their policies. Instead, the constrained vision prefers systemic processes that have evolved over time, building on the wisdom of humanity collectively — but stemming from individual decisions, not by a single group of philosopher kings, but by everyone in society. In particular, he is a believer in the price system, which directs entrepreneurs to move their resources into the lines of production most demanded by individual consumers. Like magic, this results in shortages being met by supply, and gluts being met by slowing demand, all providing for efficiency — but also, very importantly, in a higher standard of living for the least fortunate in society.
In short, if leftists really wanted to improve the lot of the poor, they would get government the hell out of the way and let the market work its magic. Thanks to the workings of the free market — and no thanks to government — the world has made gains in the lot of the poor in the last 200 years that would have been unthinkable to the richest kings and queens of the 1500s.
It’s not really a coincidence that I hold this vision, though. I learned this view of economics from reading . . . [wait for it] . . . Thomas Sowell — namely, his book Basic Economics, which changed my life years and years and years ago. Indeed, I cited an example from this book on this blog over ten years ago, in May 2004 — and I cited it in August 2007 as one of five books that fundamentally changed the way I look at the world.
One important point that bears repeating: capitalism is the only economic system compatible with freedom. That is important enough, in a long post, to say twice, so that you don’t miss it. Capitalism is the only economic system — the only one — compatible with freedom. I made this point in 2009, citing [prepare for a shock] Thomas Sowell, who said in “Basic Economics”:
Too often a false contrast is made between the impersonal marketplace and the compassionate policies of various government programs. But both systems face the same scarcity of resources and both systems make choices within the constraints of that scarcity. The difference is that one system involves each individual making choices for himself or herself, while the other system involves a smaller number of people making choices for others.
It may be fashionable for journalists to refer to “the whim of the marketplace,” as if that were something different from the desires of people, just as it was once fashionable to refer to “production for use, rather than for profit” — as if profits could be made by producing things that people cannot use or do not want to use. The real contrast is between choices made by individuals for themselves and choices made for them by others who presume to define what these individuals “really” need.
As I summarized the argument in my 2009 post:
Capitalism is each individual making choices for himself.
Socialism is those who claim to know best, making your choices for you.
The former is freedom. The latter is anything but.
So says the adherent to the constrained vision.