This is Part 3 of a continuing series on Thomas Sowell’s revelatory work A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles.
Question 15 in my quiz yesterday (if you haven’t taken it yet, please do!) reads as follows:
a. The problem with America’s politics today is that the system incentivizes politicians to take actions that are in their best interest rather than that of the country as a whole. The solution is to change the incentives, because human nature rarely changes.
b. The problem with America’s politics today is that our leaders are self-centered and care only about themselves rather than the good of the country. The solution is to elect people who are more principled.
According to Thomas Sowell, the “constrained vision” concerns itself with incentives. Because those who adhere to the constrained vision do not believe that human nature is ever likely to change for the better, they favor organically developed systemic processes that provide incentives for people to act for the common good.
The free market is a good example, and the price mechanism of the free market is a process favored by those who subscribe to the constrained vision. Prices are created, not by a knowledgeable elite relying on the superiority of reason, but rather by the individual decisions of millions of individual actors, leading to price signals that, in turn, spur entrepreneurs to enter under-served markets, and exit oversaturated ones.
In this vision, like entrepreneurs, politicians are humans who respond to incentives, just like everyone else. The key, then, is not to elect better politicians, although that would be nice — but rather to improve the system to align incentives with the social good. However, those from the constrained vision reject human-designed processes for making social choices, in favor of organically created systemic processes and institutions such as the market, the family, and so forth. The end result is that any political system, being human-designed, is a poor system for making social decisions, and thus the scope of government should be limited to the extent possible.
The constrained vision is well illustrated by Hayek’s famous quote: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
By contrast, the unconstrained vision believes in the power of reason, and the unlimited potential of humans to improve their very nature — and, through deliberate design, the lot of men. The unconstrained vision puts great importance on the specialized knowledge of an elite few, who are presumed to have the necessary knowledge and wisdom to lead humans to a better society. Sincerity is critically important in this vision, and the improvement of society thus depends to a great degree upon the quality of the wise leaders who are chosen as surrogate decisionmakers for others in society.
Which am I? It seems, reviewing the record, I have made arguments that fit both visions. (Nobody is fully constrained or unconstrained.)
Here are a couple of examples of posts where I make the constrained argument in terms of political tactics. These quotes are taken from past posts that I wrote long before I ever heard of Sowell’s book.
From last month:
[P]oliticians are human beings, just like everyone else. They may have certain talents, ambitions, and other personality facets that set them apart, but they still tend to respond to incentives the same way other humans do.
We all sit around and decry the way politicians act, but we act as if the solution is to put better politicians in office. It’s not. The system itself is rigged, so that people who truly want to act in the public interest rarely (not never, but very rarely) get into office in the first place. And once they get there, they have to make compromises.
You see there the concern of someone who subscribes to the constrained vision, arguing that human nature is constant, and that the issue is restructuring the incentives that face humans. Similarly, here is a post of mine from 2010, discussing Christine O’Donnell vs. Mike Castle:
I was among those who supported solid conservative Tom McClintock over Arnold Schwarzenegger in the recall election for California governor. My reasoning: McClintock is a hell of an impressive guy, and if everyone who had preferred him had voted for him, he could have won. He was a victim of a “he can’t win” mentality. Plus, I didn’t see Arnold as such a great plus. (I still don’t.)
On the other hand, I am not a fan of throwing away my vote to send a message that the candidate in question isn’t conservative enough for my finicky tastes. As long as he (or she) is conservative enough to help us, that works for me.
There are those who seek to make “pragmatic” a bad word. These people often express disdain at the importance of having Republicans in power if they are not sufficiently attuned to their principles.
I have noticed that these very same people often rant and rave about particular Obama policies, like ObamaCare, that a sufficient number of Republicans in Congress could have stopped.
You can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to complain about Obama’s policies, you can’t turn up your nose at a candidate who can help you fight those policies. Even — and this is important — even if that candidate is less than ideal.
Because every candidate is less than ideal.
So I’m good with trying to elect the more conservative candidate on the theory that the more conservative candidate has a chance. Personally, I’m not good with voting for that person as a protest vote when I know they can’t win.
I agree with William F. Buckley and the editors of the Wall Street Journal. The beat candidate is the most conservative one that can win.
Well, there you go. It’s Patterico the Constrained Guy, right?
Except, remember when Ted Cruz was arguing for shutting down the government? I was foursquare in favor of Cruz then — and guess who I was busy ripping apart? The very constrained Thomas Sowell! Here are three of my posts excoriating Sowell for criticizing Cruz’s radical tactics: here, here, and here. I thought I was right when I wrote those posts. I re-read them last night, and I still think I’m right.
Patterico, the Unconstrained! (I call Sowell philosophically “bipolar” in those posts, but maybe I was projecting, huh?)
So you see that the constrained/unconstrained dichotomy is not a simple left/right issue. It sheds light on one major fault line in the Republican party today. In one corner, we have the “principles” crowd that wants action today, and refuses to settle for half a loaf. In these people’s view, we just need more people with a spine, like Ted Cruz or Justin Amash. This, I submit, is a largely unconstrained vision, which believes that we can radically alter our country for the better, and should do so posthaste if possible — but in no event should we settle for half measures. In the other corner, we have the “trade-offs are necessary” crowd, which urges people to vote Republican even when the candidate is weak, because at least the Republican is better than the Democrat. This, I submit, is largely a constrained vision, which accepts that politicians are human beings who respond to incentives like everyone else. This person is willing to accept the fact that politicians will take imperfect actions in obeisance to electoral reality. They will vote for such politicians — if those imperfect politicians can deliver a reality that less wretched than the one offered by the opposition.
DRJ argued in comments last night that radicalism in trying to return to the constrained view of the Founders is arguably consistent with a constrained vision. Maybe so. But there is potentially a difference between constrained policies (small government, free market) and unconstrained tactics in politics (refusing to vote for the squishy candidate to send a message to the party).
DRJ says the Founders exemplified the essence of a constrained vision, and I agree. Yet their revolutionary tactics were radical. Does that mean, as DRJ contends, that those tactics could be considered constrained — coming as they did from men who shared the constrained vision, who were trying to implement policies consistent with that vision? Maybe. I can’t say for sure DRJ is wrong about that. But I don’t think Sowell would agree.
For one thing, Edmund Burke, whom Sowell holds up as one key philosopher epitomizing the constrained vision, was certainly a supporter of the Founders, but not necessarily of their revolutionary tactics.
And Sowell himself, in those columns I criticized, seems to decry the tactics of a Ted Cruz from the point of view of a pragmatist seeking a trade-off — just as Sowell has described the constrained vision. And in those columns, he makes the exact same point that he makes in the video that I just linked in the last post: people who think you can let the other side win and then capitalize on the backlash are like the Nazis who said the same thing about Hitler. Many of them died in the concentration camps, he says. In the video, he offers that as a reason to vote against Obama and for McCain. In his anti-Cruz columns, he offers them as a reason to oppose Cruz . . . because Cruz, by calling out Republicans, was making their re-election chances more difficult, and thus imperiled Republicans’ ability to retake the Senate and the Presidency and effect real change. (Or so says Sowell. I happen to disagree with him on that point.)
Again, in the video he says: “People ask me why am I going to vote for McCain over Obama. It’s because I prefer disaster to catastrophe.” That, I submit, is a quote from a hardened advocate of the constrained vision.
In summary, people like DRJ and I might favor radical tactics in favor of a constrained policy. Does that make those tactics unconstrained because they are radical? I’m not sure, but I think Sowell would say they are. Now, because in Sowell’s dichotomy the term “unconstrained” ends up sounding Pollyanna-ish and silly, I can understand wanting to argue that our position is constrained. But Sowell doesn’t seem to think so, based on my reading of his anti-Cruz columns, and watching the video I linked last night.
And here’s something else. I note that in my posts attacking Sowell, I resort to the rhetoric of “principle” more often. Which is interesting, in and of itself, isn’t it?
So, while I am open to being persuaded otherwise, I think that when you hear people say that the problem with our politics is that these terrible politicians lack a spine, they are (in my opinion) expressing an unconstrained view. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but it helps you understand where they are coming from.
The more extreme the problems with our country get, the more I sympathize with the unconstrained tactics — largely, I think, because (as DRJ notes) they are part of an effort to get us to constrained, non-elitist, free market, small government policies. But if I am right that the radical tactics are unconstrained, the basic approach runs counter to a general constrained view of humanity in general, and politicians specifically, that runs deep in my psyche.
And, to the extent you generally subscribe to the constrained view in other areas, you might ask yourself whether a devotion to an unconstrained view of politicians make sense. Do you really believe in the potential of politicians to be uncharacteristically honorable, and ignore incentives to benefit themselves?
I still think we must press for radical change, precisely because I think we have reached a point of no return. Interestingly, the “point of no return” argument is the very same argument Sowell makes in favor of, say, voting for McCain, or against shutting down the government — but I say it counsels in favor of more radical tactics.
But I could be wrong. I’m willing to admit I could be wrong. And the very least, understanding the deep-rooted origins of the two different views might help each side understand one another better.
Patterico: bringing the Tea Partiers and the establishment together, courtesy of this blog post. Kumbaya! (This optimism I am expressing is rather . . . unconstrained, isn’t it?)
P.S. If it helps, I don’t really believe this post will do a damned thing to help anyone understand each other. Thus, my constrained bona fides remain intact — and I hereby stick my tongue out at you!
UPDATE: What’s a few more words in a post this long? DRJ links an article by Sowell on tactics which, while not using the words “constrained” and “unconstrained,” nevertheless invokes the constrained Burke in support of a position that approves of the Tea Party’s goals but disapproves of their tactics. I think the column supports my reading of Sowell pretty directly. Sowell says “Burke makes a key distinction between believing in a principle and weighing the likely consequences of taking a particular action to advance that principle.” Sowell goes on to argue that repeal of ObamaCare is critical, and justified by principle — but that the Tea Party tactics of trying to defund it with Obama still in office represented a result not within their power. Burke, he suggests, would have opposed the tactics if not the principle.