Caplan vs. Sowell
By Arnold Kling
A commenter points to Bryan’s critique of A Conflict of Visions, which makes a number of good points. Bryan concludes,
What really puzzles me is why Sowell did not try a much simpler typology. Why not simply distinguish between advocates of laissez-faire, free-market policies on one pole, and advocates of government control on the other pole? _This_ dichotomy is unable to accomodate left-wing anarchists, but almost every other ideology fits neatly into place. Of course, this typology fails to capture the “underlying assumptions” of the two polar views. And it fails to do so for a simple reason: each of the polar views has supporters with a wide range of underlying assumptions.
I think that the differences between Sowell’s outlook and Bryan’s outlook are interesting. A few observations.
1. Bryan would favor open immigration and not favor strong national defense. Sowell would take the opposite positions.
2. Sowell has an unremitting lack of faith in the superior moral wisdom of the elites. In his view, they do not have the superior wisdom that justifies elitist exercise of power. This skepticism is an essential component of the “constrained vision.”
Bryan keeps harping on how support for free trade is an elitist view, correlated with education. The implication is that Bryan would prefer elitist government, at least on the free trade issue, which puts him more in the “unconstrained vision” camp.
I think that Sowell could counter that the elite support for free markets is shallow. Everyone supports markets when they work the way you want them to. The crux of the issue is what you do when you encounter markets that deliver what you think are sub-optimal outcomes. At that point, Bryan’s well-educated friends with the unconstrained vision abandon free-market policies in favor of social engineering. Only Sowell’s friends with the constrained vision stick with markets when the going gets tough.
3. This shows why underlying assumptions really are important. In the unconstrained vision, the underlying assumption is that a social optimum is possible if wise leaders make the right choices. When the right choice is to let the market work, then let the market work. If the right choice is to fix the market failures in banking, education, health care, energy, the automobile industry, unemployment…then fix, fix, fix.
In the constrained vision, the people doing the fixing are no wiser than the people being fixed. In fact, the people doing the fixing lack important local and historical knowledge.
4. Bryan thinks that libertarian anarchy is a reasonable ideology. Sowell would regard it as an unconstrained vision, because it assumes that people are basically nice, so that in the absence of a state they would all get along. Sowell probably would be more sympathetic to the view of North, Weingast, and Wallis that social order is inherently fragile. According to NWW, in most situations, peace only comes about when violent elites can agree on a stable split of economic and political power. Occasionally, this “natural state” evolves into an “open-access order” in which many people have rights of economic and political participation.
5. My own view is that the constrained and unconstrained visions are held by elites. The masses operate on the basis of what I call folk beliefs. Elites compete for power by appealing to and manipulating these folk beliefs. At the moment, I believe that those elites who hold the unconstrained vision are at an advantage in making such appeals. Arguably, they have had an advantage for nearly a century.Some quotes from A Conflict of Visions:
Where knowledge is defined, in the constrained vision, to include vast amounts of unarticulated but vitally important information and conclusions, summarized in habits, aversions, and attractions as well as in words and numbers, then it is far more broadly spread through a society than when its definition, as in the unconstrained vision, is restricted to the more sophisticatedly articulated facts and relationships. The constrained vision, which sees severe limits on man’s conscious rationality, relies heavily on evolved systemic processes to convey and coordinate the broad array of knowledge…The unconstrained vision, which sees greater prospects for human mastery of knowledge, sees in those with special intellectual skills both the proof of its assumptino and the vehicles of knowledge and reason for promoting social improvement…
the very concept of “social science,” which largely originated among those with the unconstrained vision…is often viewed skeptically by those with the constrained vision…
Social decisions are deliberately made by surrogates on explicitly rationalist grounds, for the common good, in the unconstrained vision. Social decisions evolve systematically from the interactinos of individual discretion, exercised for individual benefit, in the constrained vision–serving the common good only as an individually unintended consequence…
Adherents of both the constrained and the unconstrained vision each see fascism as the logical extension of the adversary’s vision…Inconsistent and hybrid visions make it impossible to equate constrained and unconstrained visions simply with the political left and right…libertarians are identified with the tradition exemplified by F. A. Hayek and going back to Adam Smith, they are in another sense closer to William Godwin’s atomistic vision of society and of decision-making dominated by rationalistic individual conscience than to the more organic conceptions of society found in Smith and Hayek…were reason considered just a little less potent, or selfishness just a little more recalcitrant, the arguments and vision of Godwin could be used to support socialism or other radically redistributionist political philosophies…
[according to the unconstrained vision, the path to peace involves] more influence for the intellectually or morally advanced portions of the population…better communications between potential enemies…a muting of militant rhetoric…a restraint on armament…a de-emphasis of nationalism or patriotism…and negotiating outstanding differences with potential adversaries. [On the other hand, for those with the constrained vision, the path to peace involves] raising the cost of war to potential aggressors by military preparedness…arousal of the public to awareness of dangers…promotion of patriotism…relying on your adversaries’ awareness of your military power more so than on verbal communication…negotiating only within the context of deterrent strength…
in the unconstrained vision, individualism refers to (1) the right of ordinary individuals to participate in the articluated decisions of collective entities, and (2) of those with the requisite wisdom and virtue to have some exemption from either systemic or organized social constraints.