• The role of rationally articulated ideas may be quite modest in its effect on a given election, a legislative vote, or an action of a head of state. Yet the atmosphere in which such decisions take place may be dominated by a particular vision—or by a particular conflict of visions. Where intellectuals have played a role in history, it has not been so much by whispering words of advice into the ears of political overlords as by contributing to the vast and powerful currents of conceptions and misconceptions that sweep human action along. The effects of visions do not depend upon their being articulated, or even on decision-makers’ being aware of them. “Practical” decision-makers often disdain theories and visions, being too busy to examine the ultimate basis on which they are acting. However, the object here will be precisely to examine the underlying social visions whose conflicts have shaped our times and may well shape times to come.
  • ——Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (p. 8).1
Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions, published in 1986, introduced the ideas of “the constrained vision” and “the unconstrained vision” as a way to characterize political disagreement. Decades later, conservatives still use the term “constrained vision” to describe themselves and the term “unconstrained vision” to characterize their opponents. While I think that Sowell’s analysis has great value, I believe that the terms themselves do an imperfect job of conveying his framework.

I should note that Sowell’s notion of how philosophy affects politics reminds me of a popular quote from John Maynard Keynes:

  • Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.2

If political beliefs were systems of thought, like those found in mathematics or physics, then what Sowell calls a vision would be a set of fundamental postulates. With one set of postulates, you get Euclidian geometry. With another set of postulates, you get Reimann geometry. Similarly, with the constrained vision your political views tend toward the right, and with the unconstrained vision your views tend toward the left. As Sowell puts it,

  • These different premises—often implicit—are what provide the consistency behind the repeated opposition of individuals and groups on numerous, unrelated issues. They have different visions of how the world works…
  • Visions are the foundations on which theories are built. p. 3-4

It would seem that a vision is a predisposition to see the human condition in a particular way. It cannot be proven or disproven.

  • It is more like a hunch or a “gut feeling” than it is like an exercise in logic or factual verification. p.6

The term unconstrained vision suggests a world in which all problems can be solved. By contrast,

  • One of the hallmarks of the constrained vision is that it deals in trade-offs rather than solutions. p. 14

I think that many people who have read Sowell or who are aware of his terminology see this as the essential difference between the constrained vision and the unconstrained vision. That is, the unconstrained vision posits a world in which conflicts can be made to disappear or can be resolved with perfect justice. The constrained vision posits a world in which some human conflict is inevitable, and the best that one can hope for is a resolution that is peaceful and not too grossly unfair.

“If you think that embedded cultural knowledge usually contains more wisdom than elite knowledge, then you will tend toward the constrained vision. If you instead see existing norms and institutions as a problem and the ideas of a cognitive and moral elite as the solution, then you will tend toward the unconstrained vision.”

But I think there is a different way to frame the contrast embedded in Sowell’s analysis. It is a contrast in how people compare the norms and habits embedded in culture and institutions with the knowledge possessed by the most enlightened members of society. If you think that embedded cultural knowledge usually contains more wisdom than elite knowledge, then you will tend toward the constrained vision. If you instead see existing norms and institutions as a problem and the ideas of a cognitive and moral elite as the solution, then you will tend toward the unconstrained vision. In a subsequent book, Sowell will call the latter The Vision of the Anointed.

A number of passages in A Conflict of Visions fit with this interpretation focused on cultural knowledge vs. elite knowledge.

  • In the constrained vision, any individual’s own knowledge alone is grossly inadequate for social decision-making, and often even for his own personal decisions. A complex society and its progress are therefore possible only because of numerous social arrangements which transmit and coordinate knowledge from a tremendous range of contemporaries, as well as from the even more vast numbers of those from generations past. Knowledge as conceived in the constrained vision is predominantly experience—transmitted socially in largely inarticulate forms, from prices which indicate costs, scarcities, and preferences, to traditions which evolve from the day-to-day experiences of millions in each generation, winnowing out in Darwinian competition what works from what does not work. p. 36-37
  • The unconstrained vision had no such limited view of human knowledge or of its application through reason. It was the eighteenth-century exemplars of the unconstrained vision who created “the age of reason,” as expressed in the title of Thomas Paine’s famous book of that era. Reason was as paramount in their vision as experience was in the constrained vision. According to [William] Godwin, experience was greatly overrated—”unreasonably magnified,” in his words—compared to reason or to “the general power of a cultivated mind.” Therefore the wisdom of the ages was seen by Godwin as largely the illusions of the ignorant. p. 40
  • Implicit in the unconstrained vision is a profound inequality between the conclusions of “persons of narrow views” and those with “cultivated” minds. p. 41
  • The power of specifically articulated rationality is central to the unconstrained vision. The power of unarticulated social processes to mobilize and coordinate knowledge is central to the constrained vision. p. 47
  • What distinguishes those with the constrained vision is that the inherent constraints of human beings are seen as sufficiently severe to preclude the kind of dependence on individual articulated rationality that is at the heart of the unconstrained vision. The knowledge, the morality, and the fortitude required for successful implementation of the unconstrained vision are simply not there, according to the constrained vision—and are not going to be developed, either by the masses or by the elite. p. 106-107
  • [In the unconstrained vision, there is a large] the gap between the existing masses of people and those who have advanced further toward the intellectual and moral potentialities of man…. To those with the constrained vision, there is a correspondingly smaller difference between the intellectual and moral elite, on the one hand, and the ordinary person on the other. p. 153-154

For more on these topics, see

This conflict of visions can be seen in the contemporary culture war. The term “woke” originally was used by those on the left to describe someone who has the enlightenment to recognize and seek to overcome the racism in existing institutions. It has become an epithet used by those on the right to describe someone who is willing to replace important institutions with unworkable alternatives (“defund the police”).

Podcast followup: From the Shelf with Curator Arnold Kling:

One side of the culture war sees elite knowledge as superior to cultural knowledge. The other side insists that the reverse is true. Therein lies the enduring relevance of Sowell’s conflict of visions.


[1] Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. First published 1986.

[2] John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, ch. 24, p. 383 (1935).

*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.

Read more of what Arnold Kling’s been reading. For more book reviews and articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.

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