Sunday, February 21, 2010

How We Divide, Part 2: Sandel

Paul Adams

Michael Sandel takes up a different dichotomy--that between liberal and republican political theory--than Sowell’s constrained and unconstrained visions. His way of distinguishing “visions,” or in his case the political theories implicit in political discourse, is also illuminating. It speaks to the tensions within social work and social welfare policy, between empowerment and coercion; between state or formal processes on one hand, and on the other; informal ways of resolving disputes, protecting children, and putting things right; between universal rights of autonomous individuals and the formative project of nurturing people as self-governing members of a particular family, community, and nation. But Sandel’s dichotomy is different from Sowell’s as well as from the terms liberal and conservative as used in popular discourse. It adds a different but important dimension to our thinking about these divisions.

Sandel presents his argument in “Democracy’s Discontent: The Procedural Republic” (pp.269-303), a chapter of an outstanding reader edited by Don E. Eberly (2000), The Essential Civil Society Reader: The Classic Essays, in his 1998 book, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy; and in his Harvard lectures and accompanying book; Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (2009). (Page references are to the essay in the Eberly reader.)

Liberal political theory, a tradition emphasizing tolerance and individual rights, descends from John Locke through Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill to John Rawls. It is a common heritage of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. But the version of liberalism that informs current policy debates across the political spectrum is a recent arrival, one that over the past half-century gradually displaced the earlier republican political theory that had prevailed since the Founding. This recent view, shared in different ways both by Republicans and Democrats, “assumes that freedom consists in the capacity of persons to choose their values and ends” (p.270).

Its key idea is that government should be neutral toward the moral and religious views of its citizens. It should not affirm in law any particular vision of the good life, but should provide a framework of rights that respects persons as free and independent selves, capable of choosing their own values and ends. As the famous or notorious pronouncement of the U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, put it, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Here human dignity, and hence our inalienable rights, no longer derive from nature and nature’s God, and hence natural law. Freedom is a negative liberty, a freedom from tyranny. Detached from any shared conception of what freedom is for, liberty is valued for its own sake as “central to personal dignity and autonomy” but with the Judeo-Christian roots of such human dignity erased and so without any coherent rationale for its high valuation.

So this recent secular liberalism aims to provide a framework of rights that respects persons as free and independent selves, capable of choosing their own values and ends, but asserting the state’s neutrality about the substance of such values and ends. Because it asserts the priority of fair procedures over particular ends, Sandel defines the public life informed by this liberalism as the “procedural republic.” “Rather than tie liberty to self-government and the virtues that sustain it,” as Sandel explains, “the procedural republic seeks a framework of rights, neutral among ends, within which individuals can choose and pursue their own ends” (p.276).

This term reminds one of Sowell’s constrained vision with its emphasis on systems and fair processes rather than substantive outcomes. It is the task of the state to ensure that contracts entered into freely are duly honored, not that the economic or social results of such agreements fit a particular view of society. But the constrained vision and the procedural republic are clearly not the same, as Sowell’s frequent invoking of Edmund Burke, of the collective if unarticulated wisdom of masses of people over generations, of tradition and legitimate authority, suggests.

Nor does the secular-liberal emphasis on the free choices of autonomous individuals distinguish left from right. The assumption is shared by 1) those who argue against taxes to support welfare as “coerced charity” that violates people’s freedom to decide what to do with their own money, and 2) those who see ensuring a decent minimum level of income, housing, and health care as necessary to ensure that some are not so crushed by economic necessity that they cannot truly exercise choice in other areas. In both cases, the argument implies a voluntarist conception of freedom; it is about expanding the realm of individual choice by removing constraints on its exercise. The subject of choice in both cases is the autonomous individual abstracted from civic or moral obligations to family or community beyond respecting the individual rights of others.

In the republican view, in contrast, from Aristotle through the American Founders to contemporary communitarians, liberty depends on sharing in self-government. It requires something beyond pursuing your own individual ends and values, which may or may not include participating in politics. “It means deliberating with fellow citizens about the common good and helping to shape the destiny of the political community” (p.271). Beyond tolerance and respecting the rights of others, it requires knowledge of public affairs, a moral bond with the community, a sense of belonging. This in turn requires that citizens have or acquire certain qualities of character, or civic virtues. In this conception “republican politics cannot be neutral toward the values and ends its citizens espouse. The republican conception of freedom, unlike the liberal conception, requires a formative politics, a politics that cultivates in citizens the qualities of character self-government requires” (p.271).

But such a formative politics is subject to certain objections and dangers. One is that, however appropriate for a small polis like Aristotle’s Athens or the early U.S. with its New England town meetings, such a formative republican project as traditionally understood is unrealistic for a large country in an increasingly integrated global economy. It is in any case, critics argue, exclusive and coercive. Given the demands of republican citizenship, which require the capacity to deliberate well about the common good, citizens must have or acquire the necessary excellences of character, concern for the whole, and judgment--the civic virtues. That is, citizenship must be restricted. Sandel argues that this tendency to exclusion is not intrinsic to republican theory and has not been universally held, especially in its democratic forms since the Enlightenment. But the coercive danger becomes greater as the task of cultivating civic virtues across large countries and diverse populations becomes more daunting than it could be in a small select group in Athens or Jefferson’s America.

The perils of this kind of coercion are evident in the way Rousseau as well as Benjamin Rush, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, understood the formative task in a democratic republic. For Rousseau the task of the founder, or great legislator, is “to change human nature, to transform each individual…into a part of a larger whole from which this individual receives, in a sense, his life and being.” The legislator “must deny man his own forces” in order to make him more reliant on the community as a whole. “The more each person’s individual will is ‘dead and obliterated,’ the more likely he is to embrace the general will. ‘Thus if each citizen is nothing and can do nothing except in concert with all the others…one can say that the legislator has achieved the highest possible point of perfection’.” (Thus Sandel, p.273, quoting Rousseau.)

This totalitarian impulse within utopian visions of the democratic republic was apparent long before the Stalinist “people’s democracies” and “democratic republics” of Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia made them unmistakable. Even Rush wanted “to convert men into republican machines” to teach each citizen “that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property.” JFK’s Inaugural Address of 1961, the “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech, bears a distant and less sinister—though still offensive to the individualist-libertarian--echo of this Rousseauian sentiment.

Here we see what Sowell calls the unconstrained vision in the formative project of civic republicanism—a combination that is particularly prone to coercion. Still, this sort of coercive remaking of citizens through the state is not necessary to civic republicanism or its formative project. In this respect, Sandel rightly cites 19th century America as observed by Tocqueville. Here not only the commonality but also the independence and judgment needed to deliberate well on the common good were cultivated. This “slow and quiet action of society upon itself” depended on persuasion and habituation, not state coercion. In Sowell’s terms, what differentiates Rousseau from the practices described by Tocqueville is the “locus of discretion,” the “dispersed, differentiated character of American public life in Tocqueville’s day and the indirect modes of character formation this differentiation allowed” (Sandel, p.274).

For Tocqueville, public institutions like townships, schools, religions, not the central state or coercive laws or judicial rulings, mediated between state and individual to develop and sustain “habits of the heart”—the civic virtues of a democratic republic. This was a theme taken up in the last century by Berger and Neuhaus in their To Empower People (1977), with their “mediating structures” (family, neighborhood networks and organizations, schools, churches) that offered a way of transcending the tired “individualism vs. collectivism” ways of framing debates about the welfare state. It is a central theme of advocates of the civil society, civic republicanism, and some variants of communitarianism.

Sandel discerns the presence in varying degrees of both liberal and republican conceptions throughout U.S. history. In recent decades, however, the civic or formative aspects of American politics have given way to a voluntarist “liberalism that conceives persons as free and independent selves, unencumbered by moral or civic ties they have not chosen.” His worry about this shift is that our public philosophy cannot sustain the liberty it espouses. Liberty, he argues in the classic tradition, depends on self-government and the virtues required and developed by it.

In response to this worry, we can see a recrudescence of republican or civic concerns, first among conservatives and more slowly among liberals, a shift from libertarian to communitarian sensibilities. This more recent shift reflects the impossibility of securing freedom without attending to the character of citizens, or of defining rights without confirming a conception of the good life. It also reflects a democratic constrained vision that learns the negative lessons of those totalitarian excesses in the heads of utopian social theorists and in real-life 20th century fascist and Communist regimes. It looks rather to the importance of those mediating structures that constitute civil society, that come between individual and state, along with the dispersal of power and its sharing with those closest to the problematic situation and to the cultural and community resources of knowledge, wisdom, and neighborhood-based networks and organizations needed for its resolution. The learning is from Tocqueville and the American democracy in action he described, rather than from Rousseau, Stalin, or Mao.

We see this in social work in the emphasis on hybrids of formal and informal care and control like family group conferencing as well as in social policies that seek to strengthen and collaborate with families and neighborhoods rather than substitute for (and hence undermine) them. This shift has support across the political spectrum and is apparent in the shifts Neil Gilbert (2004) describes in the welfare states of Europe, the U.S., and other developed social welfare regimes. Gilbert discusses this transition as one from social protection to social inclusion (from state as provider of benefits to state as “enabler” in the sense of promoting empowerment; from state to market and community (contracting out of services, raising social capital of communities); from universal to selective, targeted benefits; and from citizenship to membership (restoring solidarity, revitalizing civil society, as distinct from rights to benefits by virtue of citizenship).

In public assistance programs and welfare reform, we see a shift from the emphasis on the rights of beneficiaries without reference to any formative project, without expectations or judgments about sexual behavior or family structure or character formation. By the 1980s and 1990s, there was a departure from this “nonjudgmental” ideology and a new willingness to talk about the need to “reorder the lives of the poor.” As Sandel puts it, “Advocates of a civic conception of social policy argued that work requirements were essential, not for the sake of saving money but for the sake of including welfare recipients in the common obligations of citizenship” (p.278). An emphasis on work requirements and work first approaches now went, especially in Europe, by the name of “social inclusion.”

These tendencies are best understood, perhaps, as a countervailing trend that is still overshadowed in the knowledge classes in government, academia, and media by what Sandel calls the procedural state. The procedural state that is neutral about ends and values or the good life, leaving such matters to the private choices of individuals, is most clearly seen among libertarians who reject state involvement in matters such as drug use and pornography as well as in the economic sphere. But it is also found in the position of President Obama, as William Schambra (2009) shows in his essay on “Obama and the Policy Approach.” The policy approach to government emphasizes the connectedness of social problems and the need for a rational and comprehensive approach to policymaking.

We may recall that this falls into Sowell’s category of the unconstrained vision.. “Writ large,” according to Schambra, “this approach suggests that government exists not to attend to the various problems in the life of a society, but take up society itself as a problem—and improve it” (p.128). Echoing Marx’s Third Thesis on Feuerbach (although without acknowledgment), Schambra (2009) points out the anti-democratic aspect of this expert-centered approach to policy. “To address social problems this way, the policymaker must put himself outside the circle of those whom he governs, and, informed especially by social science, see beyond their narrow clashing interests” (p.128).

At the same time, such an unconstrained vision is compatible with an ideology of governmental neutrality about matters of morals and religion, values and the good life, seeking to bracket off such considerations—the ones of highest importance to much of the population. Like the Supreme Court decisions in Casey and Roe, Obama disclaim public responsibility for such matters as whether in declaring abortion a legal right, the state colludes in mass murder of innocent young human lives, saying that such matters are above his pay grade.

But, Sandel asks, “Don’t arguments about justice and rights unavoidably draw on particular conceptions of the good life, whether we admit it or not?” (p.276). This is a question I want to take up in the third part of this essay, when we apply the Sowell and Sandel dichotomies to specific areas of substantive conflict that divide society most sharply and with least room for compromise, namely abortion and same-sex marriage. These questions are part of a systematic Clash of Orthodoxies, as Robert George (2001) argues, between an orthodox-religious orthodoxy (including faithful Catholics, Evangelicals, orthodox Jews, Mormons, and Muslims) and a secular-liberal orthodoxy (including secularist liberals and theologically liberal Christians).
To conclude this part of the essay, it may be helpful to visualize the ways of combining the Sowell and Sandel ways of seeing society and policy by means a two by two matrix. Thus in the constrained formative square we find Tocqueville, the American Founders (except for Rush), and Sowell. In the unconstrained formative square are Rousseau and Rush. In the neutral constrained square we find libertarians like Milton Friedman and the Cato Institute. In the unconstrained neutral square are Obama and most social workers.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Gintis on Sandel: An interesting book review

Michael Sandel has an excellent class on Justice, the lectures of which are available from Harvard for free online at with an accompanying book and reader. I found an excellent review of Sandel’s new book, Justice:What’s the right thing to do? on Amazon at It's by the leftist behavioral economist, Herb Gintis, a founder of the Union for Radical Political Economics in 1968 and collaborator of Sam Bowles.

I share the view of Sandel and Gintis about virtue ethics as distinct from the standard post-Enlightenment strands of consequentialism and deontology. In my view, a virtue ethics approach that embeds people in their communities, cultures and histories is a better path for professional as well as general ethics. It treats the moral agent as a real human being with habits of the heart and mind. It is a break from the universalizing rationalistic hyper-individualism of most recent ethics since the Enlightenment--including the focus on identifying and resolving dilemmas through moral reasoning (quandary ethics). [On this, see my article in the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare’s September 2009 issue, vol.36, no.3.] But here a new and more substantive universalism enters that challenges an over-emphasis on the local and culturally particular.

Sandel espouses a kind of virtue-ethics communitarian liberalism, but, Gintis argues, seems half-stuck in the world of dilemmas like eating someone on a lifeboat to keep those remaining from starving to death or cutting up one patient, in for a check-up or yanked off the street, for all his major organs that could save the lives of six other patients, etc. Of course, this could simply reflect the requirements of an introductory course on ethics to cover this material. Contemporary consequentialist and deontological ethics have been preoccupied with moral conflict or dilemmas, "when in fact most major moral choices concern good versus evil, and what is considered good and evil is pretty much the same the world over. Everywhere, people cherish honesty, loyalty, hard-work, bravery, considerateness, trustworthiness, and charity."

This is what the psychologists Peterson & Seligman (2004) found in their survey of the virtues in the world's major cultures and religions. Social workers cherish these things too, but are faced daily in their professional lives with temptations to succumb to their near- or far-enemies (i.e., in Buddhist terms, which look at things just as Aristotle did in this regard, the far enemy of courage is cowardice, but the near-enemy is recklessness). Social workers are not computers, making decisions rationally, episodically, and without character, history, or culture. They face dilemmas, yes, but much more temptations, and each bad (or good) choice they make makes it easier for them to do the same next time, i.e., to build habits that become part of who they are (character, the core of their personality).

Since the language is much richer in terms for negative than positive traits, perhaps we should start by asking what characterizes a bad social worker as a way of getting at the virtues required for and developed by our profession. (Pellegrino, the physician and medical ethicist, offers this list of virtues for the medical profession: prudence, benevolence, compassion and caring, courage, intellectual honesty, humility, effacement of self-interest, justice, and trustworthiness.)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

How We Divide: Two Dichotomies. Part 1: Sowell

At the beginning of his 2007 book, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Conflict (rev. ed.), Thomas Sowell raises the question of why people tend to cluster on opposite sides of apparently unrelated issues. If we think of global warming, health insurance, military or social welfare spending, the same groups take opposite sides. How do we understand this consistent, systematic difference of outlook about politics and public policy?

The familiar terms liberal and conservative are less than helpful. Liberalism may denote championing of the market against state schemes to manage the economy, freedom from state interference in the results of economic processes. This sense has taken the recent form of “neo-liberalism,” which resembles the libertarianism of Milton Friedman or Alan Greenspan, the macho individualism of Ayn Rand, the “right-wing” politics of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. In the U.S., this whole cluster of opinion is thought of, not as liberal but conservative, though in some versions (Ayn Rand) it seems to have little in common with the classic tradition- and community-oriented conservatism of Edmund Burke.

So let’s leave those terms aside and look at some other ways of articulating the ideological dichotomy of perspectives or ideological ideal types. Here I want to consider two of these, Sowell’s own division of “constrained” and “unconstrained” visions and Michael J. Sandel’s discussion of procedural as opposed to civic republicanism. A “vision” in Sowell’s sense is a pre-analytic cognitive act, a sense of causation that precedes rational articulation. Visions set the agenda for both thought and action.

These alternative dichotomies of Sowell and Sandel operate at different levels of cognition—one being about pre-cognitive ways of organizing how we look at the world, the other about two approaches to republican theory and American history—both dichotomies have similar implications for how we understand the relations among state, civil society, and individual—issues that go to the heart of professional social work and social welfare policy. Both dichotomies capture differences with respect to tradition and culture, religion and morals, the role of experts, the state, individual rights and mediating structures. (Here I use dichotomies to refer to the division into two opposing ways of seeing, but do not preclude the possibility of a range, spectrum, or continuum, nor of strong hybrids, nor the evident fact that real people and societies hold contradictory views in their heads at the same time.

Constrained and Unconstrained: Thomas Sowell
For Sowell, the constrained vision recognizes the wisdom of the generations and of the many now living, in a way somewhat analogous to language. Language develops best and most richly in its actual usage by the many who speak it daily. For the compilers of dictionaries, usage determines meaning, not the opinions of experts. Attempts to regulate it as the French do have a Canute-like quality (Canute was the great king of the English, Danes, and Norwegians who, according to legend, had his throne set down at the sea shore and ordered the waves to stop advancing.) Esperanto, the language created by L.L. Zamenhof in 1887, is a language constructed by one man and modified little since then. It lacks the rootedness in the daily life of a culture and hence the richness and dynamism of, say, English. Still, language is not immune to conscious attempts to change it in the interest of political or other agendas—for example, the deliberate differentiating of American from standard English by dropping the “u” in words like honor or color; or the somewhat successful (in academia, the media, and publishing houses) effort to improve the English language by making it more “politically correct,” dropping the generic use of male pronouns and so forth.

The constrained vision recognizes the limits of any one person’s wisdom, experience, and expertise as well as the intransigence of human nature in face of efforts to “improve” it. It sees knowledge as the social experience of the many, not the expertise of the intellectuals. So it is skeptical of grand schemes to improve the world, focusing on unintended consequences and trade-offs, as opposed to solutions. It tends toward the science of “muddling through,” usually with incremental change at the margins rather than rational-comprehensive planning and big schemes.

The constrained vision is naturally democratic, as Sowell describes it, relying on the decisions of the many over time rather than the brilliance of the elite. It sees utopian schemes as intrinsically authoritarian or totalitarian, in that they arise from the brains of individuals, who then impose their plan on the many, regardless of their own opinion. The masses, products of heredity and environment, need to be educated by those who rise above such determinist limitations to achieve Gnostic enlightenment and free will.

As Marx points out in his brilliant Third Thesis on Feuerbach, “The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.”

So Marx rejected such utopianism as inevitably dividing society into an active elite and passive mass (the core problem of subsequent elite theory and the non-Marxist socialist tradition). That is why he refused to speculate about the nature of the future communist (classless, stateless) society he foresaw—the people of that society would decide for themselves. (For a sharp contrast, see the roughly contemporaneous American utopian novel, Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy.)

Marx, however, is a special case, primarily adopting the constrained vision but seeing human history in terms of the long transition from constrained to unconstrained, from necessity to freedom. He saw the past as creating the possibilities for a future socialist society (i.e., unprecedented productivity and the working class as the conscious agents of their own liberation). He saw tradition in terms of constraint, but, unlike Burke or Chesterton (who saw tradition as the “democracy of the dead”), that was not to its credit—“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” He praised capitalism precisely for its dynamism in sweeping all such tradition away and preparing the ground for a new society.

Marx thus rejects the moralism of the unconstrained. Slavery existed in certain stages of economic development (in the Ancient World, not his own day) because there was no alternative compatible with the rise of productivity and future possibilities in which the scope of freedom would expand dramatically. Capitalism still constrained the options of capitalists whatever their personal wishes—forcing them to set prices, wages, etc., that would enable them to compete in a competitive system not controlled by an elite, but controlling it. And it constrained the possibilities of life for workers, whose incomparably greater freedom than that of laborers under slavery or serfdom still left them as “wage slaves,” forced to submit to exploitation or starve. But capital, though it “comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt” (Marx, Capital, I.8.XXI.32), also created the conditions of its own overthrow. Capitalism produced its own gravediggers in the form of the working class, the first laboring class in history that had the organization, education, collective production, and technology that created the potential for self-government. So Marx understands history in terms of the constrained vision, but at the same time sees it as a progressive elimination of the constraints that limit individual freedom.

Marx’s theory of history places him in the constrained vision, but he saw freedom as increasing and constraints falling away. So in Sowell’s terms, his vision is constrained with respect to the past but unconstrained in his vision of the future. If it is a hybrid in this sense, it nevertheless stands in fundamental opposition to utopian socialism of all kinds. It is a form of socialism from below, as opposed to the utopian socialists of his own day and the social-democratic and Stalinist parties of the last century. Stalinism and Maoism are extreme versions of socialism from above, the unconstrained vision that places the party and eventually the leader at the helm of a vast society, unconstrained by law or religion, democratic processes, or civil society.

Here what Sowell (p.125) says about 20th century fascism applies equally to Stalinism and Maoism. They are cases of a hybrid because they contain elements of the constrained vision—obedience to authority, loyalty to one’s people, and willingness to fight—but within context of an unconstrained vision in which will is paramount. In that sense all are extreme forms of voluntarism, the triumph of the will (voluntas), even when, as with Stalin and Mao, they also appealed to an iron historical determinism which the forces of history, operating behind people’s backs, rendered the victory of the party as inevitable. So certain elements of the constrained vision, Sowell argues in relation to fascism,

"…were strongly invoked, but always under the overriding imperative to follow an unconstrained leader, under no obligation to respect laws, traditions, or even common decency. The systemic processes at the core of the constrained vision were negated by a totalitarianism directed against every independent social process, from religion to political or economic freedom. Fascism [like those other forms of nationalist socialism from above, Stalinism and Maoism, we might add] appropriated some of the symbolic aspects of the constrained vision, without the systemic processes which gave them meaning. …It was an unconstrained vision of governance which attributed to its leaders a scope of knowledge and dedication to the common good wholly incompatible with the constrained vision whose symbols it invoked" (p.125).

Those with the constrained vision want to make the best of the possibilities for improvement within the existing constraints and human limitations, always aware of the unintended consequences, failures, and tyranny that beset most grand schemes of social engineering. They are inclined to agree with Dr. Johnson (1709-1784):

How small of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.

They do not expect or try to change human nature and they rely on systemic processes and results rather than intentions. They look to the market precisely because its economic benefits to society rely so little on individual intentions. At the same time, as we will see, advocates of the free market or economic liberalism from Adam Smith (The Theory of Moral Sentiments) to Deirdre McCloskey (Bourgeois Virtues) recognize the importance of certain virtues and sympathetic relationships for the effective functioning of market and society. In that sense, the state cannot be neutral as to what the good life is or the substance of sexual morality or the conception of the self—an argument best developed by Sandel and discussed below.

In the unconstrained vision, which Sowell finds in especially pure form in William Godwin, the philosophical anarchist who wrote An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), intention is the essence of virtue. The unconstrained vision emphasizes the plasticity and perfectibility of man. Where those with the constrained vision see trade-offs, those with the unconstrained see solutions; where the first see results, they see purpose; where systemic processes, intentions. They discount the costs—all too evident in the last century—of attaining utopia. They discount tradition, the implicit knowledge and wisdom of the generations. “Nothing must be sustained because it is ancient, because we have been accustomed to regard it as sacred, or because it has been unusual to bring its validity into question,” says Godwin.

Most of the socialist tradition outside Marxism sees the world through an unconstrained lens. It identifies the evils of present society and constructs a picture of a better society where people are not motivated by greed, there is no inequality except that which may be rationally articulated and justified by the common good or needs of the whole community. Liberal and social-democratic thinkers like John Rawls approach the question of equality and the distribution of wealth in this way.

The unconstrained vision makes the sharpest distinction, the profoundest inequality between “persons of narrow views” (the masses) and the “cultivated.” Wisdom without reflection is unthinkable and only the cultivated few are capable of either. As Marx argued in different terms, the unconstrained vision divides society into the active few and the passive many, the enlightened and the ignorant, those who are products of heredity and environment and those who rise above such determination.

With its seemingly inherent elitism, the unconstrained vision readily ascribes a key role to intellectuals, activists, or experts, those who are ahead of the masses and must lead them, through coercion if necessary, to the point of knowledge and understanding at which they have already arrived. Schambra (2009) describes Obama’s policy approach in terms that place it clearly within the unconstrained camp: its reliance on policy czars and a rational-comprehensive approach to policy and planning. “Writ large,” he says, “this approach suggests that government exists not to attend to the various problems in the life of a society, but to take up society itself as a problem—and improve it” (p.128). The rational-comprehensive approach is problematic in a democracy because most citizens and the politicians they elect are not experts with comprehensive, articulated knowledge of society as a whole in all its complexity and interconnectedness. As Schambra (2009) says, “echoing Marx’s third Thesis on Feuerbach, “To address social problems this way, the policymaker must put himself outside the circle of those whom he governs, and, informed especially by social science, see beyond their narrow clashing interests” (p.128).

Sowell goes beyond identifying the clusters of beliefs and assumptions usually (but not always) associated with one or the other vision. He wants to operationalize the distinction to focus on those differences that define the two visions, the differences that systematically differentiate them. The two criteria for distinguishing the visions are 1) the locus of discretion, and 2) the mode of discretion. This is not a distinction between individualism and collectivism. It is about where and how the discretion is exercised in making social decisions.

In the case of the unconstrained vision,
"Social decisions are made by surrogates on explicitly rationalistic grounds, for the common good….” (p.106).

In contrast, for the constrained vision,
"Social decisions evolve systematically from the interactions of individual discretion, exercised for individual benefit…serving the common good only as an individually unintended consequence of the characteristics of systemic processes such as a competitive market economy" (p.106).

Both visions acknowledge that human life involves inherent limitations (e.g., death, need for food) but these limitations are seen as much more extensive and intractable in the constrained vision.

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 the heart of the unconstrained vision (p.107).
Successful implementation of the unconstrained vision depends on knowledge and virtues that are not there—either for the elite or the masses—and are not going to be developed. So schemes for the improvement of humankind become bureaucratic nightmares. Those, including social workers, who act on behalf of the state directly or indirectly, argue out of the best intentions for increased government intervention in ever more areas of social life because only the state can protect the weak and vulnerable from the strong—in families, communities, and economy. We speak for the poor and vulnerable but, as Irving Kristol put it, we carry the “dirty little secret” of our own self-interest.

That is why in thinking through how to address social problems, our first instinct is to say that there ought to be a law, and the second is to call for expansion of professional services. Indeed, social work students (who are far from alone in this) tend first to define their preconceived solution—the need for more services—into the way they define the policy problem. So, for example, the problem is lack of mental health services in prisons, the solution is to increase the mental health services in prisons, and the outcome is more mental health services in prisons. This is not only circular and a way of ignoring more fundamental questions—do the services actually make a difference that justifies their cost? Should the seriously mentally ill be in prison in the first place? And so on. It also expresses the professional self-interest in expansion of therapists' own numbers, income, and status.

From the perspective of the constrained vision, that is to be expected. Governance based on professional experts or enlightened intellectuals who act on behalf of the masses for the common good tends to become bureaucratic, corrupt, and tyrannical—an understanding fundamental to the American Founders. Paradoxically, those Founding Fathers designed a new nation in the manner of the unconstrained vision—in the sense drawing on their knowledge and wisdom rather than systemic processes in order to articulate rationally a constitution for a nation freed of the kings and nobles, the class distinctions and deference of Europe.

But approaching the task with the constrained vision, they saw the need to protect the nation from the concentration of power in the state, even with the good intentions of promoting liberty, equality, and fraternity. The French Revolution took a different path, resulting in violence, terror, and tyranny on a large scale. It was the French Revolution—in great contrast to the American—that elicited Edmund Burke’s fundamental statement of the constrained vision, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke was a severe critic of rationalist theories of social contract. He believed that political and social organization evolved organically over generations from a variety of political, cultural and social circumstances. He distrusted abstract radical schemes for reorganizing society.

This did not make Burke an opponent of all change. In line with his constrained vision, he opposed tyrannical kings and parliaments as well revolutionary mobs. All rode roughshod over the organically developed wisdom and knowledge of tradition. So he condemned and deplored the French Revolution, based in his view on a rationalist experiment, but supported the American Revolution, seeing it as about freeborn Englishmen in the colonies reclaiming their traditional rights.

Sowell recognizes that his organizing contrast of constrained and unconstrained does not account for all cases. There are hybrids and inconsistencies in the vision of individuals and movements. It is rather a continuum or spectrum. But it does have extraordinary explanatory power, in my view. It enables us to see old dichotomies in social philosophy and social policy in illuminating ways. It helps to explain why, when new issues arise, like national health insurance, global warming, or same-sex marriage, no matter how completely unrelated the topics seem, people divide on them into predicable clusters.

In the second part of this essay, I will take up Sandel’s organizing distinction between procedural and civic republican theory. It too has deep implications for our thinking about social policy—on the relations among state, civil society or mediating structures, and individual; on the nature of rights and justice; the nature of the self; and on the question of whether the state can be neutral on matters of morality and the good life.