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.

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