Thoughts and Impressions

A Conflict of Visions – Sincerity

I just finished reading Thomas Sowell’s classic work on ideologies, A Conflict of Visions.  I enjoyed it, but much less than his more vivid and prescriptive Knowledge and DecisionsConflict is the most conservative book that I have read in a while, and a couple of its arguments bothered me.

Sowell’s overarching argument is that some people have an “unconstrained” vision that individual rationality can be used to solve and remove societal problems, while others hold a “constrained” view that rejects the mental capacity of any person or group to consciously reshape society.  People with the constrained view argue that we must trust neutral, systemic processes (the market, traditions, the common law, etc.), while those with these unconstrained view want to reshape these unthinking processes and substitute something more intentionally rational and forward looking.

In a short section of the book, Sowell suggests that the different views lead to different conceptions of civic virtue.  People in the unconstrained view value “sincerity”; the constrained view values “fidelity”.

Where the wise and conscientious individual is conceived to be competent to shape socially beneficial outcomes directly, then his sincerity and dedication to the common good are crucial….

What is morally central to the constrained vision is fidelity to duty in one’s role in life.  There, within the sphere of his competence, the individual can make the greatest contribution to the social good by serving the great systemic process which decides the actual outcomes. [P. 56]

Sowell argues that the importance of sincerity to unconstrained idealists makes it difficult for them to acknowledge it in their opponents.  To do so would undermine their belief that rational thought produces definitive solutions to social problems.

It is not uncommon in this tradition to find references to their adversaries’ “real” reasons, which must be “unmasked”….  Within the unconstrained vision, sincerity is a great concession to make, while those with the constrained vision can more readily make that concession, since it means so much less to them. [P. 57]

A few pages later, he scraps the obvious definition of sincerity (truthfulness) for one that seems to mean “good intentions”.

The constrained vision in particular distinguishes sincerity from fidelity to truth:  “The first thing a man will do for his ideals is lie,” according to J. A. Schumpeter….  A modern defense of judicial activism by Alexander Bickel clearly put more weight on sincerity than on fidelity, when it urged that “dissimulation” was “unavoidable” and referred to “statesmanlike deviousness” in the public interest.” [PP. 58-59]

Sowell is, of course, part of the constrained tradition.  And by shifting definitions he seems to be trying to have it both ways.  First, he accuses those in the unconstrained vision, unlike those in the constrained vision, of being unwilling to take constrained arguments at face value.  Then, he suggests that unconstrained arguments cannot necessarily be taken at face value.

Sowell’s claim is interesting, and, the last part aside, it does strike me as more than a little bit true.  The progressives I read – Matthew Yglesias, Brad DeLong, Jonathan Chait, and Andrew Sullivan – all seem more personally condescending and critical of their ideological opponents than the libertarians in my blogroll – Megan McArdle, Arnold Kling, Bryan Caplan, and Tyler Cowen.  Progressives don’t just accuse their opponents of lying, but, more often, of being idiots.  I think this fits into Sowell’s main theme.  If rationality yields definitive answers to social problems, unconstrained idealists will explain away opposition as simple irrationality.

But the contradiction in Sowell’s argument is a good reminder that we tend to see every possible flaw in our opponents.  It is difficult to draw strong conclusions from the anecdote in ones blogroll.  It is hard enough to just interpret that anecdote: confirmation bias looms large.  Is Matthew Yglesias really more condescending than Megan McArdle (Yes!), or do I enjoy Megan’s condescension more (Yes.)?  You don’t have to search Hit & Run too hard to find ridicule poured over progressives.  Ideological sketches like Sowell’s are unlikely to be drawn in anything but heavily interpreted anecdote, so they must be drawn carefully.


  1. A lot of it is that we need better conservatives.

    For example, things like “the market, traditions, the common law” are institutions that people have built as conscious and successful attempts to reshape society. The first person to say “this is what my father did, and–dammit–I don’t care that you think circumstances are different, you are going to do it too” was engaged in a conscious and successful effort to reshape society. And so was the first baron to say that we will all meet here Wednesday morning to trade stuff and I will have my sergeants-at-arms cut off the hands of thieves. Thus things like Sowell’s claim that I am for trusting institutions while you are for unconstrained utopian vision is a way of avoiding thinking: it is a way of claiming that our past institution builders were so wise that things are perfect and no institutional changes are needed going forward without, in fact, bringing forward any evidence that that is so.

    This gets annoying…

  2. Commentarius,

    This is a fascinating post. I too have the impression (like yours, based on anecdotes) that prominent progressive bloggers are a bit harsher than their opponents on the right. Brad DeLong is a great example. He often seems to view many or even most of his opponents as stupid, evil, or both. I see this general attitude quite a bit on the left, on and off the internet: Well, so and so opposes such and such, because he is being paid by [insert evil right-wing corporation]. That’s almost the go-to argument for some people on the left. The idea that one’s opponents could conceivably be both smart and arguing in good faith is almost inconceivable to some people. Now, I’m sure these problems exist on the right as well. And maybe I don’t notice as much due to my own bias, as you suggest.

    Mr. DeLong does make an interesting comment above. To that I would add that in many cases people on the right, including myself, want to make drastic changes to our institutions (e.g. reforming social security or education). It’s not always clear in what sense the left and the right actually view tradition and change differently.

    I guess one reason I tend to have a presumption against tinkering is that I assume (partly based on evolutionary biology) that human nature is very deeply rooted. And furthermore, I sometimes assume that seemingly arbitrary customs might have some biological basis. I think this view has become more common in recent decades. E.g. Say, 40 years ago, you might have heard many people claim that girls play with dolls and boys play with trucks and weapons become we tell them to. I don’t think this view is as common anymore. As biology continues to supplant sociology, I’m not entirely sure what will separate left and right. Religion?

    By the way, have you ever heard of Chesterton’s idea that tradition is “democracy of the dead”?

  3. above it should say: because we tell them to, not “become we tell them to”

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