Conflict of Visions Explained header

The Conflict of Visions Explained

My other post (found here) explains the essence of the two visions and should be read first. Here, I want to dive a little deeper into the implications of the different visions. I’ll offer a brief explanation of each of the topics that Thomas Sowell address in “The Conflict of Visions“, as well as a chart showing comparing the different elements of each vision side-by-side, as presented by Sowell.

The Nature of Man

Foundational to the two visions are their assumptions about man’s nature. The constrained vision assumes that man has substantive limits, which include limits on morality, reason, and an ability to put others before self. This isn’t to say that the constrained vision doesn’t value morality, reason, and selflessness, but that mankind’s imperfections will cause man to act in a self-centered way if left unchecked. Because of this, the constrained vision advocates the creation of systems (law, culture, tradition, social-pressures, etc.) that can incentivize people to act in better ways. If man is limited, then we can’t be too picky about man’s motives, we can just work with them to create a better society.

The unconstrained vision assumes that man doesn’t have substantive limits on his ability to act morally, rationally, and selflessly. Because mankind is capable of being truly moral, it doesn’t make sense to accept anything less than a society of good, capable individuals. This means that the unconstrained vision often has little patience for simply installing incentives and making trade-offs, but prefers people to actually be and intend to be “good.” Someone who acts good for the wrong reasons isn’t good enough.

Trade-offs Vs. Solutions

One of the first logical outcroppings from the two visions’ assumptions about mankind is each visions’ perspective on trade-offs or solutions. The constrained vision sees trade-offs as necessary and unavoidable. Although having a society full of moral, omnipotent people would be great, it’s impossible, so you need to build the best society you can get instead.

The unconstrained vision is unsatisfied with anything less than a full solution. If mankind can truly become moral and knowledgeable then trade-offs are simply failures to achieve our potential. The constrained vision’s acceptance of trade-offs can drive the unconstrained vision crazy since it usually means different policy implications for crime, war, law, democracy, and just about everything else.

As Sowell puts it, “Much of what the unconstrained vision sees as morally imperative to do, the constrained vision sees man as incapable of doing” (p226). The constrained vision usually agrees with the unconstrained vision on what is moral, but disagrees with how moral mankind can get, and how to create the highest level of morality possible.

Social Morality and Causation

As noted above, the two visions differ on their opinion about what should motivate moral behavior. The constrained vision is ok with people behaving morally because of how the system incentivizes behavior. The unconstrained vision will settle for nothing less than intentionally good behavior.

The assumptions held by the two visions also lead to different ideas about the natural state of society. The unconstrained vision holds that peace is the natural state of man. As such, all wars need some sort of explanation as to how mankind fell into such an unnatural, undesirable outcome. The unconstrained vision also believes that law-and-order is natural, as well as prosperity. As such, when the unconstrained vision sees crime or poverty, it seeks answers for what caused it.

The constrained vision assumes that man is imperfect and limited, which can often make war, crime, and poverty the natural norm. Instead of trying to discover the special causes of those vices, the constrained vision seeks to understand the causes of peace, lawfulness, and prosperity. The constrained vision will use its understanding of the causes of goodness to try to identify the systems that can maximize those good outcomes instead of trying to create humans that naturally comply.

The two visions logically go further apart as they define their societal goals. The constrained vision argues that the “best” is often the enemy of the “good.” The process of seeking the “best” may create enough problems to make it the worst possible course of action.

The unconstrained vision would disagree, arguing that the “best” is the only worthy goal. If mankind’s limits are really insignificant enough that the “best” is achievable, then there is no cost too high in mankind’s quest for the ideal.

Visions of Knowledge and Reality

The two visions even see knowledge in different perspectives. The unconstrained vision puts a premium on “articulated rationality.” This simply refers to man’s ability to reason, learn, and articulate what he has discovered. Any well-reasoned “truth” has equal weight against any other “truth,” where the more rational “truth” is preferred. It’s this piece that leads to the unconstrained vision being ok with small groups of elites taking command. If the most intellectually and morally superior among us recommend certain societal changes or structures then our best bet is to follow. If mankind can become unstoppably smart, then any better articulated rationality should trump anything inferior.

The constrained vision puts a premium on “systematic rationality.” This simply refers to the collective experience and wisdom contained in long-evolved social processes and systems. Since the constrained vision doesn’t think that any one person or small group of individuals can really become smart enough to dictate decisions for everyone else, the combined knowledge held in culture, tradition, legal precedent, and other structures is superior. This knowledge gets created by a survival of the fittest society. If our society has survived thus far, that means it has beaten out other competing societies that have failed. Mankind will probably not be able to understand everything about the system that makes it good, and as such should simply trust its lasting success and view admonitions for significant change with suspicion.

Sowell goes further to describe how these different understandings of knowledge translate into different ideas in a few specific sectors.


If articulated rationality is best, then the best law is the one most clear and logical. The unconstrained vision will support major changes in laws enacted by few people if they feel that the rational is sound.

If collective experience is best, then the best laws are the ones we have or that we create together over time. The constrained vision will resist major changes in laws, especially if the laws are enacted by the few. If major changes occur, they should happen through collective decision by those who the law will affect.

Social Policy

If mankind is limited, then perfect equality is probably not possible. As such, the constrained vision usually finds policies designed to create an equality of results dangerous and futile. The constrained vision will support equality in how the system treats all individuals, but believes that the only way to create equal results is to secure a dangerous amount of coercive power and restrict the freedom of the populace.

If mankind is not limited in its quest for perfection, then equality of results is imperative. Even if the means used to achieve equality are costly (whether in resources or in freedom), a more equal society is worth the cost.

The unconstrained vision will seek equalitarian ends by unequalitarian means. The constrained vision will seek equalitarian means with unequalitarian ends (with the belief that the ends will be the most equalitarian that mankind can actually achieve).

Sincerity Vs. Fidelity

The constrained vision believes in the importance of fidelity. This refers to an individual’s faithful adherence to his or her duty. A judge should simply interpret law, not create it. A businessman should seek to improve the business, not encumber him or herself with excess social-responsibility goals. A police officer should enforce the law, not his or her best ideas about what law should be.

The unconstrained vision believes in the importance of sincerity. This refers to an individual’s faithful adherence to his or her own principles or ideals at the expense of systemic institutions. A judge should create law if he or she believes that something different would be better. Businessmen should take responsibility for all social things within their power even if it damages the business. Police officers should utilize greater latitude in how they administer the law–a contrast to the quip: “I don’t make the law, I just enforce it.”

Each vision views the other very differently on this subject. With the constrained vision’s assumption that mankind is limited, it has no problem believing that those with the unconstrained vision are sincere. Society is complicated and confusing, so it’s natural and expected that some people will view the world “incorrectly.”

On the other hand, the unconstrained vision has a difficult time confessing any amount of sincerity in those of the constrained vision. The unconstrained vision will typically believe that those with the constrained vision have some sort of ulterior motive behind their recommendations. Any recommendation for a trade-off instead of a solution will sound like a plan to hold society back in a way that only someone with something to gain could ever support.

Order and Design

There isn’t a whole lot new to say about the two visions’ conception of order and design. The most useful thing to think about will be an analogy described by Thomas Sowell.

The constrained vision thinks that because man is limited, the naturally evolved orders of society are the orders most likely to optimize societal benefits. This is comparable to language. Language was not pre-planned by any individual or small group of individuals, but is an evolved system. Even though it was created naturally by lots of people, it has structure, identifiable rules, and is made effective by its continual small inputs from everyone.

The unconstrained vision thinks that because man is not substantively limited, man can design a society that optimizes all societal benefits. This is comparable to engineering. Engineers don’t typically let bridges spring up as the result of little decisions made by the masses, but they carefully plan and organize each part of it. A group of leaders with proper intention and devotion could design the ideal society.

The two visions will differ on another point on design as well. The unconstrained vision must assume that the needs and desires of society can be identified. The constrained visions believes that the needs and desires of society are the accumulation of those of individuals, and as such cannot be identified. Many individuals will have needs or desires that directly conflict with one another, so the constrained vision would contend that designing a society would be impossible since it’s impossible to even clearly and perfectly identify society’s goal.

Process Costs

The two visions will contend on the types and amounts of process costs they are willing to endure. Since the unconstrained vision foresees a world where systems are unnecessary to keep society in its ideal, the unconstrained vision is relatively unwilling to put up with costs imposed by systemic processes. Established systems are created (by definition) at an earlier time. Decisions made earlier in time were made when there was less knowledge available, so those decisions should always be suspect. This perspective calls into question many restrictive values, such as loyalty, promises, patriotism, constitutions, marriage, tradition, treaties, and more. At its extreme, the unconstrained vision will view patriotism and treason as meaningless.

The unconstrained vision also believes that people are only free if they are able to achieve their goals. Even if there isn’t anything specifically hampering an individual, that individual is in bondage if that individual can’t be successful.

The constrained vision sees process costs as necessary. The stability and order that process costs create are valuable in their own right. Also, the constrained vision doesn’t believe that mankind’s rationality will necessarily improve over time, making historical decisions just as valid as current ones. This perspective supports the “restrictive” values questioned by the unconstrained vision. At its extreme, the constrained vision will view patriotism and treason as everything–“my country, right or wrong.”

The constrained vision also has a different perspective on freedom. To the constrained vision, people are free if they experience an absence coercion. An individual may not be capable of achieving his or her goals, but as long as no individual or system is specifically prohibiting that individual, he or she is free.

Operational Definitions

When it comes to categorizing systems into one vision or another, Sowell gives us a quick test. He says that systems can be categorized into constrained or unconstrained based on their (1) “locus of discretion” and (2) “mode of discretion.” This just means that we need to identify (1)  who decides and (2) how they decide.

The unconstrained vision prefers intellectual and moral superiors to be the decision makers. These superiors should make decisions based on articulated rationality. You should see how this is just an extension of the foundational assumptions: since mankind can solve all of its problems, the best of us should take control and create a great society for us.

The constrained vision prefers the general public to be the decision makers. The public should make decisions based on their own accumulated experience, wisdom, and perspective. You should see how this is an extension of the foundational assumptions in this vision: since mankind can’t know everything, our best bet is to trust in the combined intelligence of everyone. No one will perfectly understand any other individual, so we should aggregate the intelligence and experience held in all of the individuals.

Many critics of Sowell’s theory confuse this tool for how to classify systems for the visions themselves. I suppose it’s because it’s easy to think about a simple 2-part test instead of an abstract, pre-cognitive assumption of causality. This is why I have tried to really emphasize how each principle is simply a logical conclusion resulting from the foundational assumptions about mankind.


We addressed equality to a large extent in the Social Policy section above. There are a few things worth adding:

The constrained vision views inequality as inevitable. Life is hard, uncertain, and variable, so inequalities will arise. The unconstrained vision views equality as the natural state of things. This means that the only way to have more is to take it from others. Some must have little because other have more. The unconstrained vision believes that in some subtle or abstract way, the rich are rich because they have robbed the poor.

The two visions have interesting perspectives on nation building as well. The constrained vision is skeptical at how much man can really know and do, especially through social planning. As such, the constrained vision has a harder time with international development. The constrained vision argues that many 3rd world countries would be best helped by having governments that left the people to make their own way and thrive. The constrained vision sees people in 3rd world countries as being just as capable as people in any other country, and just need the right system to allow them to reach 1st world levels of prosperity.

The unconstrained vision believes that man can know quite a bit, and as such the elites are quite capable of lifting others. As such, the unconstrained vision not only supports international development, but often believes that other countries will not be able to reach equal heights without the help of those who have more. Since those with more have in some way taken from those with less, the only way to restore balance is for those with more to give it back through education, the direct transference of resources, or re-culturalization.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the constrained view doesn’t value inequality. Many holders of the constrained vision are highly frustrated with inequality and seek to create a more equal society. What makes the visions different is that the constrained vision is skeptical at how equal society can really become and worries about the methods used to improve equality, while the unconstrained vision finds it morally impermissible to permit any level of inequality to perpetuate.

Visions of Power

One of the most interesting differences between the two visions is how they perceive power. In the unconstrained vision, A has power over B is A can influence B’s decisions. B may have all of the same options that B had before A came along, but if A can provide some sort of incentive that impacts B’s decision, A had power.

In the constrained vision, A only has power over B if A can restrict B’s range of options. A can incentivize B to make a decision all it wants, but if B still has the freedom to choose any of the options that were available before, A has not exercised any power over B. A may provide incentives that basically make B’s decision a foregone conclusion for any rational man, but if B could still make other choices, A has not exerted power over B.

It can be difficult to see how these perceptions about power relate to the core assumptions of the visions. In the unconstrained vision, the relation comes through the idea that solutions, rather than trade-offs, are the goal. Solutions to societal problems mean the creation of a desirable result. Since the preferred result is one of perfect equality, if A can influence B’s decision, there must be some sort of inequality in their relationship. As such, A must have done something to be in a position to influence B, which, as stated earlier, implies that A has taken in some way from B (or people like B) to become more dominant.

In the constrained vision, since mankind is limited, trade-offs are a necessary part of everything. Thus, if A changes the balance of the alternatives without taking any away, all A does is act according to the system. As long as nothing inherently good or bad is done to change the system, nothing inherently good or bad happened.

To be honest, this is one of the most difficult parts of the book to reconcile with the assumptions. I’ve done the best I can, but if you have a better way of explaining it (or a sure way of debunking it) let me know at or in the comments.

Moving forward, Sowell outlines how the two visions differ in the conceptions of several power-using social events.


As stated earlier: to the unconstrained vision, war needs explanation, but to the constrained vision, peace needs explanation. The visions also reach further.

With the constrained vision, because mankind is imperfect, war is likely to happen.The constrained vision often views war as so inevitable that without social systems man would engage in almost constant warfare with one another. Since systems can only go so far, the constrained vision isn’t surprised when nations go to war, but it might be surprised when they maintain peace. As such, the constrained vision seeks peace by:

  1. Relying on the good sense and fortitude of the public at large
  2. Relying on enemy’s awareness of your military power as a deterrence more than direct communication
  3. Arousing public awareness of dangers in times of threat
  4. Raising cost of war to potential enemies through armament production or alliances
  5. Promoting patriotism and willingness to fight
  6. Only negotiating within context of deterrent strength and avoiding concessions that might breed more concessions

With the unconstrained vision, because mankind’s limits are immaterial, war must be the breakdown of man’s higher orders or the result of some localized evil force. Rational talks should be able to diffuse any situation. Since rationality should be able to overcome potentially violent problems, the unconstrained vision seeks peace by:

  1. Giving more influence to intellectual and moral elite
  2. Improving communication between enemies
  3. Muting militant rhetoric
  4. Restraining armament production or alliances (as it contributes to escalation)
  5. De-emphasizing nationalism or patriotism
  6. Negotiating outstanding differences with adversaries


As stated earlier: the constrained vision thinks that lawfulness needs explanation while the unconstrained vision thinks that crime needs explanation. The visions build on these foundations further.

The constrained vision believes that incentives to commit crimes are commonplace, but that social systems help prevent it. Part of this incentive structure are punishments for committing crime. By setting up systems of punishment for when individuals behave in ways that damage society, the systems reduce the incentive for crime and increase the incentive for lawfulness. This works because, although man is limited, man does respond to incentives to operate in his own best interest. We will probably never be crime free, but proper systems can minimize crime.

The unconstrained vision believes that the natural state of man is to be law-abiding and good, but that broken systems drain the compassion from individuals who then commit crimes. Because man is perfectible, rehabilitation should be offered instead of punishment (which the unconstrained vision views as little more than vengeance). Where the constrained vision believes that decency is not the natural state of man (and cannot likely be learned after an individual’s formative years), the unconstrained vision believes that rehabilitation, if done right, invariably returns people to their “natural” state of decency.


As a believer in the power of mankind, the unconstrained vision sees the economy as controlled by small group of powerful decision makers. If the decision makers are not acting in the best interest of society, then government should enter and directly influence the market for the good of society. The government’s intention to protect public interest mandate that it intervene in the economy whenever problems arise.

As a skeptic of the power of mankind, the constrained vision sees the economy as controlled by the many small decisions that individuals make on a micro-level. Since no entity could have adequate information and power to control the economy better than the collective intelligence of the public, the government should typically stay out of the market. The government’s incentive to enhance its own power also make government intervention too dangerous to be worth the risk.

The Law

As mentioned above, the unconstrained vision is ok with intellectual and moral superiors making legal decisions for everyone. Judges are typically very smart, and as long as they have a good rational basis, they should decide cases as they see fit in their own reasoned judgement.

The constrained vision does not believe that judges can be so smart as to make decisions for the rest of society. Judges should simply uphold the law that the people have created, even if the judge disagrees with the outcome at a deep, fundamental level.

Visions of Justice

When it comes to justice, the unconstrained vision sees it as an ends, while the constrained vision sees it as a means.

The unconstrained vision believes that man’s limits are not substantive, so perfect justice must be attainable. This means that settling for unjust results is morally depraved. In law, judges should work diligently to ensure that true justice is fulfilled, not just the letter of the law. Rights to justice exist inherent in individuals. Individuals are entitled to a certain share of society’s wealth simply by being a part of it.

The constrained vision believes that man’s limits are substantive, so perfect justice is not necessarily attainable. This means that achieving greater levels of justice must be weighed against the costs of attaining it. Because justice is not inherently the end-all goal of society, it exists subservient to society–justice is used to help society exist, not the other way around. As such, judges should fulfill the original meaning of the law instead of trying to implement his or her own ideas of justice. Rights to justice exist insofar as society is capable of providing it. No one is entitled to anything.

The Conflict Continues

Hopefully as you read all of this you came to a better understanding of your own vision of the world. As Sowell points out, people flow between these visions throughout their lives. The most common flow is for young people to grasp to the unconstrained vision, but to float further and further toward the constrained side as they age.

People don’t need to be aware of these underlying assumptions to hold to them. Rather, it’s because people aren’t aware of their assumptions that these visions are so powerful. If people begin to recognize the contrasting fundamental assumptions that they hold at odds with their neighbors, maybe they can start to speak the same language and make better progress. Most of us on opposite political sides hold to similar values, but our assumptions about what’s possible impact our decisions about the best course of action to take to achieve our values.

Where do you stand? Which one is right? How do you know? Let me know in the comments.

Keep seeking truth.



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  1. Jim A 7 August, 2018 at 10:50 Reply


    I have been teaching Sowell’s framework at a BIG 10 institution for years. And until you published this summary in your blog, I have never had an easily “digestible” reading to assign my students, short of assigning the primary text. I applaud the clarity and conciseness with which you have treated your mastery of it. So thank you. Countless students of mine do, too. Nothing is more gratifying than seeing students experience those “ah-ha” moments.


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