Chapter 3

Visions of Knowledge and Reason

The constrained and the unconstrained visions tend to differ in their very definition of knowledge, as well as in their conceptions of its quantity, concentration, or dispersal, and its role in the social process. Reason likewise takes on entirely different meanings in the two visions.


The Constrained Vision

In the constrained vision, any individual's own knowledge alone is grossly inadequate for social decision-making, and often even for his own personal decisions. A complex society and its progress are therefore possible only because of numerous social arrangements which transmit and coordinate knowledge from a tremendous range of contemporaries, as well as from the even more vast numbers of those from generations past. Knowledge as conceived in the constrained vision is predominantly experience – transmitted socially in largely inarticulate forms, from prices which indicate costs, scarcities, and preferences, to traditions which evolve from the day-to-day experiences of millions in each generation, winnowing out in Darwinian competition what works from what does not work. Friedrich A. Hayek expressed this view when he said:

The growth of knowledge and the growth of civilization are the same only if we interpret knowledge to include all the human adaptations to environment in which past experience has been incorporated. Not all knowledge in this sense is part of our intellect, nor is our intellect the whole of our knowledge. Our habits and skills, our emotional attitudes, our tools, and our institutions – all are in this sense adaptations to past experience which have grown up by selective elimination of less suitable conduct. They are as much an indispensable foundation of successful action as is our conscious knowledge.1

In this vision, it is not simply that individuals rationally choose what works from what does not work, but also – and more fundamentally – that the competition of institutions and whole societies leads to a general survival of more effective collections of cultural traits, even if neither the winners nor the losers rationally understand what was better or worse about one set or the other. Values which may be effective at the tribal level will tend to be overwhelmed by values that permit or promote the functioning of larger aggregations of people. From this perspective, “man has certainly more often learnt to do the right thing without comprehending why it was the right thing, and he still is better served by custom than understanding.” There is thus “more ‘intelligence’ incorporated in the system of rules of conduct than in man's thoughts about his surroundings.”2

Knowledge is thus the social experience of the many, as embodied in behavior, sentiments, and habits, rather than the specially articulated reason of the few, however talented or gifted those few might be. When knowledge is conceived as social experience rather than solitary excogitation, then “a very small part is gained in the closet,” according to Hamilton.3

In Burke's words: “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.”4 By reason, Burke did not mean simply the written words of notable individuals but the whole experience of peoples, summarized in the feelings, formalities, and even prejudices embodied in their culture and behavior. These cultural distillations of knowledge were not considered infallible or immutable – which would have been a solution instead of a trade-off – but rather as a tested body of experience that worked, and which was to be changed only after the most circumspect, and perhaps even reluctant, examination. We should attend to the defects of the social order, according to Burke, with the same trepidation with which we would tend the wounds of our father.5 They are not to be ignored, but neither are they a mandate for experiment or hasty inspiration. With no examination whatever, there would be no evolutionary process, and therefore, in this vision, no basis for the confidence in tradition and enduring institutions which was the hallmark of Burke, and to varying degrees of other believers in a constrained vision.

The trade-off perspective of the constrained vision treats defects as inevitable, and therefore not in themselves reason for change, unless their magnitudes merit the inevitable costs entailed by change. “Preserving my principles unshaken,” Burke said, “I reserve my activity for rational endeavours.”6 On another occasion, he said: “I must bear with infirmities until they fester into crimes.”7 This was not a mere verbal patina on apathetic drift, as shown by Burke's own relentless prosecution of Warren Hastings for alleged misconduct in his governance of India, or Burke's unpopular stand in Parliament for freeing the rebellious American colonies, or his anti-slavery proposals.8 Adam Smith likewise urged the freeing of the American colonies – and other colonies as well – in addition to suggesting a number of domestic reforms and being opposed to slavery.9 In America, the men who wrote The Federalist Papers – Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay – first came to public notice as leaders in the revolt against British rule. The constrained vision was not synonymous with (or camouflage for) acceptance of the status quo.

The Unconstrained Vision

The unconstrained vision had no such limited view of human knowledge or of its application through reason. It was the eighteenth-century exemplars of the unconstrained vision who created “the age of reason,” as expressed in the title of Thomas Paine's famous book of that era. Reason was as paramount in their vision as experience was in the constrained vision. According to Godwin, experience was greatly overrated – “unreasonably magnified,” in his words – compared to reason or to “the general power of a cultivated mind.”10 Therefore the wisdom of the ages was seen by Godwin as largely the illusions of the ignorant. The age of a belief or practice did not exempt it from the crucial test of validation in specifically articulated terms. In Godwin's words, “we must bring everything to the standard of reason.” He added:

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.11

Similarly, according to Condorcet, “everything that bears the imprint of time must inspire distrust more than respect.”12 It was “only by mediation,” Condorcet said, “that we can arrive at any general truths in the science of man.”13

Given the ability of a “cultivated mind” to apply reason directly to the facts at hand, there was no necessity to defer to the unarticulated systemic processes of the constrained vision, as expressed in the collective wisdom derived from the past. “The pretense of collective wisdom is the most palpable of all impostures,” according to Godwin.14 Validation was not to be indirect, collective, and systemic but direct, individual, and intentional. Articulated rationality was to be the mode of validation, not general acceptance based on pragmatic experience. According to Godwin, “persons of narrow views and observation” readily accept whatever happens to prevail in their society.15 Therefore, this cannot be the method by which to decide issues.

Implicit in the unconstrained vision is a profound inequality between the conclusions of “persons of narrow views” and those with “cultivated” minds. From this it follows that progress involves raising the level of the former to that of the latter. According to Godwin:

Real intellectual improvement demands, that mind should, as speedily as possible, be advanced to the height of knowledge already existing among the enlightened members of the community, and start from thence in pursuit of further acquisitions.16

Also implicit in the unconstrained vision is the view that the relevant comparison is between the beliefs of one sort of person and another – between x and y, rather than between (1) systemic processes working through successive generations of individuals a through x, as expressed through the living generation x, versus (2) the articulated rationality of y in isolation. The rejection of the concept of collective wisdom leaves individual comparisons as the standard of judgment. Since the experiences of a through w no longer count, the issue reduces to the articulated rationality of x versus that of y. Therefore, the unconstrained vision necessarily favors the “cultivated mind” y, while the constrained vision necessarily favors the views expressed through x, seen as representative of the unarticulated experience of many others (a through w). The two visions thus lead to opposite conclusions as to which opinion should prevail, and why.

Burke clearly saw himself in the role of x rather than y:

I give you opinions which have been accepted amongst us, from very early times to this moment, with a continued and general approbation, and which indeed are so worked into my mind, that I am unable to distinguish what I have learned from others from the results of my own meditations.17

The kind of knowledge or understanding referred to by Burke was conceived as a common fund in which he participated. That of Godwin was the knowledge or understanding of “cultivated minds” – a knowledge which, by its nature, was concentrated in a few rather than dispersed among the many. The very meaning of knowledge was also different, which is why it was distributed so differently in the two visions. In the constrained vision, where knowledge was a multiplicity of experience too complex for explicit articulation, it was distilled over the generations in cultural processes and traits so deeply embedded as to be virtually unconscious reflexes – widely shared. This was, in Burke's words, “wisdom without reflection.”18

Wisdom without reflection was a concept utterly foreign to the unconstrained vision, in which human beings have both the capacity, and the obligation to exercise explicit reason on all issues. “Reason,” according to Godwin, “is the proper instrument, and the sufficient instrument for regulating the actions of mankind.”19 Passions and biases may exist, but “if we employ our rational faculties, we cannot fail of thus conquering our erroneous propensities.”20

Given that explicitly articulated knowledge is special and concentrated, in the unconstrained vision, the best conduct of social activities depends upon the special knowledge of the few being used to guide the actions of the many. What is needed is to infuse “just views of society” into “the liberally educated and reflecting members” of society, who in turn will be “to the people guides and instructors,” according to Godwin.21 This idea was by no means peculiar to Godwin but rather has been a central and enduring theme of the unconstrained vision. Along with it has often gone a vision of intellectuals as disinterested advisors. Voltaire declared, “the philosophers having no particular interest to defend, can only speak up in favor of reason and the public interest.”22 Condorcet likewise referred to “truly enlightened philosophers, strangers to ambition.”23 Rousseau considered it “the best and most natural arrangement for the wisest to govern the multitude.”24 Even if nonintellectuals run the actual machinery of government, according to D'Alembert, “the greatest happiness of a nation is realized when those who govern agree with those who instruct it.”25

These eighteenth-century themes were repeated, with at least equal vigor, by John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century. To Mill a special role was reserved for “the most cultivated intellects in the country,”26 for “thinking minds,”27 for “the best and the wisest,”28 for “the really superior intellects and characters.”29 Much could be accomplished “if the superior spirits would but join with each other”30 if the universities would send forth “a succession of minds, not the creatures of their age, but capable of being its improvers and regenerators.”31 Similar prescriptions remain common today. In short, the special role of “thinking people” or of “the brightest and the best” has for centuries been a central theme of the unconstrained vision.

For those with the constrained vision, however, a special role for intellectuals in the running of society has long been seen as a grave danger. In Burke's words:

Happy if learning, not debauched by ambition, had been satisfied to continue the instructor and not aspired to be the master.32

John Randolph was likewise repelled by the idea of “professors in a university turned statesmen.”33 In a similar vein, Hobbes regarded universities as places where fashionable but insignificant words flourished34 and added that “there is nothing so absurd, but may be found in the books of Philosophers.”35

The central danger, as seen by those with the constrained vision, is the intellectuals' narrow conception of what constitutes knowledge and wisdom. They are, in Burke's words, “endeavouring to confine the reputation of sense, learning, and taste to themselves or their following,” and are capable of “carrying the intolerance of the tongue and of the pen into a persecution” of others.36 Adam Smith spoke of the doctrinaire “man of system” who is “wise in his own conceit“ and who “seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.”37 The whole notion of a philosopher-king was abhorrent to Smith, who declared that “of all political speculators sovereign princes are by far the most dangerous.”38

The superiority of experts within a narrow slice of the vast spectrum of human understanding was not denied. What was denied was that this expertise conferred a general superiority which should supersede more widely dispersed kinds of knowledge. “It may be admitted that, as far as scientific knowledge is concerned, a body of suitably chosen experts may be in the best position to command all the best knowledge available,” according to Hayek. But, he added, with respect to other kinds of knowledge, “practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation.”39 With knowledge conceived of as both fragmented and widely dispersed, systemic coordination among the many supersedes the special wisdom of the few.

Nor was this systemic coordination to be planned or imposed by the wise few. It was an evolved natural order, in the phrase of one of the eighteenth-century Physiocrats,40 the group who coined the expression laissez-faire. The same kind of reasoning was found in Adam Smith, the most famous exponent of this doctrine:

The statesman who should attempt to direct people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.41

The marketplace was only one of a number of evolved systemic processes for making decisions. The family, languages, and traditions are other examples, among many. Believers in the constrained vision rely heavily on such processes to make better decisions than any given individual could make, however talented or knowledgeable compared to other individuals.

In short, starting from different conceptions of how much a given individual can know and understand, the constrained and the unconstrained visions arrive at opposite conclusions as to whether the best social decisions are to be made by those with the most individual knowledge of a special kind or by systemic processes that mobilize and coordinate knowledge scattered among the many, in individually unimpressive amounts.


The power of specifically articulated rationality is central to the unconstrained vision. The power of unarticulated social processes to mobilize and coordinate knowledge is central to the constrained vision.

In the unconstrained vision, to act without “explicit reason” is to act on “prepossession and prejudice.”42 According to Godwin: “Discussion is the path that leads to discovery and demonstration.”43 “Accuracy of language is the indispensable prerequisite of sound knowledge,”44 in Godwin's vision, where knowledge is synonymous with articulated rationality. Virtue is promoted when men must “avow their actions, and assign the reasons upon which they are founded.”45 If we could “render the plain dictates of justice level to every capacity,” according to Godwin, “we may expect the whole species to become reasonable and virtuous.”46 To Condorcet as well, the task is to “render common to almost every man those principles of strict and unsullied justice.”47

Reason has at least two very different meanings. One is a cause-and-effect meaning: There is a reason why water expands when it freezes into ice, even though most of us who are not physicists do not know what that reason is – and at one time, no one knew the reason. The other meaning of reason is articulated specification of causation or logic: When it is demanded that individuals or society justify their actions before the bar of reason, this is what is meant. The more constrained one's vision of human capabilities and potential, the greater the difference between these two meanings. Everything may have a cause and yet human beings may be unable to specify what it is. Since no theory is literally unconstrained entirely, there is always some awareness of the difference between the two meanings of reason.

Conversely, no theory is so constrained that man can understand nothing, which would imply a total lack of overlap between the two meanings of reason. But at the more unconstrained end of the spectrum, the overlap between the two concepts is considered to be so great that to say that a reason exists is virtually to say that we can specify it. At the very least, our decision-making must proceed on the basis of those reasons which we can specify. But, at the more constrained end of the spectrum, knowledge and reasons unknown to any given individual must be brought to bear on many decisions, through social processes in which articulated rationality plays at best a subordinate role.

Classical and neo-classical economics, especially of the Austrian school, exemplify this constrained vision of systemic rationality, in which individual articulation means little. In an uncontrolled market, as seen in this vision, changing prices, wages, and interest rates adjust the economy to shifting demands, technological changes, and evolving skills – without any of the actors in this drama knowing or caring how his individual responses affect the whole. It can be analyzed as a general process of interaction with its own characteristic patterns and results – otherwise there would be no Austrian economics – but cannot be specified in such concrete detail as to make it feasible for any individual or group to plan or control the actual process. The rationality in it is systemic, not individual – and such individual rationality as may exist is largely incidental, so that the much-vexed question as to just how rational man is has little relevance in this vision.48

A similar difference between individual and systemic rationality can be found in religious doctrines in which (1) the Deity is conceived to act directly to affect natural and human phenomena, versus (2) those in which a Providential systemic process makes life possible and beneficent without requiring Divine superintendence of details.49

What both the secular and the religious versions of systemic processes have in common is that the wisdom of the individual human actor is not the wisdom of the drama. Conversely, there are both secular and religious versions of individual rationality, the religious version being one in which the Deity directly decides on individual events, from daily weather changes to deaths of individuals. Fundamentalist religion is the most pervasive vision of central planning, though many fundamentalists may oppose human central planning as a usurpation or “playing God.” This is consistent with the fundamentalist vision of an unconstrained God and a highly constrained man.


The two visions conflict in law, as well as in economics and religion. Oliver Wendell Holmes expressed the systemic concept when he declared: “The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience.”50 Articulation was not essential to decision-making, for “many honorable and sensible judgments” express “an intuition of experience which outruns analysis and sums up many unnamed and tangled impressions; impressions which may lie beneath consciousness without losing their worth.”51 Law incorporates the experience that reflects “not only our own lives but the lives of all men that have been,” according to Holmes.52 It is a “fallacy” to conceive of law as purely a process of articulated logic, for while “it is true in the broadest sense that the law is a logical development,” it is not “worked out like mathematics from general axioms of conduct.”53 In short, the logic of the law's development is a systemic logic:

The development of our law has gone on for nearly a thousand years, like the development of a planet, each generation taking the next step, mind, like matter, simply obeying a law of spontaneous growth.54

John Stuart Mill, however, objected that laws are made, not evolved. What those with the constrained vision characterized as a spontaneous order evolving from history was merely “the fortuitous concourse of atoms in ages of barbarism,” according to Mill.55 He said:

The laws of Moses, those of Mahomet, were made, and did not grow; they had, it is true, the direct sanction of religious faith; but the laws of Lycurgus, the laws of Solon, were made, and were as durable as any laws which grew have hitherto been found.56

To look at legal precedents was, in Mill's view, to make an “absurd sacrifice of present ends to antiquated means.”57

Yet, as in other areas. Mill's assertions were modified, if not repealed, by his provisos. Those who “make” law have, according to Mill, taken into account “what the people will bear” and that is a function of their “ancient habits” or of their “durable and strenuous convictions, without which the whole system of laws would become inoperative.” The “acquiescence of mankind” thus “depends upon the preservation of something like continuity of existence in institutions” representing “those innumerable compromises between adverse interests and expectations, without which no government could be carried on a year, and with difficulty even for a week.”58 With these provisos included. Mill's position is not very far from that to which it seems at first to be the very opposite, namely that “all the famous early law-givers,” as Hayek put it, “did not intend to create new law but merely to state what law was and had always been.”59 That is, it was “largely the articulation of previously existing practice,” according to Hayek.60

Many modern writers on law represent the unconstrained vision much more unambiguously than Mill. For example, Ronald Dworkin dismisses “the silly faith that ethics as well as economics moves by an invisible hand, so that individual rights and the general good will coalesce, and law based on principle will move the nation to a frictionless utopia where everyone is better off than he was before.”61

These different visions applied to the law lead to opposite conclusions regarding judicial activism. The unconstrained vision, as applied by Dworkin, calls for “an activist court” to read its own meanings into the words of the Constitution62 In this he is by no means alone, either in his conclusions or in the methods used to reach them. His call for “a fusion of constitutional law and moral theory,”63 for “fresh moral insight,”64 has been one among many.65

Oliver Wendell Holmes' conception of the law left no such room for judicial activism:

It is dangerous to tie down legislatures too closely by judicial constrictions not necessarily arising from the words of the constitution.66

Nor was it merely the words but rather the original meanings of those words that were to be adhered to. He refused to declare unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment “methods of taxation which were well known when that Amendment was adopted.”67 He later spoke of “the more than anxiety that I feel at the ever-increasing scope given to the Fourteenth Amendment.”68 In yet another case he saw “no reason for reading into the Sherman Act more than we find there.”69

As in other clashes between the two visions, the issue is posed very differently by each side. Those with the unconstrained vision, favoring articulated rationality see the issue as one between two sets of contemporaries, x and y, while those with a constrained vision, favoring systemic processes, see the issue as being between the experience of successive generations, represented by group x in today's generation, versus the articulated rationality of their contemporary opponents, group y.

Insofar as those with the unconstrained vision acknowledge prior generations, they see the issue as being between some given prior generation – say generation h – and the current generation's group y. This is dismissed as a conflict between the living and the dead, in which the dead have no right to rule beyond the grave.70 From this perspective, we must use “our own reasoned and revocable will, not some idealized ancestral compulsion”71 to advance. Alternatively, the conditions of prior times are deemed irrelevant, or less relevant, than current views based on current conditions. Chief Justice Earl Warren, for example, spoke of contemporary circumstances “far beyond the wisdom of even the wisest of the Founding Fathers.”72

But when Oliver Wendell Holmes characterized the law as summarizing “not only our own lives but the lives of all men that have been” he clearly rejected any notion that the clash was between opposing groups in one generation, or even between one contemporary group and one past group, such as “the Founding Fathers.” Rather, the clash was conceived as being between two whole processes, one of historical experience over many generations versus the articulated rationality of one contemporary school of thought. Neither Holmes nor others who argued for systemic processes seriously contest the claims of intellectual and/or moral superiority which are central to the articulated rationality and “social justice” of those with the unconstrained vision. With the constrained vision, the issue is not whether one individual or group is wiser than another but whether systemic experience is wiser than both.

Yet those who argue for deliberate lawmaking through judicial activism do so not on the basis of having a democratic majority, even in the given generation, but rather of having an intellectually and morally superior process for decision-making. When Dworkin dismissed the opposing process as a “silly faith,” “a pessimistic theory of human nature,”73 “the curious philosophy of Edmund Burke,”74 and “the chaotic and unprincipled development of history,”75 this was a prelude to asserting a superiority competent to override a democratic majority of contemporaries, quite aside from dismissing prior generations. For Dworkin, “a more equal society is a better society even if its citizens prefer inequality.”76

Social Policy

The two visions entail very different views of the relationship between members of the existing society. The unconstrained vision has tended historically toward creating more equalized economic and social conditions in society, even if the means chosen imply great inequality in the right to decide such issues and choose such means. Clearly, only very unequal intellectual and moral standing could justify having equality imposed, whether the people want it or not, as Dworkin suggests, and only very unequal power would make it possible. It is consistent for the unconstrained vision to promote equalitarian ends by unequalitarian means, given the great differences between those whom Mill called “the wisest and best” and those who have not yet reached that intellectual and moral level.

Conversely, those with the constrained vision have tended to be less concerned with promoting economic and social equality, but more concerned with the dangers of an inequality of power, producing an articulate ruling elite of rationalists. In Hayek's words:

The most dangerous stage in the growth of civilization may well be that in which man has come to regard all these beliefs as superstitions and refuses to accept or to submit to anything which he does not rationally understand. The rationalist whose reason is not sufficient to teach him those limitations of the power of conscious reason, and who despises all the institutions and customs which have not been consciously designed, would thus become the destroyer of the civilization built upon them.77

The clash over judicial activism reflects a much more general clash over the best way to contribute to the social good. In the unconstrained vision, wise and conscientious individuals should strive to shape the best outcomes in particular issues that come within their jurisdiction. In the constrained vision, the inherent limitations of individuals mean that each individual's best contribution to society is to adhere to the special duties of his institutional role, and let systemic processes determine outcomes. By contrast, the unconstrained vision was exemplified in Chief Justice Earl Warren's interruption of lawyers unfolding complex legal principles to ask: “But is it right? Is it good?” In the constrained vision, that was neither his business nor within his competence, for the specialist's superiority exists only within a narrow range of skills – in this instance, determining how the written law applied to the case at hand. Burke said, “I revere men in the functions which belong to them”78 but not beyond.

Just as the unconstrained vision urges judicial activism on judges, it urges “social responsibility” upon businessmen – that they should hire, invest, donate, and otherwise conduct their businesses with an eye to producing specific benefits to society at large. The socially responsible businessman should, for example, hire the disadvantaged, invest in things that seem most needed by society rather than those most profitable to his firm, and turn part of the proceeds over to charitable and cultural activities, rather than pay all the proceeds out to the stockholders or plow them back into the business.

The constrained vision sees such things as outside the competence of businessmen, given the wider ramifications of such decisions in a complex systemic process. According to the constrained vision of human knowledge, what is within the businessman's competence is the running of his particular firm so as to promote its prosperity, within the law. It is the systemic effect of competition, rather than the individual intentions of businessmen, which this vision relies on to produce social benefit. According to Adam Smith, it is when the businessman “intends only his own gain” that he contributes – via the process of competition – to promote the social good “more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.” Smith added: “I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”79

The writings of those with the constrained vision abound with examples of counterproductive consequences of well-intentioned policies. But to those with the unconstrained vision, this is simply seizing upon isolated mistakes that are correctable, in order to resist tendencies that are socially beneficial on the whole. However, to those with the constrained vision, these mistakes are not happenstances, but symptoms of what to expect when the inherent limitations of individuals are ignored and systemic processes for coping with these limitations are deranged by specific tinkering.

Sincerity Versus Fidelity

Because of conflicting visions of how much knowledge a given individual can have, and how effective that knowledge can be in deciding complex social issues, the two visions attach widely differing importance to sincerity and 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. Godwin's whole purpose was to strengthen the individual's “sincerity, fortitude, and justice.”80 The “importance of general sincerity”81 was a recurring theme in Godwin, and has remained so over the centuries among others with the unconstrained vision. Sincerity tends to “liberate,”82 according to Godwin, and to “bring every other virtue in its train.”83 While conceding that everyone is insincere at some time or other,84 Godwin nevertheless urged “a general and unalterable sincerity”85 as a powerful ideal, capable of producing profound social benefits.

Sincerity holds no such place of honor in the constrained vision. Those with this vision often readily concede sincerity to their adversaries, treating it as an individual virtue of minor social benefit – and sometimes as a major aggravating factor, when people persist in socially counterproductive ideals. 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. This is an entirely different conception of duty from that of the unconstrained vision, where one's duty is direct beneficence to mankind.86 But in the constrained vision, the individual wielding social decision-making power lacks the competence to continually make ad hoc determinations of what specifically is good for mankind, however sincere he may be.

In the constrained vision, the businessman's moral duty is fidelity to the stockholders, who have entrusted their savings to him, not sincere pursuit of the public good through charitable donations or investment or hiring decisions which compromise that trust. Similarly, the judge's moral duty is to faithfully carry out the law he was sworn to uphold, not sincerely change that law to produce better results as he sees them. Within this vision, a scholar's moral duty is to faithfully promote the intellectual process among his students and readers, not lead them to specific conclusions he sincerely believes to be best for society. For similar reasons, advocacy journalism or liberation theology are also anathema to those with the constrained vision, since both are seen as misuses of entrusted roles.

Sincerity is so central to the unconstrained vision that it is not readily conceded to adversaries, who are often depicted as apologists, if not venal. It is not uncommon in this tradition to find references to their adversaries' “real” reasons, which must be “unmasked.” Even where sincerity is conceded to adversaries, it is often accompanied by references to those adversaries' “blindness,” “prejudice,” or narrow inability to transcend the status quo. 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. Nor need adversaries be depicted as stupid by those with the constrained vision, for they conceive of the social process as so complex that it is easy, even for wise and moral individuals, to be mistaken – and dangerously so. They “may do the worst of things without being the worst of man,” according to Burke.87

Related to the question of sincerity versus fidelity is the issue of roles or structured relationships. Fidelity to roles is central to the constrained vision, for in carrying out defined roles the individual is relying on the experiential capital of nations and of ages, in Burke's terms. Among contemporaries, he is leaving specific results to be determined by the values, knowledge, and capabilities of others, fulfilling his own role only to serve faithfully the processes which make this possible. But in the unconstrained vision, where the individual's own reason and sincerity are paramount, roles are seen as needlessly constricting. Those with the unconstrained vision tend to deplore “role stereotypes,” to seek “less structured” situations, to “democratize” parent-child or student-teacher relationships, to de-emphasize titles and formalities.

All these patterns are consistent with their underlying vision of human capabilities in ad hoc decision-making. It is equally consistent for those with a more constrained vision of those individual capabilities to enlist roles and rules which tap the results of unarticulated historical experience, thereby restraining existing incumbents in these roles. Roles which involve enormous trust – parent-child or doctor-patient roles, for example – are also roles that preclude sex, for example, and those with the constrained vision are especially outraged if this taboo is broken. Others often are as well, but such opposition is not logically compelled by the unconstrained vision.

Both sincerity and fidelity can be seen as aspects of honesty – but as very different aspects, weighed differently in the opposing visions. 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.88 It is one reason why sincerity is given such light weight in the constrained vision. 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”89 and referred to “statesmanlike deviousness” in the public interest.90 When Bickel later turned against judicial activism, he also shifted moral grounds, now emphasizing fidelity over sincerity. It was now “a moral duty” of judges to “obey the manifest constitution,” with improvements being left to the amending process.91 In both positions, Bickel's conclusions were consistent with his respective visions.

The rationale for fidelity to the truth is very similar to the rationale for fidelity to roles. In both cases, one subordinates one's own ad hoc conception of what would be best for society in the particular case to adherence to a broader systemic process – accepted canons of morality, in this instance – in which one has greater confidence as to its long-run benefits to society.

Here again, it is necessary to note that none of the great historic visions has been either 100 percent unconstrained or 100 percent constrained. Differences of degree among unconstrained visions are often crucial as regards the significance of truth – and of force. In a very pure unconstrained vision, such as that of Godwin, reason is so powerful – “omnipotent” was his characterization92 that neither deception nor force was justified in pursuing the public good.93 Thus, even though the wisest and most beneficent might be on a far higher plane than most people as of a given time, their ultimate ability to gain public assent was virtually inevitable. But where the unconstrained vision of human potential postulates more resistant frictions en route to realizing the goal, falsehood and force become not merely rights but duties, for the enormous benefits of an irreversible breakthrough go on for centuries, over which time the initial costs are to be amortized.

If one believes, like Lenin, that the level of popular consciousness spontaneously achievable is inherently insufficient to the task,94 then more far-seeing elites have an enormous historic role to play95 and must employ whatever means are necessary. Although both Godwin and Lenin rejected the naturally evolved systemic processes which are central to the constrained vision, the differences in degree in their assumptions about human knowledge and reason produce profound differences in kind as to the role of truth and force. Relations between believers in Lenin's version of Marxism and believers in democratic socialism have historically been very bitter. A small shift of assumptions can have profound effects on the vision – and on the action that follows from it.

Youth and Age

With experience and articulated rationality having such vastly differing weights in the two visions, it is virtually inevitable that the young and the old should be seen in correspondingly different terms. In the constrained vision, which depends upon “the least fallible guide of human experience,”96 the young cannot be compared to the old in wisdom. Adam Smith considered it unbecoming for the young to have the same confidence as the old.97 “The wisest and most experienced are generally the least credulous,” he said, and this depended crucially on time: “It is acquired wisdom and experience only that teach incredulity, and they very seldom teach it enough.”98

By contrast, when knowledge and reason are conceived as articulated rationality, as in the unconstrained vision, the young have considerable advantages. Condorcet wrote, in the eighteenth century: “A young man now leaving school possesses more real knowledge than the greatest geniuses – not of antiquity, but even of the seventeenth century – could have acquired after long study.”99 In an unconstrained vision, where much of the malaise of the world is due to existing institutions and existing beliefs, those least habituated to those institutions and beliefs are readily seen as especially valuable for making needed social changes. According to Godwin:

The next generation will not have so many prejudices to subdue. Suppose a despotic nation by some revolution in its affairs possessed of freedom. The children of the present race will be bred in more firm and independent habits of thinking; the suppleness, the timidity, and the vicious dexterity of their fathers, will give place to an erect mien, and a clear and decisive judgment.100

“Children are a sort of raw material put into our hands,” according to Godwin.101 Their minds “are like a sheet of white paper.”102 The young were viewed by Godwin as a downtrodden group,103 but from among them may be found “one of the long-looked-for saviors of the human race.”104 However, the constrained view, which seeks prudent trade-offs rather than dramatic solutions, cannot seek prudence in youth, for prudence was regarded as the fruit of experience.105 Nor was moral fervor a substitute: “It is no excuse for presumptuous ignorance that it is directed by insolent passion,” according to Burke.106 Burke's American disciple, John Randolph, said: “I am not speaking to the groundlings, to the tyros and junior apprentices; but to the grey-headed men of this nation. ...”107 But to those with the unconstrained vision, old age merited no such special consideration. According to Condorcet, “prejudice and avarice” were characteristics “common to old age.”108


The distribution of knowledge in society varies greatly according to the definition of knowledge. Where knowledge is defined, in the constrained vision, to include vast amounts of unarticulated but vitally important information and conclusions, summarized in habits, aversions, and attractions as well as in words and numbers, then it is far more broadly spread through a society than when its definition, as in the unconstrained vision, is restricted to the more sophisticatedly articulated facts and relationships. The constrained vision, which sees severe limits on man's conscious rationality, relies heavily on evolved systemic processes to convey and coordinate the broad array of knowledge necessary for human survival and progress. The unconstrained vision, which sees greater prospects for human mastery of knowledge, sees in those with special intellectual skills both the proof of its assumption and the vehicles of knowledge and reason for promoting social improvement.

Articulation plays an important role in the dissemination of knowledge, as knowledge is conceived in the unconstrained vision. “Discussion is the path that leads to discovery and demonstration,” according to Godwin109 who, as noted earlier, also considered accuracy of language to be “the indispensable prerequisite of sound knowledge.”110 But articulation plays no such crucial role in the constrained vision. “It has been the misfortune (not, as these gentlemen think it, the glory) of this age that everything is to be discussed,” Burke declared.111 He had no use for “pert loquacity,”112 and argued that even reason, by frequent repetition, “loses its force.”113 Hamilton was suspicious of skilled articulation, which could be “mere painting and exaggeration”114 or “artificial reasoning to vary the nature and obvious sense of words,”115 and noted that “it is extremely easy, on either side, to say a great number of plausible things.”116 Hobbes declared that words are wise men's counters “but they are the mony of fooles.”117 Unarticulated social experience has remained a more effective guide to behavior than articulated rationality, in the tradition of the constrained vision. According to Hayek, it is enough that people “know how to act in accordance with the rules without knowing that the rules are such and such in articulated terms.”118

Articulate youth, idealistic and trained in the latest and most advanced forms of knowledge, as knowledge is conceived in the unconstrained vision, are a great hope for the future to those with that vision. So are intellectuals. Neither is viewed in this way in the constrained vision. Where knowledge is more expansively defined and consequently more widely distributed, as in the constrained vision, intellectuals have no commanding advantage over the common man. According to Hayek:

Compared with the totality of knowledge which is continually utilized in the evolution of a dynamic civilization, the difference between the knowledge that the wisest and that which the most ignorant individual can deliberately employ is comparatively insignificant.119

When Hayek referred to “that little extra knowledge” which intellectuals possessed,120 he echoed a skepticism about intellectuals that goes back for centuries among those with the constrained vision. Hobbes, like Smith, found little natural difference among men,121 and such social differences as he found were by no means always favorable to intellectuals. The common man, according to Hobbes, seldom engaged in meaningless words, which he saw as the hallmark of intellectuals.122 Moreover, the real differences among the quality of people's decisions were due more to systemic incentives than to their individual knowledge or sophistication: “A plain husband-man is more Prudent in the affaires of his own house, than a Privy Counselor in the affaires of other men.”123 In this view, the incentives facing intellectuals were to demonstrate their cleverness rather than to be correct in terms of results affecting other people. According to Hobbes, intellectuals “study more the reputation of their own wit, than the successe of another's business.”124

The arrogance and exhibitionism of intellectuals were likewise recurring themes in Burke125 along with the dangers that such intellectuals posed to society. He spoke of their “grand theories” to which they “would have heaven and earth to bend.”126 Hobbes also saw those who “thinke themselves wiser, and abler to govern” as sources of distraction and civil war.127 Hamilton likewise saw intellectuals as dangerous, because of their tendency to follow “the treacherous phantoms of an ever craving and never to be satisfied spirit of innovation.”128 Even where intellectuals were not conceived of as positively dangerous to the social order, their role as policy-makers was seen in the constrained vision as often inferior to that of ordinary people. John Randolph said that he knew men “who could not write a book, or even spell this famous word Congress” who nevertheless “had more practical sense” than any intellectual.129

But to believers in the unconstrained vision, intellectuals are “precursors to their fellows in the discovery of truth,”130 in Godwin's words. Likewise, according to Condorcet, “the discovery of speculative truths” is “the sole means of advancing the human race.”131 However, those with a radically different conception of man, knowledge, and rationality see intellectuals as a danger – not simply to a particular society, but to any society.

Chapter 4 >>