Chapter 4

Visions of Social Processes

Differences in the vision of human nature are reflected in differences in the vision of social processes. It is not merely that social processes are seen as mitigating the shortcomings of human nature in one vision and as aggravating them in the other. The very ways that social processes function and malfunction are seen differently in the two visions, which differ not only in their view of morality but also in their view of causation.

Social processes cover an enormous range, from language to warfare, from love to economic systems. Each of these in turn comes in a great variety of forms. But there are also some things in common among social processes in general. Whether viewed within the framework of a constrained or an unconstrained vision, social processes have certain characteristics – an order, whether or not intentionally designed. Social processes also take time and have costs. Each of these – and other – aspects of social processes is seen differently in the constrained and the unconstrained visions.


A pattern of regularities may reflect either an intentional design or the evolution of circumstances not planned by any of the agents or forces involved in its emergence. Trees or vegetation of different kinds may grow wild at different heights on a mountainside, or a garden may be laid out with great care and forethought by a gardener. Both visions acknowledge the existence of both kinds of social processes, but they differ on the extent, efficiency, and desirability of evolved orders and planned designs.

The Constrained Vision

The constrained vision puts little faith in deliberately designed social processes, since it has little faith that any manageable set of decision-makers could effectively cope with the enormous complexities of designing a whole blueprint for an economic system, a legal system, or a system of morality or politics. The constrained vision relies instead on historically evolved social processes and evaluates them in terms of their systemic characteristics – their incentives and modes of interaction – rather than their goals or intentions.

Language is perhaps the purest example of an evolved social process – a systemic order without a deliberate overall design. Rules of language are indeed written down, but after the fact, codifying existing practices, and most people have begun obeying these rules in early childhood, before being explicitly taught them. Yet languages are extremely complex and subtle, and of course vital to the functioning of a society. Even for small children, language is not so much a matter of parroting what has been explicitly articulated, but rather of inferring complex rules never fully explained.1

Language is thus the epitome of an evolved complex order, with its own systemic characteristics, inner logic, and external social consequences – but without having been deliberately designed by any individual or council. Its rationality is systemic, not individual – an evolved pattern rather than an excogitated blueprint.

Language is, in effect, a model for social processes in legal, economic, political, and other systems, as viewed within the constrained vision.2 It is not that languages cannot be created – Esperanto clearly was – but that they are more effective when evolved, because natural languages draw upon a more vast wealth of experiences over the centuries than will be at the command of any individual or council designing a language. Evolved language also serves a greater multiplicity of purposes than any given individual or council may be able to enumerate, much less weigh.

In much the same way, the complex characteristics of an economic system may be analyzed in skeletal outline, after the fact, but the flesh-and-blood reality has often evolved on its own – and it is considered more efficient when markets have evolved than when “planned” by central authorities. Deliberate action or planning at the individual level is by no means precluded by the constrained vision, just as individuals choose their own words and writing style, within the scope and rules of language. What is rejected in both cases by the constrained vision is individual or intentional planning of the whole system. Man, as conceived in the constrained vision, simply is not capable of such a feat, though he is capable of the hubris of attempting it. Systemic rationality is considered superior to individual or intentional rationality.

The constrained vision is not a static vision of the social process, nor a view that the status quo should not be altered. On the contrary, its central principle is evolution. Language does not remain unchanged, but neither is it replaced according to a new master plan. A given language may evolve over the centuries to something almost wholly different, but as a result of incremental changes, successively validated by the usage of the many rather than the planning of the few. In politics as well, evolution is the keynote of the constrained vision. Burke declared: “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”3 Yet he would not subject whole political systems to “the mercy of untried speculations.”4 Individual brilliance was no substitute for pragmatic adjustments, even by people of less brilliance:

I have never yet seen any plan which has not been mended by the observations of those who were much inferior in understanding to the person who took the lead in the business. By a slow but well-sustained progress, the effect of each step is watched; the good or ill success of the first gives light to us in the second; and so, from light to light, we are conducted safely through the whole series.5

The same basic view has been expressed in the twentieth century by F. A. Hayek:

Tradition is not something constant but the product of a process of selection guided not by reason but by success.6

The Hayekian view is even further removed from deliberate design than that of Burke, since Hayek incorporates a “survival of the fittest” culture-selection process which depends upon survival in competition with other social systems rather than simply on the basis of pragmatic individual judgments of success.7 The intervening influence of Darwin between these two exponents of the constrained vision is apparent. It is not, however, a theory of the survival of the fittest individuals but of the fittest social processes.

The Unconstrained Vision

Without the underlying assumption that man's deliberate reason is too limited to undertake comprehensive social planning, an entirely different set of conclusions emerges in field after field. If, for example, effective rational planning and direct control of an entire economic system is possible, then it is clearly more efficient to reach desired results directly in this way, rather than as the end result of circuitous and uncontrolled processes. Where desirability can be specified by a small group of social decision-makers, rather than depending upon a multitude of mutually conflicting values among the populace at large, then social issues become very much analogous to engineering problems – an analogy often occurring among those with this approach, and equally often denounced from the opposing perspective of the constrained vision.8

One of the most striking visions which conceived of social issues as essentially engineering problems was that of Thorstein Veblen. This view, expressed in a number of Veblen's writings, was crystallized and elaborated in his The Engineers and the Price System. Here he explicitly rejected the systemic processes of the marketplace – the price system – in favor of direct control by the relevant experts, the engineers. Few others have carried this mode of thought to such a logical extreme, but elements of it appear in a number of later writers. John Kenneth Galbraith, for example, like Veblen, conceived of the pricing mechanism as inadequate and manipulated by powerful interests, if not wholly fraudulent.9 Others with varying degrees of skepticism about economic and other systemic processes have likewise tended to seek more direct control by those with the requisite expertise and commitment to the public interest. Advocates of “industrial policy” are one of the latest in this tradition. Not all seek a special role for engineers, as such, but rely on an analogy between engineering problems and social issues.

In the engineering analogy, growing out of the unconstrained vision, one can begin with society's “needs” because it is possible to have an “objective analysis” of “what is really desirable.”10 The “public interest” can be specified, and therefore pursued rationally. It is then a question of assembling the relevant facts, and articulating them – “a full presentation of the items we can choose among,” – to determine how to achieve the resulting goals. Social issues thus reduce to a matter of “technical coordination” by experts.11 Unlike the systemic vision, in which there are inherently conflicting uses because of multiplicities of conflicting values in the populace at large, in this rationalistic vision, select third parties can agree on what constitutes “needs,” “waste,” or the “spoiling” of the natural or man-made environment.

In this perspective, there are not only social solutions but often obvious solutions – though not necessarily easy solutions, given the opposition of those with a vested interest in the status quo. “Truth, and above all political truth, is not hard of acquisition,” according to Godwin. What is required is “independent and impartial discussion” by “unambitious and candid” people.12 “The nature of good and evil” was in Godwin's view “one of the plainest subjects” to understand.13 What is needed is for “good sense, and clear and correct perceptions” to “gain ascendancy in the world.”14

Very similar assessments are to be found in later writers with the unconstrained vision. Evil in the existing society is “neither incurable nor even very hard to cure when you have diagnosed it scientifically,” according to George Bernard Shaw.15 International conflicts are likewise neither inevitable nor inherently difficult to settle. The issues in military conflicts are usually things which warring nations “could have settled with the greatest ease, without the shedding of one drop of blood, if they had been on decent human terms with one another instead of on competitive capitalistic terms.”16 Existing society is “only an artificial system susceptible of almost infinite modification and readjustment – nay, of practical demolition and substitution at the will of Man,” according to Shaw.17 Every successful private business was an example of “the ease with which public ones could be performed as soon as there was the effective will to find out the way.”18

In short, the intrinsic difficulties which dominate the constrained vision are not the real obstacle in the unconstrained vision, in which deliberate obstruction and obfuscation account for many evils, and in which what is crucially needed on the part of the public-spirited reformers is commitment.

In Edward Bellamy's famous social novel Looking Backward, a citizen of an advanced future society remarks to a man from the past on “the singular blindness” of the old society, in which “social troubles” and “dissatisfactions” necessarily portended changes,19 that things had to be done “in the common interest.”20 To take control of the economy was not difficult, for “the larger the business the simpler the principles that can be applied to it. ...”21 Purely clerical devices provide “all the information we can possibly need.”22 A “simple system of book accounts” is all that is required.23 Competition for resources was not intrinsic but due to “a system which made the interests of every individual antagonistic to those of every other. ...”24 Concepts of waste,25 blindness,26 and the public interest27 abound – along with repeated assertions of the intrinsic simplicity of rationally managing a society.28

More sophisticated modern versions of the unconstrained or rationalistic vision are variations on the same themes. Even where societies are conceived to be more complex, modern expertise is able to master the complexities, making its central management still quite feasible. Thus, in more sophisticated versions of the unconstrained vision, whole societies remain readily manageable though by experts rather than by the mass of ordinary people. Third-party decision-making plays a key role: “Delegation to experts has become an indispensable aid to rational calculation in modern life.”29 What is “desirable” or “undesirable,” “preferred,” “satisfactory,” or “unsatisfactory” are referred to in passing, without explanation, as apparently things too obvious to require explanation.30 “Needs” are also treated in the same way.31 There are analogies given to engineering or “scientific” social decision-making by third parties:

Bureaucracy itself is a method for bringing scientific judgments to bear on policy decisions; the growth of bureaucracy in modern government is itself partly an index of the increased capacity of government to make use of expert knowledge.32

This modern promotion of the use of experts echoes a tradition which goes back at least as far as the eighteenth century, when Condorcet saw the physical sciences as providing a model which the social sciences should follow.33 Indeed, he used the term “social science”34 and urged that quantification and theories of probability be used in formulating social policies.35

Another recurring theme in the unconstrained vision is how profoundly different current issues are from those of the past, so that the historically evolved beliefs – “the conventional wisdom,” in Galbraith's phrase36 can no longer apply. Nor is this a new and recent conclusion. In the eighteenth century, Godwin declared that we cannot make today's decisions on the basis of “a timid reverence for the decisions of our ancestors.”37 Such terms as “outmoded” and “irrelevant” are common in dismissals of what, in the opposing vision, is called the wisdom of the ages.

The issue is not as to whether changes have occurred in human history, but whether these are, in effect, changes of costumes and scenery or changes of the play itself. In the constrained vision, it is mostly the costumes and scenery that have changed; in the unconstrained vision, the play itself has changed, the characters are fundamentally different, and equally sweeping changes are both likely and necessary in the future.


All social processes – whether economic, religious, political, or other – involve costs. These costs are seen very differently by those with the constrained and the unconstrained visions, just as they see differently the kinds of attitudes needed in these processes – sincerity versus fidelity, for example. These costs may be due to time or to violence, among other sources, their corresponding benefits may be apportioned justly or unjustly, and their recipients may be free or unfree. All these aspects are assessed differently in the constrained and the unconstrained visions.


The passage of time, and its irreversibility, create special decision-making difficulties, social processes, and moral principles – all of which are seen quite differently by those with the constrained and the unconstrained visions. Both recognize that decisions made at one point in time have consequences at other points in time. But the ways of coping with this fact depend upon the capabilities of human beings, and especially of human knowledge and foresight.

Accretions of knowledge over time mean that individual and social decisions made under conditions of lesser knowledge have consequences under conditions of greater knowledge. To those with the unconstrained vision, this means that being bound by past decisions represents a loss of benefits made possible by later knowledge. Being bound by past decisions, whether in constitutional law cases or in marriage for life, is seen as costly and irrational. The unconstrained vision therefore tends toward seeking the greatest flexibility for changing decisions in the light of later information. In arguing against Locke's concept of a social contract, William Godwin took a position that was applicable to intertemporal commitments in general:

Am I precluded from better information for the whole course of my life? And, if not for the whole life, why for a year, a week, or even an hour?38

To Godwin, “One of the principal means of information is time.” Therefore, we needlessly restrict the effect of knowledge on our actions “if we bind ourselves today, to the conduct we will observe two months hence.”39 Future commitments require a man “to shut up his mind against further information, as to what his conduct in that future ought to be.”40 To live by “anticipating” future knowledge was to Godwin as “improvident” as living by anticipating future income.41

In the unconstrained vision, there are moral as well as practical consequences to intertemporal commitments. Gratitude, as well as loyalty and patriotism, for example, are all essentially commitments to behave differently in the future, toward individuals or societies, than one would behave on an impartial assessment of circumstances as they might exist at some future time, if those individuals and societies were encountered for the first time. Where two lives are jeopardized and only one can be saved, to save the one who is your father may be an act of loyalty but not an act of justice.42 Thus, in behavioral terms, gratitude and loyalty are intertemporal commitments not to be impartial – not to use future knowledge and future moral assessments to produce that result which you would otherwise consider best, if confronting the same individuals and situations for the first time. From this perspective, loyalty, promises, patriotism, gratitude, precedents, oaths of fidelity, constitutions, marriage, social traditions, and international treaties are all constrictions imposed earlier, when knowledge is less, on options to be exercised later, when knowledge will be greater. They were all condemned by Godwin.43 All were prior constraints on that “uncontroled exercise of private judgment”44 which Godwin espoused.

The binding of judicial decisions by constitutions and legal precedents was seen by Godwin as another example of intertemporal commitments based on lesser knowledge impeding better decisions based on greater knowledge that emerges later. According to Godwin's principles:

An enlightened and reasonable judicature would have recourse, in order to decide the cause before them, to no code but the code of reason. They would feel the absurdity of other men's teaching them what they should think, and pretending to understand the case before them before it happened, better than they who had all the circumstances under their inspection.45

All those things condemned by Godwin – loyalty, constitutions, marriage, etc. – have been lauded and revered by those with a constrained vision. The process costs entailed by intertemporal commitments depend on (1) how much more knowledge, rationality, and impartiality human beings are capable of bringing to bear as a result of the passage of time and (2) on the cost of accepting the disadvantages of moment-to-moment decision-making. Where the capability of greater knowledge and understanding is considered to be large – as in the unconstrained vision – the case for avoiding commitment is strongest. Where this capability is considered to be inherently very limited – as in the constrained vision – the benefits are correspondingly smaller and more readily overbalanced by other considerations.

In social principles, especially, Burke saw no fundamental advance to be expected from the passage of time:

We know that we have made no discoveries, and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty ...46

More generally, the very concept of “social science,” which largely originated among those with the unconstrained vision, beginning with Condorcet in the eighteenth century, is often viewed skeptically by those with the constrained vision, if not rejected outright as a pretentious delusion of being scientific where the prerequisites of science do not exist.47 Changing historically evolved principles on the basis of “social science” theories or studies has become the hallmark of modern social thinkers with the unconstrained vision – and the bête noir of those with the constrained vision. Government, according to Burke, requires “more experience than any person can gain in his whole life.”48 Given this premise, the incremental gain in individual knowledge by avoiding commitments is trivial, compared to the gain to be made by fidelity to the accumulated experience of the society.

In a world where the individual is to be guided by the collective wisdom of his culture, in accordance with the constrained vision, culture must itself have some stability in order to serve as a guide. Without this stability, “no man could know what would be the test of honour in a nation continually varying the standard of its coin,” according to Burke.49 The judicial situation posed by Godwin may well lead to poorer decisions than if judges were completely free to decide each case ad hoc, but the constrained vision offsets such losses against the prospective guidance provided by known rules, leading to fewer criminal law violations or needs for civil litigation. To Burke, “the evils of inconstancy” were “ten thousand times worse than those of obstinacy and the blindest prejudice.”50 In short, process costs arising from unreliable social expectations outweighed the value of incremental individual knowledge, or its more finely tuned application.

Given the perspective of the constrained vision, a judge should not even attempt to reach the socially best decision in the case before him. According to Hayek: “The only public good with which he can be concerned is the observance of those rules that the individual could reasonably count on.” The judge should “apply the rules even if in the particular instance the known consequences will appear to him wholly undesirable.”51 The cost is justified only because other (and larger) costs are entailed by alternative social processes, according to the constrained vision of human capabilities. Such a conclusion is, however, anathema to believers in the unconstrained vision. The courts “will never permit themselves to be used as instruments of inequity and injustice,” according to a landmark court case.52 To knowingly accept injustice is unconscionable in the unconstrained vision. But in the constrained vision, injustices are inevitable, with the only real question being whether there will be more with one process than another.

To Adam Smith as well, general stability was more important than particular benefits: “The peace and order of society is of more importance than even the relief of the miserable.” Therefore, even though he believed that “the rich and the great are too often preferred to the wise and the virtuous,” he noted that determining the former involved lower process costs, so that “the peace and order of society” would rest more securely “upon the plain and palpable difference of birth and fortune than upon the invisible and often uncertain difference of wisdom and virtue.”53

Once again, where those with an unconstrained vision see a solution, those with a constrained vision see a trade-off. The unconstrained vision seeks the best individual decisions, arrived at seriatim and in ad hoc fashion. By contrast, the constrained vision trades off the benefits of both wisdom and virtue against the benefits of stability of expectations and standards. It may concede that one process offers abstractly better individual decisions, but deducts the process costs of those decisions to arrive at a net balance which may turn out to favor the less prepossessing alternative – palpable distinctions of rank versus less perceptible differences of wisdom and virtue, for example.

This calculation need not always come down on the side of the status quo; many of the leading exemplars of the constrained vision were advocates of unpopular and sometimes drastic changes, as noted in Chapter 3. But the fact that better decisions in themselves were not sufficient to justify change, because of process costs, provided a basis for those with the constrained vision to reject many proposed changes that would otherwise be compelling on the basis of the unconstrained vision. In short, human beings as conceived in the unconstrained vision should logically follow very different policies from those to be followed by human beings as conceived in the constrained vision.

Social rules are as central to the constrained vision as unfettered individual judgment and individual conscience are at the heart of the unconstrained vision. As F. A. Hayek has put it:

We live in a society in which we can successfully orientate ourselves, and in which our actions have a good chance of achieving their aims, not only because our fellows are governed by known aims or known connections between means and ends, but because they are also confined by rules whose purpose or origin we often do not know and of whose very existence we are often unaware.54

Commonly shared implicit rules thus reduce process costs. But process costs are less and less of a consideration, the greater is the individual's capacity to decide each issue on its merits as it arises. Rules thus range from a nuisance to an intolerable burden in the unconstrained vision. The difference between the two visions is therefore especially sharp as regards rules and practices relating to intertemporal commitments – loyalty, constitutions, and marriage, for example.

At the extremes, the constrained vision says, “My country, right or wrong,” while the unconstrained vision casts its exponent in the role of a citizen of the world, ready to oppose his own country, in words or actions, whenever he sees fit. Patriotism and treason thus become a meaningless distinction at the extremes of the unconstrained vision, while this distinction is one of the most central and most powerful distinctions in the constrained vision.

The constrained vision is premised on “necessary and irremediable ignorance on everyone's part,” in the words of Hayek,55 who also sees that individual, rationalistic decision-making of the unconstrained vision “demands complete knowledge of all the relevant facts.” To Hayek, the latter is utterly impossible, for the functioning of society depends upon social coordination of “millions of facts which in their entirety are not known to anybody.”56 To Hayek, it is a delusion “that all the relevant facts are known to some one mind”57 making a decision and considering its wider ramifications. In the constrained vision, the benefits of an advanced civilization derive from the better social coordination of widely dispersed fragments of knowledge – not from greater knowledge in the individual. According to Hayek:

In civilized society it is indeed not so much the greater knowledge that the individual can acquire, as the greater benefit he receives from the knowledge possessed by others, which is the cause of his ability to pursue an infinitely wider range of ends than merely the satisfaction of his most pressing physical needs. Indeed, a “civilized” individual may be very ignorant, more ignorant than many a savage, and yet greatly benefit from the civilization in which he lives.58

In this vision, it is especially unwarranted for the individual to place himself outside or above the society which makes his life and his understanding possible. Even great achievements by an individual are deemed to be necessarily confined to a narrow slice of the sweeping spectrum of concerns which a society coordinates, and therefore provide no basis for him to imagine that he can disassemble and reassemble in a better way the complex society around him. “Their very excellence in their peculiar functions” may leave such outstanding individuals less than qualified in others, according to Burke.59 In a similar vein, Hamilton argued that even the “greatest genius” would overlook decisive considerations which an ordinary man might see.60

While the comparison between the intellectually (or morally) superior individual and average people is the relevant one from the standpoint of the unconstrained vision, to those with the constrained vision even the most outstanding individuals – intellectually or morally – are inherently very limited in their grasp of the knowledge and of the innumerable interrelationships which make a society viable. Therefore, in the constrained vision, the historic and systemic wisdom expressed inarticulately in the culture of the many is more likely to be correct than the special insights of the few. Both processes mobilize human experience and understanding, but in very different ways. The very concept of “reason” is different in the two visions. In Hayek's words:

“Reason,” which has included the capacity of the mind to distinguish between good and evil, that is between what was and was not in accordance with established rules, came to mean a capacity to construct such rules by deduction from explicit premises.61

In the constrained vision, society is often analogized to a living organism, which cannot be comprehensively disassembled and reconstructed in a different way without fatal results. Burke, for example, wrote of hacking a body into pieces and then throwing the pieces “into the kettle of magicians,” in hopes of regeneration.62 In the constrained vision, the concept of “nation-building” is a fundamental misconception.63 Nations may grow and evolve but cannot be built.

The intertemporal commitment of loyalty, seen as an abandonment of impartiality in future behavior by those with the unconstrained vision, was viewed very differently by those with the constrained vision. If one's view of human nature is very constrained, then the alternative to loyalty is not impartiality but pure selfishness. The kinds of emotional attachments which lead to loyalty are thus seen as beneficial social ties, essential to the functioning of the whole society. According to Burke:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love of our country, and to mankind.64

In a similar vein, Hamilton said:

We love our families, more than our neighbors: We love our neighbors more than our countrymen in general.65

By contrast, Godwin put his faith in the spread of reason, rather than “a brute and unintelligent sympathy.”66 He distinguished undisciplined feelings from feelings that have “ripened into virtue” – the latter embracing “the whole human race” in their concern. From Godwin's perspective, “the love of our country” is “a deceitful principle” which would establish “a preference built upon accidental relations, and not upon reason.”67

Neither vision regards the smaller units as intrinsically more important than the larger units. The unconstrained vision simply regards man as ultimately capable of understanding that principle and acting upon it.

The constrained vision sees that as beyond human nature in practice, even if agreed to in theory, and that strong, naturally arising emotional attachments must therefore be socially utilized as a counter-weight to personal selfishness. Adam Smith, for example, rejected the rationalistic view which would attempt to establish directly the primacy of the species over the nation:

We do not love our country merely as part of the great society of mankind – we love it for its own sake, and independently of any such consideration. That wisdom which contrived the system of human affections, as well as that of every other part of nature, seems to have judged that the interest of the great society of mankind would be best promoted by directing the principal attention of each individual to that particular portion of it which was most within the sphere both of his abilities and his understanding.68

As in his economic theories, so in his moral theories. Smith focused on individual behavior precisely as it conduces indirectly to social benefits – not simply because it benefits the individual. This indirection in both cases was due to Smith's conception of man as lacking either the knowledge or sufficient will to produce consistent social benefits directly. Hamilton likewise considered selfishness as an unchangeable part of human nature, so that wise social policy could, at best, “gently divert the channel, and direct it, if possible, to the public good.”69

Those without this constrained vision of human nature equally logically proceed in the opposite way, by demanding an end of nationalism, and an assumption of “social responsibility,” by both individuals and institutions toward one's fellow human beings, whether at home or overseas. The greater the capabilities of man, the smaller the process costs, and the more directly the social good can be pursued.

Freedom and Justice

The two visions judge social processes by fundamentally different criteria. In the unconstrained vision, where individual intentions and individual justice are central, it is enormously important whether individual rewards are merited or merely reflect privilege and luck. Both individual leaders and social policies ought to be chosen with a view to their dedication to the goal of ending privilege and promoting either equality or merit. But in the constrained vision, social processes are to be judged by their ability to extract the most social benefit from man's limited potentialities at the lowest cost. This means rewarding scarce and valuable abilities, which include abilities which may be mere windfall gains to the individuals possessing them, being in many cases either natural endowments or skills cultivated at prosperous parents' expense, but too costly for most people's means. Sometimes the scarce and valuable traits to be rewarded may include skills and orientations picked up almost by osmosis from being raised in families where they exist.

In the unconstrained vision, the social benefits of individual skills can be elicited without individually unmerited rewards – if not immediately, then in some better society to develop over time. From this perspective, continuing to pay vastly different rewards retards the development of such a society. But in the constrained vision of human nature, no such development is likely to become general, so that the injustice of paying unmerited rewards to individuals must be traded off against the injustice of depriving society of available benefits by not paying enough to provide incentives to their production and full utilization.

The two visions differ not merely in moral judgment but, more fundamentally, in their sense of social causation. In the constrained vision, the crucial characteristic of any social system is the set of incentives confronting the individuals in it. This includes not only the explicit rewards and penalties of the marketplace and the law, for example, but also the internal psychic rewards and punishments evolved by the culture and its values. Given an underlying human nature that is not fundamentally changing, these systemic characteristics largely determine individual endeavors.

These endeavors are not, however, directly realized. Systemic interactions are not simply – or even mainly – the fruition of individual plans. Adam Smith's businessman is not alone in producing results “which were no part of his intention.” While social incentives are more important than individual intentions in the constrained vision, the specific characteristics of systemic interactions – the elaborate principles and channels of causation in a competitive economy, for example – are also essential to actual outcomes.

In short, the constrained vision takes human nature as given, and sees social outcomes as a function of (1) the incentives presented to individuals and (2) the conditions under which they interact in response to those incentives. These interactions – both conflicting and cooperative – are too complex to lead simply to an average of the intentions of agents. The results may in fact reflect no one's intentions, nor even an average of most people's intentions, even if it is the best result achievable with the disparate values and conflicting claims made on inherently insufficient resources. More thriftiness can lead to lower savings, for example, as a result of the circuitous effects of that thriftiness on aggregate demand, production, employment, investment, and income.70 Similarly, in the legal system, more rights for particular groups can make those groups worse off.71

Such unexpected results are not “failures” of a given system, in the constrained vision. As limitations on man and nature are inherent, so disappointments are inherent. In this vision, the question is not whether “problems” are “solved” – they will not be – but whether the best trade-offs available have been made.

In the unconstrained vision, human nature itself is a variable, and in fact the central variable to be changed. The fact that particular individuals or groups have already exceeded the mass in intellect, morality, or dedication to the social good demonstrates what is possible. The great obstacles to its achievement are the opposition of those benefiting from the existing social order and the inertia and blindness of others. If these obstacles to progress are to be overcome, it must be by the commitment, intelligence, and imagination of those who have grasped the possibilities open to society.

In contrast to the constrained vision, which seeks to analyze, prescribe, or judge only processes, the unconstrained vision seeks to analyze, prescribe, or judge results – income distribution, social mobility, and equal or unequal treatment by a variety of institutions, for example. Processes are often condemned because their actual results are deemed unsatisfactory, whatever their abstract merits as processes. For example, the illusory nature of freedom or equality to the poor has been a recurrent theme of the unconstrained vision for centuries. The classic expression of this view was that of Anatole France:

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well

as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets,

and to steal bread.72

Sometimes the inequality of results from apparently even-handed processes is deemed to be deliberate hypocrisy; at other times, merely a wrong result from an inadequate process. In a similar vein, one is not “really” free, in the unconstrained vision, merely because the political process does not legally confine one's actions. If the actual means of achieving one's goals are lacking, then there is no freedom in result, even if there is freedom in the process. In short, the very definition of freedom differs between the two visions. Regardless of the absence of legal restraints, one is not free by the definition of the unconstrained vision, “if one cannot achieve his goals. ...”73 For example, “Choosers are not free in the market if high costs prohibit a choice that could be made available to them by sharing the commodity through collective choice.”74 More generally:

One's freedom finally depends on attaining important prime goals such as dignity, respect, love, affection, solidarity, friendship. To the extent that individuals lack these, they cannot be free.75

This results-definition of freedom in the unconstrained vision is anathema to those with the constrained vision, in which freedom is defined in terms of process characteristics. Given the constrained vision of man's wisdom and morality, he cannot successfully prescribe results but can only initiate processes, whose consequences are often the direct opposite of his intentions. Moreover, even where certain results may be causally attainable, they are not morally or intellectually justified independently of the process which brought them about. Equality of results for those who have contributed to production, abstained from production, and hampered production is offensive to an equality of process, in the constrained vision. Justice is likewise a process characteristic in the constrained vision: If a footrace is conducted under fair conditions, then the result is just, whether that result is the same person winning again and again or a different winner each time. Results do not define justice in the constrained vision.

To those with the unconstrained vision, the best results should be sought directly. To those with the constrained vision, the best processes should be used and protected, because the attempt to produce the best results directly is beyond human capacity. The two visions' original differences and assumptions about human nature dog their footsteps as they go from issue to issue.


The two visions differ fundamentally as to the sources of human survival and progress. According to the unconstrained vision, the patterned behavior of society is successful, just, and progressive insofar as it reflects the articulated rationality of man in general and of the most intellectually and morally advanced people in particular. Order – and especially a just and progressive order – is the result of design, backed by the commitment of people dedicated to the general welfare. In broad outline, this is the vision of “the age of reason,” which began in eighteenth-century France and has spread throughout the Western world and beyond.

In the constrained vision, where man – individually and collectively – lacks both the intellectual and moral prerequisites for such deliberate, comprehensive planning, order evolves historically without design, and more effectively then when it is designed. Language is one example of such order without design, and its complexity, subtlety, and effectiveness exemplify the power of systemic processes which tap the experience of all, instead of relying on the special wisdom or nobility of any individual or council. A prominent element within this tradition has applied the constrained vision to economics – beginning with the Physiocrats (also in eighteenth-century France), whose battle cry – laissez-faire! – was given its fullest expression by Adam Smith and is exemplified today in the writings of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek.

Social processes in general are judged quite differently by the two visions. The unconstrained vision tends to judge processes by their results – “Is it right? Is it good?” in the words of Chief Justice Earl Warren. The constrained vision judges rightness and goodness as process characteristics rather than as results: A foot race is fair if it is run under the proper conditions – regardless of who wins or loses, or how often the same person wins. Justice, in the constrained vision, thus means adherence to agreed-upon rules, while in the unconstrained vision, something is just or unjust according to what end results occur.

According to Hobbes, “he that fulfilleth the Law, is Just.”76 But to Godwin justice is “a result, flowing from the contemplation of each individual case.”77 Results define justice for Godwin, because “whatever is not attended with any beneficial purpose, is not just.”78 Clearly, social processes ultimately exist for, or are justified by, beneficial results – in both visions. The two visions differ in their respective estimates of man's ability to directly produce those benefits. The following of rules instead – whether laws, contracts, customs, or constitutions – is an inferior substitute justifiable (if at all) only by the lower process costs involved. Even if it can be demonstrated in a given case that the result achieved by direct, ad hoc decision-making is more efficient, moral, or otherwise desirable, those with the constrained vision will assess its process costs in terms of how this violation of rules deranges the expectations of many others and adversely changes their future conduct, as they lose confidence in the general reliability of existing rules and agreements, and future rules and agreements. Whether the ad hoc benefits outweigh the systemic losses depends upon the capability of man – not only in law, but in economics, politics, and other areas.

Freedom, as well as justice, is defined differently by the two visions for this same reason. In the constrained vision, freedom is a process characteristic – the absence of externally imposed impediments. Hobbes applied this concept of freedom both to man and to inanimate things: A man was not free if chained or restricted by prison walls, and water was not free if hemmed in by river banks or by the walls of a container. But where the lack of movement was due to internal causes – a man “fastened to his bed by sicknesse” or a stone that “lyeth still” – that was not considered by Hobbes to be a lack of freedom.79 The same concept of freedom continues to characterize the constrained vision today. Freedom to Hayek means “freedom from coercion, freedom from the arbitrary power of other men,” but not release from the restrictions or compulsions of “circumstances.”80

In the unconstrained vision, however, freedom is defined to include both the absence of direct, externally imposed impediments and of the circumstantial limitations which reduce the range of choice:

Only when he can support himself and his family, choose his job and make a living wage can an individual and his family exercise real freedom. Otherwise he is a servant to survival without the means to do what he wants.81

As already noted, freedom may be so broadly defined in the unconstrained vision as to include not only economic prerequisites but also psychic benefits derivable only from emotional ties to others.82 John Dewey perhaps best summarized this viewpoint when he defined liberty as “the effective power to do specific things.”83 With this definition, whether the limits on that effective power were internal or external, deliberate or circumstantial, did not matter.

These radically different conceptions of freedom reflect radically different conceptions of human capability. In the constrained vision, where man can at best initiate processes, the most that he can do for freedom through social processes is to establish widely known rules which limit how much power is granted to one individual over another, and limit the specific conditions under which the power-holder is authorized to exercise it. But in the unconstrained vision, where man is capable of both shaping and judging end results, there is a corresponding right and duty to ensure that those results maximize the scope of choice of individuals, that they remove impediments, whether deliberate or circumstantial. This may in some cases mean providing compensatory advantages to those whose social backgrounds would handicap them in competition with others, whether for deliberate or circumstantial reasons. But to those with the constrained vision, this is not only beyond the competence of any individual or council, but also an effort likely to derange the social processes to the general disadvantage and danger of society.

The complexity of social processes is a recurrent theme in both visions, but in very different senses. To those with the constrained vision, it is axiomatic that no individual or council can master this complexity, so that systemic processes – market economies, social traditions, constitutional law – are relied on instead. But to those with the unconstrained vision, individuals and councils can and must wrestle with social complexity. The summary descriptions of systemic processes by their adversaries are considered “simplistic,” since they do not specify particulars, though specifying particulars would be self-contradictory under the assumption of the constrained vision, which is precisely that no one is capable of specifying the particular.

The preoccupation with process characteristics among those with the constrained vision extends to many specific kinds of social processes, just as in all the same processes those with the unconstrained vision seek directly to create particular results. Where there are, for example, people living below some economic level defined as poverty, those with the unconstrained vision tend to wish to subsidize them in some way to produce directly a more desirable result in the form of a higher standard of living. Those with the constrained vision focus on the process incentives created by such schemes and their consequences on future behavior, not only among these particular beneficiaries, but also on others who may become less assiduous in avoiding unemployment, teenage pregnancy, or other factors considered as contributing to the general incidence of poverty.

Now that the analysis of visions has proceeded from the two fundamentally different assumptions about man's moral and intellectual potentialities to the concepts of knowledge and reason appropriate to each assumption, and has now applied these concepts in social processes, the basic foundation for the conflict of visions has been established. What remains to be built on that foundation is (1) more awareness of the diversity of visions and their dynamics, and (2) special attention to visions of equality, visions of power, and visions of justice which are central to the ideological conflicts of the age. These are the subjects of the chapters that follow.

Chapter 5 >>