Chapter 5

Varieties and Dynamics of Visions

Thus far the discussion has centered on what might be called pure visions or consistent visions, clearly either constrained or unconstrained. But, as noted at the outset, these are by no means the only possible kinds of visions. There are not only degrees in each vision but also inconsistent and hybrid visions. Moreover, beliefs in visions are not static. Both individuals and whole societies can change their visions over time. These changes may be sudden “road to Damascus” conversions, where a particular event reorients one's whole thinking, or the change may be more like water wearing away rock, so that one vision imperceptibly disappears, to be replaced by a changing set of implicit assumptions about man and the world. This second kind of change may leave no clear record of when or how it happened, nor perhaps even an awareness on the part of those concerned, except for knowing that things are no longer seen the same way they once were.

Some changes of visions tend to be associated with age. The cliche of radicals in their twenties becoming conservatives in their forties goes back many generations. Karl Marx predicted that the Russian radicals he met in Paris in the 1840s would be staunch supporters of the czarist regime in another twenty years – though he clearly did not expect any such conversion in his own case.

Although visions can and do change, the persistence and vitality of both constrained and unconstrained visions over a period of centuries suggest that such changes are not easy. The anguish of the apostate comes from within, as well as from the condemnation of his former comrades. Those who lose their faith but continue the outward observances, or who quietly withdraw if they can, are likewise testimony to the power of visions and the pain of change. The terms in which such changes of social vision are discussed – conversion, apostasy, heresy – are borrowed from religious history, though they apply equally to secular creeds which evoke similar emotional commitments.

No comprehensive survey of visions seems possible and none will be attempted here. However, it will be useful to consider a few kinds of visions and the dynamics of visions in general. But before surveying a variety of visions, it will be necessary to define more specifically constrained and unconstrained visions.


No theory is literally 100 percent constrained or 100 percent unconstrained. To be totally unconstrained in the most literal sense would be to have omniscience and omnipotence. Religious visions may ascribe omniscience and omnipotence to God, but that in itself constrains man, and so precludes a completely unconstrained social vision. A 100 percent constrained vision would mean that man's every thought and action are predestined, and would be equally incompatible with advocating a particular social vision to be followed.

Although the classic social visions considered here do not go to such ultimate extremes, there are still very real differences in kind between them, as well as differences in degree within each kind. Once it is acknowledged that the dichotomy between constrained and unconstrained visions is simply a convenient way to separate some portions of a philosophical spectrum from others, the question becomes one of choosing operational criteria for placing a particular range of visions in one of these categories rather than the other – and of recognizing that still other ranges of visions cannot be fitted into either category, since constrained and unconstrained visions do not jointly exhaust all philosophies of man and society.

The simplest case is when someone such as William Godwin elaborates the scope of human reason and the individual and social decisions which fall within its domain. When the vast bulk of these decisions are deemed to be amenable to deliberately articulated rationality, then there is clearly an unconstrained vision – not in the sense that man is literally omniscient, but rather that whatever limitations there are in human knowledge and reason do not affect the analysis sufficiently to become an integral part of the theory. But few writers in either vision have systematically spelled out their assumptions, and the conclusions which follow from them, as explicitly as Godwin.

Adam Smith incorporated his vision of man's limitations into his social theory explicitly in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and largely implicitly in The Wealth of Nations. Others vary greatly in the extent to which they explicitly state their vision of man or connect that vision with their social conclusions. But where two thinkers have virtually identical social analyses and advocacy, to include one and exclude the other from the boundaries of a particular set of visions on the basis of their elaboration or non-elaboration of their premises would be arbitrary. Moreover it would be inconsistent with our initial definition of a vision as a “pre-analytic cognitive act” – a set of assumptions not necessarily spelled out even in the individual's own mind.

Seeking operational definitions of the two visions means going beyond suggestive contrasts to decisive distinctions. The difference between the trade-offs commonly found in constrained visions and the solutions found in unconstrained visions is suggestive but not decisive. So too is the distinction between seeking the social good through incentives rather than by changing the dispositions of human beings – this being a special case of trade-offs versus solutions. It is not simply the seeking of trade-offs but the systemic mode of trade-offs which is at the heart of the constrained vision. A central planning commission or an activist judge can make trade-offs, but this is clearly not what the constrained vision has in mind, however congenial that may be to the unconstrained vision.

The systemic versus the deliberate mode of social decision-making comes closer to the central issue of human capability. To allow social decisions to be made as collective decisions by given individuals acting as surrogates entrusted with the well-being of others is to claim a much larger capability for man than allowing those social decisions to be whatever systemic interaction produces from the innumerable individuals exercising their own individual discretion in their own individual interests.

In short, the two key criteria for distinguishing constrained and unconstrained visions are (1) the locus of discretion, and (2) the mode of discretion. Social decisions remain social decisions in either vision, but the discretion from which they derive is exercised quite differently. Social decisions are deliberately made by surrogates on explicitly rationalistic grounds, for the common good, in the unconstrained vision. Social decisions evolve systematically from the interactions of individual discretion, exercised for individual benefit, in the constrained vision – serving the common good only as an individually unintended consequence of the characteristics of systemic processes such as a competitive market economy.

Both visions acknowledge inherent limitations in man, but the nature and degree of those limitations are quite different. The need for food, the reality of death, or the ignorance of newborn babes are of course readily conceded by those with the unconstrained vision. What distinguishes those with the constrained vision is that the inherent constraints of human beings are seen as sufficiently severe to preclude the kind of dependence on individual articulated rationality that is at the heart of the unconstrained vision. The knowledge, the morality, and the fortitude required for successful implementation of the unconstrained vision are simply not there, according to the constrained vision – and are not going to be developed, either by the masses or by the elite. The best kind of world for man as conceived in one vision is disastrous for man as conceived in the other vision. Believers in the two visions are thus foredoomed to be adversaries on one specific issue after another. Issues new to both of them – such as compensatory preferences for disadvantaged groups – evoke the same opposition between them insofar as they depend on the implicit assumptions of different visions.

The Constrained Vision

A necessary but not sufficient condition for a constrained vision is that man's intellectual, moral, and other capabilities are so limited, relative to his desires (not only for material things but also for justice and love, for example), that his desires inherently cannot all be fully satisfied. However, insofar as man's reason is not only capable of grasping this in the abstract for mankind, but also of accepting it in the concrete for himself individually, and of voluntarily adjusting to it, there is no need for social institutions or systemic processes to impose trade-offs. Trade-offs freely accepted are essentially solutions. Such a world would be like that envisioned for the future by Godwin and Condorcet. It is the unconstrained vision.

For a constrained vision, it is necessary not only that (1) man's resources, both internal and external, are in sufficient to satisfy his desires, but also that (2) individuals will not accept limits on the satisfaction of their own desires commensurate with what is socially available, except when inherent social constraints are forcibly imposed on them as individuals through various social mechanisms such as prices (which force each individual to limit his consumption of material goods) or moral traditions and social pressures which limit the amount of psychic pain people inflict on each other. The second criterion – the need for systemic processes to convey inherent social limitations to the individual – applies to all mankind, including the wisest thinker, the noblest leader, or the most compassionate humanitarian. Only when all are included within the human limitations it conceives is the constrained vision complete.

Man, as conceived in the constrained vision, could never have planned and achieved even the current level of material and psychic well-being, which is seen as the product of evolved systemic interactions drawing on the experiences and adjusting to the preferences (revealed in behavior rather than words) of vast numbers of people over vast regions of time. The constrained vision sees future progress as a continuation of such systemic interactions – and as threatened by attempts to substitute individually excogitated social schemes for these evolved patterns.

The enormous importance of evolved systemic interactions in the constrained vision does not make it a vision of collective choice, for the end results are not chosen at all – the prices, output, employment, and interest rates emerging from competition under laissez-faire economics being the classic example. Judges adhering closely to the written law – avoiding the choosing of results per se – would be the analogue in law. Laissez-faire economics and “black letter” law are essentially frameworks, with the locus of substantive discretion being innumerable individuals.

The Unconstrained Vision

The operational definition of an unconstrained vision in terms of locus of discretion and mode of discretion avoids the ultimately impossible task of determining just how unconstrained a vision must be to receive this label. Even the classic unconstrained visions – such as those of Godwin and Condorcet – acknowledged human mortality and the existence of erroneous ideas, which they actively sought to banish. Success in this endeavor would lead ultimately to a society in which the necessary social trade-offs would be voluntarily accepted individually, and so become for all practical purposes solutions. Both Godwin and Condorcet acknowledged that, even in such a world, man's biological capacity to generate an ever-larger population would contain the potentiality for producing catastrophic poverty – but their crucial premise was that this potentiality would indeed be contained by rational foresight of the consequences.1 There would be an abstract trade-off but a practical solution.

It is unnecessary for the unconstrained vision that every single human being individually and spontaneously arrive at this ultimate level of intellectual and moral solution, much less that he does so at the same time or pace. On the contrary, those in the tradition of the unconstrained vision almost invariably assume that some intellectual and moral pioneers advance far beyond their contemporaries, and in one way or another lead them toward ever-higher levels of understanding and practice. These intellectual and moral pioneers become the surrogate decision-makers, pending the eventual progress of mankind to the point where all can make social decisions. A special variant in Godwin is that each individual acts essentially as a social surrogate, making decisions individually but with social responsibility rather than personal benefit uppermost in his thinking. This tradition of “social responsibility” by businessmen, universities, and others implies a capacity to discern the actual social ramifications of one's acts – an assumption implicitly made in the unconstrained vision and explicitly rejected by those with the constrained vision.2

Central to the unconstrained vision is the belief that within human limits lies the potentiality for practical social solutions to be accepted rather than imposed. Those with the unconstrained vision may indeed advocate more draconian impositions, for a transitional period, than would be accepted by those with the constrained vision. But the very willingness of some of those with the unconstrained vision to countenance such transitional methods is predicated precisely on the belief that this is only necessary transitionally, on the road to far more freedom and general well-being than exist currently.

Moreover, not all believers in the unconstrained vision accept even a transitional necessity for forcible impositions. Godwin repudiated any use of force to bring about the kind of world he wished to see,3 and Fabian socialists such as George Bernard Shaw considered it wholly unnecessary, at least in England.4 In both cases, it was not merely that violence was deemed repugnant, but that alternative methods were deemed effective. The greater intellectual and moral capabilities of man in the unconstrained vision permit a greater reliance on the direct creation of social results by those with the requisite moral commitment and intellectual skills. It is this locus of discretion and mode of discretion, rather than the presence or absence of violence, which defines the vision.

Although modes of discretion are related to the locus of discretion, they are distinct considerations. Fascism, for example, heavily emphasizes surrogate decision-making but is not an unconstrained vision, because neither the mode of decision-making nor the mode of choosing the leader is articulated rationality. It is not merely that non-fascists find fascism non-rational, but that fascism's own creed justifies decisive emotional ties (nationalism, race) and the use of violence as political driving forces. It is only when both the locus of discretion and the mode of discretion consistently reflect the underlying assumptions of either the constrained vision or the unconstrained vision that a given social philosophy can be unambiguously placed under either rubric.

Operational definitions make it more feasible to place social theories – especially complex ones – under either constrained or unconstrained visions, or to leave them out of both categories, for these twin criteria provide a more definitive method than simply surveying an author's isolated remarks on human nature. It is, after all, not simply the presence of particular assumptions but the incorporation of those assumptions into the substantive analysis which determines the nature of a vision.

By the standards of locus of discretion and mode of discretion, John Rawls' A Theory of Justice, for example, is an unconstrained vision – even though its central theme is the trade-off between equality and the need to produce material well-being. In Rawls, the locus of discretion is the surrogate decision-maker “society” which can choose the trade-off collectively and arrange results in accordance with principles of justice – these principles being derived in explicitly rationalistic terms. While the principles of justice are logically derived from the presumed preferences of hypothetical individuals, “in the original position” of the yet unborn, deciding what kind of world they would like to inhabit,5 the locus of discretion in applying these principles is “society” or a collective “we” – that is, surrogate decision-makers.

Rawls' unbiased unborn are similar in function to Adam Smith's “impartial spectator,” from whom principles of morality are derived in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.6 In both visions, these hypothetical beings are used to circumvent the bias of individual or class self-interest when deriving social principles. The difference is that Smith's “impartial spectator” is the conscience of each individual who remains the locus of moral (as well as economic) discretion, within a framework of laws and other social constraints, also reflecting the moral standards of the same “impartial spectator.” In both visions, the hypothetical being defines social principles, but the locus of discretion remains real people – operating collectively through surrogates in Rawls, individually in Smith. A social framework is a collective product, in either constrained or unconstrained visions, but the ongoing exercise of discretion is what separates them into the self-interested individual decision-makers of the constrained vision and the collective surrogate decision-makers of the unconstrained vision.

The terms “collective decision-making” and “surrogate decision-making” are used here more or less interchangeably, though they are not precisely the same. “Town meeting democracy,” for example, would mean collective decision-making without surrogates, even if officials then carried out the decisions made by the town meeting. Referendum government would likewise make possible collective decision-making, with official surrogates being in principle agents rather than major exercisers of discretion. However, neither the constrained nor the unconstrained vision devotes much attention to such special cases, which are not the situations of complex nation-states. Therefore, for present purposes, the collective, surrogate decision-making of the unconstrained vision can be contrasted with the individual, self-interested discretion of the constrained vision.

A given vision may fall anywhere on the continuum between the constrained and unconstrained visions. It may also combine elements of the two visions in ways which are either consistent or inconsistent. Marxism and utilitarianism are classic examples of hybrid visions, though in very different ways.



The Marxian theory of history is essentially a constrained vision, with the constraints lessening over the centuries, ending in the unconstrained world of communism.7 However, at any given time prior to the advent of ultimate communism, people cannot escape – materially or morally – from the inherent constraints of their own era. It is the growth of new possibilities, created by knowledge, science, and technology which lessens these constraints and thus sets the stage for a clash between those oriented toward the new options for the future and those dedicated to the existing society. This was how Marx saw the epochal transitions of history – from feudalism to capitalism, for example – and how he foresaw a similar transformation from capitalism to communism.

This hybrid vision put Marxism at odds with the rest of the socialist tradition, whose unconstrained vision condemned capitalism by timeless moral standards, not as a once progressive system which had created new social opportunities that now rendered it obsolete.

Marx spoke of “the greatness and temporary necessity for the bourgeois regime,”8 a notion foreign to socialists with the unconstrained vision, for whom capitalism was simply immoral. As in more conservative compromises with evil, Marx's temporary moral acceptance of past capitalism was based on the premise that nothing better was possible – for a certain span of past history, under the inherent constraints of those times. His efforts to overthrow capitalism in his own time were based on the premise that new options now made capitalism both unnecessary and counterproductive.

But just as Marx differed from other socialists because he believed in inherent constraints, he also differed from those like Smith and Burke who conceived of these constraints as being fixed by human nature. To Marx, the constraints were ultimately those of material production and the frontiers of those constraints would be pushed back by the march of science and technology. Eventually, the preconditions would exist for the realization of goals long part of the socialist tradition, including the production and distribution of output “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” But no such principle could be simply decreed, without regard to the stage of economic development and the human attitudes conditioned by it.

According to Marx, it was only “after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banner: ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!’”9 Marx's vision was therefore of a world constrained for centuries, though progressively less so, and eventually becoming unconstrained. Engels called this “the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.”10

Marxian doctrine, as it applies respectively to the past and the future, reflects the reasoning respectively of the constrained and the unconstrained visions. Looking back at history, Marxism sees causation as the constrained vision sees it, as systemic rather than intentional. In Engels' words, “what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed.”11 When referring to the capitalist and pre-capitalist past, individual intention was as sweepingly rejected as a source of social causation in Marxism as in Adam Smith or any other exemplar of the constrained vision.12 Unlike many others on the political left, Marx did not regard the capitalist economy as directly controlled by the individual intentions of capitalists, but rather as controlling them systemically – forcing them to cut prices, for example, as technology lowered production costs,13 or even forcing them to sell below cost during economic crises.14 Similarly, bourgeois democratic governments were seen as unable to control insurgent political tendencies threatening their rule. 15

Marxian moral as well as causal conclusions about the past were consistently cast in terms of a constrained vision. For ancient economic and social systems, slavery and incest were considered by Marx to be historically justified, because of the narrower inherent constraints of those primitive times.16 Nor would the immediate post-revolutionary regime envisioned by Marx sufficiently escape constraints to decide deliberately when to end the state; rather, systemic conditions would determine when and how the state would eventually “wither away.”17

Only in some indefinite future was the unconstrained world, which Marxism sought, expected to be realized. In speaking of that world, and contrasting its desirable features with those of capitalism, Marx's language became that of the unconstrained vision. “Real” freedom of the individual, to be realized under Marxian communism, meant “the positive power to assert his true individuality,” not merely the “bourgeois” freedom of the constrained vision – “the negative power to avoid this or that.”

According to Marx and Engels:

Only in community with others has each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible.18

Looking backward, Marx and Engels saw the emergence of bourgeois freedom – political emancipation from deliberately imposed restrictions – as “a great step forward,” though not “the final form of human emancipation.” However, such freedom was “the final form within the prevailing order of things”19 that is, within the constrained world before communism, as conceived by Marx. Under capitalism, Marx considered the worker to be only “nominally free”;20 he was “compelled by social conditions” to work for the exploiting capitalist.21 Real freedom was the freedom of the unconstrained vision to be realized in a future unconstrained world. This freedom was defined as a result, in the manner of the unconstrained vision, not as a process in the manner of the constrained vision.

Marx was not inconsistent in using the concepts of the constrained vision for his analysis of the past and the concepts of the unconstrained vision for criticizing the present in comparison with the future he envisioned. His overall theory of history was precisely that constraints lessened over time, with the advancement of science and technology, and that social changes followed in their wake.22 As a system of contemporary political advocacy, it is an unconstrained vision – a theory that the ills of our time are due to a wrong set of institutions, and that surrogate decision-makers, making collective choices with specifically articulated rationality, are the proper locus and mode of discretion for the future.


Utilitarianism was a hybrid vision in a very different sense from Marxism, and to a different degree in its two chief proponents, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Bentham did not originate the basic concepts of utilitarianism,23 but he systematized them, incorporated them into a body of political doctrine, and founded both an intellectually and politically active school in early nineteenth-century England. John Stuart Mill was the leader of the second generation of that school, but was also very consciously seeking to incorporate into his philosophy insights from very different schools of thought. Mill was in effect seeking a hybrid vision.

Man, as conceived by Jeremy Bentham, was thoroughly, relentlessly, and incurably selfish.24 But, however severe this moral constraint, man's intellectual horizons were vast. In particular, it was within man's power to rationally structure the social universe, so as to produce the result of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” The constrained aspect of the utilitarian vision consists of man's inherent moral limitations and the consequent need to rely on better incentives rather than better dispositions, in order to reconcile individual desires with social requirements. Bentham's own efforts were directed toward creating schemes of incentives, to be enforced by government, whose function was “to promote the happiness of the society, by punishing and rewarding.”25

This reliance on surrogate decision-makers, however, seems to place Bentham's utilitarianism operationally in the category of the unconstrained vision, particularly since the mode of discretion was severely rationalistic.26 However, Bentham's advocacy of government-structured incentives did not extend to wholesale government control of the economy. Indeed, Bentham repeatedly declared himself a believer in the laissez-faire economics of Adam Smith, whom he even chided for not carrying laissez-faire far enough when discussing usury laws.27 Bentham rejected surrogate decision-making in the economy, where he argued that a free and rational adult should be unhindered in making any non-fraudulent financial bargain he chose.28

Bentham was not consistently in the tradition of either the constrained or the unconstrained vision. However, the work for which he is best known, in law and politics, reflects operationally the unconstrained vision, though not to the degree of Godwin or Condorcet. But Bentham's less known and less original work in economics essentially followed the constrained vision of Adam Smith – though not always with Smith's reasons. The reason for not allowing legislators to redistribute wealth, for example, was not that doing such things properly was beyond man's intellectual and moral capabilities, but rather that there were specifically articulated reasons against it – namely, that insecurity of property would reduce subsequent production.29

John Stuart Mill's respect for Bentham, and his carrying on – in modified form – the philosophy of utilitarianism (which name he popularized30 did not prevent him from criticizing the scope and contents of Bentham's vision,31 or from deliberately seeking in Samuel Taylor Coleridge an opposite, complementary, and corrective social vision 32 Mill did not share “Bentham's contempt,” as Mill saw it, “of all other schools of thinkers.”33 Indeed, Mill was remarkable among social thinkers in general for the range of other social theorists he not only studied but utilized in forming his own conclusions. Even when dealing with theories which he considered to be clearly erroneous, he was concerned with “seeing that no scattered particles of important truth are buried and lost in the ruins of exploded error.”34 This intellectual catholicity in Mill led to what might be characterized as either (1) a finely balanced consideration of issues or (2) an inconsistent eclecticism. In either case, it makes it difficult to put Mill unequivocally in the camp of either the constrained or unconstrained vision, though the general thrust of his philosophy was provided by the latter vision. Indeed, he gave one of the clearest statements of the unconstrained vision in its moral aspect:

There are, there have been, many human beings, in whom the motives of patriotism or of benevolence have been permanent steady principles of action, superior to any ordinary, and in not a few instances, to any possible temptations of personal interest. There are, and have been, multitudes, in whom the motive of conscience or moral obligation has been paramount. There is nothing in the constitution of human nature to forbid its being so in all mankind.35

On a number of issues Mill boldly asserted conclusions which derived from the unconstrained vision (that laws are made, not evolved, for example) – followed immediately by provisos from the constrained vision (that these changes in the law will be hopelessly ineffective unless they accord with the traditions and customs of the particular people). Similarly, with income distribution Mill combined both visions. He asserted that, unlike laws of production, constrained by diminishing returns, laws of income distribution are not constrained. While “opinions” and “wishes” do not affect production, they are paramount when it comes to distribution. The distribution of output “is a matter of human institutions solely.” Mill declared:

The things once there, mankind, individually or collectively, can do with them as they like. They can place them at the disposal of whomsoever they please, and on whatever terms ... The distribution of wealth, therefore, depends on the laws and customs of society. The rules by which it is determined, are what the opinions and feelings of the ruling portion of the community makes them, and are very different in different ages and countries; and might be still more different, if mankind so chose.36

This seems to be a clear statement of an unconstrained choice based on an unconstrained vision – but it only seems so. Mill's proviso in this case is that the “consequences” of particular rules of distribution are beyond man's control – “are as little arbitrary, and have as much the character of physical laws, as the laws of production.”37 Constraint has been explicitly repudiated only to be implicitly accepted. A similar pattern of bold assertion and devastating proviso appears even in Mill's more narrowly technical economic analysis, where there is a ringing defense of classical economics on the causes of depressions and the role of money in them – followed by provisos which repeat essential contentions of the critics.38

Much of Mill's rhetoric is the rhetoric of the unconstrained vision. His provisos from the constrained vision make the classification of his overall position ambiguous.


There are many striking features of constrained and unconstrained visions which, however, do not define them. The role of articulation, the relative importance of external incentives versus internal dispositions in determining human conduct, the meanings of knowledge and of reason, the role of fidelity versus sincerity – all these show characteristic differences between those with the constrained vision and those with the unconstrained vision. However, none of these specific features defines the two visions. What is at the heart of the difference between them is the question as to whether human capabilities or potential permit social decisions to be made collectively through the articulated rationality of surrogates, so as to produce the specific social results desired. The crucial issue is ultimately not what specifically is desired (a question of value premises) but what can in fact be achieved (a factual and cause-and-effect question), though in practical terms goals deemed unachievable are rejected even if conceded to be morally superior in the abstract. In the chapters that follow, even such apparently value-laden concerns as equality, power, and justice are analyzed as essentially questions about assumed facts and assumed chains of cause and effect.

Pending the ultimate achievement of an unconstrained society, the locus of discretion in the unconstrained vision is the surrogate decision-maker (individual or institutional), choosing a collective optimum, whether in economics, law, or politics, and whether for a limited range of decisions or for the structuring of the whole society. By contrast, in the constrained vision, the loci of discretion are virtually as numerous as the population. Authorities exist, but their role is essentially to preserve a social framework within which others exercise discretion.

The entire spectrum of social visions cannot be neatly dichotomized into the constrained and the unconstrained, though it is remarkable how many leading visions of the past two centuries fit into these two categories. Moreover, this dichotomy extends across moral, economic, legal, and other fields. This is highlighted by the fact that those economists, for example, who hold the constrained vision in their own field tend also to take a constrained vision of law and politics, while those with the unconstrained vision of law, for example, tend to favor economic and political policies which are also consistent with the unconstrained vision. This will become more apparent in the chapters that follow. Contemporary examples of this consistency across fields are no longer as numerous, simply because social thinkers who operate across disciplinary lines are not as numerous. The increasing specialization of modern times makes the kind of sweeping visions of the eighteenth century less common today. Contemporary visions are more likely to be confined to a particular field – “judicial activism” in law or laissez-faire in economics, for example – though there have been a small and dwindling number of twentieth-century thinkers, such as Gunnar Myrdal or Friedrich Hayek, whose writings on a wide range of issues have gone well beyond a single intellectual discipline. However, what makes a vision a vision is not its scope but its coherence – the consistency between its underlying premises and its specific conclusions, whether those conclusions cover a narrow or a broad range.

Nevertheless, despite the scope and consistency of both constrained and unconstrained visions, there are some other very important social visions – Marxism and utilitarianism, for example – which do not fit into either category completely. In addition, one of the hybrid visions which has had a spectacular rise and fall in the twentieth century is fascism. Here some of the key elements of the constrained vision – obedience to authority, loyalty to one's people, willingness to fight – were strongly invoked, but always under the overriding imperative to follow an unconstrained leader, under no obligation to respect laws, traditions, institutions, or even common decency. The systemic processes at the core of the constrained vision were negated by a totalitarianism directed against every independent social process, from religion to political or economic freedom. Fascism appropriated some of the symbolic aspects of the constrained vision, without the systemic processes which gave them meaning. It was an unconstrained vision of governance which attributed to its leaders a scope of knowledge and dedication to the common good wholly incompatible with the constrained vision whose symbols it invoked.

Adherents of both the constrained and the unconstrained visions each see fascism as the logical extension of the adversary's vision. To those on the political left, fascism is “the far right.” Conversely, to Hayek, Hitler's “national socialism” (Nazism) was indeed socialist in concept and execution.

Inconsistent and hybrid visions make it impossible to equate constrained and unconstrained visions simply with the political left and right. Marxism epitomizes the political left, but not the unconstrained vision which is dominant among the non-Marxist left. Groups such as the libertarians also defy easy categorization, either on a left-right continuum or in terms of the constrained and unconstrained visions. While contemporary libertarians are identified with the tradition exemplified by F. A. Hayek and going back to Adam Smith, they are in another sense closer to William Godwin's atomistic vision of society and of decision-making dominated by rationalistic individual conscience than to the more organic conceptions of society found in Smith and Hayek. Godwin's views on war (see Chapter 7) also put him much closer to the pacifist tendency in libertarianism than to Smith or Hayek. These conflicting elements in libertarianism are very revealing as to the difference made by small shifts of assumptions.

Godwin's profound sense of a moral obligation to take care of one's fellow man39 never led him to conclude that the government was the instrumentality for discharging this obligation. He therefore had no desire to destroy private property40 or to have the government manage the economy or redistribute income. In supporting private property and a free market, Godwin was at one with Smith, with Hayek, and with modern libertarianism. But in his sense of a pervasive moral responsibility to one's fellow man, he was clearly at the opposite pole from those libertarians who follow Ayn Rand, for example. It was the power of reason which made it unnecessary for government to take on the task of redistribution, in Godwin's vision, for individuals were capable, eventually, of voluntarily sharing on their own. But were reason considered just a little less potent, or selfishness just a little more recalcitrant, the arguments and vision of Godwin could be used to support socialism or other radically redistributionist political philosophies. Historically, the general kind of vision found in Godwin has been common on the political left, among those skeptical of the free market and advocating more government intervention.

Logically, one can be a thorough libertarian, in the sense of rejecting government control, and yet believe that private decision-making should, as a matter of morality, be directed toward altruistic purposes. It is equally consistent to see this atomistic freedom as the means to pursue purely personal well-being. In these senses, both William Godwin and Ayn Rand could be included among the contributors to libertarianism.

The unconstrained vision is clearly at home on the political left, as among G. B. Shaw and the other Fabians, for example, or in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward or in the contemporary writings of John Kenneth Galbraith in economics or of Ronald Dworkin and Laurence Tribe on the law. But the constrained vision, while opposed to such philosophies, is also incompatible with the atomism of thoroughgoing libertarians. In the constrained vision, the individual is allowed great freedom precisely in order to serve social ends – which may be no part of the individual's purposes. Property rights, for example, are justified within the constrained vision not by any morally superior claims of the individual over society, but precisely by claims for the efficiency or expediency of making social decisions through the systemic incentives of market processes rather than by central planning. Smith had no difficulty with the right of society to regulate individual behavior for the common good, as in fire regulations,41 for example, and Oliver Wendell Holmes declared that “the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives.”42

Neither the left-right dichotomy nor the dichotomy between constrained and unconstrained visions turns on the relative importance of the individual's benefit and the common good. All make the common good paramount, though they differ completely as to how it is to be achieved. In short, it is not a moral “value premise” which divides them but their different empirical assumptions as to human nature and social cause and effect.

Another complication in making these dichotomies of social philosophy is that many twentieth-century institutions or legal precedents represent thinking that is “liberal” (in American terms) or social-democratic (in European terms), so that conservatives who oppose these institutions or precedents are often confronted with the argument that such things are “here to stay” – essentially a conservative principle. Those on the political right may thus end up arguing, on the ground of the political left, that certain policies are “irrational,” while the left defends them as part of the accepted social fabric, the traditional position of the right. While these might be simply tactical debating positions in some cases, there is a very real philosophic difficulty as well. At the extreme, the long-standing institutions of the Soviet Union were part of the social fabric of that society, and communists who opposed reforming them were sometimes considered to be “conservative.” Among fervent American supporters of the free-market principle, libertarians are often at odds with conservatives on welfare state institutions, including labor unions, which are now part of the American social fabric – an argument which carries little or no weight in libertarian thinking, though some conservatives find it important.

While it is useful to realize that such complications exist, it is also necessary to understand that a very fundamental conflict between two visions has persisted as a dominant ideological phenomenon for centuries, and shows no signs of disappearing. The inevitable compromises of practical day-to-day politics are more in the nature of truces than of peace treaties. Like other truces, they break down from time to time in various parts of the world amid bitter recriminations or even bloodshed.

The general patterns of social visions sketched in these chapters in Part I provide a framework for looking more deeply into the application of constrained and unconstrained visions to highly controversial issues involving equality, power, and justice in the chapters that follow in Part II. Finally, the role of visions will be assessed against related but very different concepts, such as “value premises” and paradigms.

Chapter 6 >>