Chapter 7

Visions of Power

The role of power in social decision-making has tended to be much greater in the tradition of the unconstrained vision than among those with the constrained vision. That is, much more of what happens in society is explained by the deliberate exertion of power – whether political, military, or economic – when the world is conceived in the terms of the unconstrained vision. As a result, unhappy social circumstances are more readily condemned morally – being the result of someone's exertion of power – and more readily seen as things which can be changed fundamentally by the exertion of power toward different goals. The constrained vision, in which systemic processes produce many results not planned or controlled by anyone, gives power a much smaller explanatory role, thus offering fewer opportunities for moral judgments and fewer prospects for sweeping reforms to be successful in achieving their goals.

Conflicting visions of the role of power are involved in a wide spectrum of issues. Power in the sense of direct force and violence is involved not only in issues of war and peace but also in issues of crime and punishment. Political power and its efficacy are also storm centers in the conflict of visions. The existence, magnitude, and effectiveness of various economic and social powers are also seen very differently by the two visions. Along with differences as to the magnitude, pervasiveness, or effectiveness of power, the two visions differ also as to the degree of inequality with which power is shared or concentrated, mitigated or amplified, by various social conditions. The role of legal rights as bulwarks against power is therefore seen in drastically different terms by those with the constrained and unconstrained visions. Moreover, power is defined to mean drastically different things in the two visions.


Force and violence take many forms, from crime to war, and including the implicit threat of force and violence behind government. The causal reasons and moral justifications for force differ completely as between the constrained and the unconstrained visions. Reason, as an alternative to force, likewise plays a different role in the two visions, in everything from child-rearing to international relations. It is not a difference in “value premises,” however. Both visions prefer articulated reason to force, at a given level of efficacy. But they differ greatly in their assessment of the efficacy of articulated reason. The use of force is particularly repugnant to those with the unconstrained vision, given the effectiveness they attribute to articulated reason.

As in other areas of human life, the unconstrained vision seeks to discover the special reasons for evils involving force and violence – war and crime, for example – while the constrained vision takes these evils for granted as inherent in human nature and seeks instead to discover contrivances by which they can be contained – that is, to discover the causes of peace or of law and order.


Given the horrors of war, and the frequent outcome in which there are no real winners, those with the unconstrained vision tend to explain the existence and recurrence of this man-made catastrophe in terms of either misunderstandings, in an intellectual sense, or of hostile or paranoid emotions raised to such a pitch as to override rationality. In short, war results from a failure of understanding, whether caused by lack of forethought, lack of communication, or emotions overriding judgment. Steps for a peace-seeking nation to take to reduce the probability of war therefore include (1) more influence for the intellectually or morally more advanced portions of the population, (2) better communications between potential enemies, (3) a muting of militant rhetoric, (4) a restraint on armament production or military alliances, either of which might produce escalating counter-measures, (5) a de-emphasis of nationalism or patriotism, and (6) negotiating outstanding differences with potential adversaries as a means of reducing possible causes of war.

Those with the constrained vision see war in entirely different terms. According to this vision, wars are a perfectly rational activity from the standpoint of those who anticipate gain to themselves, their class, or their nation, whether or not these anticipations are often mistaken, as all human calculations may be. That their calculations disregard the agonies of others is no surprise to those with the constrained vision of human nature. From this perspective, the steps for a peace-seeking nation to take to reduce the probability of war would be the direct opposite of those proposed by people with the alternative vision: (1) raising the cost of war to potential aggressors by military preparedness and military alliances, (2) arousal of the public to awareness of dangers, in times of threat, (3) promotion of patriotism and willingness to fight, as the cost of deterring attack, (4) relying on your adversaries' awareness of your military power more so than on verbal communication, (5) negotiating only within the context of deterrent strength and avoiding concessions to blackmail that would encourage further blackmail, and (6) relying more on the good sense and fortitude of the public at large (reflecting culturally validated experience) than on moralists and intellectuals, more readily swayed by words and fashions.

Like other evils, war was seen by those with the constrained vision as originating in human nature and as being contained by institutions. To those with the unconstrained vision, war was seen as being at variance with human nature and caused by institutions. War was seen by Godwin as being a consequence of political institutions in general1 and more specifically as a consequence of undemocratic institutions. “War and conquest,” according to Godwin, “will never be undertaken, but where the many are the instruments of the few.”

This localization of evil is one of the hallmarks of the unconstrained vision. There must clearly be some cause for evils, but insofar as these causes are not so widely diffused as to be part of human nature in general, then those in whom the evils are localized can be removed, opposed, or neutralized, so as to produce a solution. The specifics of this localization – whether in undemocratic institutions, as in Godwin, or in a capitalistic economy, as in some modern writers – are less crucial than the localization itself, which makes a solution possible. Evils diffused throughout the human race can only be dealt with by trade-offs, through artificial devices which themselves produce other unfortunate side effects.

War, as seen in the constrained vision of The Federalist Papers, seemed to require virtually no explanation. The Federalists considered it axiomatic that if the thirteen recently independent American colonies did not form one nation, they would inevitably and incessantly be at war with each other. To the Federalists, it was obvious that “nations in general will make war whenever they have a prospect of getting anything by it.”2 Far from seeing war as an evil with localized origins in despots, they argued that there were “almost as many popular as royal wars.”3 The idea of special causes of war was rejected out of hand:

It is sometimes asked, with an air of seeming triumph, what inducements could the States have, if disunited, to make war upon each other? It would be a full answer to this question to say – precisely the same inducements which have, at different times, deluged in blood all the nations in the world.4

Within this constrained vision, war did not require a specific explanation. Peace required explanation – and specific provisions to produce it. One of these provisions was military power: “A nation, despicable by its weakness, forfeits even the privilege of being neutral.”5 This was the direct opposite of Godwin's unconstrained vision, in which a nation whose “inoffensiveness and neutrality” would present no military threat to cause a “misunderstanding” with other nations or to “provoke an attack.”6 To Godwin, the buildup of military power and the forging of military alliances, or balance-of-power policies, were likely to lead to war.7 Godwin deplored the cost of maintaining military forces, which included not only economic costs but also such social costs as submission to military discipline8 and the spread of patriotism, which he characterized as “high-sounding nonsense”9 and “the unmeaning rant of romance.”10 Within this vision, the military man was a lesser man for his occupation.11

Within the constrained vision of Adam Smith, however, the demands on a soldier, and the weight of responsibility on him for defending his people, elevated his profession to a nobler plane than others,12 even though Smith conceded that there is a “diminution of humanity” when one is repeatedly in a situation where one must either kill or be killed.13 This was apparently an acceptable cost – or trade-off, a solution being impossible. Patriotism Smith saw as both natural and beneficial, as morally efficient, despite his acknowledgment of its perverse side effects.14 Again, it was a trade-off that Smith accepted, with no sign of seeking a solution.


Crime is another phenomenon seen in entirely different terms by believers in the constrained and unconstrained visions. The underlying causes of crime have been a major preoccupation of those with an unconstrained vision of human nature. But those with the constrained vision generally do not look for any special causes of crime, any more than they look for special causes of war. For those with the constrained vision, people commit crimes because they are people – because they put their own interests or egos above the interests, feelings, or lives of others. Believers in the constrained vision emphasize social contrivances to prevent crime or punishment to deter it. But to the believer in the unconstrained vision, it is hard to understand how anyone would commit a terrible crime without some special cause at work, if only blindness. Condorcet asked:

Is there any vicious habit, any practice contrary to good faith, any crime, whose origin and first cause cannot be traced back to the legislation, the institutions, the prejudices of the country wherein this habit, this practice, this crime can be observed?15

Godwin likewise said: “It is impossible that a man would perpetrate a crime, in the moment when he sees it in all its enormity.”16 In the twentieth century as well, it has been said in a highly acclaimed book that “healthy, rational people will not injure others.”17 Within this vision, people are forced to commit crimes by special reasons, whether social or psychiatric. Reducing those special reasons (poverty, discrimination, unemployment, mental illness, etc.) is therefore the way to reduce crime:

The basic solution for most crime is economic – homes, health, education, employment, beauty. If the law is to be enforced – and rights fulfilled for the poor – we must end poverty. Until we do, there will be no equal protection of the laws. To permit conditions that breed antisocial conduct to continue is our greatest crime.18

In both visions, the conclusions follow logically from the initial assumptions. Both visions also recognize that most people are horrified at certain crimes and would be morally incapable of committing them. They differ as to why this is so. The constrained vision of human nature sees this revulsion at the thought of committing certain crimes as the product of social conditioning – a sense of general morality, personal honor, and humane feelings, all cultivated by the many traditions and institutions of society. The unconstrained vision sees human nature as itself averse to crime, and society as undermining this natural aversion through its own injustices, insensitivities, and brutality.

Society “drains compassion from the human spirit and breeds crime,”19 according to a modern version of the unconstrained vision. Given human nature as seen in the unconstrained vision, such crimes as robbery, riots, rape, and mugging are “inherently irrational” and are explained only by irrational conditions imposed upon the unfortunate segment of society.20 Such evils of society as poverty, unemployment, and overcrowding “are the fountainheads of crime.”21 From this perspective, criminals are not so much the individual causes of crime as the symptoms and transmitters of a deeper social malaise:

Crime reflects more than the character of the pitiful few who commit it. It reflects the character of the entire society.22

In this vein, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King during the 1960s were regarded as reflections on American society in general, not just the particular assassins. Those who argued this way often reflected the unconstrained vision in a wide range of social, economic, and political issues.

But in the constrained vision of human nature, natural incentives to commit crimes are so commonplace that artificial counter-incentives must be created and maintained – notably moral training and punishment. Adam Smith acknowledged that the infliction of punishment is itself a negative experience to humane individuals, but again it was a cost he was willing to pay – a necessary trade-off in a situation with no solution:

When the guilty is about to suffer that just retaliation, which the natural indignation of mankind tells them is due to his crimes; when the insolence of his injustice is broken and humbled by the terror of his approaching punishment; when he ceases to be an object of fear, with the generous and humane he begins to be an object of pity. The thought of what he is about to suffer extinguishes their resentment for the sufferings of others to which he has given occasion. They are disposed to pardon and forgive him, and to save him from that punishment, which in all their cool hours they had considered as the retribution due such crimes. Here, therefore, they have occasion to call to their assistance the consideration of the general interest of society. They counterbalance the impulse of this weak and partial humanity, by the dictates of a humanity that is more generous and comprehensive. They reflect that mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent, and oppose to the emotions of compassion which they feel for a particular person, a more enlarged compassion which they feel for mankind.23

But, whereas Smith saw the infliction of punishment as a painful duty, believers in the unconstrained vision have seen it as an unnecessary indulgence in vengeance, a “brutalizing throwback to the full horror of man's inhumanity in an earlier time.”24 With this vision, the criminal is seen as a victim – a “miserable victim” in Godwin's words25 first, of the special circumstances which provoked the crime, and then of people with a lust for punishment. The criminal's “misfortunes,” according to Godwin, “entitle him” to something better than the “supercilious and unfeeling neglect” he is likely to receive.26 The death penalty, especially, imposed on “these forlorn and deserted members of the community” highlights the “iniquity of civil institutions.”27 True, the criminal inflicted harm on others, but this was due to “circumstances” – these circumstances being the only distinction between him and the highest members of the society.28 Within the framework of this vision, executions are simply “coldblooded massacres that are perpetrated in the name of criminal justice.”29

Punishment as a trade-off is barbaric within the framework of the unconstrained vision, for there is a solution at hand: rehabilitation. This is in keeping with the unconstrained vision's general emphasis on internal disposition rather than external incentives. “Punishment,” Godwin conceded, “may change a man's behavior,” but “it cannot improve his sentiments.” Punishment “leaves him a slave, devoted to an exclusive self-interest, and actuated by fear, the meanest of the selfish passions.” Were he treated properly, “his reformation would be almost infallible.”30 That is, he would revert to a natural state of being unable to harm anyone, once he really understood what he was doing. This view likewise has a contemporary echo, that the rehabilitated criminal “will not have the capacity – cannot bring himself – to injure another or to take or destroy property.”31 This changed disposition represents a solution, whereas punishment represents only a trade-off. There would obviously be no point in accepting a trade-off, unless one's vision of human nature was constrained so as to preclude a solution.

Rehabilitation and its prospects of success are seen very differently by the two visions. In the unconstrained vision of human nature, rehabilitation is a process of returning a person to his more or less natural condition of decency – in principle, much like fixing a broken leg, which consists largely in putting the leg in condition to heal and restore itself, rather than attempting to create a new leg from scratch. In the constrained vision, however, decency is artificial rather than natural, and if it has not been created in the malleable years of childhood, it is unlikely to be created later on.

In the constrained vision, each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late. Their prospects of growing up as decent, productive people depends on the whole elaborate set of largely unarticulated practices which engender moral values, self-discipline, and consideration for others. Those individuals on whom this process does not “take” – whether because its application was insufficient in quantity or quality or because the individual was especially resistant – are the sources of antisocial behavior, of which crime is only one form.


Power lies at the end of a spectrum of causal factors which include influence, individual discretion, and systemic interactions whose actual outcomes were not planned or controlled by anyone. The question as to how much of what happens in the world is caused by the exercise of power is a question as to the locus of discretion – whether among millions of individuals, in groups such as the family, in structured political institutions, or in military forces that ultimately may make or unmake other people's decisions at gunpoint. The cause-and-effect question as to where current discretion lies is only one aspect of the role of power. The more fundamental conflict of visions is over where the locus of discretion should be.

In the unconstrained vision, where the crucial factors in promoting the general good are sincerity and articulated knowledge and reason, the dominant influence in society should be that of those who are best in these regards. Whether specific discretion is exercised at the individual level or in the national or international collectivity is largely a question then as to how effectively the sincerity, knowledge, and reason of those most advanced in those regards influence the exercise of discretionary decision-making. Godwin, who considered the power of reason – in the articulated syllogistic sense of the unconstrained vision – to be virtually irresistible in the long run, would diffuse discretion to the individual level, confident that the substance of what was to be decided by the many would ultimately reflect the wisdom and virtue of the few. However, those who have shared the unconstrained vision of man in general, but who lacked Godwin's conviction as to how effectively the wisdom and virtue of the few would spontaneously pervade the decisions of the many, wished to reserve decision-making powers in organizations more directly under the control or influence of those with the requisite wisdom and virtue. The unconstrained vision thus spans the political range from the anarchic individualism of Godwin to totalitarianism. Their common feature is the conviction that man as such is capable of deliberately planning and executing social decisions for the common good, whether or not all people or most people have developed this innate capability to the point of exercising it on their own.

The constrained vision sees no such human capability, in either the elite or the masses, and so approaches the issue entirely differently. It is not the sincerity, knowledge, or reason of individuals that is crucial but the incentives conveyed to them through systemic processes which forces prudent trade-offs, utilization of the experience of the many, rather than the articulation of the few. It is to the evolved systemic processes – traditions, values, families, markets, for example – that those with the constrained vision look for the preservation and advancement of human life. The locus of discretion may also range from the individual to the political collectivity among adherents of the constrained vision, but the nature of that discretion is quite different from what it is among those with the unconstrained vision.

Where adherents of the constrained vision emphasize the freedom of individuals to make their own choices – the theme of Milton Friedman's Free to Choose, for example – it is to be a choice within the constraints provided by the incentives (such as prices) conveyed to the individual and derived from the experiences and values of others. Where adherents of the unconstrained vision emphasize the freedom of the individual, it is either (1) the freedom of those individuals possessing the requisite wisdom and virtue – as in John Stuart Mill's On Liberty – or (2) the freedom of the masses insofar as they are deemed to be under the influence of the moral-intellectual exemplars.

Neither vision advocates that all individuals be utterly free to act without regard to others. It is the nature of what it is that is conveyed to them by others – and by which others – that differs. In the unconstrained vision, those with special wisdom and virtue convey this wisdom and virtue to others – through articulation, where that is deemed effective, and through coercive power where it is not. To those with the constrained vision, the special wisdom or virtue of moral-intellectual exemplars is far less important than the mass experience of the generations (embodied in traditional values) and the current experiences and economic preferences of the many (embodied in prices). In the unconstrained vision, the ordinary individual is to be responsive to the message of moral-intellectual pioneers; in the constrained vision, the ordinary individual is to be responsive to other ordinary individuals, whose rising and falling prices or rising and falling social disapproval convey their experience more effectively than words.

Individualism takes on entirely different meanings within the two visions. In the constrained vision, individualism means leaving the individual free to choose among the systemically generated opportunities, rewards, and penalties deriving from other similarly free individuals without being subjected to articulated conclusions imposed by the power of organized entities such as government, labor unions, or cartels. But in the unconstrained vision, individualism refers to (1) the right of ordinary individuals to participate in the articulated decisions of collective entities, and (2) of those with the requisite wisdom and virtue to have some exemption from either systemic or organized social constraints.

Mill's On Liberty was perhaps the classic statement of the second, the right of the moral-intellectual pioneers to be exempted from the social pressures of mass opinion. He did not believe the reverse – that the masses should be exempt from the influence of the moral-intellectual elite. On the contrary, many of his writings emphasized the leadership role of the intellectuals. While Mill opposed “social intolerance” on the part of the many,32 he regarded democracy as most beneficial when “the sovereign Many have let themselves be guided (which in their best times they always have done) by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed One or Few.”33

Among contemporary followers of the unconstrained vision, individualism likewise centers on exemption of moral and intellectual pioneers from social pressures or even, in some cases, from laws. For example, conscientious objections to military service, or military advocacy of violence in the face of perceived social injustice, are among the exemptions Ronald Dworkin justifies, while denying that racial segregationists have any corresponding rights to violate civil rights laws.34

All these views on both sides are consistent with their initial premises. If man has moral-intellectual capabilities far in advance of those currently manifested in the mass of ordinary people, then the special wisdom and virtue of those who have already gone much further in that direction of those human potentialities must not only be made the basis for the decisions of others, whether by influence or power, but must itself be exempted to some extent from the social control of retrograde masses, and perhaps even from some laws reflecting retrograde views. But if the knowledge, virtue, and wisdom that matter most are those deriving from the experience of the masses, whether expressed in traditions, constitutions, or prices – as claimed in the opposing constrained vision – then the most that each individual can expect is to be left free to choose among the various rewards and penalties which emerge from systemic social processes, not exemption from any of them.

The Economy

The constrained vision sees market economies as responsive to systemic forces – the interaction of innumerable individual choices and performances – rather than to deliberate power shaping the ultimate outcome to suit particular individuals or organized decision-makers. A competitive market, as thus conceived, is a very efficient system for “the transmission of accurate information,” in the form of prices.35 These prices not only bring information as to changing scarcities, technological advances, and shifting consumer preferences, but also provide “an incentive to react to the information,” according to Milton Friedman.36 The unconstrained vision argues that this is not how the economy operates, that it is currently obeying the power of particular interests and should therefore be made in future to obey the power of the public interest. Deliberate price-setting “exists in the most basic American industries,” according to this view. The answer is for “an angry public” to “appeal to its political government.”37 Thus “the market gods are increasingly brought within control of humanely exercised power.”38

The point here is not to resolve this contradiction but rather to indicate how completely different are the worlds envisioned by those who see the role of power differently. The locus of discretion is in one case scattered among millions, in the other concentrated in a few large corporate hands, exercised by corporate managements in an “impregnable position,” according to John Kenneth Galbraith.39 Each dismisses the other's vision as a myth.40

It is hardly surprising that the reasons why government exercises power in the economy also differ between the two visions. In the unconstrained vision, it is a matter of intentions while in the constrained vision it is a matter of incentives. The government's intention to protect the public interest forces it to intervene in the economy to undo the harm done by private economic power, according to the unconstrained vision. But the government's inherent incentive to increase its own power leads it into intervention that is often both unneeded and harmful, according to the constrained vision. Incentives are central to the constrained vision – “the prime problem of politicians is not to serve the public good but to get elected to office and remain in power.”41

These different conclusions apply not only to the industrialized nations in which such controversies have long been prominent but also to analyses of the poorer, less industrialized “Third World.” Diametrically opposite views on the causes and cures of Third World poverty reflect the same underlying differences of opinion on the nature of man, the role of knowledge, the capabilities of the elites and masses which characterize the conflict of visions in many other areas. They of course disagree also on the role of power.

For convenience, the late Nobel Prize-winning economist Gunnar Myrdal can be considered as representative of the school of thought which has regarded political power and discretion as the key to the advancement of the poorer countries. The opposite view – the constrained vision – has long been exemplified by the distinguished economist from the London School of Economics Lord Peter Bauer. It is not merely in their conclusions but in a wide variety of underlying assumptions that they differ.

They differ at the most fundamental level, on the very question as to what it is that is to be explained. Myrdal has sought to discover those “conditions” in the Third World countries which are “responsible for their underdevelopment.”42 But rather than try to explain the lesser development of much of the world compared to the industrialized west, Bauer has instead sought to explain the causes of prosperity and development, refusing to designate “the position of the great majority of mankind as abnormal.”43 To Myrdal, it is poverty which needs explaining; to Bauer, it is prosperity.

To Myrdal, articulated rationality is crucial to development, which must be “rationally coordinated” in ways made “more explicit in an overall plan.”44 This planning “must continually reconcile competing interests and determine the order of precedence among them.”45 In short, the discretion of surrogates must determine the trade-offs. But to Bauer, economic performance and political articulation are completely different qualities:

The market system delivers the goods people want, but those who make it work cannot readily explain why it is so. The socialist or communist system does not deliver the goods, but those who operate it can readily explain away its failure.46

The relationship between the intellectual-moral leaders and the masses in the Third World is seen in the classically different terms which have marked the constrained and the unconstrained visions for centuries, though the specific economic problems of the Third World are a relatively recent issue. Myrdal has been very concerned (1) to promote greater material equality, within the Third World and between Third World and industrialized nations,47 and (2) to enhance the influence and power of the westernized classes to cause the Third World masses to change their whole way of life and values, so as to increase material advancement.48 In short, his immediate concern is for greater economic equality and, simultaneously, a shift in the locus of discretion to the intellectual-moral leaders, the westernized intellectuals.

To Myrdal, without more “social and economic equality” mere “political democracy would be an empty achievement.”49 His goal has been not simple equalization of processes but equalization of results. Moreover, “regulations backed by compulsion”50 must be used to move the masses, for “economic development cannot be achieved without much more social discipline than the prevailing interpretation of democracy” would permit.51 The “resistance to change” of the masses52 must be overcome. Because of “hardened resistance” to change throughout Third World societies, “modernism will not come about by a process of ‘natural’ evolution” but only by “radical state policies” to “engender development by state intervention.”53 It is not the masses themselves but “those who think and act on their behalf”54 who must direct economic development.

In short, this very modern controversy over Third World development elicits from Myrdal a centuries-old vision which combines economic equality and political inequality, giving power to intellectual-moral surrogate decision-makers – in short, the unconstrained vision. At the same time, it elicits from Bauer all the key features of another centuries-old viewpoint, the constrained vision.

To Bauer, the Third World masses have repeatedly demonstrated their responsiveness to systemic economic incentives.55 He rejects “condescension toward the ordinary people” of the Third World,56 “the classification of groups as helpless,”57 and the notion that they “do not know what is good for them, nor even what they want”58 – a view which “denies identity, character, personality, and responsibility” to them.59 To Bauer, the evidence “refutes the suggestion that individual Africans and Asians cannot or do not take a long-term view.”60 He notes that proposed “sacrifices are not borne by those who so warmly advocate their imposition.”61 To Bauer, “the intellectuals so highly regarded by Professor Myrdal” were seen as a special danger rather than a special source of progress, for “their attempts to iron out differences in culture, language, status, wealth and income,” and to “dissolve the bonding agents of society” could only lead to an “extreme concentration of power.”62 Their hostility to the market and “contempt for ordinary people” are to him “only two sides of the same coin.”63 Bauer rejects “Myrdal's conception of man and society” in general and in particular “Myrdal's practice of regarding poorer people as helpless victims of society.”64

Whether Myrdal or Bauer is more in favor of equality depends entirely on whether equality is conceived as equality of economic results or equality of political process. Myrdal clearly believes more in equality of economic results – and Bauer equally clearly prefers equality of social processes. In this they are very representative of historic visions, even though contending over modern issues.

Their respective conceptions of power are likewise in the tradition of the two conflicting visions. According to Myrdal, power has shaped economic results in the Third World, for not only have Western nations “exploited the resources and peoples in the huge backward areas of the world and kept them politically and economically dependent,”65 but also domestically “swarms of money lenders and middlemen” have “too many of South Asia's peasants in their grip today.”66 There is “economic power” by the Chinese minority in Malaysia,67 for example. Economic planning is said to have failed when it did not lead to “a lessening of the concentration of economic power.”68 Bauer, by contrast, rejects the whole concept of economic power in a competitive market:

The market order minimizes the power of individuals and groups forcibly to restrict the choices of other people. Forcible restriction of the choice of others is what coercion means. Possession of wealth does not by itself confer such power on the rich. Indeed, in modern market economies the rich, especially the very rich, usually owe their prosperity to activities which have widened the choices of their fellow men, including those of the poor. Obvious examples are the fortunes made in mass production and mass retailing.69

Note that there is not simply a disagreement between Myrdal and Bauer on an empirical issue as to the magnitude or locus of power but also, and more fundamentally, a different conception of what power consists of. As with equality, freedom, and justice, power is defined as a result characteristic in the unconstrained vision (Myrdal) and as a process characteristic in the constrained vision (Bauer). Bauer's definition of coercion or power as “restrictions of the choices of others” – a process definition – is one that Myrdal's examples do not even attempt to meet. Such results as being “economically dependent” are sufficient for Myrdal's purposes as evidence of being subjected to economic power. Implicitly, this is a definition of power advanced long ago by Max Weber, endorsed more recently by John Kenneth Galbraith, and generally characteristic of the unconstrained vision – “the possibility of imposing one's will on the behavior of other persons.”70 The two definitions may seem at first to be very similar, but they are in fact quite different.

Whenever A can get B to do what A wishes, then A has “power” over B, according to the results-oriented definition of the unconstrained vision. For example, two modern theorists say: “A controls the responses of B if A's acts cause B to respond in a definite way.” Even when a subordinate negotiates with another employer in order to induce his superior to grant him a raise, that is Control with a capital C in these authors' terminology, or power.71 It is the result which defines power. But if B is in a process in which he has at least as many options as he had before A came along, then A has not “restricted” B's choices, and so has no power over him, by the process definition used by Bauer and characteristic of the constrained vision. The “offer of some specific quid pro quo” by A to B would be an exercise of power according to Galbraith,72 but not according to Bauer, for A has only enlarged B's options rather than restricted them. Even if the new option offered by A is so superior to B's existing options as to make B's choice virtually a foregone conclusion, a quid pro quo is still not power by this definition. Whether in a Third World context or otherwise, arguments about the magnitude and locus of economic power are not simply disputes about empirical facts, but go back to a basic conflict of visions and of definitions derived from those different visions.

Because the ability to affect particular results in one way or another is much more widespread than the ability to shape whole social processes, power is a more pervasive feature of the unconstrained vision than of the constrained vision. In modern times, the concept of “economic power” has been predominantly associated with those who, on other grounds as well, are in the tradition of the unconstrained vision, while those with the unconstrained vision remain skeptical, if not dismissive, of such a concept. The salient point here is that how much power exists, in whatever context, depends upon how power is defined. More important, the appropriate policy response to power depends upon what it is substantively that is being responded to, not the word used to describe it.73

To those with the constrained vision, to deal with the problems of an economic process, in which power is at most attenuated, by increasing and concentrating political power that is very real is to reduce rather than increase human freedom. But to those who with the unconstrained vision, with a different conception of power, the exercise of political power “is pale in contrast with that exercised by concentrated and organized property interests.”74 They use the same word, but they are talking about two different things, overlapping just enough to be confused with one another.

The Law

In many legal cases, the most fundamental decision is who should decide – the locus of discretion. The question of narrow versus expansive judicial interpretation of the Constitution is ultimately a question as to whether the courts should restrict themselves, as much as possible, to defining boundaries within which others may exercise relatively uninhibited choices, or whether instead the courts should reserve to themselves broad powers to review those choices with respect to their arbitrariness or reasonableness, bias or good faith, duress or freedom, or equality or inequality of bargaining power between the parties concerned. The locus of discretion under the law is one of the many questions seen in radically different terms by those with the constrained vision and those with the unconstrained vision.

To those with the constrained vision, the locus of discretion should be, as much as possible, with those individuals and organizations directly concerned and systemically responsible for the consequences, in the sense of personally gaining or losing. Once the law has drawn the boundaries of their discretion, courts should be very reluctant to second-guess their choices. Even if the decisions made were clearly for the purposes of avoiding taxes, for example, the real question – according to Oliver Wendell Holmes – was whether they were within the legal boundaries of individual discretion, for “the very meaning of a line in the law is that you intentionally may go as close to it as you can if you do not pass it.”75

This principle was applied to many kinds of cases. Within limits, someone who makes a will may be “a despot” with his property, according to Holmes.76 Within the bounds of their discretion, state legislatures may pass laws “so foolish as to kill a goose that lays golden eggs,” Holmes declared. “Intelligent self-interest,” he noted, “is not a constitutional duty.”77 He said, “it by no means is true that every law is void which may seem to the judges who pass upon it as excessive.”78 Nor was Holmes prepared to condemn legally someone who killed an assailant, even though his action “may seem to have been unnecessary when considered in cold blood” afterward. “Detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife,” he said.79

In all these very disparate cases, the underlying premise was that, once the law had drawn the boundaries of discretion, courts should avoid second-guessing the actual exercise of that discretion. Given the assumptions of the constrained vision, the principle could hardly be otherwise. It is the legal equivalent of laissez-faire in economics, based essentially on the same vision of man and society.

But to those with the unconstrained vision, such holding back by courts is simply allowing injustice to flourish unnecessarily. According to Ronald Dworkin, courts must supply “fresh moral insight” when judging “the acts of Congress, the states, and the President.”80 If someone has “a moral right to an equal education,” then “it is wrong for the state not to provide that education,” and courts should rule accordingly.81 This view is skeptical of “the supposed natural right to the use of property”82 and dismisses “the liberty of an employer to hire workers on such terms as he wishes” as not entitled to constitutional protection from statutory law.83 To those with the unconstrained vision, it is not simply a question of the locus of discretion, but also of the morality, reasonableness, and equality or inequality with which that discretion was exercised. If third parties are able to make such judgments, as the unconstrained vision assumes, those with the power to change these decisions have little justification for their failure to do so.

To those with the unconstrained vision, such holding back by courts is simply allowing injustice to flourish unnecessarily. Laurence Tribe and Ronald Dworkin are among the most prominent contemporary advocates of this view. Tribe rejects the “substance-denying” idea of courts limiting themselves to drawing boundaries defining acceptable procedures, without judging the substance of what those procedures produce within those boundaries.84 Judges should “question the trade-offs arrived at by the political branches” of government rather than be satisfied if “due process” is observed within the boundaries of legislative and executive discretion.85 It is not enough that explicit constitutional rules are followed; implicit constitutional “values” are to be discerned and applied by judges to the substance of decisions made by others. Ronald Dworkin likewise sees a need for courts to go beyond demarcation of the boundaries within which other branches of government exercise their own discretion. According to Dworkin, there must be a “fusion of constitutional law and moral theory”86 again, based on values found in the Constitution, rather than only on explicit rules of procedure prescribed by that document.

While discerning implicit values is inherently subjective, legal process cannot be “emptied of substance or subjectivity,” according to Tribe.87 The fact that particular rulings have particular effects means, for Tribe, that implicit choices have been made as to the substance. For example, protection of property rights means, in effect, “immunizing from majoritarian rearrangement extant distributions of wealth and economic power.”88 Thus, the U.S. Supreme Court, by overruling state laws infringing property rights “reinforced the protection of existing patterns of capital distribution.”89 There is a “deep bias against economic redistribution” in constitutional requirements for “just compensation” by government when private property is taken under eminent domain.90 The law's “built-in bias against redistribution of wealth” is seen as a benefit to “entrenched wealth”;91 that is, it is seen in terms of its individual results rather than in terms of the social processes facilitated by a property-rights system of economic decision-making.

By contrast, legal theorists who support property rights defend them on the entirely different ground that they “have an effect on the efficiency with which the economic system operates.”92 It is not the retrospectively observed results for particular individuals or classes but rather the prospective incentives created throughout society – the effect of property rights on “the penalty-reward system”93 that is central in the opposing vision. In short, Tribe does not simply reach a different conclusion, but argues on an entirely different ground, from those with the constrained vision.

According to Tribe, “seemingly neutral principles” of the law betray a “tilt decidedly in the direction of existing concentrations of wealth and influence.”94 What is needed is “a more substantive conception of equality,” for “equality is essential to the Constitution's protection of free speech and association.”95 As in other versions of the unconstrained vision in other fields, so in the law, it is not the process but the result which defines equality. According to Tribe, “free speech has not been available at all.”96 Because “inexpensive methods of communication such as leafletting, picketing, and soapbox orating have given way to expensive media such as electronic broadcasting, newspaper advertising and direct mail,”97 freedom of speech as a process does not mean freedom of speech as a result. While there is “equality of voting” there is not “equality of voice.”98

Economic power and institutional participation are central to this reasoning. The importance of both is denied by those with the constrained vision, who see the “power” of a corporation as a “delusion,” and “participation” in collective decision-making as often inefficient.99 Once again, the points of disagreement are not purely empirical because “power” in the constrained vision means an ability to reduce someone else's options. It is the existence of power in this sense that is denied:

What then is the content of the presumed power to manage and assign workers to various tasks? Exactly the same as one little consumer's power to manage and assign his grocer to various tasks. The single consumer can assign his grocer to the task of obtaining whatever the customer can induce the grocer to provide at a price acceptable to both parties. That is precisely all that an employer can to do an employee.100

Because the employer cannot reduce the employee's pre-existing set of options, he does not have “power” over him in this conception. But to those with the unconstrained vision, power or force is not defined in these process terms. In the unconstrained vision, where results rather than processes are central, if A's chosen behavior changes B's behavior, then A has forced B to behave in a particular way. For example, according to Tribe, if the government refuses to pay for abortions by indigent women, then it causes “coerced childbirth,” acting in effect to conscript women (at least poor women) as “involuntary incubators,” thereby “denying women power over both their bodies and their futures.”101 This is consistent with the general logic of defining power in terms of the ability to change someone else's behavior, though inconsistent with the definition of power as the reduction of pre-existing options. In the latter sense, the government would be exercising power over pregnant women if it forbade abortions but not when it simply declined to pay for them.

The clash of the two concepts of power is especially sharp in legal issues in which governmental power is put at the disposal of private parties to enforce contracts or property rights. Where the terms of contracts have been privately and voluntarily agreed to, the locus of discretion is in the private sector – both initially and when a breach of contract presents to the aggrieved party the option of resorting to the enforcement power of the state. Similarly, when property rights are trespassed, the locus of discretion is with the individual property-owner, who may choose to ignore the trespass or to invoke state power to eject and/or prosecute the trespasser.

In a landmark case involving “state action” at the behest of an aggrieved private party, a woman handing out leaflets in a privately owned residential development, in defiance of the development's rules against it, was arrested for trespass. In the constrained vision and the judicially restrained view of the law based upon it, the central question for the court to decide was whether the “state action” requested was within the boundaries of the owners' property rights. But in the more judicially activist view of the opposing vision, the court should inquire into whether the “state action” requested was consonant with the “values” emanating from the Constitution, not simply whether it was consonant with the explicit rules written there. Among these “constitutional values” would be freedom of speech under the First Amendment, which explicitly forbade government – but not private individuals – from restricting communications.

In this particular case – Marsh v. Alabama (1946) – the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the trespass conviction on grounds of freedom of speech. In subsequent cases involving similar trespass in shopping centers, the Supreme Court decision sometimes went one way and sometimes the opposite way.102 What is relevant here are the rationales for each position and how they relate to the underlying conceptions of power and the locus of discretion in applying it. Where the state's enforcement of trespass laws is procedurally correct as an application of explicit property rights, those with the unconstrained vision have nevertheless argued that the courts should refuse to countenance “state action” when the net result will be to deny someone the exercise of free speech on that property or to exclude someone from that property because the owner does not like people of that race. Like so many issues between those with constrained and unconstrained visions, “state action” cases turn on whether it is process or result that is paramount.

While conceding that “the Constitution does not directly concern itself with private actors,” Laurence Tribe nevertheless declares that “to put ‘private’ actors in a position to inflict injury” by resort to state power under trespass laws makes the state guilty of the substantive result.103 Thus “state action” can be “a subterfuge for substantive choices.”104 But to those whose constrained vision limits what man should attempt to making processes operate according to agreed principles, the only question is whether the legal boundaries of property rights were rightly drawn, not what substantive result occurred within the bounds of the discretion permitted the owner. There are echoes of Oliver Wendell Holmes in a latter-day Supreme Court Justice's dissenting opinion that the right “to use and dispose of his property as he sees fit” means that within those boundaries the owner has the legal right to be “irrational, arbitrary, capricious, even unjust.”105


The role of various forms of power is seen very differently by those with the constrained and the unconstrained visions. The amassing of military power by a peaceful nation is dangerously counterproductive, according to the unconstrained vision, and absolutely essential to preserve peace, according to the constrained vision. These opposing views are as common today as they were in the eighteenth century – and as highly correlated with their proponents' respective positions on unrelated domestic social issues involving income and wealth differences or crime and punishment. Even issues of more recent vintage, such as abortion or Third World development, divide controversialists along lines reflecting different underlying assumptions that go back for centuries.

The constrained vision of human intellectual and moral capabilities relies less on articulated rationality to convince and more on incentives to influence behavior. This vision sees unprovoked aggression – whether by criminals or nations – as something to be systemically deterred, rather than something that can be rooted out by better understanding conveyed to those lacking it, or by defusing emotions which might otherwise override judgment. Neither criminals, war-makers, or Third World peoples are seen as requiring, or likely to derive much benefit from, the articulated rationality of the intellectually or morally advanced segments of society. Nor is the law seen as benefiting from their fresh insights being substituted for the implicit wisdom of systemically evolved procedures.

By contrast, the unconstrained vision necessarily sees a larger gap between current human capabilities and the ultimate intellectual and moral potential of the species. It is consistent with, if not entailed by, this vision that the existing intellectual and moral variance between the ordinary person and those who have traveled further along the road toward larger human potentialities would be greater than in the constrained vision. This imposes on the elites a duty to seek more influence on the course of events, whether in law, international relations, or Third World development. In this context, deference to less advanced popular beliefs or ancient institutions and traditions would be an almost fetishistic abdication of responsibility. This is especially so where resort to force, or the threat of force, is involved. Proposals that they observe such deference often evoke amazement, scorn, or even a questioning of the honesty of those who make such proposals – which are indeed irrational, given the assumptions of the unconstrained vision. But those who make such proposals are often operating under entirely different assumptions.

Contemporary controversies revolving around differences in the very conception of power often go back to centuries-old differences in the visions of man and social causation. Whenever one individual or group can change the behavior of another, then the former has power over the latter, as power is conceived by J. K. Galbraith, Gunnar Myrdal, Laurence Tribe, or other modern thinkers in the tradition of the unconstrained vision. Those with the constrained vision reject this conception of power, when behavioral changes are made in response to a quid pro quo, and conceive of power as the ability to reduce someone's pre-existing options. The result may be the same in both cases, whether achieved by threat or reward, but the constrained vision is not a vision of results but of processes.

If one conceives it to be within the capabilities of man to control the exercise of power and to limit it to socially desirable results, as those with the unconstrained vision do, then it is arbitrary to do so only with power defined as the ability to reduce pre-existing options. But if monitoring the desirability of myriad individual results is in general beyond the capabilities of any individual or council, as those with the constrained vision assume it to be, then efforts to produce social benefits must focus on general processes and on power restrictions – meaning restricting the ability of some to reduce the options of others.

Both visions see the abuses of power, whether direct force or in other social forms. They disagree widely and fundamentally on the means of controlling it.

Chapter 8 >>