Chapter 9

Visions, Values, and Paradigms

Visions differ both morally and intellectually. Moreover, social visions differ in some respects – though not all – from visions which play an important role in science. A central question from a moral perspective is the extent to which different social visions reflect differences in value premises. A central concern from an intellectual perspective is the very different history of visions of society and visions underlying scientific theories of natural phenomena. It is also useful to understand whether social issues represent conflicts of values, of visions, or of interests.


While visions involve assumed facts and assumed causes, a vision is not a “paradigm” in Thomas Kuhn's sense of a theoretical model of causation.1 A vision is an almost instinctive sense of what things are and how they work. Kuhn's “paradigm” is a much more intellectually developed entity, including scientific “law, theory, application, instrumentation together.”2 Visions may lead to paradigms, whether in science or in politics, economics, law, or other fields, but visions and paradigms are different stages in the intellectual process. Whether in science or in social thought, visions or inspirations come first, and are subsequently systematized into paradigms, which embrace specific theories, and their narrowly focused hypotheses, which can be tested against evidence.

In these general intellectual terms, visions of scientific phenomena and visions of society proceed in parallel ways. However, opposing paradigms in science do not persist for centuries, as paradigms derived from the constrained and unconstrained visions have in politics, economics, law and social thought in general. The phlogiston theory and the oxidation theory did not coexist and endure together in chemistry. Scientific paradigms tend to succeed each other in history, not coexist through centuries. While still in the early states of the development of science, “men confronting the same particular phenomena” might “describe and interpret them in different ways.” But these divergences, according to Kuhn, “disappear to a very considerable extent and then apparently once and for all.”3 No such process has yet become general in social thought.

The fundamental difference between science and social theory is not at the level of visions, or even paradigms, but at the point where theories produce empirically testable hypotheses. The uncontrollable variations which prevent laboratory experiments with societies prevent the decisive confrontations which shatter particular hypotheses, reverberating backward to shake theories and perhaps even topple paradigms and the visions they embody. Moreover, the biological continuity of the human race means that experiments which fail cannot be begun over again from scratch, as a chemist throws out a batch of chemicals from a failed experiment and tries again with a fresh batch of chemicals. We can never know what Germany would be like today if there had been no Hitler, or how Western civilization would have developed, had there been no decline and fall of the Roman Empire. In short, evidence is not as decisive in social visions. This is due not only to the nature of the evidence but also to the strength of commitments to social values.

Although opposing views begin with visions, they do not end there. Visions are only the raw material from which theories are constructed and specific hypotheses deduced. In principle, the opposing conclusions reached can be checked against evidence and the conflict of visions resolved. There are a number of reasons why this does not happen on such a scale as to produce a decisive victory for one social vision over others, though individuals may find particular evidence sufficient to change their thinking.

Definitive evidence cannot be expected on the grand general sweep of a vision. A great deal of partial evidence may be accumulated on each side, but the evidence for and against one's own vision can be weighed differently, and being convinced is ultimately a subjective process. Even in those cases where a clear confrontation in empirical terms can be arranged and evidence produced, every lost battle on one front does not signal the end of the war, much less unconditional surrender. When hypotheses deriving from a particular vision are contradicted by evidence in the form in which they were first asserted, they may nevertheless be salvageable in a less extreme or more complex form.

Evidence is not irrelevant, however. “Road to Damascus” conversions do occur. Even if this conversion is only on a single issue, the repercussions on one's general vision may lead to a domino effect on other assumptions and beliefs. Responses to evidence – including denial, evasion, and obfuscation – likewise testify to the threat that it represents. At one extreme in the relationship of evidence to visions is the total subordination of evidence to conclusions based on a vision or the theories deriving from it. Those Western intellectuals who for years ignored, evaded, denied, or explained away the growing evidence of Stalin's mass murders and slave labor camps are a classic example of this phenomenon.

Similar cases can be found for both constrained and unconstrained visions. While evidence on particular issues may be falsified, this phenomenon is itself true and weighty evidence for the power of visions. In many cases, there are no personal economic, political, or career gains to be made by the individual that would explain the falsification. It is done simply for the sake of the vision.

Evidence need not be falsified in order to be evaded. The very formulation of a theory may be such as to insulate it from direct confrontation with contrary evidence. In other words, the theory may be so stated that nothing could possibly happen that would prove it wrong. In this case, the theory is reduced to empirical meaninglessness; since all possible outcomes are consistent with it, it predicts nothing. Yet, though it specifically predicts no single concrete outcome, it may insinuate much and be enormously effective in its insinuation. Malthus' theory of population is a classic example of a theory of this sort, based ultimately on a constrained vision, but in later years adapted by others for use as part of an agenda deriving from an unconstrained vision.

The population principle expounded by T. R. Malthus in 1798 projected a grim picture of a highly unconstrained world inhabited by highly constrained man. It was explicitly set forth in opposition to the ideas of William Godwin and of Condorcet,4 whose constrained visions of man were anathema to Malthus.

Malthus' theory began with two postulates – that (1) “food is necessary to the existence of man” and that (2) “the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.” These he called “laws of our nature”5 in short, constraints unlikely to disappear. Implicit also was the law of diminishing returns, so that an increase of population would not lead to a proportionate increase in the food supply as more people grew food.6 Thus there were differential constraints on the increase of population and on the increase of food. It was logically sufficient for his purposes that population could grow faster than food, though by calling the former rate of increase “geometrical” and the latter “arithmetical” he dramatized the difference in a way that made the idea indelible and historic.

Because population is ultimately constrained by the food supply, the empirical implication of the original Malthusian theory is that the observed rates of growth of the two must be similar. According to Malthus, “the population constantly bears a regular proportion to the food that the earth is made to produce.”7 This is the crucial conclusion from Malthus' two postulates, and it constitutes the empirical test of the truth or falsity of Malthusian theory. If, in the long run, the food supply grows faster than the population, then the average nourishment per person rises and the Malthusian theory is false. Given two possible outcomes which would, respectively, confirm or deny the Malthusian theory, there would seem to be little room for controversy after sufficient time had passed and sufficient data had been collected.

Yet no such clear confrontation of evidence and theory has occurred, because of Malthus' shifting formulations under stress of critical attack. In later years, Malthus declared that higher incomes among the masses could lead to either of “two very different results” – an increase of population or “improvements in the modes of subsistence.”8 With both possibilities now being considered consistent with the Malthusian principle, there was no possible evidence that could conceivably prove it wrong – whether it was in fact right or wrong. In reality, as census and other data accumulated over the years, the food supply – and other elements of the general standard of living – tended to increase faster than population. Yet the Malthusian population theory has survived and flourished.

Malthus clearly had a constrained vision. “To prevent the recurrence of misery, is alas! beyond the power of man,”9 he said, and he even doubted whether there had ever been a permanent increase in the span of life.10 He spoke of “laws inherent in the nature of man, and absolutely independent of all human regulations,”11 and declared: “The vices and moral weakness of mankind, taken in the mass, are invincible.”12 However, though Malthus' theory of population was within the tradition of the constrained vision, it was not the only population theory consistent with that vision. Adam Smith's theory of population was quite different in analysis and conclusion.13 Moreover, the Malthusian population principle has re-emerged, with modifications, on the political left, among people with an unconstrained vision.

In the modified version, overpopulation is neither inherent nor invincible, but simply cannot be effectively prevented by relying on the discretion of individuals. However, with political leadership, which may range from hortatory to draconian, there is a “solution” through birth control and abortions. In short, ideas originating in one vision may be adapted to another. But, for the Malthusian population theory to last long enough for this to happen, it first had to survive more than a century of contradictory evidence. Its success in doing so suggests that evasions and tautological formulations may protect a theory against evidence as effectively as outright falsification.

While falsification is clearly a conscious decision, evasion is not necessarily conscious, and misperceptions of what constitutes evidence still less so. Theories may persist because the difficult task of bringing them to confrontation with evidence has simply not been performed with sufficient skill and care. This may be especially so when the person testing the theory has a different vision of his own, and reads the opposing vision in his terms, rather than in its own terms. This happened in a celebrated controversy in economics which erupted right after World War II, between distinguished economists of radically different schools of thought – and voluminous evidence failed completely to resolve the issue.

The traditional economic theory was that artificial imposition of wage rates (by government or labor unions) higher than those emerging in a competitive labor market would tend to cause employment to be less than it would be otherwise. This was a direct corollary of the more general economic principle that more of anything tends to be bought at a lower price than at a higher price. In order to test this theory, a critic of this view sent questionnaires to hundreds of employers, asking how they had acted or would act, under various possible conditions involving wage rates. Most employers did not indicate in their replies that they would react to wage increases by firing workers. The critic regarded this as disproof of the prevailing economic theory.14

However, the prevailing economic theory was not set forth in terms of what individual employers would say, but in terms of what the economy as a whole would do. While this survey asked employers for their own chosen mode of adjustment, the economic theory being tested dealt with the opposite phenomenon – how a competitive economy imposed modes of adjustments on individuals. For example, an employer might well react to a wage increase by maintaining employment and trying to pass the cost increase along to consumers in higher prices, but if this price increase results in a decline in the sales of his product, forcing him then to reduce production and employment, the net result is the same as if he had deliberately chosen to fire workers because of the imposed wage increase.

The real issue was whether externally imposed wage increases reduce employment, not whether this takes the particular form of (1) individual employer decisions to lay off workers; (2) the bankruptcy of marginal firms; (3) a reduction in the number of new firms entering the industry; or (4) a decline in sales and employment as cost increases are passed on to the consumer. In short, the theory being tested was a systemic theory of market adjustments, while the questionnaire asked about individual intentions among surviving businesses. The voluminous evidence collected was irrelevant to the issue.

These examples are not meant to prove the already obvious point that mistakes or shortcomings mar the use of evidence. Instead, they are illustrations of particular ways in which disparate and conflicting visions survive together, despite an abundance of factual evidence which might otherwise be expected to shift the balance decisively to one side or another over a long span of time – such as the centuries during which the constrained and the unconstrained visions have survived and flourished together.

In the extreme case, evidence may simply be falsified, or it may be evaded by verbal expedients which empty the theory of empirical meaning while leaving it full of powerful insinuations. Conversely, evidence may be made to appear to conflict with a theory merely because the specific terms of the theory are misunderstood by those collecting the evidence. But perhaps the most striking demonstration of the power of a vision occurs when no evidence at all is either asked or offered for assertions which are consonant with a prevailing vision.

A recent example of this phenomenon has been the oft-repeated assertion that higher rates of broken homes and teenage pregnancy among black Americans are a “legacy of slavery.” Only after decades of widespread repetition of this assertion was a comprehensive factual study done – revealing that broken homes and teenage pregnancy were far less common among blacks under slavery and in the generations following emancipation than they are today.15 Again, the point is not that a particular conclusion was mistaken but that a sweeping and unsupported assertion went unchallenged for many years because it fit a particular vision. The ability to sustain assertions without any evidence is another sign of the strength and persistence of visions.

The process of moving from a vision, as an inchoate sense of causation, to a specific set of theories and corollaries – a paradigm or intellectual model representing what is believed to happen – is both intellectually and psychically difficult. The precise definition of terms, the careful construction of causal links, and the derivation of specific hypotheses unambiguously differentiated from the hypotheses derived from alternative theories – all this requires not only skill but discipline and dedicated efforts. To the extent that one has become emotionally committed to, or publicly identified with, a particular theory, its failure in the face of evidence imposes psychic costs that can be painful. In an attempt to reconcile the paradigm with the incoming discordant evidence, an initially simple principle may be modified and complicated until it resembles a Rube Goldberg contraption.

Ridicule of these ad hoc complications is not refutation. Moreover, any paradigm – being a model rather than reality – will necessarily not fit the evidence perfectly. The scientific formula for the speed of a falling object ignores the effect of atmospheric resistance, but no one considers the law of gravity refuted because actual scientific observations show deviations between the acceleration predicted by the theory and that observed as things fall through the air. Nor are people who believe in the law of gravity accused of denying the existence of the atmosphere. Rather, they do not consider the atmosphere essential to the theory of gravity and omit it as a needless complication, except in special cases (such as helium-filled balloons, which rise instead of fall).

In much the same way, believers in an unconstrained vision do not deny that man has any limitations. They simply do not treat these limitations as decisive in theories of social phenomena, whose causal elements are explained in entirely different terms, with the limitations of man playing a peripheral role, much like that of the atmosphere in the theory of gravity. What distinguishes those with the constrained vision is that the limitations of man are at the heart of their theories – it plays the role of gravity rather than that of atmospheric resistance – and many of the elements emphasized by those with the unconstrained vision are omitted as incidental (atmospheric). But both visions must omit things which exist in reality, and which most proponents of these visions would admit exist in reality, however much they would disagree as to the prevalence or effect of the omitted factors.

Given, then, that no vision and no paradigm derived from it can fit the facts perfectly, efforts to adjust and modify visions to accommodate discordant evidence are not inherently mere self-deception, much less dishonesty toward others. But the gray area this provides can shelter rationalizations that do fit these descriptions. Moreover, resistance to the abandonment of paradigms has marked the history of science, as well as the history of social theories. There are simply fewer places to hide from scientific evidence. Nevertheless, a scientific paradigm which encounters discordant evidence is not usually abandoned in favor of nihilistic agnosticism, but is instead patched up and complicated until there is another paradigm to replace it.

Visions and paradigms exist at many levels. Karl Marx and a street-corner radical on a soapbox may have shared the same vision but at widely varying levels of sophistication. The more sophisticated versions of any vision are in part a tacit concession to discordant evidence which might otherwise be fatal. This general need for complexity can itself become, obliquely, a further protection against clear-cut evidence refuting a social theory. When no other reply to such evidence is possible, because it so clearly contradicts what is asserted, it is always possible to dismiss the evidence as “simplistic,” because the issue must be more complex than that. In science, however, a simple explanation is preferred to a more complex explanation with no greater empirical accuracy.

While visions can survive and thrive on their own inner logic, in defiance of empirical evidence, the social dangers of such insulated dogmatism are obvious. It is no less arbitrary and dogmatic to declare a priori that “the truth lies somewhere in between.” It may. It may not. On some highly specific issue, it may lie entirely on one side – and on another issue, with the other side. On still other issues, it may in fact lie in between. The point here is simply that there is no a priori way to say, or to avoid the difficult task of formulating hypotheses and testing them against evidence. Nor is this an exercise in futility. Even zealots may be forced to abandon some extreme outposts of a given vision as indefensible under empirical attack, while the contracted perimeter of the vision continues to be defended fiercely. Intellectual struggles can be wars of attrition as well as wars won or lost in a single battle. The visions of science, rather than those of social thought, seem to lend themselves to single decisive confrontations.

The growing complexity of social theories in general reflect in part the growing difficulties of defending them in their purer forms. Burgeoning empirical data, and even more sophisticated ways of analyzing them, may fail to deliver a single fatal blow to either of the great opposing visions which have dominated the past two centuries. But some important strategic retreats have been made on both sides. Neither vision can confidently maintain the air of incontrovertible truth which some of its eighteenth-century exponents exhibited. It is an advancement even to admit that we are dealing with a conflict of visions.


Both constrained and unconstrained visions are fundamentally and essentially visions of causation. Only derivatively do they involve clashes of moral principles or different hierarchies of social values. The much-vaunted need to make our “value premises” explicit is irrelevant in this context. Thinkers with identical moral values and social preferences must nevertheless reach opposing conclusions if their initial senses of reality and causation – their visions – are different.

Identical twins, bred to revere the same moral qualities in the same order, must differ in their conclusions if somewhere along the way one conceives of human attributes and social causation as described in the constrained vision and the other conceives them as described in the unconstrained vision. Just as travelers seeking the same destination must head in opposite directions if one believes it to be to the east and the other believes it to be to the west, so those seeking “the greatest good for the greatest number” (or any other similarly general moral precept) must favor opposite kinds of societies if opposite kinds of human beings are assumed to inhabit those societies, leading to opposite kinds of social causation. Things must work first before they can work to any given end, and what will work depends on the nature of the entities involved and their causal connections.

In this sense, physical science and the analysis of social phenomena both begin with visions. It is the ability of the physical sciences to winnow out conflicting visions by systematic experiment which marks a major difference between the intellectual patterns in the two areas. However, the ability of science to resolve its conflicts of visions does not mean that scientists share the same “value premises,” but rather that “value premises” are neither necessary nor sufficient to explain conflicts of visions or their resolution.

People with the same moral values readily reach differing political conclusions. Convinced religious believers can split into opposite camps on social and political issues if they see worldly or divine causation in different terms. So too do philosophic materialists, such as Hobbes, and Holbach, or believers in a variety of other creeds. Where a particular creed implies a particular set of social, economic, and political conclusions – as in Marxism, for example – it is because that creed contains a particular vision of causation, not simply a particular moral premise.

Labeling beliefs “value premises” can readily become one more means by which conclusions insulate themselves from confrontation with evidence or logic. To say that a preference for “free speech” rights over “property rights” is simply a “value premise” is to deny that it rests on particular beliefs as to facts or causation, and to make it simply an opaque preference, like that for plums over tangerines. But if in fact the preference for free speech over property rights results from assumptions as to the magnitude of their respective benefits to society at large, and the extent to which the less fortunate members of society are helped or made more vulnerable by the two kinds of rights, then it is not simply an opaque “value premise.”

With exactly the same preferences for helping the many rather than the few, and for protecting the vulnerable more so than those able to protect themselves, one would annihilate the preference for free speech over property rights if one's vision of social causation made property rights extremely beneficial to people who own no property (as in Hayek's vision, for example).16 It is precisely the correctness or incorrectness of particular beliefs about social causation that requires scrutiny – a scrutiny arbitrarily barred by the phrase “value premises.” (“Value premises” are, ironically, a sort of property right in conclusions, not to be trespassed on by evidence or logic.)

The persistence of opposing visions in the same society contrasts with major changes of visions that occur in individuals. The large numbers of people, including leading intellectuals, who have both embraced Marxism and then repudiated Marxism are a striking example. So too are those who embrace or relinquish various religious or secular creeds. These suggest that, while the psychic costs of changing visions may be high, they are not prohibitive – especially if the changes are gradual, rather than “road to Damascus” conversions.

If conversions to and from Marxism turned on differing moral valuations given to the same factual perceptions of the consequences of capitalism and communism, it would be difficult to explain why so many conversions occurred in one direction during the Great Depression of the 1930s and in the opposite direction after the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939 or the Hungarian uprisings of 1956. The reordering of fundamental moral values so suddenly and simultaneously among a large number of people throughout the Western world hardly seems credible.

Such conversions are far more readily reconciled with changes in visions than in values. What these cases in capitalist and communist countries brought was new, massive, and intrusively insistent factual information about each social system – not necessarily conclusive evidence but certainly painful facts sufficient to cause many to reconsider. The heavy impact of startling new information may shake or shatter an individual's vision, but does not in itself realign moral values. Mass unemployment, hunger, the killing of innocents, the deliberate degradation of the human spirit, or the cynical unleashing of war, all inspire the same horror as before. What changes is the perception of who or what is doing it and why.

The thrust of organized, systematic propaganda, especially in totalitarian states, centers precisely on facts and causation as the pivots of belief. Similarly, in places and times where religious authorities have wielded oppressive control of ideas, people such as Copernicus and Galileo have become targets not because they offered alternative value systems but because they presented alternative visions of facts and causation. Existing values seemed threatened only because the vision on which they had been based seemed threatened – not because Copernicus or Galileo were propagandizing for alternative values.

Values are vitally important. But the question addressed here is whether they precede or follow from visions. The conclusion that they are more likely to derive from visions than visions from them is not merely the conclusion of this particular analysis, but is further demonstrated by the actual behavior of those with the power to control ideas throughout a society, whether those authorities be secular or religious.

If individuals in substantial numbers find it possible to change their visions, whether suddenly or gradually, how do sharply opposed visions persist over the centuries in society at large? Insofar as visions are (1) simplified projections of reality and (2) subject to contradiction by facts, all visions must encounter facts contrary to their simplified premises. This implies that all visions must also develop both intellectual and psychic means of coping with contradiction, and that any prospect of conversion must contend with the contradictions of whatever alternative vision beckons. Therefore, the instantaneous conversion of a whole society seems very unlikely – and once the conversion process becomes drawn out, individual mortality alone is enough to guarantee that many conversions will never be completed, and that new individuals must begin the process of vision allegiance and doubt all over again from the beginning.

In the physical sciences, however, the preservation of decisive evidence and the logically demonstrative methods of scientific analysis under controlled experimental conditions means that conversion from one vision to another can be sudden and irreversible, not only for given individuals but for future individuals as well, and therefore for society as a whole. No one needs to re-enact in his own mind the time-consuming process by which the Ptolemaic vision of astronomy gave way to the visions of Copernicus, Galileo, or Einstein.

While books likewise preserve records of social, political, and economic events and theories, the absence of controlled experiments, decisive evidence, and decisive techniques for analyzing it mean that these records themselves become battlegrounds in the conflict of visions. Disputes still rage over the reasons for the rise of Hitler or the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.


Believers in both the constrained and the unconstrained visions have long recognized that special interests and special pleading are major factors in day-to-day politics, and that what is said in these political struggles has no necessary connection with the truth, or even with what anyone believes to be the truth.

Businessmen, according to Adam Smith, are a class whose interests are often “to deceive and even to oppress the public,” so that any statements coming from them should be “long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention.”17 He warned against “the clamorous importunity of partial interests” in general18 and “the clamour and sophistry of merchants and manufacturers” in particular.19 Of political propaganda. Smith observed that “those who taught it were by no means such fools as they who believed it.”20 Much the same views have characterized modern thinkers with the constrained vision, such as Friedman or Hayek.21 It has equally been part of the tradition of the unconstrained vision, going back to Godwin and coming forward to Shaw, Galbraith, or other twentieth-century thinkers.22

The relationship between special interests and any vision – constrained or unconstrained – may be conceived of as a question whether there is (1) a direct corruption, (2) a class bias, or (3) a case of particular visions proving attractive to particular interests. Direct corruption may be due to bribes, economic self-interest, or careerism determining what is said, independently of what is actually believed about the facts or causation. Although such explanations are sometimes attributed to Karl Marx, they are much closer to the theories of Charles A. Beard, who depicted the Constitution of the United States as shaped by special interests. Marx's theory was one of class bias distorting the thinker's perception of reality, with sincerely held beliefs being opposite and antagonistic in content when the thinkers drew upon different class experiences. The weakest of the three assertions above is that visions – however they originate – will be pressed into service by whatever special interests find them useful.

Examining first the strongest of the special-interest explanations of visions produces virtually no evidence that the leading figures in either the constrained or unconstrained tradition stood to gain personally from the views advocated, and much evidence to the contrary.

The entire tradition of the unconstrained vision, with its equalization emphasis, has been led by individuals who stood to lose both financially and in status terms by the equalization they advocated. Some were of modest means but still almost invariably above the average of their respective societies, and some like Condorcet or Holbach were quite rich. The policies advocated by the leading exponents of the constrained vision have likewise seldom advanced their personal interests. Adam Smith, who promoted both domestic and international free trade, was the son of a customs official and engaged in no trade at all, being primarily an academic – a profession whose practices he severely criticized.23 Virtually none of the leading advocates of laissez-faire have been businessmen, from the time of Adam Smith to Milton Friedman or F. A. Hayek two centuries later.24 Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France represented views that cost him the political alliances and friendships of a lifetime, and though it eventually brought him royal favor, this was hardly something he could have counted on, after years of having opposed royal interests in Parliament.

While political thinkers who were also political practitioners may create ambiguities as to their motivations, which may be either ideological or careerist, increasing specialization over the centuries has made the theorist-practitioner in politics almost as rare as the theorist-businessman. Leading social theorists who were at the same time leading political figures were more common in the eighteenth century, when Burke and the Federalists flourished, than in later times. But John Stuart Mill's brief career in Parliament in the nineteenth century or Joseph A. Schumpeter's brief career in business in the twentieth century were oddities having little significance for their own intellectual history, much less for visions in general.

The less extreme claim that visions represent the bias of class position is no more readily supported by evidence. The class positions of those with the constrained vision have not been consistently higher or lower than the class positions of those with the unconstrained vision, and differences in class position have been considerable among those with similar views on either side.

Milton Friedman was far more similar in social origins to Tom Paine than to Friedrich Hayek or James Madison. While Condorcet and Holbach were aristocrats, their philosophic compatriots Paine and Godwin knew what it was to struggle to make ends meet. At the individual level, the class explanation of ideas breaks down completely, while the tracing of assumptions about human nature to conclusions about social policy show a remarkable and enduring consistency.

The numerous other sociological explanations of ideological orientation need not all be rejected a priori, nor is it necessary to enter into their specifics here. To “explain” the social composition of those holding particular visions – whether the explanations be correct or incorrect – is only to assert that people are not randomly distributed in their visions, any more than they are randomly distributed in sports, religion, or a thousand other human activities. None of this denies that class bias exists or plays a potent role in political struggles. The question is whether its influence operates by controlling those who shape social visions or in other ways. That class bias, where it exists, will seize upon a vision which can serve as a rationalization is scarcely denied by anyone. But that has nothing to do with either the origins or validity of the vision.

The very reason visions are useful to those with a special interest to promote is that it helps recruit political allies who do not share that special interest, but who may be won over by the principles or rhetoric generated by a social vision. In short, the resort to visions as a means of recruiting political allies is evidence of the limited appeal of special interests, as such, and the independent power of visions. The relative weights of the two forces in the short run are not the issue here. However much the special interests may predominate as of a given time, the special interests of one generation need not be the same as the special interests of the next generation, while the constrained and unconstrained visions have both been viable for centuries.


This final set of summaries and conclusions must summarize not only this chapter but the whole work, and derive some of its implications. Behind the episodic eruptions of specific political and social controversies is a pattern of beliefs about the world, about man, and about causation. These implicit assumptions or visions repeatedly divide controversialists at all intellectual levels, on a wide spectrum of issues, and across the boundaries of the law, the economy, the polity, and the society, as well as across international boundaries. Though these controversies often become emotional, the opposing views tend to cluster, not around an emotion, but around the logic of a vision. Each vision tends to generate conclusions which are the logical consequences of its assumptions. That is why there are such repeated conflicts of visions in such a range of otherwise unrelated issues. The analysis here is not intended to reconcile visions or determine their validity, but to understand what they are about, and what role they play in political, economic, and social struggles. The question is not what particular policy or social system is best but rather what is implicitly assumed in advocating one policy or social system over another.

Whatever one's vision, other visions are easily misunderstood – not only because of caricatures produced by polemics but also because the very words used (“equality,” “freedom,” “justice,” “power”) mean entirely different things in the context of different presuppositions. It is not merely misunderstanding but the inherent logic of each vision which leads to these semantic differences, as well as to substantively different conclusions across a wide spectrum of issues. Visions are inherently in conflict, quite aside from the misunderstandings, hostility, or intransigence generated in the course of polemics.

Both constrained and unconstrained visions are ultimately concerned with social results. The unconstrained vision seeks directly to achieve those results socially – that is, through collective decisions prescribing the desired outcomes. The constrained vision considers it beyond the capability of any manageable set of decision-makers to marshal the requisite knowledge, and dangerous to concentrate sufficient power, to carry out their decisions, even if it were possible.

Given the unconstrained vision, which permits results to be directly prescribed, its basic concepts are expressed in terms of results. The degree of freedom is thus the degree to which one's desires can be realized, without regard to whether the obstacles to full realization be the deliberately imposed restrictions of government or the lack of circumstantial prerequisites. Justice is likewise a question of outcomes, and the justice or injustice of a society can therefore be determined directly by those outcomes, whether they be the result of conscious decisions, social attitudes, or circumstances inherited from the past. Power is likewise defined by results: If A can cause B to do what A wants done, then A has power over B, regardless of whether A’s inducements to B are positive (rewards) or negative (penalties). Equality too is a result, the degree of equality or inequality being a directly observable fact.

All these basic terms are defined in profoundly different ways under the assumptions of the constrained vision. One consequence of this is that those with different visions often argue past each other, even when they accept the same rules of logic and utilize the same data, for the same terms of discourse signify very different things. In the constrained vision, where man cannot directly create social results but only social processes, it is as characteristics of those processes that freedom, justice, power, and equality have significance. A social process has freedom to the extent that it refrains from interfering with the choices of individuals – whether or not the circumstances of those individuals provide them with many options or few. A social process has justice to the extent that its rules are just, regardless of the variety of outcomes resulting from the application of those rules. Power is exerted in social processes, by individuals or by institutions, to the extent that someone's existing set of options is reduced – but it is not an exertion of power to offer a quid pro quo that adds to his existing options. Equality as a process characteristic means application of the same rules to all, without regard to individual antecedent conditions or subsequent results. Results matter – they are the ultimate justification of processes – but it is only the general effectiveness of particular processes (competitive markets, constitutional government) that can be gauged by man, not each individual result in isolation.

The clash between the two visions is not over the actual or desirable degree of freedom, justice, power, or equality – or over the fact that there can only be degrees and not absolutes – but rather over what these things consist of, in whatever degree they occur. Moreover, the relationship between the two visions reflects not only logical differences, but also the historical ascendancy of one or the other vision at a given time. Because some of the key concepts used by both sides were first defined primarily in the terms of the constrained vision, those with the unconstrained vision have had to distinguish their concepts as “real” freedom, or “real” equality, for example, as contrasted with merely “formal” freedom or equality. However, the later ascendancy of the unconstrained vision forced those with the constrained vision into a defensive posture in which they tried to re-establish the former, more limited definitions of such terms as process characteristics.

In addition to these changing asymmetric relationships between the two visions, there is an enduring asymmetric relationship based on how they see each other as adversaries. Each must regard the other as mistaken, but the reasons for the “mistake” are different. In the unconstrained vision, in which man can master social complexities sufficiently to apply directly the logic and morality of the common good, the presence of highly educated and intelligent people diametrically opposed to policies aimed at that common good is either an intellectual puzzle or a moral outrage, or both. Implications of bad faith, venality, or other moral or intellectual deficiencies have been much more common in the unconstrained vision's criticisms of the constrained vision than vice versa.

In the constrained vision, where the individual's capacity for direct social decision-making is quite limited, it is far less surprising that those who attempt it should fail – and therefore far less necessary to regard the “mistaken” adversary as having less morality or intelligence than others. Those with the constrained vision tend to refer to their adversaries as well-meaning but mistaken, or unrealistic in their assumptions, with seldom a suggestion that they are deliberately opposing the common good or are too stupid to recognize it. Personality variations cut across these patterns on both sides – Burke was less generous to adversaries than Hayek, Shaw less accusatory than Condorcet – but the patterns themselves have persisted for centuries.

Malthus said: “I cannot doubt the talents of such men as Godwin and Condorcet. I am unwilling to doubt their candor.”25 But when Godwin wrote of Malthus, he called him “malignant,”26 questioned “the humanity of the man,”27 said “I profess myself at a loss to conceive of what earth the man was made,”28 and hinted that Malthus' appointment as Professor at East India College was a reward for apologetics for the privileged.29 In the twentieth century, Friedrich Hayek's landmark book, The Road to Serfdom, made him a moral leper to many,30 though in that book he was very generous to his adversaries, whom he characterized as “single-minded idealists”31 and as “authors whose sincerity and disinterestedness are above suspicion.”32 Further examples could be multiplied almost without limit. The point here is that these differences reflect more than personality differences, and are themselves part of an enduring pattern growing out of the fundamental assumptions of the two visions.

The two visions differ not only in how they see differences between themselves but also in how they see differences between ordinary individuals and those more intellectually or morally advanced. In the unconstrained vision, where the intellectual and moral potential of man vastly exceeds the levels currently observable in the general population, there is more room for individual variation in intellectual and moral performance than in the constrained vision, where the elite and the masses are both penned within relatively narrow limits. Striking moral and intellectual differences are recognized by those with the constrained vision, but are regarded as either too exceptional to form the basis of social policy or as confined to a small area out of a vast spectrum of human concerns. Given the inherent limitations of human beings, the extraordinary person (morally or intellectually) is extraordinary only within some very limited area, perhaps at the cost of grave deficiencies elsewhere, and may well have blind spots which prevent him from seeing some things which are clearly visible to ordinary people.

Differences between the moral-intellectual elite and the masses are crucial, especially to modern conflicts of visions over the degree of surrogate decision-making, whether by politicians, judges, or various agencies and commissions. Both visions try to make the locus of discretion coincide with the locus of knowledge, but they conceive of knowledge in such radically different terms as to lead to opposite conclusions as to where discretion should be vested.

To those with the unconstrained vision, who see knowledge and reason as concentrated in those who have advanced furthest toward the ultimate potential of man, surrogate decision-making – economic “planning,” judicial activism, etc. – is essential. These surrogate decision-makers must attempt both to influence beforehand and to revise afterward the decisions made by those less accomplished in intellectual or moral terms. But to those with the constrained vision, each individual's knowledge is so grossly inadequate, compared to the knowledge mobilized systemically through economic markets, traditional values, and other social processes, that surrogate decision-makers in general – and non-elected judges in particular – should severely limit themselves to drawing up rules defining the boundaries of others' discretion, not second-guess the decisions actually made within those boundaries. In the constrained vision, the loci of discretion should be as widely scattered as possible, the inevitable errors resulting being accepted as a trade-off, no solution being possible.

Conflicts of visions affect not only such large and enduring issues as economic planning versus laissez-faire, or judicial activism versus judicial restraint, but also such new issues as the most effective modes of Third World development, “affirmative action,” or “comparable worth.” In each of these controversies, the assumptions of one vision lead logically to opposite conclusions from those of the other. All these issues turn ultimately on whether, or to what extent, surrogate decision-makers can make better decisions than those directly transacting. Even with perfect agreement on “value premises” as to what outcome would be ideal, differences in beliefs as to the efficacy of particular policies would put those with different visions in sharp conflict.

Visions help explain ideological differences, which are of course only one source of political differences. Yet, in the long run, these ideological conflicts seem to shape the general course of political trends as much as “practical” political considerations dominate day-to-day events. To a considerable extent, the ideological presuppositions of the times set the limits and the agenda which determine what is feasible, realistic, or imperative to practical politicians.

Powerful as ideology may be, it is not omnipotent. Inescapable and brutal facts – the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 – have caused many to simultaneously embrace or abandon an ideology. Even short of such cataclysmic events, the rules of logic and evidence have historically led many to change ideological positions, suddenly or gradually. Moreover, even when an ideological bias persists, the empirical or logical work of those with such a bias may not necessarily suffer – by empirical or logical standards – however much the semantics used to characterize the findings may betray the ideological leanings of the analyst.33 For still others, however, ideology may totally overwhelm evidence.

Emotions and value judgments are important – but derivative. It is as logical for those with the unconstrained vision to put freedom of speech above property rights as it is for those with the constrained vision to bitterly oppose them on this, as in so many other issues.

While not all social theories can be neatly divided into constrained and unconstrained visions, what is remarkable is how many of the leading theories of the past two centuries or more fall into one or the other of these two categories. Personal and stylistic differences, as well as differences of subject, emphasis, and degree are all superimposed on this dichotomy, but the dichotomy itself still shows through nevertheless.

Logic is of course not the only test of a theory. Empirical evidence is crucial intellectually, and yet historically social visions have shown a remarkable ability to evade, suppress, or explain away discordant evidence, to a degree that scientific theories cannot match. Yet, for individuals, changes of visions have not been uncommon, and catastrophic historic events have created many “road to Damascus” conversions. The hybrid vision of fascism, once touted as “the wave of the future,” has been devastated by the experience of World War II.

In short, evidence is not wholly irrelevant even to visions, even historically – and it is of course crucial logically. Historic evasions of evidence are a warning, not a model. Too often the mere fact that someone is known to disagree widely on other issues is considered sufficient reason not to take him seriously on the issue at hand (“How can you believe someone who has said ... ?”) In short, the fact that an opposing vision has as much consistency across a range of issues as one's own is used as a reason to reject it out of hand. This is especially so when the reasons for the differences are thought to be “value premises,” so that opponents are conceived to be working toward morally incompatible goals.

Emphasis on the logic of a vision in no way denies that emotional or psychological factors, or narrow self-interest, may account for the attraction of some people to particular visions. The point is that neither the validity nor the consequences of a vision can be determined by examining such factors – that the vision has a logic and a momentum of its own, going beyond the emotions or intentions of its constituency at a given moment. Moreover, those subsequently attracted to a particular vision may be quite different from those initially attracted, and attracted for quite different reasons, as the consequences of the vision unfold.34

While visions conflict, and arouse strong emotions in the process, merely “winning” cannot be the ultimate goal of either the constrained or the unconstrained vision, however much that goal may preoccupy practical politicians. The moral impulse driving each vision cannot be jettisoned for the sake of winning, without making the victory meaningless. While defections from one vision to another may be occasioned by empirical evidence, it is usually the relevance of that evidence for the prospects of achieving some morally desirable goal that is decisive.

An analysis of the implications and dynamics of visions can clarify issues without reducing dedication to one's own vision, even when it is understood to be a vision, rather than an incontrovertible fact, an iron law, or an opaque moral imperative. Dedication to a cause may legitimately entail sacrifices of personal interests but not sacrifices of mind or conscience.