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07/06/2009

Caplan vs. Sowell, by Arnold Kling

A commenter points to Bryan's critique of A Conflict of Visions, which makes a number of good points. Bryan concludes,


What really puzzles me is why Sowell did not try a much simpler typology. Why not simply distinguish between advocates of laissez-faire, free-market policies on one pole, and advocates of government control on the other pole? _This_ dichotomy is unable to accomodate left-wing anarchists, but almost every other ideology fits neatly into place. Of course, this typology fails to capture the "underlying assumptions" of the two polar views. And it fails to do so for a simple reason: each of the polar views has supporters with a wide range of underlying assumptions.

I think that the differences between Sowell's outlook and Bryan's outlook are interesting. A few observations.

1. Bryan would favor open immigration and not favor strong national defense. Sowell would take the opposite positions.

2. Sowell has an unremitting lack of faith in the superior moral wisdom of the elites. In his view, they do not have the superior wisdom that justifies elitist exercise of power. This skepticism is an essential component of the "constrained vision."

Bryan keeps harping on how support for free trade is an elitist view, correlated with education. The implication is that Bryan would prefer elitist government, at least on the free trade issue, which puts him more in the "unconstrained vision" camp.

I think that Sowell could counter that the elite support for free markets is shallow. Everyone supports markets when they work the way you want them to. The crux of the issue is what you do when you encounter markets that deliver what you think are sub-optimal outcomes. At that point, Bryan's well-educated friends with the unconstrained vision abandon free-market policies in favor of social engineering. Only Sowell's friends with the constrained vision stick with markets when the going gets tough.

3. This shows why underlying assumptions really are important. In the unconstrained vision, the underlying assumption is that a social optimum is possible if wise leaders make the right choices. When the right choice is to let the market work, then let the market work. If the right choice is to fix the market failures in banking, education, health care, energy, the automobile industry, unemployment...then fix, fix, fix.

In the constrained vision, the people doing the fixing are no wiser than the people being fixed. In fact, the people doing the fixing lack important local and historical knowledge.

4. Bryan thinks that libertarian anarchy is a reasonable ideology. Sowell would regard it as an unconstrained vision, because it assumes that people are basically nice, so that in the absence of a state they would all get along. Sowell probably would be more sympathetic to the view of North, Weingast, and Wallis that social order is inherently fragile. According to NWW, in most situations, peace only comes about when violent elites can agree on a stable split of economic and political power. Occasionally, this "natural state" evolves into an "open-access order" in which many people have rights of economic and political participation.

5. My own view is that the constrained and unconstrained visions are held by elites. The masses operate on the basis of what I call folk beliefs. Elites compete for power by appealing to and manipulating these folk beliefs. At the moment, I believe that those elites who hold the unconstrained vision are at an advantage in making such appeals. Arguably, they have had an advantage for nearly a century.


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