education philosopher

Trade-offs, Conatrained People, and Localism, or, What Thomas Sowell Has Taught Me

Posted in Philosophy by KevinCK on September 26, 2009

It is not an uncommon question in intellectual circles: who has influenced your thinking the most? Nor is it sowelluncommon for people to struggle when attempting an answer. To think of the one individual thinker/author who has influenced your viewpoint the most is every bit as hard as thinking of the one single musician who you love to listen to the most. I have often struggled to give a concise answer to this question as there are so many thinkers that have influenced my viewpoints. But I have begun to realize that there is one thinker I DO draw on more often than any other in describing, defending, or reflecting on my views: economist Thomas Sowell.

While Thomas Sowell is an economist by trade, he is also quite the social theorist/philosopher and – quite rare amongst intellectuals whose work spans more than 15 years – his work forms a very coherent whole. In saying that his writings have influenced me more, perhaps, than any others, I think of three particular “propositions” he puts forwards and defends in his writings: (1) Human beings are fallible, limited in faculty and have natures that are changeable only to a certain degree; (2) as such, moral, political, and economic decisions are best seen as trade-offs between imperfect options rather than a search for the one perfect solution; (3) [also following from (1)], decision making is best done as locally as possible because decisions must be as informed by relevant factors as they can be, and this is best done by those closest to the problem situation.

(1) Constrained View: In his book Conflict of Vision: ideological Origins of Political Struggles,  Sowell describes the differences – in his view responsible for much of the political struggle in our climate – between those who believe in an “unconstrained view of man” and the “constrained view of man.” The former, evident in thinkers from Roussau to Godwin to Marx, sees human nature as essentially malleable to a degree where it is perfectable, human reason as an omnipotent (or close) faculty, and humans as essentially born with a good nature that is corrupted by society [e.g., Rousseau’s and Godwin’s natural man]. The “constrained view of humans,” evident in thinkers like Hobbes, Madison, and sociobiologists, see humankind as limited by their natures and only changeable to a certain extent.

The idea of natural man as a benevolent creature of a malleable nature is on its way out. Starting with such works as Lorenz’s On Agression and Wilson’s Sociobiology, what we have learned from biology has confirmed the “constrained view of man,” – the idea that human nature (and no, no one really has a precise definition, as it is at best a loose collection of tendencies) is less malleable than we used to think.

The outgrowth of this view, for Sowell and others, is that instead of trying to undo human nature as if it could be undone, the best thing may be to work within its confines, trying to set up social systems that minimize its damage and maximize its capabilities. In other words, we must accept the fact that humans are quite imperfect and find ways to work within our existing natures to do the best we can.

This may seem obvious, but the social “sciences” have been slow to learn this lesson. Take such a thing as racism: social sciences treat racism and “in group” preferences as societal, but the natural science have gone a long way toward showing that in-group preferences may be more natural than we have thought. Same goes for the differences in gender roles.

The fear, I think, is that if we acknowledge these as naturally existing, we must submit to them and acknowledge these traits to be intractable. This, I think, is as fallacious as suggesting that acknowledging that one is born with a tendency toward addiction is to submit to the fate of being an addict. Instead, I see that acknowledging certain biases as in-born – like admitting one’s family history of addiction – goes a long way towards allowing us to humanly rise above these tendencies by fervent education and planning. (Ignoring a tendency doesn’t mean it is not there and only serves to make us ill-prepared for dealing with the tendency.)

Either way, Sowell’s view that humans are constrained in many key ways has influenced my thinking. WE should fight against racism but never be surprised when in-group preferences show themselves, as these seem the natural human default. We should try to strive for some level of human equality but not be surprised when inequalities emerge, as this just shows that we are born with different abilities and are not, in any natural sense, equal to each other.

(2) Trade-offs: in many of Sowell’s economics texts, he writes that all political, economic, and moral, decisions are best seen as trade-offs rather than searches for a perfect solution. This follows from point (1)’s vision that humans are constrained and fallible. So long as we live in an imperfect world, the only solutions to problems will be imperfect ones. The question to ask when seeking a solution to x problem is how much good can be gained by each possible solution versus how much downside each solution carries. Do the pros, in other words, outweigh the cons.

To take a concrete situation, we can talk about the current debate over offering universal healthcare. Capitalism, it can be noted, a system that has many flaws. Under a capitalistic system, commodities have a price tag and, as demand invariably outstrips supply, some will not be able to afford things that they need. But the solution risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater: the baby, in this case being, the profit motive which motivates people to innovate and find ways to offer good services for the lowest feasible cost. We can only achieve universal healthcare, in other words, by stripping it of a profit motive and risking a loss of innovation and incentive to offer services at reasonable prices. (When government steps in, profit motive is essentially gone.)

The problem is that people very often revert to seeing political dilemmas as a search for the perfect solution rather than the best solution with the fewest downsides. The healthcare debate is often discussed by noting that under x solution, some people will get screwed. (If universal healthcare, then quality drops. If not, then some go uninsured.) If we frame it as a quest to find the perfect solution, we get nowhere, as no such solution exists. If we have a realistic discussion of how much cost we are willing to endure for how much benefit – can we stand the downside for the upside – then we will be able to reach workable solutions.

[For another illustration of Sowell’s view of trade-offs, here is an interesting and controversial article discussing the cost/benefit of employee safety protections. While we all want employees to be safe, we also want well-priced goods and services. Rather than an “either/or” solution where we pretend we can have all of the one without any of the other, the solution is to find a balance of costs and benefits.]

(3) Localism: In his book Knowledge and Decisions, Sowell takes the constrained view – and particularly, of humans limited capacity for knowledge, into the social sphere. He suggests that given this limited capacity for knowledge, social decisions are best made by those closest to, and best equipped to appraise, the relevant factors. That we have not heeded Sowell’s advice may be seen by the fact that school decisions are made by school boards rather than schools and teachers, corporate decisions are made by national headquarters, rather than individual store managers, and much of our government is federal, rather than local. This is all to our detriment as it strips the decision-making from those best in a position to appraise relevant factors and puts the decision-making process in the hands of those far removed from the situation.


Though I did not realize it at the time I first picked up his book Knowledge and Decisions  a little over 10 years ago, I have come to be profoundly influenced by these three strains of Sowell’s thought. Politically, I am a libertarian with conservative leanings, precisely because I believe these three principles are most in accord with this viewpoint, that sees power as best decentralized, individuals as the most capable people to control their own face (rather than having it legislated) and injustice as something to strive against, but at least partially borne from the truth that humans are born with varying capabilities, capacities, talents, etc.


2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. David said, on September 26, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    Excellent post! This is all stuff that I agree heartily with, and that I don’t see from many other people. I guess I’ll be reading up on Thomas Sowell in the near future.

  2. KevinCK said, on September 27, 2009 at 1:21 am


    Thanks much for the comment. Sowell was one who I didn’t realized influenced my thinking until well after the infuence had seeped in. I have recently found myself thinking about my positions on things and am finding more and more is tracing back to things I first read from Sowell. Excellent writer and very good economist. (Though, I will say that much of what he has written is not original argument, but summary and restatement of others like von Mises).

    If you are interested in Sowell’s philosophic stance (particularly regarding the constrained view of humans and trade-offs), I would recommend Conflict of Visions and Quest for Cosmic Justice. If you are interested in the argument that localization is generally the best policy for decision making, Knowledge and Decisions is a great statement of this view (though it is one of Sowell’s most academically geared books).

    Sowell has also done some stellar work on the differences between various ethnicities and their historic approaches to life. For this, see Race and Culture (hint: Sowell sees various differences betwen ethnicities, but also provided one of the best arguments against The Bell Curve in the ’90’s.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: