Misconceptions of Left vs. Right (Part 5): Sowell’s Constrained vs. Unconstrained


Thus far in this analysis of the left vs. right dichotomy, we’ve covered the origins of the dichotomy within the French Revolution, as well as the authoritarian vs. libertarian, liberal vs. conservative, order vs. chaos, equality vs. hierarchy, and nature vs. nurture frameworks, as well as the Chesterton’s Fence analogy.

In 1987, economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell published his book A Conflict of Visions. In it, he puts forth a theoretical framework for a different political spectrum, defined by the “constrained” and “unconstrained” views.

It is true that most on the right tend to lean towards the constrained view, while most on the left tend towards the unconstrained view. However, Sowell does not compare this to the left vs. right political spectrum.

This is not an overlay attempting to explain left vs. right, but rather an entirely different spectrum in competition with left vs. right. An individual that considers himself center-left on the left vs. right spectrum might lean more towards the constrained view. But it is also true that left and right each correlate with the two different views in Sowell’s framework.

The Constrained View

The constrained view is labeled the tragic vision of man. They lean towards nature in the nature vs. nurture debate. They view human nature as more fixed and unchanging. They believe that incentives can influence humanity to make certain decisions, but characteristics like selfishness and greed are innate to humanity, and will always exist.

For this reason, the constrained view is more concerned with systems and incentive structures that encourage the best of humanity. Milton Friedman famously defended greed within capitalism from this perspective. He described greed as something present in all human societies, but capitalism has successfully channeled greed in a way that is less damaging and more beneficial.

The constrained view attributes inequality to individual differences. Some people are born into better social situations than others, but people are also born with individual natural differences. Some are born with different talents, personalities, and levels of intelligence. These individual differences, along with personal choices, play a major role in inequality of outcome.

Those with a more constrained view will have a greater focus on the process of a system rather than its results. To the constrained, the process legitimizes the results. If the process is applied equally and fairly, then the results must be legitimate.

The tragic view sees racism, crime, poverty, and war as the standard, since it has been so throughout human history. These are the default, the starting point. Peace and wealth are seen as a deviation from the norm, and thus the goal is not to discover what causes poverty and war, but rather what causes peace and wealth.

The Unconstrained View

Those following the unconstrained view see things in much the opposite manner. From this perspective, human nature is much more of a tabula rasa, or blank slate. If people are greedy, this is a result of socialization. If people are cruel and uncaring, this is also a result of society.

The unconstrained view is also known as the utopian view, because it views human nature as more malleable and changeable. If two sets of people are acting differently, there must be different societal pressures acting on each group. Racism and crime are socially learned, not something based in human nature.

This view is less concerned with the process and more concerned with the results. If a result is desirable (like removing the gender pay gap), then the steps that lead to that result are acceptable.

Because the unconstrained view is more results-oriented, it is more concerned with equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity. While the constrained view is opposed to affirmative action for its unequal treatment, the unconstrained view sees it as legitimate so long as it brings about desired results.

While the constrained view compares reality to the tragic present state of things, the unconstrained view compares reality to what could be, rather than what is. The standard of comparison is the utopian ideal.

Oddly enough, despite being concerned with results rather than process, the unconstrained view judges laws by their intentions rather than their results.

This difference between the views is very visible in the debate over the Green New Deal. The unconstrained view values the intention of the bill, and assumes that those against it don’t value its intentions. Therefore, those in opposition to the bill must be science deniers.


The constrained vs. unconstrained dichotomy does a much better job at categorizing ideologies than the other left vs. right frameworks reviewed thus far. Its only flaws are the exceptions. Both Marxism and utilitarianism are exceptions to the constrained vs. unconstrained dichotomy. The latter is a minor issue, but Marxism plays the role of one extreme within the left vs. right spectrum.

Perhaps the greatest benefit to Sowell’s dichotomy is that he doesn’t try to apply it to the left vs. right dichotomy. It stands separate, as an alternative with clearer definitions. And its flaws are only in its few exceptions. Perhaps political discourse would be improved if Sowell’s dichotomy replaced the current left vs. right methodology.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]


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