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  • Writer's pictureAlan Stevens - AWAH - Libertarianism, Freedom.

The Two Camps - Constrained and Unconstrained Visions

After my writing more than 50 posts, it’s time to reflect on why Liberty is such a hard sell for so many people. There may be many reasons for this. Today’s post looks at one explanation from American economist Thomas Sowell.

Thomas Sowell wrote ‘A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggle’ (1987) in which he discussed the dialogue of the deaf between what he described as ‘Constrained’ versus ‘Unconstrained’ visions or understandings the world. These viewpoints represent conservatives (and libertarians) on one hand, and left wingers or progressives on the other.

Believers in no-state, wholly pro-liberty approaches are mostly hearth and home conservatives at heart. We want to be left alone to get on with our lives. The difference is that conservatives have not yet realised that they are simply not going to be left in peace by the state. Broadly speaking, the pro-liberty position is occupied by adherents of the constrained vision of the world. They adhere to ways of thinking and being which historically helped people cope with the real constraints in the world. There actually are limits on how much can be achieved in any area of life.

The pro-state, anti-liberty position is occupied by adherents of the unconstrained vision of the world. At first sight this is counter-intuitive. People who believe in a world of unlimited potential – the unconstrained vision – are in effect idealists. Surely, they would be natural supporters of letting people get on with developing all that potential. But no, they are natural allies of the state, and of the very unattractive, unidealistic power grabbers who run it. That’s because the state is seen as the entity which makes the unconstrained vision achievable, by force if need be. And it generally is needed, as we shall see.

What are the differences between the two visions, constrained and unconstrained?


The constrained view is that people are not malleable and not capable of being changed in terms of their underlying nature. People are mostly good but not that good, and not all the time. Indeed a few are ‘bad guys’ – psychopaths, sociopaths and loons - who are attracted to the state. Where else can such people manipulate and control others without their victims being able to defend themselves or seek redress? On balance good but not that good humans have the mix of characteristics which worked to keep the species going.

Evolution has equipped us with a hard-to-change pile of decision-making emotional modules in our minds. They enabled us to survive (barely – human beings share with cheetahs the distinction of being very genetically un-diverse, indicating both species were reduced to a tiny remnant population at some point). The pro-liberty and pro-state visions tug at different bits of the naked ape’s moral modules (see post ‘Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’’). Suffice to say that the pro-liberty people do not accept the unconstrained view that human beings are perfectible. Human nature is something we have to accept as it is and learn to work with.

In contrast the unconstrained view is that people can be changed, ‘re-educated’ as it were. Selfishness’ (supporters of liberty would call it self-interest) is not, according to this view, a permanent feature of human nature. Hence the Marxist idea that human nature can be altered to create the altruistic self-sacrificing ‘New Man’. Creating the new man is necessary to achieving the proffered solution, in this case Socialism. If one is impossible the other certainly is too. Hence the academic heat generated by the nature versus nurture debate – if ‘nurture can’t ‘perfect’ man’s apparently imperfect nature, what then?


The unconstrained view is interested in ultimate ‘solutions’ defined as end states where there is no longer any need to make trade-offs between competing uses of time and resources. Achieving the solution may entail very considerable costs – i.e, trade-offs between different uses. The costs are the ‘opportunity costs’ of doing without whatever else might have been produced with the human and material resources devoted to a particular project. But these costs are not taken to be important in the unconstrained view.

The unconstrained vision does not see the world in terms of trade-offs or processes needed to bring about desired outcomes. Marx himself, as a characteristic unconstrained thinker, never explained how the end game of a socialist paradise would work. He also discouraged his followers from doing so, as it would distract attention from the ultimate goal. The end solution is a shining beacon on the hill. All that is needed is an effort of will, and a willingness to sacrifice, to shape a population noble enough to enjoy it.

Libertarians regard all this as a cynical evasion of reality by their statist opponents. Any attempt to explain how such a society would work would be shot down in flames by believers in the constrained vision. As I have explained on this site, socialism cannot work. But unconstrained believers are not necessarily cynical. They may genuinely not be interested in the idea that constraints exist, still less in understanding what they might be.


The British state’s HS2 high speed railway project is a typical unconstrained visionary project. This is ‘the solution’ to levelling up the South with the less prosperous North with the more prosperous South. An incredibly high-tech railway will run up to eighteen huge trains each way per hour at higher speeds than any other comparable system has managed. It will be a fabulous boon to the whole nation when (and if) it is completed. The naysayers will then be confounded by its wonderfulness, and by the resulting prosperity and happiness of both North and South. That is the story.

It is hard for followers of the constrained vision to know where to start in mocking this ludicrous endeavour. But it is probably worth bearing in mind that its proponents genuinely do not see why any criticisms of such a marvelous solution need be addressed. That is probably why it is still going ahead. Admittedly there is likely also to be the usual ‘incentivisation’ of the political class by eager contractors and suppliers. And there is the Keynesian fantasy that any spending, including digging holes as big and useless as HS2, creates ‘economic growth’. But we can perhaps really blame the mess on the mutual incomprehension between the constrained and unconstrained visions of the world.

The temptation to ridicule HS2 anyway is great, even if it will make no difference. Suffice it to say that HS2 will offer slightly faster rail journeys for travellers between a handful of ex- industrial northern cities and a soon-to-be ex-financial centre in London (I refer for comparison to the current exodus from New York of financial firms and to the trend towards working from often distant homes). The cost of HS2 could be between $100bn and $200bn. That is about two orders of magnitude greater than the cost of the TGV line from Paris to northern France covering about the same distance.

Believers in the unconstrained vision just do not accept that historical experience, economic and commercial cost or technical difficulties mean anything. To their baffled surprise they end up watching disaster unfold as yet another grand design fails at great cost. Even then, the fiasco will be blamed on the imperfections of the people running the project rather than the muddled, unconstrained thinking behind it. One is reminded of the California High Speed Train project, which is likely never to be completed. Or of the way that each socialist failure is blamed on the errors of the people in charge – as in ‘real communism wasn’t tried by Stalin (or Mao)’ – rather than on the flawed, unconstrained socialist project itself.


Crucially, in Sowell’s view, the unconstrained view takes no account of incentives. It regards self-interestedness, which is the necessary business of promoting one’s own wellbeing and survival, as selfishness. In the Brave New World of unconstrained utopias run by altruists, this characteristic is to be wiped out rather than understood. But free societies depend on voluntary cooperation between individuals who seek to gain as much value as possible from contributing their labour or other property to the productive effort. Such affluence as we have exists because incentives exist and are acted on by self-interested people.

Austrian School economists say that people cooperate to maximise their ‘Psychic Income’. It is not just material benefits that are sought. Maximising psychic income can be a matter of moral incentives. Not for nothing should Adam Smith’s ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’ be taught alongside his more famous ‘Wealth of Nations’. In the latter work, Smith explains how the invisible hand of the price mechanism guides people to the most productive uses of their labour or capital. In the former work, he points out that people desire moral as well as material outcomes. People do sacrifice material gain to be, or at least appear to be, compassionate or noble. They therefore do have an incentive to act charitably or altruistically. The abundant charitable and mutualist provision of pre-Welfare State Britain shows the existence and effectiveness of moral incentives. It demonstrates that free societies are also charitable societies.

And yet incentives, which are the moral and material glue of a free society, are invisible to the unconstrained world view. It is all confounded with ‘selfishness’ and then dismissed. Pro-liberty criticisms that taxation weakens incentives, or that state legal privilege gives bad actors an incentive to abuse the citizenry, fall on the deaf ears of people who don’t see incentives as an acceptable explanation for behaviour.

Since they see the problem as selfishness, charitable or mutualistic provision in a free society seems to them to be a logical impossibility. This blindness shows in the repeated statist assertion that without the state there would be no general health, education or welfare provision. This assumption flies in the face of the historical evidence that such provision did in fact exist in Classical Liberal Britain and its daughter societies.


Unconstrained thinkers do not understand what economists call the problem of ‘scarcity’ – there are not enough resources, human or physical to do everything. ‘Scarcity’ means constraints actually exist. They force people to prioritise the more valuable activities. Scarcity also means that most people’s best option is to go to work, even if they don’t like their employer very much (see post ‘Oppressed by Scarcity, or Having to Work’). Unconstrained thinkers tend to see no difference between the coercive power of the state and their employers’ right to end a voluntary agreement to work together. They don’t recognize the state as a uniquely dangerous institution.

Essentially, they need the state. Virtually all projects proposed by unconstrained thinkers - such as let’s ban alcohol or ‘drugs’ or gambling, let’s provide unconditional cradle to grave welfare, let’s end discrimination or let’s ‘save the planet’ - rely on the state to extort money and coerce obedience. These grand designs cannot proceed on the basis of voluntary cooperation because, contrary to what they may tell pollsters and politicians, most people do not in fact regard them as real priorities. These visionary undertakings are only of interest if they are ‘free’ – i.e. mostly paid for compulsorily by somebody else.

Wealth is mainly produced by ‘constrained’ thinkers. They earn society’s living by making trade-offs to discover the best way to use scarce resources to create value for others (and therefore themselves). In practice, believers in unconstrained visions are parasitic upon producers. They are grasshoppers next to a dwindling supply of much put-upon ants. The supply of nice-to-have state activities is endless. When such people say it is impossible to reduce the state’s activities and cost, libertarians assume they seek merely to justify more state theft and coercion. But for unconstrained thinkers there really is no scarcity, no need to prioritise resource uses, no real shortage of money and, therefore, no need to make trade-offs. It may really be inconceivable to them that any retrenchment could be justified. It may also be inconceivable that there are problems for which no political solution exists.

Sowell’s adherents of the unconstrained vision of the world may now be a majority in western populations. Unable to imagine constraint, they will be just as surprised when their state sectors implode as the Soviets were when Totalitarian Socialism collapsed suddenly. The shock to the unprepared ‘unconstrained’ mindset was, and will be, very great. Reconversion to realistic or constrained thinking could then take years, unfortunately.


The efforts of western governments to ‘tackle’ the latest member of the coronavirus family of common cold viruses can (hopefully) be understood as just the latest disastrous example of unconstrained thinking. Let us put to one side legitimate libertarian suspicions that cranks and creeps – sociopathic official power-grabbers, vaccine toting Big Pharma and WEF population cullers - are to blame for the wreckage caused, and to be caused, by medically useless lockdowns, mask mandates etc. Let’s imagine that it really is just an incredibly damaging cock-up foisted on politician by widespread unconstrained thinker opinion in officialdom and in the general population (see recent posts ‘The Telegraph Chart – It Ended in June’ and ‘It is Not About the Virus’).

The unconstrained thinker characteristically bypasses any process of discovering facts and making trade-offs. It plumps for ‘The Solution’ to be achieved at any cost. It is not clear what solution the UK government thinks it is trying to achieve. But it seems to be trying to eliminate the virus. If so, this is not just a damaging project but an impossible one. Did anyone in the state ask what the costs to health, happiness and prosperity of the lockdown measures might be – they would obviously be very great. No, it didn’t even occur to them.

Characteristically the state has decided there really are no constraints on its spending to paper over the damage its policies cause. The solution is supposed to be Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). This holds that the state can create as much money as it likes out of thin air without any ill effects. Indeed, it is supposed that taxation can take a back seat to this marvelous revenue source which is funding more than half of US government spending. This is madness (see post ‘Lockdowns are Pushing States into Coffin Corner’).

The constrained approach to this problem would be the norm in a free society, where everybody has to add value and so must make trade-offs constantly. People would be free to make their own judgements about trade-offs between protecting themselves or getting on with life. Quite quickly the problem would be identified as just another ‘bad flu season’, with little harm done. People with a constrained world view accept that people do die, and often do so at the hands of usually harmless respiratory bugs, if they have been weakened by other infirmities.


What is going on? Presumably even in a free society there would be differences of personal temperament. Some people would still presumably have an unconstrained outlook on life. They could be perfectly useful members of society – indeed they might be superb creative types. Just keep them away from management and entrepreneurial roles.

The state’s growth over the last century must however have brought about, and depended on, a wholesale conversion of a previously adult and self-reliant population to a naïve belief in unconstrained approaches to life. These are unaffordable without state subsidy. The unconstrained approach is at heart childish, and unviable if acted upon. The world is really full of constraints. Trying to be an adult means working within them. But as the unconstrained vision constituency has grown, politicians have felt obliged to extort more resources to pay for what amounts to a collective and infantilising misunderstanding about the nature of reality.

I am not sure there is any way for the two camps to talk to each other about this until the inevitable implosion of western Social Democracy occurs.

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