Why do beliefs cluster the way they do?
If someone believes that only police and military should have guns, why is that person also likely to support socialized healthcare and a government-imposed minimum wage, and be unsupportive of school vouchers? In his 1987 book A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, economist Thomas Sowell put forth two conflicting visions of man that he believes explain many of the underlying reasons for the clustering of beliefs.
In what he terms the “constrained vision,” man is by nature flawed, selfish, and limited. Under the constrained vision, man seeks to deal with his flaws and excesses by establishing institutions of restraint: the separation of powers, constitutions, etc. Those who employ the constrained vision see abuses of power by leaders like Napoleon Bonaparte as inevitable. For this reason, limitations must be placed on power and on the institutions themselves so that it is more difficult for any individual to abuse them. The idea is to decentralize power so that man’s flaws are not catastrophic.
The “unconstrained vision,” by contrast, sees abuses of power as being caused by not having chosen the right leaders or established the right kinds of institutions. “Implicit,” writes Sowell, “is the notion that the potential is very different from the actual, and that means exist to improve human nature toward its potential, or that such means can be evolved or discovered, so that man will do the right thing for the right reason rather than for ulterior psychic or economic rewards.” And central to the unconstrained vision is the notion that human beings are highly malleable; they can be trained in the service of some ideal.
Steven Pinker’s 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Naturebuilds on much of Sowell’s work. He refers to Sowell’s constrained and unconstrained visions as the “tragic” and “utopian visions,” respectively. Pinker argues that much of the Unconstrained Vision is rooted in the false belief that individuals are born with no pre-programmed software (or innate human nature). This blank slate (or tabula rasa) belief, Pinker claims, was often based on good intentions; after all, if we are born equal in every way, this could also eradicate social and economic concepts of inequality, but the problem is that human behavioral sciences have already demonstrated that the human mind does, in fact, come with certain innate biological programming, which is unique for every individual.
by Emile Phaneuf