A Constrained Vision:

Just came across a cool blog that I hadn't seen before--"A Constrained Vision." (Hat Tip: Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution)

Definitely some good stuff there, but mainly this is just an excuse to mention one of my favorite books, Thomas Sowell's, A Conflict of Visions. Not only do I find it profound and insightful, but I have found it essential reading as a professor, especially one who teaches from a law & economics perspective.

Sowell distinguishes between what he calls the "constrained vision," which sees the world in terms of trade-offs and inherently tragic choices (i.e., you can't "have it all"). The "unconstrained vision" sees the world in end-state terms, and says we should fix problems when we find them. For fans of Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance" you will see a similarity between Sowell's categories and Pirsig's "classical" and "romantic" versions.

So, for example, consider something like famine relief in Africa: the unconstrained vision says, "people are starving, give them food." The constrained vision says, "people are starving, but if we give them food, that just means that we will have to give them food again next year, because we will destroy domestic farmers who can't compete with free food." Note, neither of these approaches are necessarily correct, they are simply different and raise different questions. Sowell says, I think correctly, that most people resolve these difficult normative questions at a subconscious level that just automatically focuses us to either focus on the starving people today on one hand, versus the tradeoff of starving people tomorrow on the other. Often we are not even aware of how we draw these tradeoffs.

So why do I think that Sowell is essential reading for law professors (and lawyers, for that matter)? Because during our lives about half the people we interact with will have the opposite "vision" from us. So, if you are a law & economics guy (like me), you are naturally attuned to the constrained vision. And one reason why law & econ seems so foreign to so many is because many lawyers hold the unconstrained vision--they are concerned about pursuing justice and rectifying injustice, not hearing about tradeoffs and limitations. So unless the holder of the constrained vision can respond to the concerns of the unconstrained vision as well, then this is just two ships passing in the night.

One could easily tick down the Supreme Court, for instance, and for those with a coherent and consistent jurisprudence quickly place most of the Justices in a constrained versus unconstrained box (Scalia, Thomas, Rehnquist constrained; Souter, Brennan, Warren unconstrained).

Many professors and policy-makers can get trapped in their own vision, without realizing that their vision is not shared by all. I think this is one reason why economists often are unable to do more influence policy.

When I was in grad school, one of my professor remarked about the economic inefficiency of mandatory environmental recycling, "Arguing that recycling is economic inefficient is like arguing that communion wafers are not nutritious." The point is that the argument is simply unresponsive to the underlying concern of the person with whom you are conversing.

So, to make the long story short, read Sowell. To make it even shorter, I think we can all gain from recognizing our own particular visions and the need to relate them to the similar or dissimilar visions of those around us. And in the meantime, visit the "A Constrained Vision" blog.