Tom Friedman’s notion of what he calls “systemic misunderstanding” is a condition of debate or conflict between or among parties in disagreement wherein the conflict cannot be resolved with more facts or information. With Thomas Sowell, among my favorite essayists, such a condition is even more deeply seated in what he has named “a conflict of visions”, which is also the title of his great book of twenty or so years ago. For Sowell, the intellectual origins of the sides of debate on essentially all public policy issues can ultimately be traced to the degree to which the opposing parties are of the “constrained” or “unconstrained” vision. Consequently, the very meaning of words like “freedom”, “rights”, “equality”, and “power” may be drastically different, depending on their context within different worldviews, or visions of man.
Without getting too mired in the details of Sowell’s thought, the two key criteria for distinguishing the constrained and unconstrained visions are (1) the locus of discretion (who decides?) and (2) the mode of discretion (what is the decision process?). Both visions acknowledge inherent limitations in man, but the nature and degree of these limitations is different. Put simply, the unconstrained vision allows for considerably more knowledge, morality, virtue, and fortitude on the part of human nature to successfully accomplish its objectives than are thought humanly possible by the constrained vision.
I have been thinking of Sowell and his thought on these issues throughout the health care debate over the past year, and it occurs to me that nothing so vividly illustrates the validity of his theory, as well as Friedman’s, than the profound policy differences in evidence here. Examine closely the comments from noted commentators from the left and you get the picture: Thomas Frank writes that the left is “reclaiming freedom” from the right in this debate and he points to FDR’s Four Freedoms, particularly the one about “freedom from want”, as the foundation for government intervention in the provision of health care. Most people of the constrained vision would respond that freedom is not defined as a taxpayer-funded entitlement. In his book, The Future of Liberalism, Alan Wolfe writes that “the welfare state is an institutionalization of the moral idea of empathy”, while most of us of the constrained vision are wary of those who seek power under the guise of government delivery of empathy. Then there is our President, who, in response to a question by the New York Times on how we will deal with a health care system that will potentially allocate 80% of its resources to the chronically ill and those near the end of life, said “it is very difficult to imagine the country making those decisions just through the normal political channels”. You get the point–with universal health care we have the ultimate in unconstrained vision proposed by those who are convinced of the efficacy, morality, virtue, and intentions of rational elites and their bureaucracies to deliver it. The result so far is that our House of Representatives has just passed what the Wall Street Journal has called “the worst bill ever”.
Finally, there is another way to define the struggle at work here, ably noted by Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, but entirely consistent with Sowell’s conflict of visions. Brooks notes that the health care debate is part of a larger moral issue over the free enterprise system (a constrained vision, by the way), and that it will be replayed in every other major policy area in coming months. It comes down to competing visions of America’s future based on the same notions about the nature of man and his limitations–will we strengthen freedom (properly understood), opportunity, and enterprise, or will we expand the role and power of the state? A source of systemic misunderstanding big time, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.