Constrained / Unconstrained: Human Nature and Political Economy

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned – Romans 5:12

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? – Jeremiah 17:9

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. – Genesis 3:6

If you believe that people are sinful there is a strong argument to be made for free enterprise economy.

In a Comparative Economic Systems class I have the privilege of teaching at Cedarville University, we read A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles by Thomas Sowell. The book was challenging and informative, deepening our understanding of why we think the way we do about political economy. Sowell helps us to understand why good intentioned individuals can have such radically different perspectives and conclusions on economic matters. The book came highly recommended to me and I can highly recommend it to you.

Sowell observed that people’s political opinions on diverse issues tend to have a general consistency. While the issues themselves have no apparent intrinsic link, perspectives on the issues tend to show a uniformity between groups of people. That is, people tend to have opinions that are on the political “right” on diverse issues or on the political “left” on the issues. Sowell further observed that individual people in one political camp tend to evidence what he called a “constrained” vision of human nature while people in the other political camp tend to have an “unconstrained” vision of human nature. The constrained vision of human nature states that there are “moral limitations” (p. 12) in humanity in general. People are constrained and fundamentally self interested. Those holding to an unconstrained vision of human nature believe that people inherently have an “untapped moral potential” (p. 17) and any constraint on human achievement is attributed to the external environment rather than inherent human failings and shortcomings. Sowell readily concedes that in reality this taxonomy is too simplistic in that any one individual today will have characteristics of both the constrained and unconstrained vision of human nature. Many of the examples he provides of one vision or the other are from several hundred years ago. However, the distinction between constrained and unconstrained visions of human nature provides a useful framework for thinking about political economy.

The constrained vision of human nature is consistent with and leads to a free market perspective on social organization. Those with a constrained vision believe that social processes should be governed loosely and with a great deal of freedom. One person (because all people are constrained) should not and cannot make choices for another person in many areas of political economy. The unintended negative consequences far outweigh any positive benefits. However, there are great unintended benefits from a society organized around principles of freedom. The unconstrained vision on human nature leads to a more centralized social organization with the morally and intellectually superior people discovering and implementing effective solutions to problems of political economy.

I would like to make one extension of the concepts Sowell discusses. The Bible describes human beings as fallen and sinful. Sin enslaves people and constrains them. Sinful humanity is consistent with Sowell’s conception of the constrained vision for human nature. I am not saying that a biblical or Christian understanding of human nature is completely consistent with the constrained vision. However, I do believe the universality of sin is basically consistent with a constrained view of human nature. I also believe that Sowell’s analysis connecting a free emergent order with the constrained vision of human nature is correct. Hence, if you believe that people are sinful there is a strong argument to be made for free enterprise economy.


One thought on “Constrained / Unconstrained: Human Nature and Political Economy”

  1. In an unconstrained vision of human nature, one would assume that the “morally or intellectually superior” set of people would be a distinct minority. If humanity is mostly morally derelict, then one would not expect this small minority of “wise shepherds” to be able to guide the rest of the rambling “sheep” effectively if at all. I believe that the opposite would most likely prevail, especially in a democratic society where majority rule and public opinion mean everything. It is far more likely that the most sociopathic members of our species would in fact populate the positions of power and influence supposedly reserved for our lone dissidents and champions of morality. I agree with Sowell that Human nature seems to be much more nuanced and constrained in that mankind is naturally self-interested. Free enterprise and trade seem to emerge due to the ease of mutual benefits it provides as opposed to conflict.

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