OPINION By Bruce Rottman


Without a vision, Solomon wrote 3000 years ago, the people perish. In a vastly different context, the economist Thomas Sowell explained how powerful and unavoidable visions are, and he gave labels to the two visions that each of us generally lines up with: constrained and unconstrained.

You may think you know why your views on society, politics, or education exist — because they…are correct. But Sowell says that any “ideology” you have really emerges from your vision. A vision is “what we sense or feel before we have constructed any systematic reason that would be called a theory…[it is] our sense of how the world works.”

People with an “unconstrained” vision see boundless possibilities; human nature is basically good, or at least a tabula rasa, and is malleable. Every glass is half full, and problems are merely waiting to be solved with good effort, a great plan, and noble intentions.

The “constrained” vision is more tragic: life is full of trade-offs rather than solutions, human nature tends to be self centered, even selfish, and it is immutable. Though we can’t change people, we can let institutions slowly evolve, and these institutions just might nudge us toward better outcomes.

Many years ago I read Christianity and Communism. Its first chapter, “Christianity is Communism,” tells a lot about what it proposed. At that time I was wavering between the two visions, without really knowing it. I told a friend how the author’s thesis was inspiring, but upholding a world in which we expect everyone to share everything was a bit idealistic. His response was: “Isn’t this what our faith expects? What’s wrong with pursuing perfection?”

He had an unconstrained vision.

But I had that nagging feeling that something was amiss — perhaps because I learned a bit of economics in high school, and much more in college, and…well, that nudges, maybe even shoves, one into a constrained vision. After spending a week in an intense study of something I had never heard of called Austrian economics at a summer seminar, I experienced a “road to Damascus” experience. I embraced the constrained vision, and consequently, I concluded (as President Reagan famously said) that government wasn’t the solution for most problems; it was the problem.

I still believe that. But that little “unconstrained” vision occasionally whispers to me. Sometimes it’s U2’s Bono, singing “I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me.”

Let’s face it. Constrained visions are like grumpy grandpas who’ve seen a lot and experienced a lot. Check out Johnny Cash’s music video of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt,” which Cash recorded months before his death. Even grumpy grandpas just might cry.

On the other hand, (even this phrase itself shows my constrained vision; apparently President Truman heard this so often from his economic advisors he jokingly asked for a one-handed advisor) unconstrained visions are like barefoot young women prancing through fields of flowers. This vision is just a lot more fun.

Which is why many people with no inkling of the economic way of thinking are drawn to utopian visions. They envision a Kumbaya-ish “we are the world” cosmos where we place freshly plucked daisies in the barrels of guns, turn swords into plowshares, and marshal our resources for a new Marshall plan to eliminate poverty, drug addiction, teen angst, and homelessness, for good measure.

Now, that sounds fun. Or at least inspiring.

Except those well-intended proposals run into the steamroller of economic logic, which is grounded in the reality of the human condition.

One quick example: poverty in the US has been dropping for many, many decades, if not centuries. Well into the drop, the federal government started spending oodles of money — trillions, with a “T”— to end poverty, aiming for a Great Society. Right around then, the decline in poverty stalled.

I wonder why.

Though we’ve had some unconstrained voices in our history (Thomas Jefferson comes to mind), the bulk of our founders (Madison, Hamilton, Washington) and their intellectual forebears (Locke, Smith, Hume) were all constrained thinkers. They “got” human nature. They set up checks, balances, federalism, bicameralism, and enumerated powers for one reason: they didn’t trust people with power, well-intentioned or not. So maybe the Founders were not “grumpy grandpas,” but more like “prudent patriots,” able to discern between reality and utopian dreams.

Still, that unconstrained voice calls, tugging at my heart, often in poetry or in music, like in Dialogue, Part I by the band Chicago:

Will you try to change things?
Use the power that you have, the power of a million new ideas?
Don’t you feel repression as the closing in around?
Don’t it make you angry the way war is dragging on?
Don’t you see the starvation in the city where you live?
All the needless hunger, all the needless pain?

Here’s my question: can we engage both our hearts and our brains?

Good intentions are not enough. If a person’s nobly articulated intentions incentivize people to detach from civil society (families, churches, schools, voluntary associations), causing them to embrace dysfunctional habits, the proponents of these ideas shouldn’t get “As” for “at least trying.” If it’s true that high minimum wages, detailed regulations, punitive marginal tax rates, escalating entitlements, and corporate subsidies cause all sorts of problems for all sorts of logical reasons, we need to do two things:

  1. Show how good intentions often produce truly awful results, and, perhaps more importantly,
  2. Hold up a vision of how prosperity, flourishing, and peace can be achieved by sober and humdrum rules, conventions, and institutions.

Maybe not “achieved.” Poverty, at least in the relative sense, will always be with us, even when we’re all millionaires. About 1 to 2 percent of people are and always have been prone to drug addiction, no matter what policies exist. Wars and rumors of wars will likely continue, though property rights and rule of law mitigate them. Teens will sometimes be snarky. Bullying wasn’t invented 20 years ago. Trade-offs are always involved when we try to improve society, or even merely improve our own lives.

My vision is that we learn how to dress up a grumpy realism in snazzier clothing, and capture the noble aspirations of the unconstrained visionaries among us.

And so, we must dream.

Bruce Rottman

Mr. Rottman has taught economics in secondary schools for over 40 years, and is currently Director of Brookfield Academy’s Free Enterprise Institute, in Brookfield, Wisconsin.