Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Warning: This post is long and boring. You have been forewarned.

Prior to moving to DC, I was severely apolitical. Maybe it was some sort of post-grad school disenfranchisement. Maybe it was oblivious self-centeredness. Whatever it was, I could not have cared less about politics—either at the local or the national level.

Fast forward to today, where I am loving every second of the political extravaganza currently sweeping the District. I’m amused by my friends’ politically charged status updates on Facebook. And I read with much interest the various flavors of punditry surrounding the campaigns, even though I patently hate pundits.

So here’s the thought I’ve had lately, especially with questions that have been raised about candidates’ inexperience and lack of qualifications. It relates to an inherent ideological conflict that Sowell (2002) explains in his book, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles.

The human decision-making process is fundamentally bound to an individual or group’s particular vision; motivation for action is inexorably linked to worldview. In the book, Sowell explains two divergent ideologies that shape human decision-making: constrained and unconstrained visions. In the constrained vision, man is egocentric and morally limited; consequent social benefits are achieved through trade-offs—incentives that influence behavior. Conversely, in the unconstrained vision, man has limitless potential and can realize social benefits through moral commitment.

The constrained vision relies on collective wisdom derived from the experience of the many rather than the individual. Experiences are didactic, and minimal intervention from institutions is required beyond fulfilling one’s own individual roles. The locus of discretion therefore is with everyone who “does his part” to make society work. (If we stop spending money on Apple products, the terrorists win!) So while some institutions exist to ensure the integrity of the system, individuals are inherently responsible for sustaining and maintaining our way of life. In this vision, incentives and trade-offs collectively influence human decision-making to produce the most efficient progress with the least cost. Indeed, in this view, “the best social decisions are to be made… by systemic processes that mobilize and coordinate knowledge scattered among the many, in individually unimpressive amounts” (Sowell, 2002, p. 45).

The unconstrained vision differs in that its proponents believe that man is limitless and can therefore produce a class of “cultivated minds” (p. 40) to serve as surrogate decision-makers for the population. The human potential for improvement is absolute such that “the best conduct of social activities depends upon the special knowledge of the few being used to guide the actions of the many” (p. 42). Thus, the locus of discretion falls on the select few who have already gained intellectual expertise and who (hopefully) act with reason and sincerity in the best interest of the larger populace. Interestingly, a common downfall cited by constrained visionaries, however, is the “intellectual’s narrow conception of what constitutes knowledge and wisdom” (p. 43). In the unconstrained vision, knowledge is more narrowly defined and “restricted to the more sophisticatedly articulated facts and relationships” (p. 62). Consequently, in this vision, history and articulated rationality produced by the elite few is valued more than the collective experience of the many.

How this all relates to my original point about politics: This conflict plays out in our institutions, and most recently, in the gigantic machine that is the 2008 campaign for U.S. President.

Against a backdrop of democracy, it’s a little jarring to think about critiques of inexperience (from both sides) juxtaposed against the idealistic notion that anyone from the masses can rise to the highest position in the land. How does a novice advance him/herself in such a context? And who possesses the right to judge whether a person is or is not qualified to hold a particular office? Is it the masses or the selected few “cultivated minds”?

Deep thoughts on a Friday night.


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