Controversies in politics arise from many sources, but the conflicts that endure for generations or centuries show a remarkably consistent pattern. In this classic work, Thomas Sowell analyzes this pattern. He describes the two competing visions that shape our debates about the nature of reason, justice, equality, and power: the “constrained” vision, which sees human nature as unchanging and selfish, and the “unconstrained” vision, in which human nature is malleable and perfectible. A Conflict of Visions offers a convincing case that ethical and policy disputes circle around the disparity between both outlooks.
The quote from the title from John Stuart Mill was quoted by Jonathan Haidt in an address given at a conference entitled “Free to Teach, Free to Learn.” His basic premise is that viewpoint diversity on campus is essential to the scientific process, so that we are confronted with our own biases, and eventually come to the truth. I felt that Thomas Sowell’s Conflict of Visions was an excellent attempt at what is rarely done today: understanding the other’s point of view. And not just superficially, but down to the basic roots and assumptions of their arguments.
Sowell defines a vision as follows: “A vision has been described as a ‘pre-analytic cognitive act.’ It is what we sense or feel before we have constructed any systematic reasoning that could be called a theory, much less deduced any specific consequences as hypotheses to be tested against evidence. A vision is our sense of how the world works.” We sometimes delude ourselves that we don’t have visions: that we can deal directly with facts. Or, perhaps, that our opponents just don’t face the facts, while we have embraced their consequences. But unfortunately, unless you happen to be omnipotent, visions are just part of being human.
A Conflict of Visions limits itself to social theories, specifically two views of how the world works, the constrained vision and the unconstrained vision, rooted in two very different models of causation. The unconstrained vision, as exemplified by Rousseau, believes that man is inherently good and “born free”, and is limited only by poorly constructed institutions. Opposed to Rousseau are those of the constrained vision, such as Hobbes, where political institutions are the only things preventing all-out war. Without these institutions, life would be “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” The unconstrained vision trusts man’s inherent goodness, and that we create better societies through better government, better programs, everything better. Those of the constrained vision don’t trust man as far as he can walk, so they are wary of large concentrations of power.
Examples: Justice, knowledge
Because these visions have such differing assumptions, the very terms used in discussion also differ– in some cases, causing them to argue past one another. For instance, in the constrained vision, justice is viewed as a social process: a series of ground rules that affect everyone equally. We can’t complain when the results of those processes aren’t exactly what we would like. We desire good results, but we can’t directly control it. Those of the unconstrained vision view justice as a result: for instance, how wealth is distributed. If wealth isn’t evenly distributed, it is unjust, and even if the law treated everyone equally, it is flawed because it didn’t give equal results.
Another example of differences is the role of knowledge. In the constrained vision, knowledge is primarily experience, and is dispersed fairly evenly among the population. It comes in the form of tradition, customs, and prices. Those of the unconstrained vision, don’t give experience as much weight, and believe knowledge primarily comes from reason. Thus, knowledge is less evenly distributed, and mostly resides in an intellectual elite, who are to be trusted as social surrogates to make decisions for the less educated few.
First, I appreciated reading an honest attempt at framing two political visions side by side without questioning motives or resorting to ad hominem attacks. Sowell doesn’t try to tell you which vision is correct. Representatives on both sides are viewed at their good moments and their bad. Oliver Wendell Holmes, a chief justice of the Supreme Court representing the constrained vision, ruled that because the government can call on its citizens to make certain sacrifices, it was legal to sterilize the feebleminded. That perhaps sounds condescending and paternalistic today. But those of the unconstrained vision have their darker sides revealed too. I was surprised at their disdain of the working class; Shaw, for instance, said the working class are among the “detestable” people who “have no right to live.” He added “I should despair if I did not know that they will all die presently, and that there is no need on earth why they should be replaced by people like themselves.” And that was the “nice” socialists of Britain.
Second, I appreciated a book that went to the heart of political arguments. Today in a political discussion, you aren’t likely to bring up Rousseau’s or Hobbes’ theory of man and the implications they have on U.S. foreign policy or social programs. Most political discussions take the form of shoring up your moral position, and condemning the other side for cold-heartedness or ignorance or some combination of the two. Do we even rely on reasons or argument anymore?
I’m glad I stumbled upon Sowell, and I plan to read a few more of his works.