A Conflict of Visions
Ideological Origins of Political Struggles
By Thomas Sowell
This is a book not only for the serious student of political thought, but for anyone who wants a better understanding of what leads honest and sincere individuals to hold extraordinarily divergent views. The author proposes the concept of two visions behind the ideologies that form the sides of political debate. To understand the two visions is to understand the roots from which grow the set of beliefs common among members of each side of the divide. This is a profound book.
For example, have you ever wondered why some call for strict adherence to our Constitution as written and amended, while others insist a flexible Constitution is required to facilitate the advancement of society? Why do some call for peace through strength via a strong military while others argue that peace is best attained through dialogue and a diminished non-intimidating military? Sowell traces the divide and finds its roots are in how one envisions humanity. He describes two visions, giving them the awkward but apt names “constrained” and “unconstrained”.
The constrained vision sees mankind as eternally fallible and seeks the best for humanity by arranging government within the limitations (constraints) imposed by that view. Holders of this vision put more faith in the collected wisdom of the ages than in the wisdom of a few people of superior intellect. The constrained vision is a skeptical one and seeks to optimize.
The unconstrained vision sees failures in governance as individual mistakes, mistakes by which we must learn and thereby avoid in the future. This vision considers people of superior intellect to be capable of ordering a better society than one developed serendipitously from the collected experiences of the common man. Holders of this vision put their faith in leaders and do not feel constrained to work within the limitations of an imperfect humanity. Theirs is an optimistic vision that seeks to maximize.
This book is not about Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals. It is far more fundamental than that. These terms are used rarely if at all. Sowell likes to use the French and American revolutions to exemplify the respective visions in action. Consistent with the unconstrained vision, the French put their faith in Napoleon and allowed him great freedom to lead. Reflective of the constrained vision our founders put their faith in a Constitution that limited the powers of central government and a republican structure as a portal by which common wisdom may enter.
To me the dichotomy of Sowell’s visions is nowhere more evident than in the approach to peace and war. The constrained vision sees periodic wars as inevitable due to the imperfect nature of man. The goal is to minimize the damages of war. The strategy is to maintain the strength and will to fight, discouraging aggressors and shortening the battle with those who will not be discouraged. The unconstrained vision sees each war as an isolated event that should not and need not have occurred. Elimination of war is the goal. The strategies are to negotiate, shy from battle and not to provoke. If there is no will to fight there will be no war.
The book is divided into two parts. The first explains the concepts and implications. The second part is titled Applications, with chapters on Visions of Equality, of Power, of Justice, of Values and Paradigms. Like a good novel, wherever you put the book down you are anxious to learn what is coming next. But this is no novel. It reads like a textbook. There are 41 pages of reference notes in the revised paperback edition used for this review. To absorb all it has to offer will take some dedication. You will be rewarded accordingly..
I give Conflict of Visions 5 Stars, Random Thots’ highest rating.
What others have said
“‘A Conflict of Visions’ will become a classic of a very special kind. Every once in a blue moon. . . a scholar will throw out a gem of a book, crafted with a passion for the truth and love for mankind. Reading books like these is like looking up at the night sky and discovering a new constellation. Thomas Sowell is suddenly up there now.”
–Christian Science Monitor
“It is recommended herewith to anybody sufficiently interested in the American condition to try to get beneath the surface of partisanship, trendy issues and pop ideology to the philosophical foundations of the Republic.”
The author’s application of terms occasionally left me groping for context to get the intended meaning. It may just that I never went to college. When a professor says “utility” he means degree of benefit. To me, utility is where I pay the electric bill. For instance when he said sincerity is more cherished by the unconstrained and fidelity by the constrained I was temporarily lost. However, by context I understood it to mean that depth of belief (sincerity) is paramount in the unconstrained vision, whereas in the constrained vision, observing rule of law and tradition (fidelity) is more important than ideological belief.
Other juxtapositions include Rational vs. Experience and Process vs. Result. I leave it to the reader to garner the meaning of these terms as the author uses them. If I expound excessively you will know the butler did it and not want to read the book.
Here’s a gem from Part I, Summary and Implications.
“Neither the left-right dichotomy nor the dichotomy between the constrained and unconstrained visions turns on the relative importance of the individuals‘ benefit and the common good. All make the common good paramount, though they differ completely as to how it is to be achieved. In short, it is not a moral “value premise” which divides them but their different empirical assumptions as to human nature and social cause and effect.”
I think he said both have equally good intentions but disagree on how to achieve them.
Justice, process, rights and results. More words with varying definitions. One vision sees justice as equality in the process – equal opportunity and observance of law. The other sees justice as the establishment of equality of results – unequal wealth is injustice.
At the heart of the conflict between visions is a conflict between the right to equal treatment or the right to equal status. These equalities being mutually exclusive, the conflict is irreconcilable.