A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles

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A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, by Thomas Sowell, (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002), 292 pp., $18.95 (paperback).

Thomas Sowell, presently Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, has written many books on economics, ranging from the technical such as Classical Economics Reconsidered (2006) to the popular such as Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy (2003). Despite receiving his doctorate in economics under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago, like his mentor, he has not limited himself to writing solely on economics matters; he frequently addresses controversial social issues (and has no hesitation in taking contrarian views if he concludes that the data support these views). His recent Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study (2004) reviews the effects of preferential programs historically worldwide (and frequently finds the effects harmful - including increased social strife - without any demonstrated achievement of stated goals). His analyses of culture are both incisive and provocative. In Black Rednecks and White Liberals (2005) he reviews key beliefs regarding blacks. Jews, slavery, and education, among others, reaching conclusions that may raise many hackles. Sowell is normally classified as a conservative thinker, given his freemarket economics and his debunking of what he describes as liberal myths. Moreover, many of his books advocate for a particular economic or social position.

In A Conflict of Visions, however, he has no position to advocate. Instead, he discusses what he believes are the underlying visions of how people operate behind liberal and conservative approaches to political life. He defines "vision" as a pre-analytic. preverbal view of how things work in the world, in this case with respect to human behavior and society. Relevant visions are preverbal beliefs about human causation -why people behave as they do, what one can expect from people, how one can change human behavior, what political organization is best suited for society, and the like. This is a political philosophy or political psychology book, examining the differences in world vision between liberals and conservatives. Sowell makes the case that underlying differences in vision best explain the divide between liberals and conservatives as follows (p. 3):

"One of the curious things about political opinions is how often the same people line up on opposite sides of different issues. The issues themselves may have no intrinsic connection with each other. They may range from military spending to drug laws to monetary policy to education. Yet the same familiar faces can be found glaring at each other from opposite sides of the political fence, again and again. It happens too often to be coincidence and it is too uncontrolled to be a plot. A closer look at the arguments on both sides often shows that they are reasoning from fundamentally different premises. These different premises-often implicit-are what provide the consistency behind the repeated opposition of individuals and groups on numerous, unrelated issues. They have different visions of how the world works."

Sowell traces the historical roots of two broad visions of human behavior and motivations -constrained and unconstrained. He does a beautiful historical survey of philosophers/economists/political philosophers (in centuries past, these were frequently the same persons), pointing out that those whom we now call liberals have an unconstrained view of humans, whereas those whom we now call conservatives have a constrained view. By that he means that an unconstrained view believes that humans are perfectible, basically good creatures, and we simply have to help people to achieve (or at least move towards) this perfection. Government created and run by a rational, educated elite will do this. Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and more recently John Kenneth Galbraith illustrate this type. …