Monday, August 31, 2009

A Conflict of Visions, Part 1

In my last blog I discussed the different kinds of rights, rights to be free from certain types government interference compared to rights to something someone else must work for. I'm going to follow up with a review of a book that explains many of the reasons some want to restrict our rights to protection while others believe we should have rights to what others produce. The book is, A Conflict of Visions, Ideological Origins of Political Struggles by Thomas Sowell, 232pp plus notes and index, William Morrow and Company, Inc. New York, 1987

Though relatively old, this book is still fresh and provides insights into the roots of many differences in our world today. It explains reasons why people of different political persuasions often talk past each other, each considering the other either immoral or stupid, perhaps both. Because of unexamined visions, they see the world very differently and even give different meanings to the same words.

Sowell's expressed intent here is not to support either vision but to get people to think about and understand them. “We will do almost anything for our visions, except think about them. The purpose of this book is to think about them.” While that may not lead to agreement, it should at least lead to more productive discussion. I believe he does a good job of maintaining neutrality in this book. His later book, The Vision of the Anointed takes a different stance, much in favor of what he calls the constrained vision. I intend to review that book next.

A vision, as used in this book, is a mental map of our world, especially of the nature of people in that world. As with all maps, it cannot include every detail of that world but must be simplified to those parts the vision holder takes as most important and representative of the world. There are an unlimited number of available visions, possibly as many as there are people on earth. However we can simplify these by categorizing them as “constrained” or “unconstrained.” Of course this is not an either-or situation, there is really a continuum of visions between the extremes. There are also hybrid visions (such as Marxism) which consider part of the world (the past) to be constrained and part (the future) unconstrained.

These visions are generally unexamined and most people don't even realize that their thinking is based more or less on one of them. However much of their world-view is the direct result of which vision they accept. That especially applies to political beliefs.

The constrained vision regards man as imperfect, both morally and intellectually. Though this vision does recognize the opportunity and need for improvement, it holds that human imperfection must be considered in all public activities. Each person contributes best in his sphere of competence and the end result is that society evolves in such a way that it works. Nobody is competent in everything but the total knowledge spread throughout the populace is greater than any small group of experts could ever posses. This vision also holds that we cannot trust everybody to be moral, even the so-called elites. Therefore people with the constrained vision usually reject the idea that an elite should rule or make decisions for everybody. They also tend to pay attention to trade-offs since they do not expect perfection. If a trade-off brings improvement, that is what should be done.

The unconstrained vision regards man as potentially perfectible on this earth, again both morally and intellectually. Indeed the unconstrained view tends to equate the intellectual with the moral, believing that reason will lead to morality. Though this vision recognizes current imperfections, it tends to hold that they are correctable and often assumes that they will soon be corrected. In this view, the elite will teach the masses and bring everybody up to their level of articulated wisdom and ability. Thus those who accept the unconstrained vision often ignore human weaknesses in their efforts to build a new society.

Further, the unconstrained view holds that it is the current institutions that stand in the way of that perfection and that it is the duty of the intellectually advanced to break down those obstacles, over the objections of the masses if necessary, and indeed by force if that is what it takes. This leads naturally to a belief that society is responsible for most actions and a rejection of individual responsibility. It also promotes acceptance of an intellectual elite who should be the surrogate decision-makers for the world. That of course is consistent with an elitist big government controlling most or all of the affairs of our lives. The unconstrained vision tends to reject trade-offs, seeking perfection instead. It regards a trade-off as an obstacle to the real solution.

The constrained view, on the other hand, holds that no person or small group of people is wise and knowledgeable enough to make all decisions for everybody. Even if they were, there is no assurance of the morality of such a person or group, so we cannot trust them to act in the best interest of their fellowman. In this view, each person is capable in his/her own area and should make decisions based on that ability, not as directed by some remote authority. This view is more consistent with a limited government philosophy.

These two visions tend to dominate much of our public discussion. Which vision a person accepts correlates with his conception of knowledge, morality, power, rationality, freedom, and law. Most of the book is devoted to exploration of how these concepts are affected by constrained vs. unconstrained visions.

(To be continued, including some specific examples of how the two different visions affect what people believe.)

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