Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Conflict of Visions, Part 2

Continuing the review of A Conflict of Visions, Ideological Origins of Political Struggles by Thomas Sowell, I’ll look at some of the specific ways different visions affect our thinking. It is not feasible in this review to describe all the concepts this book treats, so a couple of examples will have to do.

One is the concept of equality. In the constrained view, equality means equal opportunity consistent with a person's ability and resources. As long as we do not remove the options different people have, they have equality, everybody has a chance to try whatever he wants with the opportunity to compete fairly. The unconstrained view, on the other hand, seeks equality of outcome. It is not enough to allow everyone to apply for a job and be selected on merit. Instead we must be certain that all have an equal chance to get it. In this vision, a 120-pound woman should have the same right to be a firefighter as a 200-pound man who can carry twice as much fire hose as can she.

The unconstrained view focuses on outcome, trying to make the outcome of everything be what those with this view believe it should be. However the constrained view tends to focus on the process, desiring a process that gives everyone a chance. In the constrained view, the 120-pound woman is welcome to try to become a firefighter but she must demonstrate the same ability as the 200-pound man.

Another example is the idea of knowledge and reason. In the extreme unconstrained view, we know nothing except what we can learn by our reason; the customs and knowledge of the ages are considered suspect or worse. However the constrained vision views individual or even group reason as suspect since no person or group of people can have all knowledge, nor is their reasoning ability or morality likely to be perfect. The constrained vision tends to believe that we should pay a great deal of attention to the accumulated wisdom of the ages and change the practices derived therefrom only carefully.

In this book Sowell follows many writers from the past and present with Adam Smith being the archetype of the constrained vision and William Godwin that for the unconstrained. He also regards the American Revolution with its resulting constitutionally limited government as a result of the constrained view and the French revolution as a result of the unconstrained view.

In summary, the unconstrained vision sees mankind (or at least the elite) as capable of managing, essentially micromanaging, our entire economy and society and morally equipped to do so. The constrained vision views that idea as the height of arrogance. Society is so complex as to be beyond our ability to manage all the details, especially the details of the lives of others. In the constrained view, each person manages his own affairs within the limits imposed by a society that has developed those limits over centuries of experience (though the societal constraints are constantly changing).

This leads those with the constrained vision to be strong supporters of individual freedom and responsibility, believing that each person should earn his own way and be accountable for his own errors and crimes. Criminals, the poor etc. are that way because of individual choices they made. On the other hand, those with the unconstrained vision tend to think that “society” is responsible for everything. Crime exists because society caused it. Poverty exists because of defects in society – defects those with the unconstrained vision believe themselves capable of correcting.

The result of these visions is that people tend to be quite consistent in their beliefs on a variety of issues. Those with the constrained vision tend to want limited government, penalties for criminals, military preparation to protect against national enemies etc. However those with the unconstrained vision tend to prefer powerful government, rehabilitation for criminals, negotiation instead of military power etc. In both cases, their unexamined visions govern how they think about all those issues.

This book is so dense with information that a review of reasonable length cannot do justice to it. To really “get it” you need to read it. All and in all, it is an excellent book, one I believe every politically active citizen should read. In fact if I had my way it would be required reading in every high school in the country. It will help each side understand the other in many of our conflicts.

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