Book notes: A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell

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So, this should be required reading for everyone before they get to post a political opinion to Facebook. Let’s make that a thing. Can we make that a thing? Hey, Facebook, you with me? It would improve the quality of people’s feeds by about 2500%.

Yeah, okay.

This book took me forever to get through. Light and easy reading, it is not. Sowell is an economist and academic and philosopher and, well, he writes like one. Although I’ve heard his Introduction to Economics is one of the most accessible, understandable texts on the subject, so maybe the issue is my vocabulary and reading comprehension. Most likely.

This book is not about condoning a particular vision or political philosophy. Rather, it is about reminding us all that the voracious debates over political, economic, and social issues come from a basic conflict. This conflict is one of foundational visions: which vision you believe in will determine what you think about various issues and problems and how to solve them.

Sowell is careful in the book not to advocate for one vision or another. I appreciate that. He quotes from well-known authors on both sides (the two visions are called the “Constrained” and “Unconstrained” visions). He points out that it’s a mistake to identify one vision as the political left and one as the right, because it isn’t that simple and clear-cut:

This also illustrates the pitfalls of mechanically translating unconstrained and constrained visions into the political left and right, since Godwin and Condorcet were more ‘radical’ than many on the left who would not share their reluctance to touch property rights or invoke government planning.

This is yet another book that I need to read again to fully understand. That list keeps growing. I took my own sweet time reading it, underlined and highlighted and marked up notes in the margins, but there’s plenty that I didn’t understand well, at all.

The parts I do understand are as follows:

1. There are two basic visions that exist and have existed for a long time. There are many variations of these two visions, and nothing in the social realm is easy to define objectively, but there are two distinct visions that can be seen, in various incarnations, for hundreds of years.

The entire spectrum of social visions cannot be neatly dichotomized into the constrained and the unconstrained, though it is remarkable how many leading visions of the past two centuries fit into these two categories. Moreover, this dichotomy extends across moral, economic, legal, and other fields….However, what makes a vision a vision is not its scope but its coherence—the consistency between its underlying premises and its specific conclusions, whether those conclusions cover a narrow or a broad range.

2. These two visions see humanity in two very different ways. Because of the basic difference in how they see humanity, the visions come to very different conclusions about how politics, culture, morals, society, economy, so on should and can work.

…it is also necessary to understand that a very fundamental conflict between two visions has persisted as a dominant ideological phenomenon for centuries, and shows no signs of disappearing. The inevitable compromises of practical day-to-day politics are more in the nature of truces than of peace treaties.

3. Because of the difference in how these two visions view humanity, and the resulting differences in how each vision concludes that problems should be solved and progress achieved, there are many, many instances in which people with different visions use the same words but with very different meanings. This tends to cause a lot of frustration and confusion.

For example,

Both visions believe in rights. But rights as conceived in the unconstrained vision are virtually a negation of rights as conceived in the constrained vision. …the constrained vision thinks of legal boundaries within which private individuals and groups may make their own decisions…This is a process conception of rights. …the unconstrained vision sees rights as inhering in individuals for their own individual benefit and as fundamental recognitions of their humanity….justified or not by their relative importance to the individuals who exercised them …seen in a results context.

Potato, po-tah-to: if you say the word differently but mean the same thing, no big deal. But if you say the word the same way (“rights!”), but mean two very different things… Hmmm. Problem.

There’s more. Lots more! Some of it I understood and much of it I did not.

Also, I felt like I agreed about 50% with the constrained vision and about 50% with the unconstrained vision so I guess maybe that’s why I hate politics?