A Conflict of Visions
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A Conflict of Visions is a book by Thomas Sowell. It was originally published in 1987; a revised edition appeared in 2007. Sowell's opening chapter attempts to answer the question of why the same people tend to be political adversaries in issue after issue, when the issues vary enormously in subject matter and sometimes hardly seem connected to one another. The root of these conflicts, Sowell claims, are the "visions", or the intuitive feelings that people have about human nature; different visions imply radically different consequences for how they think about everything from war to justice.
The rest of the book describes two basic visions, the "constrained" and "unconstrained" visions, which are thought to capture opposite ends of a continuum of political thought on which one can place many contemporary Westerners, in addition to their intellectual ancestors of the past few centuries.
The book has been published both with and without the subtitle "Ideological Origins of Political Struggles".
Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate calls Sowell's explanation the best theory given to date. In this book, Pinker refers to the "constrained vision" as the "tragic vision" and the "unconstrained vision" as the "utopian vision".
The competing visions
The Unconstrained Vision
Sowell argues that the unconstrained vision relies heavily on the belief that human nature is essentially good. Those with an unconstrained vision distrust decentralized processes and are impatient with large institutions and systemic processes that constrain human action. They believe there is an ideal solution to every problem, and that compromise is never acceptable. Collateral damage is merely the price of moving forward on the road to perfection. Sowell often refers to them as "the self anointed." Ultimately they believe that man is morally perfectible. Because of this, they believe that there exist some people who are further along the path of moral development, have overcome self-interest and are immune to the influence of power and therefore can act as surrogate decision-makers for the rest of society.
The Constrained Vision
Sowell argues that the constrained vision relies heavily on belief that human nature is essentially unchanging and that man is naturally inherently self-interested, regardless of the best intentions. Those with a constrained vision prefer the systematic processes of the rule of law and experience of tradition. Compromise is essential because there are no ideal solutions, only trade-offs. Those with a constrained vision favor solid empirical evidence and time-tested structures and processes over intervention and personal experience. Ultimately, the constrained vision demands checks and balances and refuses to accept that all people could put aside their innate self-interest.
- Charles Murray reviewed the book favorably on the website of the American Enterprise Institute.
- Viktor Vanberg offered a mixed review of the book in Cato Journal. Bryan Caplan wrote a negative review of the book on his website. Caplan's review was discussed by Arnold Kling.
References in other works
- Jonathan Haidt referenced Sowell's work in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.
- Steven Pinker referenced the ideas described by Sowell (in this book and the later book The Vision of the Anointed) in his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.
- Edward Younkins wrote an introduction to Sowell's work in The Social Critic.
- Sowell, Thomas (2007) [First published 1987]. A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (Revised ed.). Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-00205-4.
- "The Blog: Tragic vs. Utopian View of Human Nature". Ben Casnocha. 2009-10-13. Retrieved 2010-03-17.
- For helpful discussion of Sowell's dualistic ideological model, see Joseph G. Conti and Brad Stetson, Challenging the Civil Rights Establishment: Profiles of a New Black Vanguard, (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1993, pp. 85--122).
- Murray, Charles (2005-12-19). "Thomas Sowell--Seeing Clearly". American Enterprise Institute. Retrieved 2013-09-30.
- Vanberg, Viktor (Fall 1987). "A Conflict of Visions (book review)" (PDF). Cato Journal. Retrieved 2013-09-30.
- Caplan, Bryan. "Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions : A Critical Essay". Retrieved 2013-09-30.
- Kling, Arnold (2009-07-06). "Caplan vs. Sowell". EconLog. Retrieved 2013-09-30.
- Jenkins, Holdman (2012-06-29). "He knows why we fight". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-07-19.
- "human conditions". prospect. October 2002. Retrieved 2013-09-30.
- Sailer, Steve (2002-10-30). "Q&A with Steven Pinker, author of The Blank Slate". United Press International. Archived from the original on 2002. Retrieved 2013-09-30.
- Younkins, Edward (Fall 1998). "Reality is Not Optional: Thomas Sowell's Vision of Man and Society". The Social Critic. Retrieved 2013-09-30.