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A Conflict of Visions: Idealogical Origins of Political Struggles
 
 

A Conflict of Visions: Idealogical Origins of Political Struggles [Kindle Edition]

Thomas Sowell
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Review

"A classic of a very special kind.... A gem of a book, crafted with passion for the truth and love for mankind." - Christian SciencMonitor.

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In this classic work, Thomas Sowell analyzes the two competing visions that shape our debates about the nature of reason, justice, equality, and power: the “constrained” vision, which sees human nature as unchanging and selfish, and the “unconstrained” vision, in which human nature is malleable and perfectible. He describes how these two radically opposed views have manifested themselves in the political controversies of the past two centuries, including such contemporary issues as welfare reform, social justice, and crime. Updated to include sweeping political changes since its first publication in 1987, this revised edition of A Conflict of Visions offers a convincing case that ethical and policy disputes circle around the disparity between both outlooks.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 409 KB
  • Print Length: 345 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0465002056
  • Publisher: Basic Books; Revised edition (5 Jun 2007)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B003E749SK
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #353,252 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
This is a brilliant book with an original theory, well explained with many good examples from the works of Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Condorcet, William Godwin, Thomas Malthus and Fritz Hayek, plus others, whose political views may be understood to flow from conflicting visions of man and society.

The conflicting visions of man and society are the constrained and the unconstrained visions of human nature. The constrained vision of human nature says that man's nature limits what can be done to change him or his society. The unconstrained vision of human nature says that man can be comprehensively improved by social action and moral education: improvement is limited only by effort, not by innate human qualities or by social dynamics. In the constrained vision, the proper method to improve man is to use economic incentives and strict and consistent laws, which limit the harm men can do to each other. In the unconstrained vision, one can legislate for a better society or improve men simply by changing their environment sufficiently.

These basic visions inform consistently-opposed political theories in regard to justice, power, law, the economy, rights, warfare, punishment and rationality, etc, though few people express a pure constrained or unconstrained vision.

A significant asymmetry of moral judgments between the two visions is that those with the constrained vision (conservatives, for example) generally think their opponents are clever and sincere but misguided while those with the unconstrained vision (progressives, for example) generally condemn their political enemies as morally repugnant.

This consequence of the theory perfectly fits my experience, so although Thomas Sowell is scrupulously fair to both visions, to my mind he cannot help formulating good arguments for the rationality and truth of the constrained vision.
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0 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars booki 19 Oct 2009
By kami
Format:Paperback
really did not understand what this writer was trying to say, every think
went over my head because this is not my subject or what i wanted to gain out of it.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  65 reviews
61 of 63 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not as Simple as it seems 18 Jun 2009
By Aretae - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
On reading the entire block of 60-odd reviews, I find that more than half of them, even while admiring Sowell's evenhandedness, misstate the carefulness of the book's positions. In the an attempt to pay tribute to the brilliance of this (rather dense, historical & philosophical ) book, I'll try to correct this.

This book presents two visions of the world. However, contrary to most of the reviewers, the difference is not about Liberals vs. Conservatives. It is about the difference between two visions of the world, and each of the visions is found in most parties in the political spectrum.

The two visions are metaphysical, pre-scientific points of view regarding how the world works. In one view (Unconstrained), people can drive change, intentions matter, and this could improve the world. In the other view (Constrained), people will always be (somewhat) bad, only results and processes matter, and improvements always involve tradeoffs.

Sowell first acknowledges that no vision is purely Constrained or Unconstrained. And then he explicitly does not connect the dots to (modern, US) liberal vs. conservative visions. And he doesn't do so for the basic reason that it really isn't that simple.

Instead of attempting to place "Conservative" vs. "Liberal" positions on top of Sowell's 2 visions, let us look instead at every issue, and determine whether our own individual intuitions are that (a) it is a problem, and that (b) human beings can solve or meliorate, via coordinated political action, this paricular problem without creating other (potentially worse) problems. This is the issue. And the arguments for or against most actions can come from both positions.

Examples from the War in Iraq.

Against (Constrained): The military cannot solve a complex social problem.
Against (Unconstrained): War is evil. Don't start one.
For (Constrained): There will be horrible tradeoffs, but war is better than the (worse) other options of not warring.
For (Unconstrained): Saddam is a blight upon Iraq, they will be better without him.

I have attempted to point out that not all conservative positions are constrained, and not all liberal positions are unconstrained. Rather, different people have different understandings of the world, and these often lead to different conclusions. Using Sowell's brilliant dichotomy, people may improve their understanding of the issues facing the world, though hopefully not replace entirely any other charitable understandings.
37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Opened My Eyes 23 Dec 2008
By Clifford S. Morton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I had just finished reading Michael Dyson's "Is Bill Cosby Right?". Then I read this book of Sowell's. African Americans, including myself, have rejected Sowell out of hand because he does not line up with the orthodoxy of Dyson or the typical civil rights perspective. This is because I did not realize how thoroughly Sowell understands the issues and the philosophies behind it and the opposite views. You just do not realize his grasps on things if you go by what people say or get turned off by one of his articles in the newspaper. Not only does he understand Dyson's position, he opened my eyes to the "other side's" position in a way that made me a believer. Now I know why he says what he says in his other books and they make real sense. I am buying copies of this book for other African Americans I know and am encouraging my young adult children to read it too. If you have never read Sowell, this is the place to start.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic read, simple and thought-provoking 29 July 2007
By LAH - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Some others have already commented on the basic premise of the book: the dichotomy between a constrained and unconstrained view of human nature and the logical conclusions and "visions" that arise based on that difference, so I will leave that summary aside.

This book is a fantastic read for many reasons: the writing style is incredibly clear and simple, and Sowell is adept at conveying his ideas in a manner that should be easily understandable to any reader. Sowell appears to show a commendable level of detachment in that there does not seem to be much of a personal value judgement placed on either of the two schools of vision (i.e. without reading other texts, the reader may not be able to distinguish whether Sowell places himself within the "constrained" or "unconstrained" vision).

Another reviewer commented that this dichotomy was rather simplistic, and I tend to agree. However, I see this as a strength rather than a weakness. Sowell gives a more general view of the derivation of certain viewpoints and the logical implications of a certain conception without getting distracted by every specific application. He does not explain every thought or viewpoint, but he provides an exceptionally clear framework through which you can view these thoughts and viewpoints on your own.

I found the quotes he used to be very illuminating, but I agree that they should be viewed in the proper light. The quotes are interesting as articulations of the "constrained" or "unconstrained" views in the particular context in which they are used, and should probably not be carried beyond that. For example, characterizing a particular decision of Holmes as arising from the constrained view is instructive and illustrative, though it could lead to the erroneous assumption that Holmes was a consitent examplar of the constrained vision. That said, the quotes were certainly not misleading if the reader confines them to their context and they tended to clarify and enhance illustrations of the application of these views.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has ever heard someone espouse a certain viewpoint and thought "How can they possibly believe that?" It provides a good basis for understanding how these differences arise.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Bigger Picture 7 Nov 2007
By Dash Manchette - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Let me present you with a hypothetical but nonetheless realistic person. He majored in social work in college, considers himself to be a proud male supporter of feminism, supports preferential policies for blacks and generous welfare benefits for the poor, considers the United States to be an extremely racist and sexist country, and considers George W. Bush to be a war criminal. Where do you think he stands on constitutional interpretation? Do you think he is more on the activist constitution side or more on the side of determining the document's original intent? I am not asking for certainty, just what do you think his opinion on the issue is.

Let us be honest. My hypothetical man almost certainly favors an activist and expansive view of constitutional interpretation. But how did we know that to be the case? Thomas Sowell addresses that issue in A CONFLICT OF VISIONS. Even for Sowell, one of the top intellectuals of our time, this book stands out as particularly important.

As Sowell demonstrates, the answer lies not with the specifics of whatever issue is at hand. Rather, the answer lies in the ideological vision with which one perceives the world. Although Sowell acknowledges that ideological visions span a continuum, he nonetheless isolates two particular visions with very different outlooks. Most of the continuum is really a shading of one of these two.

The constrained vision views man as inherently very limited, both in his knowledge and, by implication, in what he is able to accomplish in terms of creating a functioning society. The unconstrained vision, however, views humans as being, if not totally without limits, then far, far more capable of unleashing our human potential to create a better world for us all. It is this difference in outlooks that produces similar opinions among various people even on issues that, on the surface, appear to be very different.

Those with the constrained vision and those with the unconstrained have outlooks on social processes and knowledge that are not only very different, but often in direct conflict with each other. As Sowell demonstrates, this leads to very different outlooks on such large topics as equality, power and justice. Those with the unconstrained vision advocate policies far more ambitious based on their vision that we can achieve particular goals in these areas. Those with the constrained vision, by contrast, are more modest, see human imperfection as inherently limiting in these areas and advocate social structures that allow for the best under the circumstances. One of the fundamental differences between the visions is that those with the unconstrained vision focus on goals in the first place, while those with the constrained vision focus on processes, with no particular goal being more desirable, let alone attainable, than another.

One interesting aspect of Sowell's analysis is that those with one vision will view those with a competing vision very differently and that this is a result of the actual vision itself. For those with the constrained vision, the unconstrained vision is viewed as naïve though perhaps well intentioned. But the view from the other side is quite different. For those with the unconstrained vision, we could achieve a far more just society if it were not for those barriers, both ideological and social, in our way preventing us from doing so. In fact, those with the unconstrained vision are so certain of their ability to achieve certain goals that they do not even ask the more fundamental question of whether such goals are worth achieving in the first place, even if that were possible. Imagine their surprise - and contempt - when they encounter others who not only question the practicability of achieving equality or justice or whatever, but the desire to even do so given the definition that the unconstrained vision brings to the table. Although Friedrich Hayek, an intellectual giant with a very constrained vision, was courteous towards his intellectual adversaries, the courtesy was most certainly not returned. Hayek's opponents trashed him as evil incarnate.

A CONFLICT OF VISIONS is probably the single best book of its kind examining the role of ideological visions in shaping various societies' policies. It is not a polemical book like some of Sowell's others and, if one did not know where Sowell himself fell on the ideological spectrum, one probably would not be able to figure it out from this volume. It is highly recommended for those seeking a deeper understanding of the differences we see among the populace not simply with respect to particular issues, but how they view such issues in a larger framework to begin with.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book should be required reading in any Western country 27 July 2007
By John Jensen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Why? Because it provides the clearest explanation I've ever read of the primal undercurrent that has driven Western thought along its binary path (collective vs individual) over the past 500 years.
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One of the hallmarks of the constrained vision is that it deals in trade-offs rather than solutions. &quote;
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While believers in the unconstrained vision seek the special causes of war, poverty, and crime, believers in the constrained vision seek the special causes of peace, wealth, or a law-abiding society. &quote;
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Facts do not “speak for themselves.” They speak for or against competing theories. Facts divorced from theory or visions are mere isolated curiosities. &quote;
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