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.