Sunday, August 22, 2010

August Book of the Month

A Conflict of Visions

by Thomas Sowell

Basic Books, 2007

New York, NY 10016


Many of our citizens lament the present lack of serious discussion in the political world that seems only to revolve about partisan venom, character assassinations, and juvenile discourse. They are prone to think such activities are something new to the country; and, that our problems could be solved if only this chattering mob resorted to civil language it would lead to compromise. However, in thinking so, they sorely misread our political history.

Early Political Discussion

Our country’s early political discourse among the populace, the politicians, and the overly partisan newspapers used such highly charged and venomous language that it led to beatings, duels, and the most outrageous of personal attacks. Much to the chagrin of Washington it began during his first term with Jefferson and Madison squaring off against Hamilton leading to the first political parties: Republicans and Federalists divided by their stands on States rights vs. Federal rights. Even so, and different from today, their arguments were motivated by early attempts to construct a framework of governance for a fledgling democratic country that lacked precedent, not necessarily adding to the political power of a party.

Upon assuming the actual governing of our Republic, the Founding Fathers thus left behind them the impeccable manners they had used in dispensing wisdom among themselves to now expressing their beliefs with an unusually savage verbal vehemence. While coming face to face with the realities of their nascent political world, their divisive use of abusive language greatly surpassed that of today’s as it was enhanced by the gloriously richness of the 18th century style of written communication. After all, they were revolutionaries with high energy and with even higher personal philosophical goals that often clashed when practical policy implementation was confronted. It has been thus ever since, and it will be thus as long as we are a democracy. How can it be otherwise? . Compromise is the acceptance of less by each side and is usually twice as costly to those who pay the bill. It also exposes the two sides to political danger or disgrace, so gridlock becomes less painful and less costly. In turn, that may be more productive.

The Two Visions

In order for one to better understand this never ending struggle of political ideas one need only to read A Conflict of Visions, by Thomas Sowell. Here the story of the two controversial and opposing visions of governing that revolves around generations of ethical and ideological political disputes is told. Dr. Sowell has written a classic with remarkable insight by framing the discussion as a ‘constrained’ or an ‘unconstrained’ vision of the people who are to be governed by those who govern. His arguments are persuasively outlined, clearly detailed, and fundamentally appropriate in today’s political environment. These visions have troublesome communications, as there are few commonalities, so participants tend to talk past one another. There is little or no room for compromise.

Dr. Sowell uses the human nature of man, such as man’s ultimate potential and ultimate limitations, as the framework for his analysis. The dynamism of a capitalistic democracy that is ever changing, that embraces free speech, and that is governed as a republic suggests a forced end to the controversy by one side or the other to be the end of our personal liberties. Despotism would rise as the victor.

This basic conflict about governance has been the fuel for the best of mankind and the worst; and, it is at the forefront of our democratic world that struggles to govern mainly through political parties. However, the folly of the argument for our country lies in the fact that the Constitution is largely one of a constrained view of the people to be governed. There should be no argument as our Founders’ goal was to construct a governance system that allowed man his individual freedom to be all that he can be. As you will see, that is far different than the unconstrained view of Progressives.

The Unconstrained Vision

The tradition inherent to the unconstrained view is the conviction that immoral or foolish choices explain the evils of the world and that wiser social policies are the solution to create a more humane society. In other words, the social engineering that seems to come naturally to academics, journalists, and Progressive politicians as they deem themselves wiser then the individual to make decisions about how one should live. They believe that a larger, centrally controlled apparatus is better for the individual than the individual is for himself. It is always found in fascism, communism, and socialism. In fact, it is the central theme for each of these and the end result has always been a disaster for those subjected to it, and seldom bloodless. It is the false promise of a utopia failed.

The present administration has ushered into our society some of the most radical social changes the country has ever experienced while acting within their unconstrained view of those they govern. Progressives have been largely guided by concepts that revolve around intentions and using words such as sincerity, commitment, and dedication all leading to the social justice they desire, usually the controlled conduct of our personal and economic lives. They create social contrivances through their artificial logic without regard to the unpleasant side effects that deceptive reasoning always produces. Their unconstrained view of governing largely rejects the doctrine of American exceptionalism and its values of self-reliance. It thusly rejects one’s own private stock of reasoning for guidance to his life’s concerns. They are viewed as the Liberals/Progressives among us.

The Constrained Vision

Turning to this vision, and as Sowell points out, those favoring the constrained vision put little faith in those deliberately designed social processes touted by the unconstrained vision since there is so little faith that any set of decision-makers could cope with the enormous complexities of designing an appropriate system of morality or politics for governance. In fact, the constrained vision does not envision any man-made social contrivance that would encompass the values and be more worthy than those that have historically evolved with their systemic order and without a deliberate design.

The constrained vision sees freedom as finite and that government power is accumulated at the expense of private freedom. Hayek, Smith, Hamilton, Burke, and our Founders were proponents of the constrained vision of governance for those to be governed and thus it became the basis for our Constitution. Those who value free trade, limited government, rational decision-making, are Constitutionalists, and believe that the bigger the government, the less free the society, make-up the present day body of citizens favoring a constrained view of governance. They are viewed as the Conservatives among us.

The Disease of Progressivism

As opposed to the unconstrained view, the constrained view accepts its citizen’s own private stock of reasoning as appropriate guidance for life’s concerns. That was the basis for our revolution, for our Constitution, and for our nation’s guidance until the Progressive era began at the turn of the 20th century. However, Europe has long been infected with ‘the disease of progressivism’ in the form of socialism but is now running from it, just as we seem to be embracing it. Central planning has never been the American way and it remains to be seen if out citizenry accepts it as a way of life.

The Conflict of Visions

The embittered politics engendered by these visions has reigned unabated and presently pervades all branches of our government. As Sowell states, “These are not merely differences of visions, but conflicts of vision.” That is why there is little compromise and may never be. Sowell opines that the moral impulse driving each vision cannot be jettisoned for the sake of winning, without making the victory meaningless. The acceptance of the best paradigm for the governing to govern has always been a fight to the finish, and a mean fight it is. But, in the long run of history, that may be in the best interest of the governed if they are engaged as well.

For those readers wanting a better understanding of the political conflict raging among us and between our two party system, I know of no better writing than A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggle, by Thomas Sowell. Your effort will be well rewarded and your mind may be set more at ease, or it may not! Enjoy.

Richard Spencer

39th ATS, Dover AFB,


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