One of the more eye-opening books that I’ve read recently has been Thomas Sowell’s “A Conflict of Visions.” I have one or two things I want to say about it, but I’m going to need to give you a run-down of the conflicting visions before the rest of what I want to say can make any sense.
Here’s why you have a political opposite, and why neither side seems to be talking the same language most of the time.
The Two Visions
Thomas Sowell outlines two distinct “visions” of humanity that he calls the “Constrained” and the “Unconstrained.” These two visions are primarily based on two different assumptions about humanity. In its simplest form, the constrained vision assumes that mankind’s limits are substantive and relevant. The unconstrained visions believes that although mankind (probably) does have limits, they are not severe enough to factor into most equations.
By way of analogy, Thomas Sowell compared the perspective of the visions to the basic equation for how quickly objects fall as a result of gravity on earth. Although air resistance plays a role in the rate that things fall, most models don’t need to factor the resistance in except in special cases. The unconstrained view treats mankind’s limitations like air resistance: it’s only pertinent in special cases. The constrained vision treats mankind’s limitations like gravity: it’s the primary force to account for.
Another way of internalizing these two different visions is to consider two alternative scenarios for the state of man without societal structures. Thomas Hobbes thought that the life of an individual would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Hobbes makes the assumptions found in the constrained vision; that man has desires that go beyond his ability to satisfy them, and that man will not easily allow his desires to go unsatisfied. Because of these limitations, man will act in socially unfavorable ways if not for the societal incentives and disincentives established by culture and government.
John Locke had a different idea about man’s “state of nature.” He thought that man’s “‘state of nature has a law of nature to govern it,’ and that law is reason.” His two assumption that (1) man’s ability to reason is powerful enough to both arrive at socially desirable conclusions, and (2) these reasoned conclusions can control man’s behavior, are in-line with the assumptions inherent in the unconstrained vision. Locke assumed that whatever limitations man may have can (and should) be overcome by his inherent reasoning ability.
Sowell builds lots of other structures and principles based on these two assumptions. So many structures rise from this foundation that it’s easy to get lost as to what the two visions truly mean (indeed, most criticisms mistake logical outcroppings from the assumptions for the assumptions themselves). As a result, to understand how these visions coherently and consistently define the two political sides, you must internalize these differing assumptions and let the policy implications rise from them.
How to Categorize Systems
Halfway through the book, Sowell offers a test for determining whether a system falls in the constrained or unconstrained camp. He talks about the “Locus of Discretion” and “Mode of Discretion.” These are fancy terms for “who should decide how society is?” and “how do they decide how society is?”
Many critics get hung up on this definition, and often equate this test with a definition of the visions themselves. This test does not define the visions, but gives a shorthand method for determining which vision a given system might follow. Let’s look at some general examples to further grasp this.
In the constrained vision, the “locus of discretion” is the general populace, while the “mode of discretion” is the compilation of all the small decisions made by individuals based on incentives inherent in a system. If you want a system of government that is done by the people, primarily democratically, then you may share the assumptions of the constrained vision.
In the unconstrained vision, the “locus of discretion” is a few intellectual or moral elites, usually in government, while the “mode of discretion” is articulated rationality. If you’re ok with a system of government where a smaller number of highly capable individuals plan and organize society according to the best principles and ideas available, then you may share the assumptions inherent in the unconstrained vision.
This isn’t meant to say that holders of the unconstrained vision are anti-democratic, but they might be willing to sacrifice elements of democracy to reach better ends. For example, many people are happy about controversial Supreme Court cases like Roe v. Wade (the case legalizing abortion) and Obergefell v. Hodges (the case legalizing same-sex marriage). These decisions were made by a few highly capable individuals in the Supreme Court rather than by the collective rationality and experience of the public. Many people that support these decisions are ok with the fact that it overruled other democratic processes because they feel that the rational in these cases is strong and good. People with the constrained view will doubt that the justices are as smart as they think, and that the many should have a greater say than any small group of elites.
Typical Political Sway
If you didn’t make the inference already, people with the constrained view tend to lean toward the political right (often the Republican party in the United States) and those with the unconstrained view tend to lean left (often to the Democrat party). As Sowell points out, this isn’t universally true, but it’s a useful generalization that is typically true. This generalization works because of how each party builds its policy decisions.
The political right usually builds its policy based on the assumptions of the constrained vision, figuring that it needs to make trade-offs instead of trying to find “Utopian” solutions. These assumptions also lead it to put greater trust in historical decisions and traditional set-ups since they doubt how well current intellectualism can outdo evolved systems, ideas and processes.
The political left usually builds its policy based on the assumptions of the unconstrained vision. If mankind is not really substantively limited, then “Utopia” isn’t so impossible after all. If mankind is nearly perfectible, then current problems must be the result of faulty systems or specific evils that can be eliminated. Although the ones that have risen to higher planes of intellectual ability may need to take control of societal decision making at the expense of the liberty of the masses, the morally and rationally superior decisions made by those elites will ultimately be better for everyone.
These two visions and the corresponding political ideologies explains a fair amount of why politics frustrates you. Neither side understands the other very well because each side assumes different things about reality. Each side is truly arguing from different worlds that don’t necessarily make sense to the other. Until we can turn the pre-cognitive act of making assumptions that we don’t even know we have into a cognitive act that we evaluate, we will continue to misunderstand each other.
This is just a brief overview of the two visions. I’ve written more details about the implications of each of these visions here. Later I’ll publish some analysis on what this knowledge could mean for your life.
Which vision is right? How do you know? Let me know in the comments.
Keep seeking truth.
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