Thomas Sowell and A Conflict of Visions

Slowly, over the past 40 years or so, Sowell has become a national treasure. In the desert of nonsense and foolishness that is the modern world his writings are an oasis of sanity, lucidity, and sense. He recently celebrated his 90th birthday and is the subject of an intellectual biography by Jason Riley that gives a fine if necessarily constrained overview of his remarkable life story and thoughts.

While the portion of Black Rednecks and White Liberals that I have read so far is fascinating, my favorite book of his is A Conflict of Visions (hereafter ACOV). In his preface to the 2007 edition of the book he writes:

This is a revised edition of my own favorite among the books I have written–mainly because it addresses a fundamental question that seldom gets the attention it deserves: What are the underlying assumptions behind the very different ideological visions of the world being contested in modern times.

He refers to other books of his, The Vision of the Anointed and The Quest for Cosmic Justice. Sowell is a serious guy, but I get the sense he has a very good sense of humor. In any case, in this book he explains the divided world as being the result of a conflict between two visions of the world that has been going on over the past two centuries. I would say actually over more than two millennia–since the times of Socrates and Plato, those apostate sophists. He denotes these two visions as the constrained vision and the unconstrained vision.

Some key characteristics of the unconstrained vision: here there are SOLUTIONS to all that ails us. There are no limits to the perfectibility of man’s nature or what we can understand and achieve. Knowledge in this vision is only verbal, rational, or as he puts it, articulated. This seems to follow the tradition of Socrates with his obsession with definitions. If you can’t define something concisely, you know nothing about it. We all know my sentiments about that wanker Socrates.

Some key characteristics of the constrained vision: in the fundamental challenges of human life there are no solutions, only trade-offs among costs and negatives and imperfections. Here knowledge can be articulated, but it also includes forms of knowledge that are not articulated, like customs, the accumulated wisdom of uncounted eons. For most of my life, like many highly educated and highly intellectual people I am sure, this form of knowledge was invisible to me. I did not know it existed, did not consider it a form of knowledge, did not value it, certainly did not respect it. I was an iconoclast! I sneered at mere tradition, foolish and barbaric!

He continues:

The purpose here will not be to determine which of these visions is more valid but rather to reveal the inherent logic behind each of these sets of views and the ramifications of their assumptions which lead not only to different conclusions on particular issues but also to wholly different meanings to such fundamental words as “justice,” “equality,” and “power.”

In ACOV we get a history of ideas, including those of Marx, Mill, Godwin, Smith, Hamilton, Holmes, Hayek, Friedman, and Veblen, as well as the Gallic imbecile Condorcet and the Anglo imbecile G. B. Shaw. Oh, let us not forget the Swedish imbecile Myrdal. In presenting their ideas he is excruciatingly objective and neutral, even with modern morons such Galbraith, Rawls, Dworkin, and Tribe. Admirable, and I strive to be as even-handed and fair as Sowell, but I cannot hide my contempt for their corrosive contributions.

Steven Pinker, the cognitive scientist and writer, alludes to ACOV and its ideas in his own The Blank Slate. He calls the Constrained Vision the Tragic Vision and the Unconstrained Vision the Utopian Vision.

I don’t agree with everything Sowell has written in ACOV. I see little use for left versus right terminology (famously derived from the French National Assembly at the time of the French Revolution–how useless is that?) or liberal (a beautiful word etymologically–too bad it’s been ruined by the Progressives) and conservative terminology. His discussion of fascism is misleading to me. The best way to understand fascism is to look at the word etymologically and also the slogan of the founder of Fascism, Mussolini: “Everything in the state, nothing outside of the state, and nothing against the state.” There you go.

ACOV is a relatively slender book, a fairly quick read, and chockablock with stimulating information and perspectives.