An insightful modern-day philosopher! Awhile ago, I spent some time trying to articulate (to myself, anyway) what it was that fundamentally divided liberal and conservative thought, and why it was that it seemed there was nearly no overlap between them. The conclusion I came to, which even still felt somewhat incomplete, was that the difference had to do with whether or not one believes that man is sinful. If he is, there is fundamental evil that needs to be accounted for with checks and balances. If he is not, then utopia is possible and we should by all means shoot for it.
Sowell’s volume here greatly clarified my own thinking on this subject. He calls conservative thought the Constrained Vision, and liberal thought the Unconstrained Vision. By this he seems to mean whether or not each side believes that man has any inherent limitations. Those who are conservative, do; those who are liberal, do not. The consequences of these philosophies are wide and varied, and have defined political divisions for hundreds of years, apparently.
One with the Unconstrained Vision will believe that it is possible for man (or at least an intellectually elite man) to create a utopia for the rest of humanity. He will be capable of accounting for all eventualities, make the best and most far-sighted of choices for his fellows, and will ultimately create equality of outcome. And indeed, the Unconstrained Vision is all about outcome. It’s “the end justifying the means” in that regard. If the end goal is worthy, it doesn’t matter what one has to do to achieve it. Morality is subjective to the almost omniscient intellect of the superior elite ruler. (Reminds me of Nietzche, though I probably haven’t earned the right to make that comparison, since I haven’t actually read Nietzche.)
By contrast, those who hold the Constrained Vision believe in equality of process, rather than of outcome (which the one with the Constrained Vision doesn’t think is possible anyway, since there are always numerous unforeseen consequences of any given action–sort of like side effects of a drug). He believes that mankind is inherently wicked, and that the only way to prevent a man from pursuing his own ends at the expense of others is to create a system which prevents it, as well as to incentivize “good” behavior so that men will be inclined to choose it. This doesn’t mean that one with the Constrained Vision believes that man is incapable of goodness, but merely that it isn’t something that can be relied upon.
Sowell argues that these are the two extremes of a continuum, and almost no one is entirely one or entirely the other. But the utterly contradictory views of the two are the reason why it is so difficult for liberals and conservatives to find common ground on a wide spectrum of issues. Their worldviews make it such that those with the Constrained Vision view the Unconstrained (for the most part) as well meaning but misguided, while those with the Unconstrained view the Constrained as either idiots or as morally reprehensible.
My rating: *****
Sexual content: none
Woke content: none (it was written in the 80s anyway)
Jim Strawn says
“But the utterly contradictory views of the two are the reason why it is so difficult for liberals and conservatives to find common ground on a wide spectrum of issues.”
And so they decide not to act even on the rare common ground.
C.A. Gray says
That’s also true unfortunately!