Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles

Rate this book
Controversies in politics arise from many sources, but the conflicts that endure for generations or centuries show a remarkably consistent pattern. In this classic work, Thomas Sowell analyzes this pattern. He describes the two competing visions that shape our debates about the nature of reason, justice, equality, and power: the "constrained" vision, which sees human nature as unchanging and selfish, and the "unconstrained" vision, in which human nature is malleable and perfectible. A Conflict of Visions offers a convincing case that ethical and policy disputes circle around the disparity between both outlooks.

304 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1986

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Thomas Sowell

86 books4,337 followers
Thomas Sowell is an American economist, social commentator, and author of dozens of books. He often writes from an economically laissez-faire perspective. He is currently a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. In 1990, he won the Francis Boyer Award, presented by the American Enterprise Institute. In 2002 he was awarded the National Humanities Medal for prolific scholarship melding history, economics, and political science.

Sowell was born in North Carolina, where, he recounted in his autobiography, A Personal Odyssey, his encounters with Caucasians were so limited he didn't believe that "yellow" was a hair color. He moved to Harlem, New York City with his mother's sister (whom he believed was his mother); his father had died before he was born. Sowell went to Stuyvesant High School, but dropped out at 17 because of financial difficulties and a deteriorating home environment. He worked at various jobs to support himself, including in a machine shop and as a delivery man for Western Union. He applied to enter the Civil Service and was eventually accepted, moving to Washington DC. He was drafted in 1951, during the Korean War, and assigned to the US Marine Corps. Due to prior experience in photography, he worked in a photography unit.

After his discharge, Sowell passed the GED examination and enrolled at Howard University. He transfered to Harvard University, where he graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics. He received a Master of Arts in Economics from Columbia University, and a Doctor of Philosophy in Economics from the University of Chicago. Sowell initially chose Columbia University because he wanted to study under George Stigler. After arriving at Columbia and learning that Stigler had moved to Chicago, he followed him there.

Sowell has taught Economics at Howard University, Cornell University, Brandeis University, and UCLA. Since 1980 he has been a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he holds a fellowship named after Rose and Milton Friedman.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
2,128 (53%)
4 stars
1,183 (29%)
3 stars
471 (11%)
2 stars
116 (2%)
1 star
54 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 442 reviews
Profile Image for Megan Blood.
278 reviews1 follower
July 13, 2012
I finally made it through this one. This is not an easy read--it's like digging through a research paper. There are lots of supporting quotations from various sources--great for support, terrible for easy reading.

BUT, this is THE best explanation I have ever found for political differences. He explains that people tend to have certain 'visions' of society: "constrained" (conservative) and "unconstrained" (progressive). He explains that much of the tension between the two groups happens because they simply aren't starting from the same perspective. Things like freedom, justice, and power mean completely different things to each group.

You know it's a sound theory when suddenly everything around you starts popping out as either constrained or unconstrained. The end of "The Once and Future King"? Unconstrained.

Definitely worth a read, if you're up for some serious study. I kept trying to read it before bed and ended up re-reading sections because I was too tired to actually comprehend what he was saying.
Profile Image for Chad.
27 reviews8 followers
August 1, 2014
This book gets high mark for its depth of research--Locke, Rousseau, Paine, Burke, Godwin, Hayek, Galbraith, Godwin, Holmes, Blackstone, Smith, Mill, Dworkin, and many others are featured--but ultimately the theory doesn't cohere.

The premise is that there are two incompatible "visions" of society--ways of looking at the world, each with their own hidden suppositions and internal logic. Consequently, there is no common vocabulary and no grounds for reconciliation, forming the basis of much modern political strife. In the terminology of Wittgenstein, they are competing "language games." Sowell identifies these visions as "constrained" and "unconstrained," close approximations of (but not strict surrogates for) "conservative" and "liberal," respectively.

The tone of the book is always even, but the author's bias is nevertheless clear: the "unconstrained" vision (as implied by the name) is unimpeded by practical considerations; it is utopian and idealistic rather than realistic; it is concerned with "results" rather than "processes" (i.e., it "cheats"); it assumes that people are infinitely malleable and in want of malleting (i.e., it is paternalistic); etc. By contrast, the "constrained" vision recognizes basic facts of reality that limit its audacity, such as weaknesses of human nature that make it necessary to be suspicious of concentrated political and pedagogical power.

Sowell's bizarre interpretation of the common law illustrates the point. According to him, "unconstrained" thinkers favor "judicial activism" (a conservative stereotype of the Warren court to begin with). "Constrained" thinkers, by contrast, respect stare decisis (as handed down through the common law tradition) because it embodies the collective wisdom of an evolutionary "process." In other words, conservatives show humility and respect for their forefathers while liberals try to make the law anew. Of course, it is simply not true that legal precedent ever existed independently of sui generis decisions by particular judges. The common law is shaped--one judge and one decision at a time--and there is no reason to think that judicial activism isn't part of that (historical and ongoing) "process." Even worse: Sowell claims that "unconstrained" theorists feel obligated to impose their views on others, and at one point comes close to saying that two parties in a lawsuit can happily co-exist unless a "third party" (the presiding judge) interferes. "If third parties are able to make such judgments [of right and wrong], as the unconstrained vision assumes, those with the power to change these decisions have little justification for their failure to do so." (Presumably the "constrained" jurist assumes no power to settle disputes between litigants? Really???)

It is worth emphasizing that the author denies that the two visions can be "mechanically [translated]...into the political left and right"--an admission which largely undermines his project, since one naturally wonders what predictive power his model even has. He is, after all, articulating two paradigms that are supposed to show how people order their ideologies. But it becomes apparent that people do not adhere to these paradigms generally. In fact, the last chapter reads like an apologetic. When a thinker defies his model, Sowell pulls a "bait and switch" so that one principle of the vision (e.g., government mandates) is interchangable with another (e.g., abstract moral imperatives), and the discrepancy is dismissed as an artifact of the thinkers' different levels of sophistication. Elsewhere he notes that the visions can be compartmentalized, such that a person is "constrained" in one area of thinking and "unconstrained" in another. Of course some allowance should be made for the fact that people do not always fit into neat categories, but after a while his model begins to sound ad hoc.

Even on its own terms, I'm not sure that the model is very useful. For instance, it would seem very superficial to describe environmentalism as an "unconstrained" exercise of central planning per se, rather than a recognition of dangerously real "constraints" on the use of nature. And surely it is motivated by an aversion to short-term greed that is no less inherent in human nature, hence no less of a "constraint" than that of any "constrained" vision. This and other major political controversies are undiscussed in the book, making it just as remarkable for what it doesn't say.

Better recommended: Lakoff's _Moral Politics_ or even Berlin's "Two Concepts of Liberty."
Profile Image for Luís.
1,943 reviews609 followers
June 29, 2022
Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions details the role of two alternative worldviews, the constrained and unconstrained vision, and their impact on political discourse; exemplified by Adam Smith, the constrained vision accepts a given man’s inherent limitations and argues for the importance of positive trade-offs and the process in shaping public policy. The unconstrained vision, endorsed by William Godwin, argues for complete solutions to problems and outcome-oriented decision-making based on a belief in the perfectibility of man.
Profile Image for Jeffrey Howard.
362 reviews61 followers
January 31, 2022
I cannot give this book enough praise. Sowell has provided an incredible framework for understanding the nature of political struggles due to competing worldviews and views on human nature. This book joins my personal canon of current issues and politics.

He convincingly shows the logical extensions of two primary worldviews. It would be an oversimplification to say that the "constrained" and "unconstrained" worldviews he identifies are synonymous with "leftist" and "rightist". This book offers a mind-blowing insight into why people of varying political perspectives use much of the same language and even hold shared values, but talk past each other. Sowell writes fair-mindedly showing how two competing worldviews can remain logically consistent albeit starting from very different views on human nature and the nature of social causation.

I wish everybody who joined in political discourse could read this book. This book could easily be turned into a year long college course. Sowell is a sage!
Profile Image for Amy.
2,628 reviews414 followers
March 20, 2021

Just kidding. By the time he wrote this book, Thomas Sowell had well over a decade under his belt writing about issues of race, politics, and philosophy. But it still feels weird stepping back in time and reading a book by him that references the USSR.

This is a fantastic foundation if you want to explore the political and philosophical divide that separates the U.S. today. As always with Sowell, it is intellectual stimulating but easy to read. And honestly, despite the publishing date more than half the time it felt like a book that could have been written today. Do yourself a favor and give this one a try.
Profile Image for Stanislav Siris.
9 reviews1 follower
June 8, 2017
I am absolutely awestruck by this work and expect to revisit it many more times.This books, as is another book by Thomas Sowell, Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy, is now my reference and a guide to understanding the socioeconomics.

In “A Conflict of Visions”, Thomas Sowell attempts to explain how people's different views on human nature could place them in two divergent groups, groups that see human nature as constrained or unconstrained. While admitting that no person could be said to belong 100% to only one group, without some views being overlapped, such distinction is nevertheless useful as “different ways of conceiving man and the world lead not merely to different conclusions but to sharply divergent, often diametrically opposed, conclusions on issues ranging from justice to war.”

Proponents of constrained vision see human beings as constrained by their very nature, which, with self-interest at the center, guides their actions and decisions. Advocates of the constrained vision see the decentralized social processes, arising from the interaction between the people, as the end in itself, which will be beneficial to all the participants.

Proponents of unconstrained vision see the human beings as not constrained by their nature and that their actions are, or should be, guided by intention to benefit the others. Advocates of unconstrained vision distrust decentralized social processes and see the result of the process, if beneficial to all, is the end goal.

Following is the quote from the book that, I believe, accurately summarizes the differences the two visions have on human nature and, by extension, to social institutions:
“In the unconstrained vision, there are no intractable reasons for social evils and therefore no reason why they cannot be solved, with sufficient moral commitment. But in the constrained vision, whatever artifices or strategies restrain or ameliorate inherent human evils will themselves have costs, some in the form of other social ills created by these civilizing institutions, so that all that is possible is a prudent trade-off.”
Profile Image for Howard.
1,284 reviews80 followers
April 15, 2022
5 Stars for A Conflict of Vision (audiobook) by Thomas Sowell read by Michael Edwards.

This is a really in-depth look at why people are liberal or conservative. The different sides fundamentally see the world in different ways.
Profile Image for Brian Griffith.
Author 6 books239 followers
July 15, 2022
I thought Sowell was mainly an insightful analyst of American history, sort of like James Baldwin. But this book is classic philosophy, building on the Enlightenment-age thinkers like Edmund Burke, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, or William Godwin (all of these guys being men). And he builds in a very discerning way, exploring both sides of the typically binary divide we see in how people view the world around them.
21 reviews13 followers
February 7, 2014
I read this after having read similar books with a similar premise: namely, that there exist fundamental and irreconcilable differences between the worldviews of conservatives and liberals, and that all political conflicts are therefore primarily due to different worldviews talking past each other. The books include Lakoff's "Don't Think of an Elephant", Haidt's "The Righteous Mind" and Weston's "The Politcal Brain", and I think my reading of this book was probably unfavourably shaded by these prior experiences. "A Conflict of Visions" was, of course, originally published much earlier, which makes it a little unfair to judge it through the lens of these later books, but unfortunately that's just how it happened. This isn't a bad book, but I'm a little bit weary of the "Democrats are from Venus, Republicans are from Mars" shtick (as one prior reviewer put it), and unfortunately this book just happens to typify the problems I've begun to amass with such approaches to differing political ideologies.

To start with, I'm still not entirely sure what Sowell has in mind by the word "vision" which forms the basis of his theory (namely that political thinkers can be roughly divided into possessing "constrained" or "unconstrained" visions of political problems, leading to conservative and liberal politics respectively). He makes it quite clear that such "visions" indelibly shape the way we are prone to "viewing" certain political problems, and that such "visions" should not be confused with mere value judgements (as, on occasions, the "constrained" and "unconstrained" visions can be shown to be motivated by similar sets of values - the public good, for example), but I don't believe it was ever made explicitly clear quite where such visions originate, how they are transmitted or in what sense they are revealed. If we trust Sowell's judgement that such "visions" do in fact exist in the roughly dichotomous form presented here then there is probably much good sense adumbrated in this book, but the premises of the theory still strike me as being rather too fuzzy and opaquely defined to take his subsequent conclusions in good faith.

Furthermore, I'm not exactly sure what might be said to positively distinguish the political "visions" of Sowell from the political "frames" of Lakoff, or from the emotional-affective categories of Haidt, for example. What specifically does the notion of visions tell us about how people form political allegiances or political beliefs? What predictions about political behaviour can be made from such a theory? And what does the constrained / unconstrained dichotomy of political thought offer in terms of explanatory value that other political dichotomies ("left / right", "authoritarian / libertarian", "nurturing parent / strict parent" etc.) lack?

In any case, surely it's a little too simplistic to place all political ideologies on such a one-dimensional axis? It may be good enough to explain political differences in the overwhelmingly binary politics of the modern United States, but can it offer any insight into the processes that occur in far more pluralistic European systems? To say nothing of the kind of political ideologies that persist in non-Western cultures? How would a Confucian (constrained) socialist (unconstrained) be comfortably explained within this system, for example? Or a Muslim (constrained) democrat (unconstrained)? Or a Hindu (constrained) radical (unconstrained)? Other works of political psychology suffer from a similar inordinate focus on the American political system, but none quite so fatally as this one.

Even in the American example, this book lacks the applicability it may once have had. The last 25 years have seen one side of American politics (try to guess which!) completely fall off the deep-end in terms of their hard shift to the political right, and their conterminous abrogation of reason and moral decency. In this book, the political thinkers contrasted (from the modern age at least) include Godwin and Rawls from the unconstrained side, and Friedman and Hayek from the constrained side. In 1987, these may well have been representative thinkers of the two visions, but I don't think the same could be said today. The passages quoted make Hayek and Friedman seem downright reasonable and moderate in comparison with the poisonous politics of present-day Republicans, and when these two start to appear as voices of moderation then you know that something, somewhere must have gone terribly wrong. I am prepared to accept that there exist principled, decent, well-spoken conservatives, with whom I differ only on matters of "vision" rather than on any deeper principles, but such men and women to not exist in the modern Republican party. It is a party fuelled not by political visions, but rather by the bile of jealous, impotent rage: trying to place them on any conventional political map is an effort bound for failure.

And here is my problem in general with books which try to explain political differences purely in terms of differing worldviews: it overlooks the overwhelmingly obvious fact that one side, even within the confines of their own political "vision", may just happen to be wrong. It seeks to excuse political behaviour that is frankly without excuse. If someone believes that tax cuts are the solution to our current economic malaise, or that gay relationships are fundamentally inferior to heterosexual ones, or that restricting gun ownership will not reduce guns deaths then they don't just happen to possess of different "vision" of politics to my own, they are fundamentally and intractably wrong. There are almost certainly solutions to political problems that exist beyond the narrow focus of my own politics, by the way, but I still feel confident in saying that no present Republican politician is in possession of any of them. When you deliberately abandon the use of evidence and reason, after all, then any conclusion you reach can only find itself in consonance with reality by pure, dumb luck. "Framing" or "Visions" are irrelevant in such an event.

Let's put it in a wider historical context: political ideas emanating from the "constrained" vision of 50, 100 or 200 years ago are rightly scandalous to us now. Segregation? Anti-miscegenation laws? The disenfranchisement of women? Slavery? Absolute monarchy? All of these once fecund political visions have entirely receded from view now, and with good cause. No-one will seriously try to morally defend such views on the basis that their supporters just happened to possess a different (but equally valid!) political vision to our own, we will rightly say that they were blinded (by racism, by sexism etc.) to what would otherwise have been in plain moral sight. They were wrong, and it was good that such worldviews came to be extinguished. In fairness, Sowell does say here (tucked deep into chapter 9) that ultimately political visions must be responsive to the demands of evidence and that we can expect them to shift over time, but that just raises two futher questions. Firstly, if political beliefs are genuinely so fluid, then what possible use is this static dichotomy of "visions"? Secondly, how is it, then, that the constrained visions of politics have invariably been the unsuccessful ones, the ones left withered and dessicated by the brilliant, white light of reason and progress? Why do we still read Paine today and not Burke? Why did Locke's political visions win out over Hobbes'? Why does the arrow of progress point (with the occasional reactionary blip) so unequivocally in one direction?

I don't wish to savage this book: it isn't bad. The readings and quotes from political thinkers across the ages are worth your time. The shallow central thesis, however, probably isn't.
Profile Image for Riyadh.
19 reviews
July 25, 2018
This book is a travesty. I’d recommend actively avoiding it. Not because it’s badly written (indeed, it’s written very eloquently in parts). Rather because it’s a devious work, written without intellectual honesty. With an intent to sway the reader of a position that the author is clearly biased in favour of. An author who uses eloquence and appeals to authority instead of facts and reasons.

Let me start with the good first:

• The author is smart. Great command of language. At times, it’s a pleasure to read – he often captures concepts with the same clarity of great authors in political economy.
• He quotes liberally from great thinkers – Smith, Hume, Mill, Hamilton. There are gems in these quotes – one that stood out: “the constitution is not simply a mirror, nor is it an empty vessel whose users may pour into it whatever they will” (Tribe).
• There are about 60 pages of notes, which come as a welcome surprise as one is plodding frustratingly through, anticipating an end to the monotony...


The first bucket of objections is to the general theme of the book – that there is a fundamental conflict of “visions”:
• It starts on a bad premise. The concept of a vision is so nebulous as to be useless. A foundation to an all-encompassing theory (as this purports to be) should begin with an all-encompassing feature of the world – evolution, information, entropy, complexity etc.
• The distinction between the two visions is so artificial as to be a caricature of how people think. Similar to decomposing the world into quantitative-only, and qualitative-only thinkers. The author never admits for the possibility that the world can be mostly viewed as a combination of the visions.
• There’s so much fancy footwork that’s required for the author to try and fit the world into his dichotomy. It’s as if he’s started on the basis of all matter being made of earth, air, fire and water, and then had to contort every facet of every observation to try and preserve that. He avoids more parsimonious, elemental explanations of human behavior that have far wider reaches.
• Because the premise is flawed, he’s forced to bend his theory so that it says both everything and nothing. Ironically, as a result, a phrase that the author uses applies to his own thesis: “the theory is reduced to empirical meaninglessness; since all possible outcomes are consistent with it, it predicts nothing.”

The second bucket of objections is to the surreptitious conservative bias. And my objection isn’t to the conservative-ness, it’s to the intellectual dishonesty with which he portrays the superiority of his preferred vision by straw-manning the alternative. Some specifics:
• He portrays rationality at the systemic level as being completely distinct from, and superior to, that at the individual level. To quote: “A pattern of regularities may reflect either an intentional design OR the evolution of circumstances not planned by any of the agents or forces involved in its emergence.” He never admits for an AND instead of an OR. Systematic rationality has as a core component the rationality at the individual level. The market is not some abstract, nebulous beast. It’s a collection of individuals. Interactions are complex, and there can be information processed collectively that’s greater than the sum of the individuals. But for this process to work reason must still be applied individually. This perspective smacks of the ivory-tower economist who’s never had to interact with the real world, where individual reason is esteemed as a virtue because of it’s efficacy; as the thing that has allowed man to climb out of his cave.
• His diminishment of individual “explicitly articulated” reason in favour of a faith in the market is wildly one-sided. The market is not a panacea – yet he avoids considering any description of market failures (or flaws in our evolved intuitions) that may weaken his case. Likewise, he conveniently avoids any arguments in favour of the necessity of individual knowledge and reason contributing to progress. A particular example: in covering Malthus’ pre-evolutionary theory of population dynamics, he conveniently avoids mention of Norman Borlaug, the man who majorly contributed to the solution of food security in the world through the invention of the dwarf crop. How did Norman do it? Reason, evidence, science, knowledge (c.6000 trials of cross-breeding species using good ol’, traditional, articulated reasons). Reason at the individual level is a virtue that is deviously mischaracterized.
• He presents evolution and complexity as some opaque process beyond all comprehension. It’s not. We can understand it – read modern complexity/evolutionary authors like Mitchell, West, Page, Ridley.
• On affirmative action, he positions it as a focus on equality of outcome vs equality of opportunity, whereas he could have equally applied his own preferred lens of process-based justice, by looking at the problem as one of applying the law to the faults of past coercion. Or indeed using it as a disincentive for future breaches of the law. Another convenient avoidance of any argument that could jeapordise his thesis.

Two last objections:
• Although eloquent at times, >80% of the book is of a rambling, verbose style. As a prolific author, one gets the sense that he enters into an automatic mode of churning out this academese. The whole book has a patina of unnecessary intellectualism – case in point: “the locus and mode of decision making”, instead of “who decides and how”.
• I had to chuckle at the internal inconsistency of his entire thesis. When you take a step back and wonder what it is that you actually just read: an elite academic using explicitly articulated reason to convince the reader against elite academics using explicitly articulated reason!
Profile Image for David.
1,630 reviews111 followers
May 29, 2021
A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles by Thomas Sowell is a bit more scholarly than many of his other books that I've read. In order to absorb the most of the ideas he is sharing in the audio book version, I even slowed the speed down from the usual almost double speed that I normally play. Dr. Sowell explores and discusses controversies in politics that arise from many sources; but the conflicts that endure for generations or centuries show a remarkably consistent pattern. In this classic work, he describes the two competing visions that shape our debates about the nature of reason, justice, equality, and power: the "constrained" vision, which sees human nature as unchanging and selfish, and the "unconstrained" vision, in which human nature is malleable and perfectible. A Conflict of Visions offers a convincing case that ethical and policy disputes circle around the disparity between both outlooks. With books by Thomas Sowell you need to fasten your seatbelt and let the learning begin!
Profile Image for Victoria.
42 reviews18 followers
April 5, 2010
This is an excellent book that thoroughly discusses the nature of ideological values, morals, and beliefs. Sowell uncovers the origins and ulterior meanings of human thought and action. His writing is very clear, focused, and well researched. I actually found out more about my own views while reading this book.
Profile Image for Alex.
183 reviews123 followers
April 28, 2021
I read this book as part of my effort to catch up with some classic libertarian literature I missed out on back when I read little else. I expected some generic political or historical treatise, and was a little surprised when it turned out to be dealing with something far more fundamental: The general visions underlying different ideologies. If there is a text I'd describe as meta-ideological, it would be this one. I won't say that Sowells theoretical construct of two different visions with which one sees the world and mankind in it is not ideologically charged, but it still remains remarkably neutral.

The unconstrained vision, I would say, focuses on potential. Its first question is always: "What could be?". Human limitations are regarded as something to be overcome, and ideals as something to be actually realized. The constrained vision, of course, is the polar opposite, it focuses on human limitations. These two poles describe a spectrum, and while they appear exclusive, a person or ideology can take the unconstrained vision in one aspect and the constrained vision in another. For example, one can at the same time and without any contradiction believe in unlimited human potential for goodness and in the fact that statistically, only a minority will achieve a fraction of that goodness, with the implication that while it is possible for one person to rise above law and custom, the majority will never do so. Marxism is also a mixed case like that, with its belief that everyone will one day achieve the heights of Aristotle and its simultaneous belief that this development hinges entirely on material conditions. That is my interpretation, I should add, I don't remember exactly how Sowell - a former Marxist - framed it.

While I have seldom made use of the thinking tool Sowell developed here, it's always good to have it at the back of your head somewhere when you engage with different philosophies. Philosophical and political discourse would be far more productive if both sides had terms to describe their respective ideologies in respect to how they view human limitations. Right now, that discourse consists of vague charges to utopianism or cynicism and the odd reference to human nature.

One thing that irked me is that Sowell did not talk about any thinker from before the 17th century. His take on Platos Republic would've been very interesting, and also supremely relevant, as that book presents the prototype of the political vision. Every utopian project owes to Plato, as the first man to wrote down his idea of the perfect society, with laws, offices, customs and an official ideology. Rothbard, Marx, Rawls, Rousseau, they all walked in his footsteps. Plato was also the first philosopher I know of who talked about social engineering, which suggests he belongs to the unconstrained end of the spectrum, yet he conceded that there are uncontrollable social dynamics that might doom his republic in the end, which sounds rather like his vision was constrained.

I'd also be interested in whether the Reformation or the Counter-Reformation was more constrained. I am no expert on the Reformation, but from what I did read about it, it sounds like Luther, Zwingli and Calvin qualify as constrained, proposing the impossibility of living the celibate life, or of bettering your standing with God by doing good works, and in fact of living a virtuous life at all without the grace of God. Calvin takes this the furthest, claiming that we do not even have the free will to choose God. Yet, the Anabaptists sound very much unconstrained to me, with their charismatic spirituality and liberal theology. Catholic doctrine, I would say, strikes a balance, emphasizing both that we have to rely on God in everything we do, and that living a virtuous life is something we choose.

That is the kind of discussion I'd have liked, but like many modern intellectuals, Sowell does not seem to know that much about the history of thought before the 17th century. To me, that's a wasted opportunity, although I give Sowell credit for looking up some more obscure figures from that time period instead of picking the obvious such as Adam Smith and Rousseau.

All in all, while this book didn't blow me away, it was still a decent read.
Profile Image for Lee.
26 reviews18 followers
August 26, 2015
Sowell's thesis is that the fundamental source of disagreement between the "constrained" and "unconstrained" visions (which roughly correspond to conservatism and liberalism, respectively) is a disagreement over how constrained we are by human nature. The constrained view sees humans as fundamentally flawed ("original sin", in the Judeo-Christian tradition, although it is entirely possible to come to this conclusion for secular reasons, as I have). This is why those with the unconstrained vision (UCV) ask questions like, "why is there sometimes war, cruelty, and poverty," whereas those with the CV as, "why is there sometimes peace, kindness, and wealth?" The UCV tends to the blame the motivations and/or knowledge of people with power, and thinks all problems can be solved if only the right people with the right ideas and the right motivations can be given enough power to enact those ideas. Those with the constrained vision, OTOH, believe humans are too flawed to trust even the best of them with so much power. They see poverty and misery as the default conditions, and ask how we have managed to rise above it. They look (not for solutions, but) for the best possible trade-offs by supporting institutions and systemic processes (liberal democracy, free markets, separation of powers, limited government, traditional institutions and roles like marriage and the family) that embody the wisdom of experience accumulated by many people, and/or throughout history.

This is why, for example, conservatives are always accusing liberals of being "elitist", and why liberals find the charge baffling. Liberals want the best and the brightest in charge, whereas conservatives believe that even the best and brightest are really competent in at best a very specific and limited domain. Chomsky may be a great linguist, for example, but he's hardly an expert on geopolitics or history, let alone moral philosophy; there's little reason to expect that he'd be even above-average as a manager or a statesman. It also explains why liberals so often accuse their political opponents of ignorance and malice. Of course conservatives sometimes insult their political opponents as well, but liberals are more often stereotyped as naive, and having "bleeding hearts", rather than as stupid and evil. Intentions count for more in the liberal than in the conservative view. This why hypocrisy is among the most severe of accusations in the liberal lexicon. Conservatives, OTOH, believe that good intentions are the material with which the road to hell is paved. This is why I think "conservative" really is an accurate appellation, in the sense of being more cautious and skeptical about "solutions" that liberals are so eager to propose for the problems many of them make careers out of cataloging.

If you know anything about Sowell, you know which side of this conflict he is on. However, he does a great job of maintaining neutrality in this book. He doesn't present either side as superior, nor does he advocate either perspective. Instead, he simply explains both worldviews, and why they see things the way they do across a range of seemingly unrelated issues.
173 reviews1 follower
June 8, 2017
The 2nd most thought provoking books I've ever read. This book was said to greatly affect the thoughts of Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, probably the most thought provoking book I've read.

The basis of this book is uncovering why groups of people seem to have the same viewpoints on many seemingly unrelated social and political issues. Sowell's thesis is that a persons "vision" of the nature of man leads him to beliefs on a number of issues.

People defined by the "constrained vision" see man as morally limited and inherently selfish. People identified with the "unconstrained vision" see man as having the ability to evolve socially to reach a level of intelligence and selflessness where they can put other peoples needs in front of there own.

Dividing people into these groups may seem arbitrary, but Sowell systematically shows have these views of man drive people classified under these two visions toward vastly different opinions on topics such as law, social policy, youth/age, freedom, justice, war, crime, etc. Topic after topic, Sowell consults famous economists and political theorists to defend both visions, and explains the reasons why political groups have particular stances on issues. Reading the book, the pieces begin to click.

I think some people read this book knowing the authors personal viewpoints (until he recently he wrote a column in a newspaper and was known for being very open and frank) and caught wisps of personal bias in it. I did not see this at all. Sowell argues both sides equally, never mentions his viewpoints, and rarely uses the term republican or democrat. This book is too full of insight to be wasted by throwing a few political jabs, and it doesn't. Treat it as a textbook.

Beyond the political discussion, Sowell routinely tosses in a sentence that would blow my mind for 5 minutes as I wrapped my head around the wisdom entailed in it. He might be the smartest author I've read.

Highly recommended, though expect to have to read and reread. Its a thought provoking, dense sucker.
Profile Image for imane.
463 reviews396 followers
February 6, 2021
Everyone has a religion or ideologie. We have different view of the world and different story for it. Everyone think that his religion or ideologie is the best and will do everything for it
An example someone will tell you that truth is relative that is his ideologie that tell him truth is relative. For a muslim truth is absolute.
For a christian god is love peace goodeness and he sent his son his soul to save people from evil that is inside them
For a muslim god creates good and evil for a purpose and he sent his prophets to teach people how to live in the way of god
For a jew god select jews and make them the best the people of god
For capitalism this economical system is the best. It gives everyone what he deserve you work more you gain more you don't work and don't product you deserve nothing.
For communist the worker are the people who deserve the wealth they do all the work. And the wealth should be distributed fairly. Health for everyone education for everyone
For liberalism people are free and should live free. Feminist and gay people should have the right to live in the way they want
For socialism we are all equal there is no difference and no hierarchy between people
And so on and so on
For atheist we have a common ancestor with champanzee we come from big bang and religion is created by human being to escape depression and we will die and disapear in the dust. So live fully and leave a good thing for the world
For I don't know people they don't know nothing and they don't care
So who are. In your religion or ideologie what is the story. where you come from why are you here and when you go after death
And don't tell me that your religion and ideologie is surviving well until you die because that is what other creature do

Profile Image for Michael Robinson .
54 reviews4 followers
July 31, 2012
Thomas Sowell's, A Conflict of Visions is a well written balanced look at what is at the heart of the seemingly intractable political divide that exists in the United States today.

For those like me that have witnessed the deep political rift between those on the political left and those on the political right and then asked, what philosophy or philosophical visions are at the root of it all, this book is worth reading.

Sowell draws upon a wealth of resources and sources to provide and explanation of what he calls the constrained and unconstrained visions. Sowell is clear to point out that this dichotomy is by no means the only lens one can look at ideological differences of the political left and political right, it is, however a very useful lens that reveals the stark differences in the key underpinnings that drive each camp.

This is not a quick read book but it is packed with information for those wanted to dig deeper and to discover the some truth driving the politics.

If you are looking for a Left bashes Right or Right bashes Left book, this is not the book you are looking for. There are no zingers or political putdowns in this book. There are, however, some important pieces of the big puzzle here.

Highly recommend this book for the patient and inquisitive reader only.

Profile Image for Khari.
2,510 reviews56 followers
October 7, 2020

Well, I overestimated myself with this one again. I am continually finding myself out of my depth in reading lately. Probably as a result of reading mostly fantasy for three decades. I feel as though I'm being taught to think, it is not necessarily a pleasant experience.

What is this book about? It's about a dichotomy in how people view cause and effect and how that affects everything else people think about, from humanity itself to economics, justice, freedom and questions of morality. Not necessarily about morality itself, as people of both visions tend to agree on broad moral issues. People of both visions believe that everyone should act in the good of everyone else, the problem is that they disagree on who 'everyone' consists of and what 'good' is. A pretty foundational disagreement. The easiest way to understand the difference between the two visions is that they use the same words, but the words have different definitions for each vision. But really, that's just an effect of the deeper philosophical dichotomy, the definitions that arise are perfectly logical once you have accepted the a priori belief systems of whichever vision whose terms you are examining.

If I had to boil down the contents of this book to a sentence, I would say that it's about how the constrained vision sees the universe as too complicated for humans in the abstract and the concrete to predict the effects of causes and the unconstrained visions sees humanity in the abstract as capable of predicting the effects of causes and indeed manipulating causes in order to bring about certain effects. Why did I differentiate between humans in the abstract and the concrete? The constrained vision looks at individuals and sees their flaws and then extrapolates from the individual to the group and says that humanity in the abstract is flawed and incapable of understanding the full effects of individual and group actions on everything else. The unconstrained vision looks at individuals and separates them from what they are to what they could be and believes that the potential can be achieved by letting those who are closest to what 'they could be' to dictate to the rest who are farther from that potential how to act in order to achieve that potential. He didn't really bring it up, but it seems like the unconstrained view would fall in line with the ideas of Plato's Republic, where philosopher kings, someone who is smarter and wiser and more moral than the common man were to dictate the rules by which everyone else is to live.

The unconstrained vision doesn't care so much the manner in which humanity reaches its potential, all that matters is achieving the potential. If a super man tells us that the way for all of us to achieve happiness is to make sure that no one goes hungry and this is to be achieved by all of us giving our food to the king so that he can apportion it out to people, that is what must be done. If it turns out that our neighbor has more need of our food than we do, we must sacrifice for their good because the wisest among us is telling us that is what must be done. On the other hand, the constrained vision is all about the manner in which goals are pursued. If my ability to self determine my own actions and goals must be sacrificed in order to achieve some greater good, then it is not a greater good. If the only way to achieve the potential of humanity is to limit the potential of individual humans and elevate certain humans above others, then it is not worth achieving the potential. And actually, you wouldn't achieve the potential anyway, because the idea that you can achieve humanity's potential presupposes the idea that you know exactly how things will pan out. That you can predict with unerring accuracy how hundreds of thousands of independent variables will interact in order to achieve this utopia. It makes me wonder how anyone who has ever dealt with statistics at all can even hold slightly to the unconstrained vision. The way things interact with each other are far too complicated to predict. We don't even know how it is that we know things. We don't even know what we don't know, how can we presume to know enough to affect the outcome of something as small as whether or not this medication will work in this particular person? Let alone that this particular political intervention will affect an entire populace in a positive way? I look at the unconstrained vision and come away only being flabbergasted at how insanely arrogant the people who hold to it are. I think that's the reason I'm attracted to the constrained vision, it's not perfect by any means, and in some ways I align more with the unconstrained belief system, but at the very least the constrained vision starts with the acknowledgment of my own ignorance. I know that I'm ignorant. I know that I am lacking in wisdom and knowledge, I know that I can't even predict why my digestion isn't working right today, how could I possibly determine the best policy by which to achieve utopia? It seems like the constrained vision is based in humility in many ways, whereas the unconstrained is based in the idea of great intelligence trumping all. And I think that's a dangerous road. People believing that their own intelligence makes them somehow superior always leads to a dangerous situation. Pol Pot thought he knew better than all of his people, and he ended up murdering millions of his fellow Cambodians. The Kim family thought they knew the best way to plant crops and ended up starving millions of their people. Margaret Sanger thought she was smarter than people with down syndrome and other defectives and advocated sterilizing them and putting them in concentration camps.

I thought that the quote that sums up the truth of the world was one towards the end where Sowell said that "Given the inherent limitations of human beings, the extraordinary person (morally or intellectually) is extraordinary only within some very limited area, perhaps at the cost of grave deficiencies elsewhere, and may well have blind spots which prevent him from seeing some things which are clearly visible to ordinary people." I think this is really true and what separates many of the constrained vision from many of the unconstrained vision. To put it more concretely, I would say that many in the unconstrained vision are engaged in hero worship. They look at someone who is extraordinary in one way and assume that they are therefore extraordinary in all ways, whereas someone with the unconstrained vision looks at someone and sees their flaws, but continues to follow them because they believe in the process that the flawed person is upholding. The unconstrained vision tends to ignore flaws until they become so blatantly obvious they cannot be ignored and then immediately decides the person who has the flaws is so flawed they cannot be followed at all and they fall from grace.
Profile Image for Graychin.
781 reviews1,800 followers
August 24, 2022
In talking politics with others, the premises that shape the logic of our opinions often go unspoken. We may be unaware of them ourselves. Perhaps you’ve sensed this while debating politics with a friend or relative: there’s a disconnect you can’t pin down; you’re somehow talking past each other but unable to correct it. When the foundational assumptions of our opinions are out of alignment with each other, everything built on them will be misaligned as well.

That’s roughly what Thomas Sowell’s book is about. Specifically, it’s about two incompatible “visions” of human nature that he argues have been at work in the politics of the West for the past three centuries. He calls these the “constrained” and the “unconstrained” visions. Often unacknowledged, they respectively inform, in varying measures, conservative and progressive politics. Sowell does not argue for one or the other here; he only wants to identify them historically and show how even the most well-intentioned interlocuters proceed from the logic of their assumptions to contradictory ends.

According to the constrained vision, human nature is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get proposition. It is constant over time and not susceptible to improvement, though it may express itself differently one generation to the next. Among individuals, the distance between the best and the worst of us (intellectually and morally) is not deemed to be very great. This low view of human nature encourages a cautious view of social institutions. They are honored as the consolidated experience and wisdom of prior generations, and they may be valuable in restraining our worst impulses, but they may also need checks, since those who lead them are made of the same troublesome stuff as the rest of us. Changes are made cautiously and incrementally. Tolerant of unequal outcomes, the constrained vision emphasizes procedural equality (e.g. equality before the law).

By contrast, the unconstrained vision has a higher view of human nature and potential, seeing it as essentially good and capable of improvement. If society is burdened by poverty, drug addiction, crime, etc., the fault (according to this vision) is generally found in our inherited institutions. The distance of the morally and intellectually best from the worst is assumed to be greater, and it becomes the duty of those at the vanguard to abolish or radically reshape institutions to engineer the moral and material betterment of all. Change is embraced rapturously. Unlike the constrained vision, which looks for trade-offs in the management of social ills, the unconstrained vision looks for solutions to eliminate them. Less concerned with procedural equality, it makes equality of outcomes a primary goal.

Those are the basics. Sowell quotes historical champions of each vision, and some of the passages he cites – most of them from the 18th and 19th centuries – are fascinating. He teases out the implications (and sometimes the ironies) of each side when it comes to views on law, education, poverty, race, class, business, crime, and war.

What Sowell doesn’t address and what especially interests me, is the origin of the dichotomy he describes. Perhaps he attacks the historical question elsewhere, but halfway through reading A Conflict of Visions, I began to wonder: Was one vision born as a reaction to the other (and if so, what provoked it?), or did both arise simultaneously in the decay of a prior consensus?

I suspect the latter is the case. Absent in Sowell’s survey is any consideration of religion, and perhaps that’s a clue. As Sowell describes it, the cleavage first became apparent in the Enlightenment era when the influence of Christianity began to fade in the West, modern science was born, and democratic impulses began to assert themselves. Both visions are in their bare terms essentially secular rather than religious; neither involves transcendent claims. And yet it’s not difficult to see in each a fractured expression of the Christian religious inheritance.

You might say, for example, that the constrained vision coalesces around the Christian notion that human nature as we know it is broken, that man is fallen, given to sin, and with no checks on his passions will be the destruction of himself and those around him; that, unaided by grace, there are hard limits to moral improvement; that the final elimination of the evils of our condition can only be a divine act, and will only be achieved beyond this life.

The unconstrained vision, on the other hand, preserves an echo of the Christian understanding that human nature was good as originally created by God; that we were meant for higher and better things than we see around us in the human condition; that it is our duty to love our neighbor; and that God is offended by injustice.

Certain paradoxes present themselves. For one, orthodox Christians today will typically adopt the politics of the constrained vision, and yet that vision in its basic terms is the more strictly secular of the two. In politics it aims to restrain the worst in us and cautiously manage relative evils; it does not enjoin positive moral actions. Which is not to say that sharers of the constrained vision imagine there are no moral imperatives, they’re just less likely to root them in the realm of politics. As such, in its basic outline (see my third paragraph above) the constrained vision might just as easily be embraced by a Roman Stoic as a Roman Catholic.

By contrast the unconstrained model retains, in subtly altered forms, more easily recognizable elements of the old Christian moral vision. The perfected society it strives to achieve resembles nothing so much as the Church of the Book of Acts or the heavenly New Jersualem. What’s more, as Sowell argues, it’s through the unconstrained vision that secular Western societies derive their notion that human rights inhere in individuals unconditionally, which is very nearly a transcendent claim. Why, then, should the politics of the unconstrained vision be more commonly the default of secular, non-religious people rather than of devout Christians?

The answer, I think, is that while the unconstrained vision is the more “Christian” at first glance, it is a Christian heresy: inherited institutions are made the cause of suffering, rather than human sin; the division between the pre- and postlapsarian condition of human nature is erased; the moral and intellectual perfection of human beings and society, which the orthodox faithful look for in the life of the world to come, is made the goal of a political agenda here and now, and man usurps the place of God as the agent of that transformation. Liberal Christians may willingly trim their creeds to suit their politics, but these things are irreconcilable with the traditional faith.

In fact, the unconstrained vision is a form of atheism dressed up in the second-hand rags of Christianity. And yet for many of its adherents, it is a substitute faith worth every sacrifice, summoning them to a great and revolutionary struggle – nothing less than secular salvation – in the remaking, on improved lines, of man and society. They pursue it with zeal. There is less zeal for politics as politics on the other side because the ambitions of the constrained vision are more circumscribed. Those who hold to it may look at the passionate intensity of their counterparts and see a new Tower of Babel in the works. Often (perhaps too often) their only response is to mutter to themselves with dark foreboding.
Profile Image for Void lon iXaarii.
214 reviews82 followers
October 27, 2010
One of the hardest to follow books I have ever gone through... and I say this having read books with a neologism dictionary in the other hand more than once... but this is not necessarily that kind of issue. Partly it's the construction on a lot of big historical and cultural data, but mostly i think it's the fact that... the author expresses so many hiiiiigh level truths that as the book progresses he's forced to express himself in such long series of abstract words that I do believe he long surpasses the 5 (or was it 7) max length that (I think) Jamie Smart, NLP instructor mentiones as the threshold where people space out :P

So, the book... well, it's about two major views of the world, u could call them axioms that people say... and which have been fighting eachother for centuries, milenia probably, in the most varied fields with huge impact on the lives of many maaany millions of people. It's funny how each side, be tends to choose a premise but after that they reason completely rationally, so, at the end people find themselves arguing opposing views both feeling quite rational about it. My side... well, i think despite my highly idealistic choices and tendencies I'm probably leaning more towards the constrained view of the world, with it's implications. What do you believe in? Are we living in a world of solutions or of trade offs?
Profile Image for Mike (the Paladin).
3,144 reviews1,849 followers
February 12, 2010
I may later come back to this and reconsider my rating. I'm close to 4, but the conclusions of the book are in some ways, nebulous.

This book can be heavy going at times and while the discussion between the constrained vision of life and the unconstrained (and the also some views that don't completely conform to either view) can be interesting and even absorbing it can also go slowly. I didn't go into this book nearly as deeply or as completely I as I need or want to. So, it's partly "me" right now and things in my own life that have kept me from going in the depth I'd like here.

Good book interesting book. Well worth reading and considering, espically in today's political climate.
Profile Image for Sally.
1,090 reviews
June 22, 2010
Wow, reading this book was like riding my bike up a very steep hill. It required great effort, concentration, and perseverance. Yet I found it profoundly enlightening. It was a description of "the ideological origins of political struggles", based on two different visions of man and his limitations or lack thereof. I am amazed at two things: first, that Sowell could present both visions so even-handedly, and second, that the unconstrained vision, which favors government intervention into economics and many other areas of life in order to create the same results for every individual, could be so tenaciously clung to and defended.
Profile Image for Megan.
382 reviews51 followers
September 6, 2022
I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed reading this book, despite how deeply I disagree with its author. I appreciate the clarity and thoroughness with which Sowell lays out his framework: I found that it shed light on much of our partisan divide that I'd not previously understood, and it also helped me to identify and articulate my own perspective.

Sowell, with all the typical hedges about necessary-simplification of a much more complex reality, lays out two primary visions guiding people's politics. TM Scanlon summarized the thesis in his review:
The fundamental difference separating liberals and conservatives, according to Sowell, is a difference in “visions,” that is, in very general views about how the world works, what possibilities are open to us, and how much it is possible for us to know. People who hold different visions also tend to have different moral views, but these moral differences, Sowell contends, are not fundamental. Rather, they are consequences of more basic disagreements about causality and knowledge.

The conflict referred to in the title of Sowell’s book is between two such visions. According to what he calls the “constrained vision,” human beings are inevitably limited in both sympathy and knowledge. No amount of progress will produce human beings who are consistently altruistic or are capable of knowing more than a very limited amount about the world or even about the consequences of their own actions...This “vision” emphasizes the permanent need for social institutions to provide incentives that remedy the deep deficiencies in human motivation and to make decisions that are beyond the capacities of even the ablest persons...

The opposing “unconstrained vision”...is, Sowell argues, based on faith in the moral perfectibility of mankind and in the power of human reason. According to this vision, many of the evils in the world are the result of remediable moral defects and avoidable ignorance. Because human beings are morally perfectible, institutions like criminal laws and competitive markets that shape their behavior through external incentives are of at most temporary importance; such restraints can be dispensed with as mankind improves. Even now, the unconstrained vision takes it to be possible for the best among us to discover, by the use of “articulated rationality” (that is, by laying out a chain of reasons supporting a specific conclusion), what the best social policy is. This faith in reason, according to Sowell, leads those who hold the unconstrained vision to approach social problems through seeking “more direct control by those with the requisite expertise and commitment to the public interest,” the latest in this line being advocates of “industrial policy.”

Not surprisingly, Sowell is better at explaining his own (constrained) vision of the world, than he is at explaining the visions of those he disagrees with... Scanlon does a bang-up job pointing out some of these misunderstandings in the review linked above. But even if it is an inaccurate portrayal of prominent liberal/progressive/left thinkers, it is a telling description of how some conservatives may read them.

I'm also fairly convinced that while Sowell's framework is a mis-portrayal of these prominent thinkers, it is not a mis-portrayal of the typical liberal/progressive/left thinker you might encounter on the street rather than in a philosophy course. You know, thinkers like me.

I should pause to hedge a bit here. Sowell frequently points out that we should not assume a perfect left/right, liberal/conservative alignment with the unconstrained/constrained dichotomy, but I also think it would be silly to suggest there isn't any alignment. Generally speaking, I lean liberal/progressive/left, and I also consider myself more philosophically aligned with John Rawls and Laurence Tribe (considered to have an "unconstrained" vision in Sowell's view) than with Friedrich von Hayek and Adam Smith ("constrained" thinkers).

I think it is a testament to Sowell's genuine efforts to "see the other side" of things that I was never put off or offended by his description of the "unconstrained" vision. I never found his portrayal dismissive. Often, I wholly agreed. When I did disagree, it was generally at the edges rather than the heart of the matter... And, importantly, I found myself articulating ideas, as I read, that I don't think I would have been aware of without his provocation.

For instance, Sowell describes people with an unconstrained vision as being more concerned with results than process.
If a footrace is conducted under fair conditions, then the result is just, whether that result is the same person winning again and again or a different winner each time. Results do not define justice in the constrained vision.

To those with the unconstrained vision, the best results should be sought directly.

I suppose I must admit, when it comes to society, I do pay a lot of attention to results, but not because I don't believe in the primacy of fair process, but rather because I believe certain results belie corruption to that process. The same person winning a race again and again may not necessarily mean the race is unfair, but it certainly means we should take care to ensure that person is not cheating.

What I appreciated about the constrained vision, as described by Sowell, was its humility. What stymied me was its abdication of responsibility to try for good in the face of flawed humanity.

There are no doubt many progressives that see themselves as superior rationalists capable of "solving" problems that have plagued society for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. I am friends with some of these progressives. I have been known to become one of them when I get too caught up in myself. And that kind of arrogance is certainly worth avoiding.

Sowell describes contemporary society as the result of collective wisdom, "Where intellectuals have played a role in history, it has not been so much by whispering words of advice into the ears of political overlords as by contributing to the vast and powerful currents of conceptions and misconceptions that sweep human action along." He balks at the kind of arrogance that leads a person to believe they can design a system better than what has already heretofore evolved. To change a system intentionally is only to reveal the wisdom of it that was previously taken for granted.

This reminds me of Chesterton's Fence, a concept that has influenced me immensely, particularly in my professional life. As Chesterton himself put it:
There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

Let's just say, early in my career I was a fan of tearing down fences I didn't understand. I learned the wisdom of Chesterton's Fence through many unpleasant experiences, and now I apply that wisdom as often as I can remember it.

Chesterton's Fence is an inherently conservative idea, but it still makes room for intentional reform. A person must be tempered by humility but not paralyzed by it.

One of the most fascinating aspects of reading this book 37 years after its publication is seeing the way Sowell connects systemic thinking with conservative politics. What I generally see today is an association between systemic thinking and progressivism. For instance, when I see the Right and the Left at odds over critical race theory, I tend to see a battle between an individualist view of racism and a systemic view of racism. We progressives see a racist system that can exist regardless of individual racism. Progressives like me focus on the way power accretes within societal systems resulting in oppression.

But Sowell gave me reason to see the systems through another lens: power may accrete within societal systems, but so too wisdom. How do we navigate the tension there?

There's an idea that has been rolling around in my head for a few months now that I've termed "technologies of abdication." The thought hit me while contemplating algorithms, and how we sometimes use algorithms to abdicate responsibility.

I remember when I worked for Google, taking calls and emails on their general support line for advertisers. Fairly regularly, someone would call concerned about the unpaid search results. Every once in a while, they'd have a really good argument for why a particular results page was demonstrably harmful to a person or a group.

We'd have no particular justification for maintaining the status quo other than the inviolability of algorithm. I use the term "inviolability" in two ways. The first is literal. No one answering phones had any access to anyone with any power over Google's search algorithm. The second is more philosophical. I worked at Google in in the early days, when almost all of us really believed in Google as a beneficent force. We were organizing the world's information. We weren't being evil. And we believed in the algorithm. It wasn't perfect, but it was as close as we could get, and ever improving. It wasn't just that we couldn't change the algorithm to address one small flaw, it was that we didn't want to. The algorithm was, in a way, sacred.

Abdication of responsibility begins as an inevitable consequence of a commitment to a sacred process, but it becomes a self-sustaining process for maintaining and amassing power. This process need not be conscious, though it can be and often is a conscious strategy to deflect attention away from mechanisms of power and influence that do exist. Other times the abdication is merely reflex. Sometimes it stems from a well-meaning deference to the collective wisdom that developed it.

Algorithms are a technology of abdication. So is the market economy. And democracy.

The sacred processes that underlie these technologies of abdication are built to prevent tyrannical use of power by any particular individual or group of individuals, and this is why we hold them sacred.

But unchecked, technologies of abdication lead to systemic oppression -- intentionally or not! And a technology of abdication cannot check another technology of abdication without the two becoming an intertwined system of oppression while incentivizing everyone involved to abdicate responsibility for change.

Individuals must check technologies of abdication by refusing to abdicate responsibility, by stepping into the power they have, however meager in the face of that system, and acting morally within that power. We cannot abdicate our responsibility to do the best we can just because there are individuals who won't and because we'll never be so wise as to wield our power perfectly.

So I suppose Sowell is right when he contends that people like me believe in the perfectibility of individuals and society. I think we can do better and we can do worse, and in this way we are perfectible.

Oh, I have so many more thoughts on this, but I also need to get around to doing other things I'd planned to do today. This is a review I hope people comment on, so please do if you've read this far.
Profile Image for Rinstinkt.
182 reviews
October 25, 2020
This review is in Albanian. :)

Ky është një nga librat që unë do shpëtoja nëse do gjendesha në një botë në prag të apokalipsit. Pra është një nga librat e mi të preferuar sepse më dha një instrument të ri për të parë, analizuar dhe sitemuar ato çfarë dija mbi botën, sjelljen dhe politikën në linja të gjera.

Sipas Sowellit ekzistojnë dy pikëpamje/vizione të natyrës njerëzore. Ai i kufizuar apo me kufizime (Constrained), dhe ai i pakufizuar apo pa kufizime (Unconstrained). Këto dy pikëvështrme rrjedhin dhe përmbysin gjithë fushat e aktivitetit dhe veprimtarisë njerëzore.

Ata që adoptojnë vizionin pa kufizime të botës, dhe që në raste të tjera mund të quhen utopistë, besojnë se njerëzit janë thelpësisht të mirë, të patëkeq; se natyra njerëzore mund të tjetërsohet pra mund të ndryshohet për së miri (shiko njeriun e ri komunist); se qëllimet kanë rëndësi dhe ndoshta edhe më shumë rëndësi sesa rezultatet (shiko makabritetin e revolucionit francez); se njerëzit janë në gjendje të jenë të paanshëm dhe se kanë së pari një ndjenjë detyrimi shoqëror.

Pikëpamja apo vizioni i botës me kufizime, argumenton se: qenia njerëzore është thelpësisht egocentrike, pra e udhëhequr nga vet-interesi (megjithëse ky në rrjedhën e vet mund të prodhojë efekte dhe sjellje në dukje altruiste, shiko për shembull citatin e famshëm të Adam Smithit mbi bukëpjekësin interesin e tij dhe benefitin e konsumatorit...gjithkush i udhëhequr nga benefiti personal).

Ata që ndjekin vizionin e botës me kufizime besojnë gjithashtu se natyra njerëzore është e patjetërsueshme në harkun kohor të jetës së një njeriu dhe se jemi në thelp qenie jo perfekte, me difekte, cene, vese etj.
Po ashtu moraliteti ynë si individë dhe më gjerë si shoqëri rrjedh prej vet-interesit, pra incentivat dhe shkëmbimet kanë një rol të rëndësishëm (për sa i përket moralit, shiko për shembull Etikën Mjekësore në rastin e një pacienti të infektuar me një sëmundje fortësisht ngjitëse dhe vdekjeprurëse. normalisht do të përforcohej e drejta e konfidencialitetit mes pacientit dhe mjekut, por në rastin e një sëmundje që përbën rrezik për shoqërinë më të gjerë, mjekut i lejohet nga ana etike dhe dontologjike që ta raportojë sëmundjen e pacientit tek autoritetet.)

Këtë libër e rekomandoj për të gjithë ata që duan një mjet më shumë për të kuptuar botën.
Profile Image for Mary Catelli.
Author 52 books172 followers
January 23, 2021
Sowell's discussion of the two visions: constrained and unconstrained (though there is a range between them) and their effects on views in economics, law, and other fields. The unconstrained basically admitting of no limits on human capacity.

Such as differing views on war, the unconstrained view that it can be prevented by enlightenment and good will, being an irrational thing, and the constrained view that it's caused by people's rational conclusion that it will benefit them (however evil it is, or mistaken the conclusion turns out to be, like other conclusions). Or whether people should be guided by the wise and provident, based on whether you think them capable, or incapable because they can't possibly know all you need.
Profile Image for Trevor Parker.
374 reviews3 followers
October 21, 2015
Incredible book about how and why people see the world the way they do. Sowell looked at liberals and conservatives, looked at their platforms and arguments, and asked the question why? On the grand scale, why do the many various groups of people / cultures / political parties think the way they do? How do people develop a belief and how do they change? What really is at the root of our current conservative vs liberal debates? And why can't we understand each other?

This book really helped me humanize the "other side" of the political spectrum. I feel like I have become far more understanding. In an argument I am now less likely to say "you must be an idiot to think the way you do!"
Profile Image for eClaghorn.
374 reviews39 followers
March 24, 2019
Again, Sowell is erudite and wise. This is my second time through CoV and I noticed some changes from the original version, particularly in chapter 7. But the core remains one of the best analysis of the reasons for political differences. Highly recommended to understand your political foes/allies.
Profile Image for Kyle.
339 reviews
August 15, 2020
The central premise of this book is a rather useful concept, the idea of visions, and especially of two competeing visions: the constrained vision and the unconstrained vision. Sowell does a good job of defining the essences of these positions and explores the consequences of taking one vision as central rather than another. A "vision" here is something less than a theory (it is not that fleshed out), but more like a way of viewing things in stronger generality. So an unconstrained theory takes the view of society as capable of being morally/intellectually improved overall, and the most morally/intellectually improved people should make decisions to improve society overall. The constrained theory sees society as being bound by rules and systems with a smaller variance in moral/intellectual capabilities and changes to society should come from systemic changes (tradition and the slow change of tradition) by the population at large rather than by the moral/intellectual elite.

My quibble with Sowell's conception is that the constrained vision (which I would presume Sowell favors based on my reading) is often conflated with a middle position. For example, Sowell considers people like Adam Smith in the constrained vision, even for Smith's position on slavery, which for the society of the time seems to me like Smith's views are of the unconstrained type. He argues those of the constrained vision simply look at trade-offs and so Smith simply balanced the constraint against the evil of slavery, whereas the unconstrained vision have their imperatives. I think it would be fairer and more true to the theory if constrained was "ultra-constrained" (so that one should almost always if not always look to tradition for answers) and a person's views could have different elements and gradations (to be fair to Sowell, he addresses this at the beginning of the book, but wants to keep the binary visions to explore their consequences).

Sowell does a good job of going over the implications of the two visions, and offers interesting commentaries on all sorts of issues related to justice, freedom, and rights. While Sowell's preference for markets and systemic processes (constrained vision) often does come through, he offers some insights on both visions (I think more on the constrained vision). It seems to me as if both visions have weaknesses. The constrained vision doesn't really ever explain how change in a society happens, and it is not clear how one can decide what is a success, while the unconstrained vision often assumes too much of what people can or are willing to accept in terms of change imposed by an authority [and what an authority could even possibly envision as the consequences of the changes].

I think this is worth reading, though I liked "The Three Languages" by Arnold Kling more (I thought it was a more neutral presentation and offered more interesting insights into American politics/arguments). I am also struck by how this would dovetail with Hofstadter's "Anti-Intellectualism". The constrained vision's skepticism of intellectuals' abilities is very similar to what Hofstadter was talking about, and I think Sowell does a good job of explaining how this viewpoint can be thought of from an intellectual point-of-view. It's not overly long, though not short, and if you want to read a provocative book (you will almost certainly find things to disagree with, as I do with most things I read) with a variety of insights sprinkled in, I think this is a good choice. Hopefully it will at least let you think about how you would defend your "vision".
Profile Image for Lydia.
44 reviews14 followers
December 30, 2020
Really good. A little difficult for Audible, though. I definitely want to re-read at some point.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 442 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.