Commentary Magazine


A Conflict of Visions, by Thomas Sowell

Divided Souls

A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles.
by Thomas Sowell.
Morrow. 273 pp. $15.95.

In August 1762, Msgr. Christophe de Beaumont, Archbishop of Paris, issued a condemnation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile. Though clearly no intellectual peer of the greatest mind of the French Enlightenment, Msgr. Beaumont had behind him the imposing tradition of Catholic theology, and that tradition enabled him to get quickly to the heart of the revolutionary theory which Rousseau, at the height of his career, was presenting to the world.

What Msgr. Beaumont’s attention was directed to was Rousseau’s contention that “The first stirrings of nature are always right; there is no original depravity in the human heart.” This proposition not only contradicted Christian doctrine, but appeared to Msgr. Beaumont to be a false simplification of the nature of man. “There resides in us,” he wrote,

a striking mixture of grandeur and meanness, of love of truth and a taste for error, an inclination toward virtue and a tendency toward vice.

For Msgr. Beaumont, as for all Christians, the truth about man was that he possessed a dual nature.

Yet although the Archbishop understood that Rousseau’s theory contradicted Christian doctrine, he did not grasp its full meaning. For Rousseau, too, was setting forth a theory of man’s duality. There was a “natural” man who was inherently good and an “artificial” man, the product of social institutions with their evil workings. Rousseau’s intention, in his own words, was to take “men such as they are, and the laws such as they can be.” The moral nature of man could be changed, he wrote, by a revision of the social institutions which produced and shaped him.

The conflict between Rousseau and Msgr. Beaumont thus concerned the question of whether the source of evil and of human suffering was to be found in the permanent features of human nature or in the character of social institutions, and whether the injuries which men inflict upon one another can best be dealt with on an individual basis, soul by soul, or collectively, through the transformation of society. This same division over fundamentals, over matters abstract and seemingly remote from practical affairs, has in one way or another informed much of the political thinking and debate of the modern era. And it is about those fundamentals that Thomas Sowell has written in his fine book, A Conflict of Visions.

Sowell, a leading representative of the Chicago school of economics, is one of the foremost social scientists in America today. A brilliant analyst who obviously takes delight in his polemical skills, he established his reputation in a series of economic and sociological studies of ethnicity in America marked not only by high scholarship and intelligence but by an even rarer quality, common sense. It was Sowell, for instance, who pointed out that standard interpretations of data on the differential incomes of various ethnic groups are marred by the failure to factor in the different median ages of the groups under study; any true comparison of the earnings of Jews and Hispanics, say, has to take into account the fact that the median age of the former group is that of a middle-aged man, the latter that of an adolescent.

A Conflict of Visions is a departure from Sowell’s earlier, highly empirical studies. It is a reflective book in which he tries to discover the underlying “visions” of man and society that, he believes, have generated the principal opposing political theories of the last two centuries. Such visions are, he claims, “the silent shapers of our thoughts,” and “the foundations on which theories are built.”

The conflict of visions which is the subject of Sowell’s inquiry turns on two “basic conceptions of the nature of man” which have contended with each other since the 18th century. He calls them the constrained and the unconstrained visions, and he defines them in the following manner:

The constrained vision takes human nature as given, and sees social outcomes as a function of (1) the incentives presented to individuals and (2) the conditions under which they interact in response to those incentives. . . .

In the unconstrained vision, human nature itself is a variable, and in fact the central variable to be changed.

By and large, the constrained vision is held by conservatives and the unconstrained vision by liberals and socialists. In short, we are back to the argument between Archbishop Beaumont and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

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In A Conflict of Visions, Sowell examines an impressive array of economic, political, and legal thinkers from Adam Smith and William Godwin in the 18th century to such contemporaries as John Rawls and Friedrich Hayek. Throughout, he employs his categories of constrained and unconstrained visions as a principle of intelligibility, placing and clarifying the theories that underlie the ongoing debate about the proper policies to advocate and pursue in society and government. As Sowell shows, those who believe in the malleability of human nature will, as Rousseau did, hold society responsible for all human suffering and will therefore seek to transform society according to their vision of human perfection, normally by extending the power of government.

By contrast, those who have a constrained vision of the human condition deny our capacity to reconstruct the human world according to our desires, believing that the best we can do is to check or redirect the inherently selfish impulses which are man’s permanent legacy; in their view, the power of government is a suspect instrument to this end.

Sowell is careful in this book not to take sides as between the two views of the role of government power; rather, he wants to trace the ways in which the debate turns on the larger question of how amenable to change is the nature of man. But he leaves unexamined the possibility that the two traditions are not altogether mutually exclusive.

Thus, it is universally accepted that if the basis of human life is biological (“nature”), no conscious and purposive efforts can change substantially the conditions of human existence; if, on the other hand, man is a product of his social environment (“nurture”), we can and should intervene to provide ourselves with a radically different and better mode of life. The debate, as Sowell describes it, is over which of these propositions is true. Yet neither proposition is so self-evidently true as to deserve the kind of exclusive allegiance each is seen to enjoy.

We intervene persistently and successfully, for instance, to alter some elements of ourselves that are part of our biological destiny. This activity is well-expressed in Freud’s line, “Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God.” If our prostheses, born of our cunning and our technological skill, do not change our nature, they frequently change the consequences of that nature. We are warm without fur, we fly without wings, and the restraints of our laws, when they are enforced, prevent us from acting on our worst impulses.

Similarly, even if human character can be formed by social institutions, it does not necessarily follow that we have or can acquire the capacity to mold man according to our vision of what he should be. The practical possibilities for realizing Rousseau’s hopes and expectations seemed to be confirmed by the massive social transformations brought about by the French Revolution and its successors; the relative ease with which long-standing institutions disappeared and new ones were conjured up seemed to testify to man’s ability to alter at will the foundations of his existence. No wonder few now doubt our capacity to change our social environment and thus transform human nature.

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But perhaps we overestimate our powers. Recently I attended a welcoming ceremony for the dissident Soviet physicist and “prisoner of conscience” Yuri Orlov, newly arrived on our shores. In a brief address he spoke, oddly enough, not about politics but about the search for meaning and purpose in life. His accent, literally and figuratively, was that of a character in a 19th-century Russian novel, and his explicit references to Tolstoy left no doubt about the basis of his world view. Where, I wondered, was evidence of the “new man” whom Lenin and Stalin had set about to create in the Soviet Union? In the case of Orlov, that which had persisted through change was not so much universal human nature as the effects of a culture which was itself the result of a long historical process. Somehow, seventy years of concentrated, venomous zeal in uprooting traditional forms of life could not erase a characteristic mode of looking at the world and man’s place in it.

An example is not a proof, but it can be suggestive. We are inclined always to think about social change; we pay insufficient attention to social stability. Although we make large claims about the power of culture and social institutions to shape human character, we overlook the signs of their capacity to maintain and preserve patterns of life despite our efforts to change them. The preservation of distinctive patterns of ethnicity in America is one significant demonstration of the endurance of such social patterns.

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As I have noted, Sowell does not permit his general political position to intrude upon his analysis of the theoretical and policy differences which follow from the constrained and the unconstrained visions. He is, of course, a leading exponent of the constrained vision; one would not know it from a reading of this book. But if Sowell’s conservatism does not enter into the book, his empiricism sometimes does. Even his readiness to accept the proposition that the whole debate between the two visions is a conflict over the plasticity of human nature seems to reflect a belief that this great and fundamental controversy could be resolved by the right empirical study, as if the whole raging conflict underlying modern politics might turn on a fact. Thus he states:

The crucial issue is ultimately not what specifically is desired (a question of value premises) but what in fact can be achieved (a factual and cause-effect question).

And he adds:

It is precisely the correctness or incorrectness of particular beliefs about social causation that requires scrutiny—a scrutiny arbitrarily barred by the phrase “value premises.”

Sowell is suggesting that if the fundamental basis of ideological conflict is over values, then there can be no rational discussion or determination of the political issues which divide mankind; that is why he calls for “scrutiny” of “particular beliefs” on the basis of their empirically ascertainable “correctness or incorrectness.”

But Sowell himself has shown how such “scrutiny” is not barred even when the issue is one of a moral or political value. For instance, one important point made in this book is that in judging political action, those who share the constrained vision tend to place primary importance on processes rather than results. Sowell shows that these processes, these forms which are so important to conservatives, involve the substance of political freedom and political democracy, which are moral and political values if there ever were any. But he also demonstrates that adherence to these processes may involve the acceptance of a status quo in which some or many suffer deprivation. Throughout A Conflict of Visions, Sowell subjects to similarly close scrutiny the meanings and implications of other-such “value premises.”

Sowell believes, finally, that “an analysis of the implications of visions can clarify issues without reducing dedication to one’s own vision.” I am not so sure. This clarification of values, this rational scrutiny, could, if not reduce dedication to one’s own vision, at least make one understand that no political position embraces all good, and therefore that one’s political opponents are not necessarily malevolent. Sowell’s illuminating guide to the political conflicts of our age teaches the valuable lesson that political choices always involve costs. In a complex world, it is virtually impossible to act for good without doing some harm. In politics, where choices involve the security, welfare, and fortune of millions, it is thus not enough to console oneself with the thought that one has tried one’s best to minimize the harm; one should think, judge, and act politically in a cold sweat.

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About the Author




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