Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Review of Thomas Sowell's "A Conflict of Visions"

Thomas Sowell, in this book, distinguishes between the "unconstrained vision" of human nature and the "constrained vision" and identifies these two visions as being at the heart of much of the political conflict that exists in modern times.

The constrained vision sees limitations to human nature and considers human sinfulness to be ineradicable (at least in this life). This is the traditional, pre-modern vision of human nature. Social progress is possible for this vision is not one of a purely static society, but such progress will always consist of a series of trade-offs, rather than solutions. Human knowledge is widely dispersed in society and no one person possesses even a large percentage of it, which means that it is reasonable and even necessary for individuals to trust in tradition and to defer to common sense. Spokesmen for the constrained vision include Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Alexander Hamilton, F. A. Hayek and other conservative.

The unconstrained vision sees man and society as infinitely perfectible and views reason as the key engine of perfecting society. This is the Enlightenment, modern vision of human nature. Social progress consists of identifying disatisfactions in society (which Harold Laski claims are expressions of "serious ill in the body politic") and then producing solutions to the problems by means of technical reason applied to the problem. The knowledge needed to produce such solutions is not that which is possessed by the common man, but is rather the knowledge of the "expert," the "intellectual," the "educated and specialized person" who can apply the advanced theories to society and thus spur on progress. Spokesmen for the unconstrained view of human nature include J. J. Rousseau, Thomas Paine, Baron D'Holbach, John Stuart Mill and Harold Laski, John Dewey and other "progressives," "socialists" and "liberals."

Having just read Sarah Palin's autobiography and then turning to this book, it occurs to me that all this has a great deal to do why Sarah Palin is rejected out of hand so vehemently by liberals. It is not just that they hate her policy positions, it is not just that they are snobs, it is not just that they hate anybody who defies their narrow stereotypes of Evangelicals and pro-family women - although there is something in each of those reasons - but it is ultimately because they are utterly convinced that an ordinary person of above average intelligence who makes no pretense of being an intellectual is qualified for high public office. And the reason they are so sure of this is because they embrace the unconstrained vision of human nature as described by Sowell.

To admit that Sarah Palin (or anyone remotely like her) could ever be qualified for high political office would be to betray their worldview. She shows no sign of being properly deferential to either modern, "scientific," socialist ideology or to the expert class of bureaucrats that modern liberals believe ought to run society. She is dangerous because she would be prone to rely on common sense, traditional morality and political tradition in making decisions, rather than on advice from the "experts" who operate out of the modern vision of human nature as infinitely malleable by the application of technical reason to social problems.

I can certainly sympathize with their problem. It is little wonder that she is a challenge to their worldview in a way that most conventional politicians never will be. And I can see that, from their perspective, it is not a matter of this or that policy or idea she embraces or rejects. It is the whole pre-modern worldview that she embodies.

When the venom and hatred started being spewed out by the mainstream media against Sarah Palin last year I thought it was primarily being directed against her Christian faith, especially her pro-life stand. I still think it is related to that; but I can now see that she represents a kind of politics that is anathema to liberals that goes beyond being an Evangelical Christian. An agnostic or a Muslim or a Jew who embodies the traditional, pre-modern, unconstrained vision of human nature would be just as much of a threat to the rule of the experts and their vision of "progress."

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