A Conflict of Visions

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Any new book by Thomas Sowell is likely to cause a stir among politically oriented readers. In a dozen or so books, Sowell—a model of the contemporary ideological warrior—has combined engaging scholarship with a fervently held political point of view. He has also been a contributor to the editorial pages of many newspapers and periodicals and occasionally appears as public speaker.

Educated as an economist under the tutelage of free-market advocate and pioneer monetarist Milton Friedman, Sowell has provided sympathetic guides to free-market economics (for example, Classical Economics Reconsidered, 1974), advocated the free market as an antidote to racism (for example, Markets and Minorities, 1981), raised doubts regarding the value of political responses to racial inequality (Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?, 1985), and associated black poverty in the United States with values promoted in black churches (Ethnic America, 1983).

These positions alone would probably be enough to afford Sowell some measure of notoriety, but he has become an especially controversial figure because he is a black man. Sowell brings to the conservative cause the advantage of rather special credentials. Well educated, articulate, and sincere, Sowell can champion individualism as opposed to affirmative action, free-market prosperity as opposed to massive jobs programs, and formal as opposed to substantive justice—all this without being branded a white supremacist. For liberals and black activists, on the other hand, Sowell constitutes a particularly dangerous enemy, one who can easily be seen as a traitor to his own kind or at the very least an “Uncle Tom.”

Sowell’s professional career has reflected this controversy. Upon finishing his graduate work at the University of Chicago, Sowell, perhaps naïvely, decided to take a position at Howard University, one of the nation’s most prestigious black schools. Unfortunately, there was very little tolerance of Sowell’s unorthodox ideas at Howard, and he ultimately moved on to the Hoover Institute, a well-respected conservative think tank. Sowell has produced most of the essays, editorials, and books noted above as a Hoover scholar.

In recent years, Sowell has shifted the main focus of his attention to the history of ideas. In Marxism: Philosophy and Economics (1985), he presented an overview of Marxist theory. In A Conflict of Visions, Sowell explores this area of interest more broadly. Defining “vision” as a sort of “gut feeling” which supplies the basic premises undergirding positions on various political and social issues, Sowell claims to have isolated two persistent, radically opposed visions of human nature and society. Categorizing these visions as “constrained” and “unconstrained,” Sowell argues that much of the political turmoil of the modern era has been rooted in the conflict between the two.

Though he distinguishes vision from “theory,” Sowell illustrates the two visions by citing the work of representative theorists. His prime exemplar of the unconstrained vision is William Godwin. Godwin, an anarchist who experienced very brief popularity at the close of the eighteenth century, blamed the ills of his time on existing social arrangements and the brute force of government, which conspired to blunt the full potential of human nature and, thus, the natural harmony between human beings. According to Sowell, Godwin’s is an unconstrained vision because it sees human nature as malleable, so much so that altruism can be made the ordering principle of society. In addition, Godwin and other believers in the unconstrained vision suggest that knowledge exists with which it is possible to engineer a society that will bring out the best in mankind. Thus, there are two crucial elements here: first, the belief that it is possible to transcend the apparent limits of human nature, allowing man’s innate goodness to emerge, and, second, the belief that the knowledge which would direct this transformation is indeed accessible.

To this basic framework, Sowell attaches a number of more or less likely corollaries. For example, he notes a tendency for believers in the unconstrained vision to be elitists, since it takes expertise to engineer a truly egalitarian and just society. He also suggests in passing that the unconstrained vision can be associated with deception, ruthlessness, and a lack of patriotism. All these points are arguable; none is central to Sowell’s argument. What is essential, however, is the assertion that the unconstrained vision seeks and expects to find rationally based “solutions” to a full range of social problems.

The constrained vision is exemplified by three primary figures: Thomas Hobbes, Edmund Burke, and Friedrich August von Hayek, the latter with a strong assist from Adam Smith. It emphasizes the limitations of human...

(The entire section is 2016 words.)