Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 206

A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell is a nonfiction book and was published in 1987. In the book, Thomas Sowell, an economist and social theorist, begins this thesis with an inquiry: Why are political groups in constant conflict over various, sometimes unrelated, issues?

Illustration of PDF document

Download A Conflict of Visions Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Sowell then presents two ideas on the origins of such conflicts: constrained vision and unconstrained vision. These two different thinking processes represent opposite ends of the political spectrum. Sowell explains constrained vision as a belief that humans cannot change and are creatures of habit and fixed personalities. Someone with constrained vision also prioritizes self-interest above all else and believes in empirical evidence and systemic processes.

Unconstrained vision could be considered an idealist or naive way of perceiving the world and others. However, this is not a negative trait, as someone with unconstrained vision is able to see the good in people. They are the opposite of those who possess constrained vision in that they are distrustful of systems and institutions. Unconstrained vision can also be interpreted as the "Utopian vision."

Because people are categorized into either vision group—more or less—conflicts will inevitably arise. This is can be seen on a macro scale by observing the Western concepts of conservatism and liberalism.

A Conflict of Visions

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2016

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 nature and human knowledge. Thus Hobbes, writing in the mid-seventeenth century, against the background of the English Civil War, paints a picture of human nature that emphasizes man’s selfishness and inability to live harmoniously without stable government. Burke, a contemporary of Godwin and the most prominent conservative theorist of his time, emphasizes the value of tradition as an antidote to the frailties both of human conduct and human reason. Hayek, a twentieth century economist, offers a comprehensive social theory which utilizes the free marketplace as the prime source of order. When these various strains are combined, what emerges, according to Sowell, is a common vision which takes human nature as severely limited and argues that humankind lacks the capacity to conduct successful social engineering. Instead, alternative sources of acceptable social order, independent of human rationality, are put forth. Proponents of a constrained vision defend tradition and the free market in this light. These more or less spontaneous mechanisms are not likely to achieve perfection, and they cannot be manipulated to accommodate every social goal, but neither are they static. Problems which arise, though likely to elude rational solutions, are subject to judicious “tradeoffs.”

According to Sowell, these competing visions of human nature and society lead to radically different conceptions of equality, justice, and power. Where believers in the unconstrained vision seek nothing less than radical equality and uncompromising social justice, believers in the constrained vision see no safe or practical way to achieve such a result, opting instead to accept the tradeoff of procedural (or formal) equality and a concept of justice based on rules or processes. Where the unconstrained vision sees cooperation and good fellowship as the way to world peace, the constrained vision sees the need for pragmatic power politics. And so on, until one sees in these competing visions the roots of conflict over such issues as redistributive social programs, nuclear deterrence, affirmative action (and other forms of judicial activism), freedom of the press, and crime.

Sowell does not choose between the two visions. His purpose, he tells his readers, is to shed light on the origins of various political conflicts, and he restricts himself to identifying the two distinct visions and demonstrating their role in producing and shaping selected political debates. This circumspection may seem curious to longtime Sowell watchers, since he has clearly been a proponent of what he would categorize as a constrained, free-market vision. On the other hand, he has also usually tried to preserve the appearance of objectivity.

Still, there does seem to be an ideological message implicit in the book. In Sowell’s account, conservatives and free-market advocates are presumed to be compassionate rather than callous toward poverty and other social ills which they are hesitant to address with direct political solutions. Indeed, Sowell rejects the widely encountered distinction between constrained and unconstrained visionaries in terms of compassion. There is disagreement over causation—that is, whether inequality, for example, results despite or because of the social system—and there is disagreement over what remedies will actually be safe (from potential political tyranny) and effective, but Sowell denies the unconstrained vision the moral high ground. Both sides care—they simply have different beliefs about what can realistically be done to provide relief.

While Sowell’s distinction between two radically opposed global visions is a powerful analytic tool, his approach has serious liabilities as well. First, Sowell’s schema does not convincingly explain much political conflict. Nationalism, Fascism, and even interest-group liberalism receive little or no treatment in the book. Thus, big chunks of the political universe are not even considered. In the conflicts which Sowell does explicitly mention, it simply is not clear that the debate centers on the relative presence or absence of constraints. For example, judicial activists who pushed forward desegregation and affirmative action were definitely opting for “trade-offs.” They wished to preserve the basic structure of American society without turning a blind eye to racism and its consequences. Indeed, in the years following World War II, as the world struggled to grasp the enormity of the Nazis’ racial policies, some move in this direction seems to have been inevitable. Likewise, supporters of redistributive policies in the United States appear to have a thoroughly constrained vision of what is humanly and socially possible. They have, indeed, usually been relatively conservative and “capitalist.” Again, in the debate over crime, both sides can point to constraints ignored by their opponents. Law and order advocates can make a good argument that liberals have been unrealistic about the importance of punishment, given the unruliness of human nature, but liberals can point out in response that their opponents are just as unrealistic with regard to the importance of crime-producing social conditions and the limited effectiveness of deterrence.

In short, while there is widespread disagreement about the exact nature and extent of the constraints facing contemporary society, one is hard put to locate a coven of advocates for anything remotely resembling Godwin’s vision or any other that might correctly be called unconstrained. This suggests that Sowell’s categories are imprecisely defined. Indeed, he admits that no vision—not even Godwin’s—is completely unconstrained; he also points out that some of the most interesting social theorists, among them Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill, rely on what he calls “hybrid” visions of human nature and society. The fact is that a more accurate classification would focus on elements of constraint and transcendence, present in different forms and doses in virtually any compelling vision. It is not clear what conclusions would be drawn from such an analysis; a dualism not unlike the one described in Sowell’s book might well emerge. If it did, however, it would be more precise and more sensitive to varieties of constraint.

Another problem with Sowell’s categories is that he lumps together some widely disparate visions under the banner of constraint. Hobbes is a social contract theorist for whom tradition plays a secondary role. Hayek (as well as Friedman) went to pains earlier in his career to point out that he was not a conservative. Further, the innovation that fuels a market society seems to be at odds with both the continuity sought by conservatives and the stability valued by Hobbes. It seems possible, therefore, that a great amount of political conflict could be traced to such differences within the constraint camp.

Finally, a major omission in this book is the role of history as an agent both of constraint and transcendence. The theories of Marx and Mill revolve around a fluid conception of circumstances framing the human condition. This is especially crucial in an age of constant change and conspicuous discontinuity, an age when utopianism of the mean is just as likely as that of the extremes. Thus, supposedly moderate and realistic American policies in Iran and Vietnam have led to disaster. What may have seemed to be a reasonable sense of constraint only yesterday becomes a flight of fancy today.

The late twentieth century is an unstable time—a time in which, for most of the world’s people, tradition has either been shattered or never existed in any acceptable form, market mechanisms are socially disruptive, and even Hobbesian absolutism is politically untenable. In such a world, might it not be the traditionalist (or conservative), the advocate of a free-market society, or secular absolutist who misunderstands the constraints on human action? Might it not also be that, in such a world, transcendence—the ability to stretch the limits of what is possible—becomes not an idle hope but a necessity of survival?


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 73

Booklist. LXXXIII, January 15, 1987, p. 734.

The Christian Science Monitor. February 4, 1987, p. 23.

Commentary. LXXXIII, March, 1987, p. 78.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, November 15, 1986, p. 1713.

Library Journal. CXII, January, 1987, p. 92.

National Review. XXXIX, February 13, 1987, p. 52.

The New Republic. CXCVI, February 9, 1987, p. 46.

The New York Times. January 24, 1987, p. 13.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, January 25, 1987, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXX, December 12, 1986, p. 44.

Time. CXXIX, March 16, 1987, p. 79.

The Wall Street Journal. February 6, 1987, p. 19.

The Washington Post Book World. XVII, January 4, 1987, p. 7.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial