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A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles

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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 natur 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.


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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 natur 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.

30 review for A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles

  1. 4 out of 5

    Megan Blood

    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 t 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.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Douglas Wilson

    Vastly learned. Very informative. The same my second time through in 2020.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Chad

    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 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."

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jeffrey Howard

    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 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!

  5. 4 out of 5

    James

    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 p 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.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Stanislav Siris

    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 s 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.”

  7. 5 out of 5

    Victoria

    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.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Lee

    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 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.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Chandler

    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 visio 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.

  10. 5 out of 5

    imane

    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 purpos 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

  11. 4 out of 5

    Void lon iXaarii

    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 s 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?

  12. 5 out of 5

    Michael Robinson

    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 explanati 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.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Mike (the Paladin)

    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 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.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Sally Ewan

    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 economi 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.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Khari

    Wow. 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 Wow. 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.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Mary Catelli

    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 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.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Thomas Achord

    Always a great read. Very perceptive in the constrained and unconstrained visions humans employ, as well as their consequences for thought, action, and society.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Kyle

    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 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".

  19. 5 out of 5

    Lydia

    Really good. A little difficult for Audible, though. I definitely want to re-read at some point.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Rob

    I've been increasingly a fan of Thomas Sowell. He's a brilliant and logical thinker on economics and social issues, and the breadth of his knowledge and research is astonishing. I read that – from among the 20 or so books he's written – this is his favorite. Back in 1987, Sowell looked at the landscape and wondered how people – with seemingly so much in common, and even with similar values and goals – could so often be on opposite sides of political issues; and not just political, but also econo I've been increasingly a fan of Thomas Sowell. He's a brilliant and logical thinker on economics and social issues, and the breadth of his knowledge and research is astonishing. I read that – from among the 20 or so books he's written – this is his favorite. Back in 1987, Sowell looked at the landscape and wondered how people – with seemingly so much in common, and even with similar values and goals – could so often be on opposite sides of political issues; and not just political, but also economic, legal, military, and social issues. What's driving that? A Conflict of Visions examines that question and seeks the root causes of this intractable issue. The framework he uses to make sense of it is the concept of one's "vision" of mankind. What is the nature of man? Sowell's framework presents two opposing views on this central question. One is that man is essentially flawed and represents Sowell's "constrained" view, most often associated with a conservative perspective. The other is that man is essentially good, and represents what Sowell refers to as an "unconstrained" vision, commonly associated with a progressive or liberal view of the world. So it's not values, but a one's vision of man that lead to fundamentally different ways of looking at practically everything – and thus coming up with almost opposite views on the same sets of facts in many areas. Sowell acknwledges that this is an imperfect framework -- no issue or person is 100% one way or another. Further, he explores how some people change over time and on various issues. It's extremely technical and dense reading. The depth of his research and citations is astonishing, so it was (for me, at least) a very difficult read. He goes back two hundred fifty years or so, and traces the thinking - and reasoning behind the thinking – of all kinds of political, economic, legal, and social scholars on either side of the "constrained – unconstrained" visions of man. While dense and theoretical, a Conflict of Visions helps to explain things in everyday life – why some are happy with judicial activism (generally those with an unconstrained view) while those with a constrained view of man view the Constitution as something not to be tampered with. These differences are everywhere. For example, Sowell cites a number of Supreme Court decisions, including a landmark case on preferential treatment. He highlights the arguments on each side and the "visions" underlying each perspective. The example clearly shows how even at the Supreme Court, "the two visions argued past each other." This was about the most difficult book review I've ever written, but I felt it worth the time to share my thoughts on Sowell's favorite work (it would make a great college course!). This is an important book for our time – for all time, in fact – because this is not a new phenomenon. It's important to note that this is not a "conservative" book, though Sowell is often associated with conservative thought. It is a dispassionate and balanced analysis of what drives thinking. It highlights something rarely examined and perhaps not not even understood by even the most educated – what drives our thinking? And why?

  21. 4 out of 5

    JP

    I can see why Sowell considers this among his best three works. In A conflict of Visions, he presents a generalized philosophical model that frames every major economic and political viewpoint. He references many prominent thinker on both sides of his model, which is based not on left vs. right, nor authoritarian vs. libertarian, but instead on constrained vs. the unconstrained visions. So many ideological discussions about politics, religion, trade, and social justice would be far more enlighte I can see why Sowell considers this among his best three works. In A conflict of Visions, he presents a generalized philosophical model that frames every major economic and political viewpoint. He references many prominent thinker on both sides of his model, which is based not on left vs. right, nor authoritarian vs. libertarian, but instead on constrained vs. the unconstrained visions. So many ideological discussions about politics, religion, trade, and social justice would be far more enlightening if participants had considered them within the context of Sowell's brilliant and well-written analysis.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Trevor Parker

    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 hum 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!"

  23. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    I finally finished this book. it's amazing. I have a friend who once said, "Any book worth reading once should be worth reading again." I don't buy that - there are a lot of books i enjoy only once and wouldn't repeat. But this book would be on a short list of books if I were limited, because you could read it over and over and still have a lot to learn. it's dense - there are a lot of ideas packed in it. I would like to take a course with this as the text and explore modern politics with it. I finally finished this book. it's amazing. I have a friend who once said, "Any book worth reading once should be worth reading again." I don't buy that - there are a lot of books i enjoy only once and wouldn't repeat. But this book would be on a short list of books if I were limited, because you could read it over and over and still have a lot to learn. it's dense - there are a lot of ideas packed in it. I would like to take a course with this as the text and explore modern politics with it.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Sylvester

    I don't know what Sowell was trying to accomplish with this book. I found some of his arguments for this division contradictory, he also stated not everyone could be classified in these two categories so what exactly is the point really? I do not know. I mean sure, it offered a good contrast of Adam Smith and William Godwin, but there isn't really a take home message as both visions failed to fully achieve a better society. I don't know what Sowell was trying to accomplish with this book. I found some of his arguments for this division contradictory, he also stated not everyone could be classified in these two categories so what exactly is the point really? I do not know. I mean sure, it offered a good contrast of Adam Smith and William Godwin, but there isn't really a take home message as both visions failed to fully achieve a better society.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Cami

    I've always admired Sowell's work in economics but may enjoy his political thought even more. A great summary and comparison of two fundamental visions that guide ideologies. It contrasts political theorists such as Burke, Locke, Hayek, Adam Smith with Dewey, Condorcet, Godwin, Rousseau and Rawls. Sowell presents complex material in a brilliantly clear manner. I've always admired Sowell's work in economics but may enjoy his political thought even more. A great summary and comparison of two fundamental visions that guide ideologies. It contrasts political theorists such as Burke, Locke, Hayek, Adam Smith with Dewey, Condorcet, Godwin, Rousseau and Rawls. Sowell presents complex material in a brilliantly clear manner.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Le Happy Merchant

    This book does an excellent job explaining the origins of political differences, as being based on vastly different premises about the limits of human knowledge. Thomas Sowell explores the work of ideological theorists that span several centuries, and makes sense of the consistency of ideas that frequently come bundled together. It is worth reading no matter your ideological beliefs.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Eclaghorn

    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.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Tim Milazzo

    I'm not going to be able to give a scholarly critique of Sowell's historical philosophical and economic analysis here. I admit I have not read works from half of the main sources that Sowell derives his premise here. Here's what I will say: 1. Sowell is a brilliant and well-read man. He analyzes the worldview ("vision") of many prominent economic and sociopolitical philosophers over the past few centuries, which alone is worth the read to receive a junior-level survey of some of these prominent th I'm not going to be able to give a scholarly critique of Sowell's historical philosophical and economic analysis here. I admit I have not read works from half of the main sources that Sowell derives his premise here. Here's what I will say: 1. Sowell is a brilliant and well-read man. He analyzes the worldview ("vision") of many prominent economic and sociopolitical philosophers over the past few centuries, which alone is worth the read to receive a junior-level survey of some of these prominent thinkers. 2. Sowell's explicit grouping of philosophies/worldviews into Constrained vs Unconstrained is very thought-provoking, and, I think, even a necessary exercise for those aspiring to high-level political and socio-economic thought. 3. At times listening through the audiobook, a thought crept in: is this a dichotomy? Is the real shape of truth something that has both constraints and yet can evolve as the Unconstrained thinkers believe, yet at a different pace, through different means, or in a different direction? Yet I think as the book goes on, and you give Sowell credit for his full argument with all of its nuance, I believe you can see this objection handled. Though I do think he stays up high at such an objective level, that I think a prototype unconstrained thinker will NOT catch that nuance, and may have an aversion to what they THINK he may be saying. Basically, I feel this may be unlikely to change the mind of many unconstrained thinkers (which, probably, was not Sowell's goal anyway). I think more could have been done in that regard through storytelling. I wish I could give it 4.5 stars, but in the choice between 4 and 5, Sowell deserves my credit as a fully recommended read.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Terrence D.

    At times it is hard to follow Sowell, because of his detailed litany of dichotomies. However, I found this book helpful in the creation of two overarching categories, the "constrained" and "unconstrained" visions wherein like worldviews and values are contained. Sowell has many strong points, but his understanding of libertarianism is not one of them. Like so many often do, Sowell understands Ayn Rand to be libertarianism's greatest benefactor. This is just fundamentally wrong. Sowell doesn't re At times it is hard to follow Sowell, because of his detailed litany of dichotomies. However, I found this book helpful in the creation of two overarching categories, the "constrained" and "unconstrained" visions wherein like worldviews and values are contained. Sowell has many strong points, but his understanding of libertarianism is not one of them. Like so many often do, Sowell understands Ayn Rand to be libertarianism's greatest benefactor. This is just fundamentally wrong. Sowell doesn't really attack libertarianism, but he does draw a caricature that does little justice in accurately describing the beliefs of Murray Rothbard or Hans-Hermann Hoppe. This is ironic, since so many libertarians claim Friedrich Hayek whom Sowell places so much emphasis upon in this book. Nuances aside, I think it is fair to say that Sowell did his research and has made tremendously meaningful observations which will serve in creating dialog with those whom we most disagree on the other side — those with constrained visions and those with unconstrained visions (e.g. Capitalists and Marxists). I am glad to know that this book is just one of three in a series because I feel like more needs to be said to accurately convey the points he is making.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Isaac

    Sowell is one of the most annoyingly smug and insufferable public intellectuals I have read, but fortunately this book is less like "Intellectuals and Society" and more like "Basic Economics" in that he attempts to provide neutral consideration, though in spite of that suspect I could guess his opinion. The framework of constrained/unconstrained visions is interesting and his attempts to examine historical philosophies/worldviews with it range from fascinating to a bit unsatisfying. There are som Sowell is one of the most annoyingly smug and insufferable public intellectuals I have read, but fortunately this book is less like "Intellectuals and Society" and more like "Basic Economics" in that he attempts to provide neutral consideration, though in spite of that suspect I could guess his opinion. The framework of constrained/unconstrained visions is interesting and his attempts to examine historical philosophies/worldviews with it range from fascinating to a bit unsatisfying. There are some great individual observations here, but he doesn't really discuss tweaking social processes to evolve society towards desirable outcomes which seems closer to my personal "vision" than anything he discusses. He also doesn't seem to consider the constraints of the constrained view as empirical questions that could be answered and inform the tweaking of social processes, which again seems optimal in my personal version of the vision. I was also occasionally shocked by how similar some of the issues that were discussed in this 30 year old book, including a whole section on social justice, seemed completely relevant to discussions we're still having today. Centralization or decentralization, equality of outcomes or equality of opportunity, a lot of those discussions could be applied to today's headlines.

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