In this classic work, Thomas Sowell analyzes 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. He describes how these two radically opposed views have manifested themselves in the political controversies of the past two centuries, including such contemporary issues as welfare reform, social justice, and crime. Updated to include sweeping political changes since its first publication in 1987, this revised edition of "A Conflict of Visions" offers a convincing case that ethical and policy disputes circle around the disparity between both outlooks.
Thomas Sowell was born in North Carolina and grew up in Harlem. As with many others in his neighborhood, Thomas Sowell left home early and did not finish high school. The next few years were difficult ones, but eventually he joined the Marine Corps and became a photographer in the Korean War. After leaving the service, Thomas Sowell entered Harvard University, worked a part-time job as a photographer and studied the science that would become his passion and profession: economics.
Thomas Sowell graduated from Harvard University, received his Master's in Economics from Columbia University and his Doctorate in Economics from the University of Chicago.
In the early '60s, Sowell held jobs as an economist with the Department of Labor and AT&T. But his real interest was in teaching. Sowell began the first of many professorships at Cornell University, and his other teaching assignments include Rutgers University, Amherst College, Brandeis University and the UCLA, where he taught in the early '70s and '80s.
Thomas Sowell has a large volume of writing including a dozen books, and numerous articles and essays; covering a wide range of topics, from classic economic theory to civil rights and judicial activism, even choosing the right college. Much of his ground-breaking writing will outlive the great majority of scholarship done today!
Though Thomas Sowell had been a regular contributor to newspapers in the late '70s and early '80s, he did not begin his career as a newspaper columnist until 1984. In 1990, he won the prestigious Francis Boyer Award, presented by The American Enterprise Institute.
"George F. Will's writing," says Sowell, "...proved to him that someone could say something of substance in so short a space (750 words). And besides, writing for the general public enables him to address the heart of issues without the smoke and mirrors that so often accompany academic writing."
Sowell's very timely book,The Housing Boom and Bust: Revised Edition attempts to determine whether what is being done to deal with America's 2009-2010 housing boom and bust problem is more likely to make things better or worse. His examination of racism and Liberalism in Black Rednecks and White Liberals is a classic from a daring perspective rarely heard in the Black Community. Nowhere else will you read about the co-dependent relationship between "..black rednecks.. and white liberals.."
Currently Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute in Stanford, Calif.
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I have always wondered the psychological reasons why different political views see the same situation so differently yet each so consistently. Why do liberals most often attack conservatives as stupid or mean? Why do conservatives fight less ardently for their political goals? This book explains from several different angles the two main strains of thought that make up the modern political struggle. Are the solutions to all our problems just to revise our system of government and put the smartest people in power? This is essentially the "liberal"( under the current definition) view. The other side feels that there are no select few people that know best how to run things and that life is a series of trade-offs. The solution is to work a trade-off that best solves the situation. After reading this book the debate makes so much sense. I now know why the liberals think that 600 or so lawyers in Washington should be trusted more that every other American making their own decisions. Just yesterday a government panel was telling us that mammograms before 50 and every year are a waste of money. You see if you crunch the numbers, it's cheaper to treat a few more patients that weren't caught early than to spend on all these extra tests that find nothing. The everyday common person is going to want to over-test to be sure. How stupid! The 600 lawyers came up with the idea of borrowing $4,500 from the Chinese to give to car buyers, if they would buy a new car and completely destroy their old car. Destroy it so that the parts could not even be used. Doesn't a new car have to be created to replace that car? Doesn't it use energy to create that new car? I'm convinced that Thomas Sowell is one of the few smart people that could run this country, but he's smart enough to know it is not the answer.
A Pox on both these views Oct 15, 2009
It is possible to believe that humans can progress, even radically progress without believing in idealistic ungrounded fairy tales. We stand today on the verge of technology capable of changing the very nature of what it means to be human. So an analysis limited to the the immutable limitations of human beings on the one hand or denying any such limitations on the other is a bit limited. What is needed is a moving moment by moment realism as to the current limits while working to overcome as many of those limits as possible. It is not an either-or.
And what of man as heroic rather than man as flawed anyway?
Brilliant Thesis from a Brilliant Thinker Oct 4, 2009
This is a 5 star book solely on the basis of its brilliant thesis. Dr. Sowell argues that the political divide can be attributed to humanity's understanding of how the world works and human nature. This understanding can be categorized by two visions, the unconstrained vision and the constrained vision. Those with the constrained vision see humanity and society as imperfect but with rules, traditions, and policies able to provide as much freedom and equality as possible within those constraints. Those with the unconstrained vision see humanity and society as something that can be continually perfected to achieve a specific result. Basically, the unconstrained vision puts you on the left, the constrained vision mostly puts you on the right. Although Dr. Sowell has his own political views, he treats both sides evenhandedly in this book. Dr. Sowell brings in quotes from Condorcet and Godwin of the unconstrained vision and Burke and Hayek of the constrained vision to help illustrate his points. For those interested in the whys of politics and the philosophy behind it, I highly recommend this book. However, since this is very academic, others may prefer the author's other book, "The Vision of the Anointed" which is more readable.
Not as Simple as it seems Jun 18, 2009
On reading the entire block of 60-odd reviews, I find that more than half of them, even while admiring Sowell's evenhandedness, misstate the carefulness of the book's positions. In the an attempt to pay tribute to the brilliance of this (rather dense, historical & philosophical ) book, I'll try to correct this.
This book presents two visions of the world. However, contrary to most of the reviewers, the difference is not about Liberals vs. Conservatives. It is about the difference between two visions of the world, and each of the visions is found in most parties in the political spectrum.
The two visions are metaphysical, pre-scientific points of view regarding how the world works. In one view (Unconstrained), people can drive change, intentions matter, and this could improve the world. In the other view (Constrained), people will always be (somewhat) bad, only results and processes matter, and improvements always involve tradeoffs.
Sowell first acknowledges that no vision is purely Constrained or Unconstrained. And then he explicitly does not connect the dots to (modern, US) liberal vs. conservative visions. And he doesn't do so for the basic reason that it really isn't that simple.
Instead of attempting to place "Conservative" vs. "Liberal" positions on top of Sowell's 2 visions, let us look instead at every issue, and determine whether our own individual intuitions are that (a) it is a problem, and that (b) human beings can solve or meliorate, via coordinated political action, this paricular problem without creating other (potentially worse) problems. This is the issue. And the arguments for or against most actions can come from both positions.
Examples from the War in Iraq.
Against (Constrained): The military cannot solve a complex social problem. Against (Unconstrained): War is evil. Don't start one. For (Constrained): There will be horrible tradeoffs, but war is better than the (worse) other options of not warring. For (Unconstrained): Saddam is a blight upon Iraq, they will be better without him.
I have attempted to point out that not all conservative positions are constrained, and not all liberal positions are unconstrained. Rather, different people have different understandings of the world, and these often lead to different conclusions. Using Sowell's brilliant dichotomy, people may improve their understanding of the issues facing the world, though hopefully not replace entirely any other charitable understandings.
A Conflict of Visions Jun 15, 2009
Dr. Thomas Sowell is an excellent writer. I enjoy reading his books. He is beyond pale.