The liberal/conservative divide explained

Dr. Thomas Sowell on his book “A Conflict of Visions”

I really enjoyed this interview. Thomas Sowell explains a lot of things here that have mystified me about the liberal/conservative divide for years. He talks about a philosophical divide that’s existed in American politics since the founding of the country, and has indeed existed in Western civilization for thousands of years: the constrained vs. the unconstrained vision, as he calls it. He is a proponent of the constrained vision himself, but he does a studious job of explaining “the other side”, the unconstrained vision, though he criticizes it at every turn. I found myself agreeing strongly with the constrained vision.

The take-away for me is that the constrained vision believes that human nature is what it is, and will never be anything but what it is, so therefor systems have to be put in place to constrain the negative aspects of human nature, and liberate the positive aspects of it. It’s a vision that says “This is as good as it gets.” Life for individuals will never be perfect, and we should expect our national life to be no different. People who adhere to it believe that a peaceful society is best achieved by staying faithful to the constraints, and only modifying them when such a change has been tried and shown to work in small experiments. They take a conservative piecemeal approach to change.

Those who adhere to the unconstrained view, as Sowell defines it, believe that human nature is malleable, and seek to improve it. They do not accept poverty and inequality as unfortunate but natural conditions that exist in human society.

Most of all people who have the unconstrained vision believe that the right outcomes will happen only when “the right people” have been put into office. They do not believe in structures, only a leader’s judgement. Those who adhere to this vision also have a real problem with seeing that there are those who disagree with them, and that the opposition’s view is worth listening to. It sounded to me like it goes back to the idea that “the right people” need to be put in place. It follows then that if one believes in this, once “the right people” are in, they should be followed unquestioningly. It is a kind of “messiah” complex.

Sowell had a nice way of summing up the two visions and why they so fundamentally disagree. He said that people with the unconstrained view believe that communism failed because of Stalin (if only the right people had been in power it would have worked), and those with the constrained view believe that whenever a communist system is put in place a Stalin will arise in it.

I share Sowell’s judgement of Obama, for the most part, that he is most definitely a different sort of president than any we have had before, and that he is potentially dangerous because of his unconstrained vision, and his lack of experience. The closest analogy I can make to him is President Carter, though Obama has a much greater flair with the media than Carter did, akin to President Bill Clinton’s media savvy.

The one topic where I disagreed with Sowell was his reference to Obama’s brother who lives in a slum in Kenya. Conservatives have brought this up as an issue before, and from what I’ve heard, Obama’s brother has said he is happy where he is. I realize that to a lot of people this seems odd, but I will not pass judgement on how someone wants to live their life. Other than that I thought Sowell was right on the money.


4 Responses to The liberal/conservative divide explained

  1. […] is the law In “The liberal/conservative divide explained” I talk about an interview with Thomas Sowell from October 2008. The interview is on his new book […]

  2. […] I wrote, called “We are suffering under the ignorance of our national heritage”, and “The liberal/conservative divide explained”. Next to the show where Beck introduced Sarah Palin to the world (before McCain picked her as his […]

  3. […] only focused on getting “the right people in power”. Well of course. Those who have the unconstrained vision are naive enough to believe that this is all you have to do. They neglected the fact that the […]

  4. […] The liberal/conservative divide explained, Part 2 This is a follow up to an earlier post, “The liberal/conservative divide explained”. […]

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