This week I plan to do a series of posts on Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. I consider it an absolutely revelatory book, which will forever change the way I look at the world, and I want to share some of its insights with you this week.
But first, please take the following quiz. Get a piece of paper and write down which answer best describes your view: a or b. The quiz consists of 20 questions. Sometimes you will agree with both statements; it is possible you might not agree with either. Either way, choose the response that is closest to your view. Please take the quiz before reading the post further. You will need a pencil (or pen) and paper.
Scoring will take place at the end.
a. I prefer decisions made according to tradition, which reflects human wisdom collected over time, to relying on a “new approach” by a select few.
b. I prefer decisions to be made according to human reason applied to our problems, and tend not to pay respect to a custom or tradition simply because that’s how people have done something for a long time.
a. A judge should strive do to what’s right. A judge’s first questions when considering a possible legal result should be: “Is it good? Is it right?”
b. A judge should strive to follow the law, regardless of whether it results in outcomes with which he or she agrees.
a. I want to get government out of the people’s way, and let people make their own decisions for themselves. The knowledge any one human can possess is limited, and I prefer to rely on a process that coordinates information scattered throughout society, rather than relying on experts.
b. Government has a role in improving people’s lives. Part of the reason is that certain people possess concentrated specialized knowledge, and I would prefer to entrust decisions to those people, rather than to the masses.
a. Sincerity is an important aspect of a person’s character. I have noticed that my opponents are often insincere.
b. Sincerity is nice but is overrated, as sincere people can do bad things, while insincere people might do good things. My opponents may well be sincere, but their policies are destructive.
a. When you are in an organization, it is important to act according to your role, because the success of the organization depends upon people carrying out their role in the proper manner.
b. I don’t care for titles, and I want to do whatever is the best thing to do regardless of what other people say my role is.
a. Fidelity to the truth is a very important aspect of a person’s character. Using deception, even in pursuit of goals you think are laudable, is wrong.
b. Fidelity to the truth is nice but overrated, as it is sometimes necessary to use deception in pursuit of a goal, if that goal is lofty and the results of achieving that goal would benefit society.
a. I would prefer that decisions be made by older people, who have the experience to deal with problems wisely.
b. I would prefer that decisions be made by younger people, who are not hampered by outmoded ways of doing things that have been shown not to work.
a. I believe that patriotism and loyalty are important aspects of someone’s character, and one should act in accordance with those virtues where reasonably possible.
b. I believe that patriotism and loyalty are overrated. If my country is wrong, it’s wrong — and if a friend did something wrong, I can’t support their wrong action just because they’re my friend.
a. It aggravates me to see someone getting paid a lot of money for a skill that was easy for them to acquire. Even if they have a skill that benefits society, that should not mean they get a big paycheck if they didn’t earn that skill through hard work. For example, if it was easy for them to learn it because of the contacts they had in life, they should not benefit from that.
b. If someone has a special skill, they should be paid more, regardless of whether it was easy or difficult for them to develop, learn, or obtain that skill. Paying them more ensures their skills are available to society at large.
a. I care about incentives. We should not just give people money because that creates an incentive for others to look for handouts.
b. I care about equality. Some people are born with less and that hampers their ability to succeed. We can help those people by making their circumstances closer to those more economically fortunate.
11. a. To me, freedom means that I must have the practical ability to achieve what I want. Government leaving me alone, by itself, doesn’t make me “free” if I am still functionally unable to do important things like earn a living, obtain health care, and so forth.
b. To me, freedom means being left alone by the government. It does not mean that government owes me a pathway out of the circumstances of my particular situation in life.
a. Businessmen should engage in business activities, which is what they know best, and should not donate profits to charity, which is not within their area of expertise. Charity should come from private individuals and not businesses.
b. Businessmen make enough money that they should give back to society, which includes making donations to charities and doing good works.
a. I believe in a “living Constitution” because I never agreed to the terms of the Constitution — nor did anyone else alive today. Also, the men who wrote the Constitution did not and could not have anticipated the social, economic, and technological changes that encompass the vast complexity of modern society.
b. I believe in applying an original understanding of the provisions of the Constitution, according to how they were understood at the time the document was written. This is the only way to enforce the rule of law.
a. I believe in adhering to principle. If you sacrifice your principles, simply to achieve part of what you are striving for, you are not only likely to get nothing done, but you also demonstrate that you are lacking in character.
b. All life consists of trade-offs. Choosing the least bad of two options is not unprincipled, but is simply being realistic.
a. The problem with America’s politics today is that the system incentivizes politicians to take actions that are in their best interest rather than that of the country as a whole. The solution is to change the incentives, because human nature rarely changes.
b. The problem with America’s politics today is that our leaders are self-centered and care only about themselves rather than the good of the country. The solution is to elect people who are more principled.
a. The problem with the economy is that too many people are selfish and want to grab as much as they can at the expense of others.
b. As far as the economy goes, I don’t care if people act in a self-centered fashion. The market allows people to act in a self-centered fashion and still take actions that benefit others.
a. I believe the intent of a person is paramount when analyzing their public statements or actions. Nobody should ever be held accountable for an outcome that they did not intend, and no person should be held responsible for an interpretation of their words that they did not intend.
b. A person’s intent is relevant, but I also care about the results of a person’s actions or statements. If someone knew their actions or speech might result in a bad outcome, even if they did not subjectively intend it, they bear some responsibility for that outcome.
a. I worry about changing things too much all at once.
b. We should change anything that needs to be changed, as long as reason tells us that the changes will be an improvement.
a. I am enraged when people in positions of trust, such as members of the clergy, or teachers, engage in sexual activity or other wrongdoing that takes advantage of the very people who place their faith in people occupying those positions of trust.
b. Wrongdoing is wrongdoing, but I place no special emphasis on the fact that a wrongdoer occupied a position of trust when committing a bad act.
a. It matters to me a great deal whether you can explain why you are taking a particular action in a way that makes sense.
b. I don’t care if you can explain your actions well; I just care whether society is helped or harmed by what you are doing.
Score 5 points for each answer listed below (if your vision is like mine, your score will be low, so don’t be concerned if you’re not racking up a lot of points):
This quiz gives you a rough continuum of whether you are “constrained” or “unconstrained.” The higher your score, the more “unconstrained” you are.
As I say above, this quiz is based on a book by Thomas Sowell called A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. This is a book I intend to discuss more this week. The basic dichotomy is between those who believe that humans have limitless “unconstrained” potential, on one hand, and those who believe human potential is “constrained” by certain realities such as the constancy of human nature, on the other. Many aspects of one’s view of life flow from which vision you hold. For example, the more “constrained” your vision is, the more apt you are to put your trust in systemic processes that improve the human condition within those constraints. The more “unconstrained” your vision is, the more apt you are to believe that humans can solve any problem through application of reason.
Sowell’s description of the two visions, how they view various social phenomena and processes, and related concepts are too much for one post, which is why I am doing a series. I hope this whets your appetite. Report your results below.
I am a 25, for what it’s worth.
In future posts, I will outline some more of what Sowell says about these competing visions and apply them to current controversies, like Jonathan Gruber, conservatives’ civil war over how extreme government makeover needs to be, whether it matters whether you think of a politician as a good guy, and so forth. It should be interesting.
UPDATE: Thanks to Jeff B from AoSHQ/@EsotericCD for helping me to refine the quiz wording and discussing the concept with me. (And for recommending the book to me in the first place!)