Patterico's Pontifications


A Conflict of Visions, Part 3: The TL;DR Version of the Post Below

Filed under: Books,General — Patterico @ 7:33 am

This is a shorter version of the post below, which is Part 3 of a continuing series on Thomas Sowell’s revelatory work A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles.

I think many of you who are interested in political philosophy will be interested in the post below and will want to read it all. But some of you will say: dude, this is a blog. If I wanted to read a book, I’d actually sit down and read a book. Give me the thrust of it in a few sentences.

Well, I’m not able to do that, but I’ll try to come closer in this post.

Adherents to what Thomas Sowell calls the “constrained vision” believe human nature doesn’t change or improve over time. They therefore place great importance on incentives. Because human nature is constant, they rely on systemic processes that evolve over time to create incentives, such as the free market.

Adherents to an “unconstrained vision,” by contrast, believe in the limitless possibilities of humans to improve their nature. They place great importance on intentions and on personal qualities of wise policy makers who make decisions for us.

I believe that these competing visions inform how we approach the failure of our political system — especially the tendency on the part of politicians to favor their own self-interest over that of the public.

Those from the constrained vision accept that politicians are humans who respond to incentives like anyone else. They expect politicians to favor their self-interest over the common good. They are more likely to accept political compromises, because they don’t believe any magical person is going to ride in on a white horse and save us all.

Those from the unconstrained vision are less apt to accept trade-offs. They believe that the problem with our politicians is that the personal qualities of wise policy makers are lacking in those we have elected. They complain about politicians lacking “spine” and “principle.” If only we could elect tougher people, they believe, everything would be better.

I believe this dichotomy rears its head in the civil war in the GOP between the Tea Party types and the establishment types. Supporters of the establishment accept trade-offs and incrementalism, because they don’t believe better politicians will equal better policies. This is a constrained view. Tea Partiers believe we need to send the establishment a message: elect people who are sincere, whose intentions are pure, and who will reject trade-offs for bold policies that will fundamentally transform the country. This is an unconstrained view.

Complicating the picture greatly is the fact that, while the methods of the Tea Party types seem unconstrained, their policy goals (returning us to the vision of the Founders) are clearly those of the constrained vision. By contrast, the methods of the establishment types may appear constrained, but their policy goals are, by default, unconstrained — since the accumulation of political power depends on a surrender to the unconstrained vision of society in which government and elites control more and more of what happens.

This complication is discussed in meandering fashion in the rambling post below. It’s the reason that the post below is so long, in fact. Please leave your comments in the post below.

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