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I Agree With Steven Pinker: A Conflict of Visions is “Wonderful”

October 6th, 2010 · 1 Comment · Economics

a_conflict_of_visions.jpgWhile on vacation this summer, my son wanted to go to the local bookstore to get some beach reading. As he scoured the bookstore, my eye fell on a book I’d never heard of before, “A Conflict of Visions” by Thomas Sowell. The book claimed to address why “the same people line up on opposite sides of different issues”. I’ve often wondered why this is the case, so I picked it up. After reading just a few chapters I realized that this was a very special book, and IMHO it succeeded brilliantly at creating a framework for understanding the rift between ideologies.

The issues themselves may have no intrinsic connection with each other. They may range from military spending to drug laws to monetary policy to education. Yet the same familiar faces can be found glaring at each other from opposite sides of the political fence, again and again. It happens too often to be a coincidence and it is too uncontrolled to be a plot. A closer look at the arguments on both sides often shows that they are reasoning from fundamentally different premises. These different premises – often implicit – are what provide the consistency behind the repeated opposition of individuals and groups on numerous, unrelated issues. They have different visions of how the world works.

Pacifists and hawks, collectivists and individualists, left-wingers and right-wingers are all placed into a model that while not perfect, sure seems better than anything I’ve seen before. As far as I can tell, it appears to be very even-handed toward both sides. One reader I know who leans democrat in his voting felt the same about the book.

I unabashedly admit I fall wholeheartedly into what he calls the “Constrained” category. Simply put, he nailed the political me. My impression is that he has also perfectly described many (all, actually) on the left who I spar with. It’s up to them to see if they concur. I can’t imagine how (if they’re honest) that they wouldn’t.

I was pleasantly surprised when I discover that A fan of Sowells work is Steven Pinker, Harvard Psychologist and “idol” of my political sparring partner Steve Roth. Not only has Pinker referred to the book in his best-selling The Blank Slate, but he has placed A Conflict of Visions on his required reading list for his courses, and put the book in his “five favorite books of all time” list.

Pinker ultimately uses slightly different terminology than the ones used in Sowell’s book, and refers to the two main categories of thought as “Utopian” and “Tragic” which I agree resonate better than “Constrained” and “Unconstrained”.

This from a UPI interview of Pinker (emphasis mine):

They are the different visions of human nature that underlie left-wing and right-wing ideologies. The distinction comes from the economist Thomas Sowell in his wonderful book “A Conflict of Visions.” According to the Tragic Vision, humans are inherently limited in virtue, wisdom, and knowledge, and social arrangements must acknowledge those limits. According to the Utopian vision, these limits are products of our social arrangements, and we should strive to overcome them in a better society of the future. Out of this distinction come many right-left contrasts that would otherwise have no common denominator.

Sowell is an economist with some impressive credentials. He graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from Harvard, he received his Masters in Economics from Columbia and finally a Doctor of Philosophy in Economics from the University of Chicago. He is a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. He’s also taught at UCLA, Brandeis, and Cornell.

He leans strongly toward market solutions over government ones, so I assume many enlightened (and oh, so, so smart) non-students of economics will assume he must have been dropped on his head as a child, or may just be evil. Pinker sure disagrees. FWIW If they read his book, I think both sides will understand why neither side is evil.


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