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November 06, 2004

Interesting Political Theory Book

I recently read a very interesting book that gives a very useful “overarching structure” of the history of political philosophies (or at least the part of the history of political philosophy that depends on a view of human nature).  A Conflict of Visions”, by Thomas Sowell, is an historical/philosophical analysis and exposition of the two major views of human nature – called the Unconstrained Vision and the Constrained Vision --that have dominated mainstream Western European and American political debate for the last 350 years or so.  Sowell explores the different views, and the consequences of holding those views on a number of important issues: liberty, equality, freedom, etc., of a number of well-known Western European and American political writers, both historical and current (e.g., Locke, Hobbes, Burke, Condorcet, Godwin, Rousseau, among the historical figures and G.B. Shaw, O.W. Holmes, Ronald Dworkin and Milton Friedman among the more recent).  A Conflict of Visions” stands on its own and may be read to great benefit without any prior acquaintance with Sowell’s work, but it can be most fully understood as one third of a trilogy, the other two parts of which are: “Knowledge and Decisions” and “The Vision of the Anointed”.

The Constrained Vision more or less asserts that (1) human beings (whether individually or in groups (e.g., legislatures)) are incapable of broad knowledge (i.e., at the societal level) about the effects of their actions, that therefore societies are better off relying on structures (e.g., markets, cultural traditions) that in some sense collect (or in the case of traditions, have collected over time) the limited knowledge of many independent actors, (2) that the Law of Unintended Consequences is alive and well, (3) that human nature is basically self-oriented (if not downright selfish) and (4) that, because of these profound limitations, only suboptimal “trade-offs”, not “solutions”, are possible on most important social and political issues.  Adherents to The Constrained Vision -- definitely -- do not believe in the “perfectibility of man”.  This view has most often been associated with thinkers that most would characterize as “conservative”. 

Believers in The Unconstrained Vision basically believe the opposite: that humans are so-called “blank slates” whose human nature is not innate, but is more or less completely determined by their environment, and that large social improvement/political projects are possible because human beings are capable of knowing much about the consequences (at the societal level) of their social actions.  People holding this view do believe in the Perfectibility of Man, and this view, not surprisingly, has most often been associated with thinkers that most would characterize as “liberal”.


The analysis is very clear (typical for a Sowell book), easy to follow (also typical) and is fairly even-handed, especially for someone like Sowell, who more or less holds the Constrained Vision (as do I).  While he uses strong versions of each Vision as foils to explicate the analysis, he also is clear that many positions along the Constrained/Unconstrained spectrum are possible and have been held by writers, and that some famous thinkers (e.g., Marx and Mill) have actually held hybrid versions of the Constrained and Unconstrained Visions.

None of the writers discussed is a scientist of any kind, much less a scientist in a relevant field; and most of the writers discussed wrote before anyone knew (or certainly understood well) what a gene, a neuron or a hormone was.  Because of this, after finishing “Conflict of Visions” (and, if you’re up for it, the rest of the trilogy), one wants to know the answer to the question: what does “science” currently say about Human Nature – which Vision does the generally accepted empirical evidence support:  Constrained or Unconstrained? 

Several (conflicting) books (all well-written) that help fill out the debate include:  The Blank Slate”, by Steven Pinker, “The Selfish Gene”, by Richard Dawkins, “Guns, Germs and Steel”, by Jared Diamond, “Human Natures”, by Paul Ehrlich and “Nature via Nurture”, by Matt Ridley.  Ehrlich (famous for making a series of wildly wrong predictions of environmental disasters, and for losing several high-profile bets about the environment (loosely speaking) to the late economist, Julian Simon) and Pinker (evolutionary biologist/psychologist, now at Harvard, who studies the brain and language), for example, strongly disagree about mostly everything, and there is no broad consensus that emerges from these books, read together (Ehrlich and Diamond give more weight to environmental factors – Pinker and Dawkins more to genetic/evolutionary factors.  Ridley attempts a modern synthesis of the positions). 

What does seem to be true, however, is that two (sometimes inconsistent or at least not wholly consistent) views are gaining ground:  (1) most basic (and some not so basic) human drives are increasingly believed to be genetically determined (and many, though clearly not all, of these are “antisocial” or “selfish”); but that (2) this genetic determination can be very complex, including complicated interactions among genes (or more accurately the proteins they express) and between genes and the environment (broadly conceived – e.g., whether a person is well fed, has access to good medical care, is raised in a stable, loving environment, etc.).

Sowell, in “A Conflict of Visions”, helps organize in a sensible analytical structure a great deal of the core thinking (some not even explicit) of the two main camps of traditional Western political thought over the past few hundred years.  It provides a lens for a deeper understanding of the original profound thinkers analyzed in the book, and makes one want to return to them for re-reading.  In this sense, as well as many others, it is a very good book.

November 6, 2004 in Books | Permalink


Thanks for the thoughtful review...but please provide an Amazon link!

Posted by: Ben Casnocha | Dec 4, 2004 10:05:44 AM

I enjoyed this review and I found this book of Sowell's to be of enormous help in breaking down the complexities of various social issues. My interest is the source/motivations of the constrained and unconstrained views. Let's go back to the medieval and ancient periods. Further, I'd like to better understand the motivations of the unconstrained viewpoint. Where does this thinking really come from?
Highly recommended is Sowell's Quest for the Cosmic Vision which beautifully complements the work under review.

Posted by: Dov | Feb 17, 2005 1:10:09 PM

Thanks for a very insightful review.

Another writer who has done a great job applying analytical perspective at our condition is Thomas PM Barnett who wrote The Pentagon's New Map, applying global security in relationship to finance and globalization.

Posted by: Stuart Berman | May 20, 2005 8:34:50 PM


Posted by: kenan doğulu | May 17, 2007 6:08:38 PM

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