December 30, 2019

by Thomas Sowell

A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell receives its own standalone review this year because (*spoiler*) it is my Book Of The Year! Which is funny because it was published in 1987…But it’s the book of MY year, so congratulations, famed writer/thinker/economist Thomas Sowell!!

Allow me to begin with the cons. This book is long and it’s dry and at times it went way over my head. I listened to the audiobook (and frequently paused to jot notes down), and sometimes I would have to skip back to listen to a section again. And then again, and then again. And then I would stare vaguely into space, trying to make Sowell’s words click into place somewhere in my brain. And most of the time that worked, although occasionally I would listen to a section several times, stare into space, and then shrug and move on.

One time I accidentally skipped back to a place much earlier in the book without noticing, and it took me a full fifteen minutes of listening before I realized I’d already listened to that section.

Have I sold you on this book yet???

Here’s why I loved it: This book has changed everything about how I view politics and culture. It got under my skin, and I can’t not see things through this lens anymore. Sowell peels back the layers of political ideologies to reveal a more fundamental notion — that we all adhere to one of two visions of the world, and that those visions influence how we think about almost everything.

He argues that whatever vision we hold, all of our political and philosophical beliefs are logical outflows of that vision. So while one side of the political spectrum inevitably struggles to understand the other, a basic knowledge of the two visions would at least bring clarity to why each side argues certain things.

Here I will now give an extremely basic overview of what Thomas Sowell calls the constrained and unconstrained visions, along with examples of what each believe:

The constrained vision sees man as fundamentally flawed. Therefore, things like crime and war come as no surprise, and in their absence a person with the constrained vision will seek to understand what’s holding evil at bay. Justice is defined by rules, and justice only exists when there are fair processes. Criminals require punishment. Older people are respected for their experience, the past informs the present, and the practical knowledge of the lay-person is valued. Humanity’s potential is constrained and human nature is unchanging over time. The constrained vision is process-oriented, and in decision-making, people with a constrained vision believe that every choice requires trade-offs.

The unconstrained vision sees man as fundamentally good. Therefore, peace is to be expected, and in its absence a person with the unconstrained vision will seek to understand the causes of war and crime and find solutions. Justice is defined by results, and justice only exists when right and good outcomes are created. Criminals require rehabilitation. Younger people are respected for their innocence, the past has little bearing on the present and future, and the special knowledge of the intellectual is valued. Humanity’s potential is unconstrained and human nature is perfectible. The unconstrained vision is results-oriented, and in decision-making, people with an unconstrained vision believe that every choice can lead to ideal solutions.

The two visions are not necessarily synonymous with the two political parties, although as a general rule those with the constrained vision will be conservative and those with an unconstrained vision will be liberal.

The book reads more like a textbook than a critique or promotion of one side or the other. However, Thomas Sowell acknowledges that he himself has a constrained vision, and so do I. As I read the book, I was sometimes skeptical about the things he’d say about the unconstrained vision. “No,” I’d think. “Nobody really believes that.” And then I’d turn on the news and it was everywhere. I mean, for life of me I couldn’t understand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s rise to political stardom, but as I read this book it struck me that she is basically the poster child for the unconstrained vision. That’s not to say that everyone with an unconstrained vision will love AOC, but they’ll be more likely to understand her than someone with a constrained vision. Anyway, after reading this book, something finally clicked for me. The way we think about politics isn’t just about how much (or which) information we have. Rather, it speaks to a more fundamental understanding of how we see the world and human nature.

My sister is the one who recommended the book to me, and we sometimes text each other headlines or screenshots coupled with our own (witty and/or hilarious and/or insightful) commentary about how everything in current events reflects a constrained or unconstrained vision of the world. I already mentioned AOC. But Trump’s election? You bet. Greta Thunberg as Person of the Year? Yep. The merits of Star Wars Episode VIII versus Episode IX? Actually, yes. Vision matters everywhere in culture, not just in politics.

Reading this book didn’t make some magical light bulb pop on over my head, but at least now when I hear someone arguing a point that I totally disagree with, there’s a part of my brain that goes “Ohhhhh, I see what’s going on here. I disagree, but I see.” The idea that a person’s political positions are a logical outflow of their vision is one of the most helpful takeaways of the book. It’s easy enough to write others off as crazy when they believe things that don’t make sense to us. Sowell — who is by all accounts a genius — dignifies others by calling them logical instead. It’s one of the many reasons I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

A Conflict of Visions

  1. Cassia says:

    Dang! This succinct overview is so well written! For missing, and rewinding, and gazing off as oft as you relay, you seem to have a solid wrap on Sowell’s ideas. Thank you so much! Your overview even gave me a lot of “Oh! Of course!” Realizations. I will now be very tempted NOT to read the book because your bummer points are so insightful 😉 :).
    Ok. I’ll put it in my list with the other 30 of your recommends 😉
    Thanks for this! Very helpful! (Ps. Also inspiring to know at what a broad stroke of material you engage with. Doug Wilson would commend you highly for being well on your way up the Wordsmithy mountain!)
    Ps.s I just ordered Sowell’s autobiography on audio because of your notes on him. Looks fantastic, can’t wait to tell you about it once I’m through.

    • elisajoy says:

      Doug Wilson was very inspiring to me!! (And so are you! xoxo) I can’t wait to hear what you think of Sowell’s autobiography, I bet it’s fascinating!

  2. Cassia says:

    *Bullet pints* NOT “Bummer points”

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