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A conflict of visions

October 18, 2011

Since I don’t blog much anymore, I don’t need to say anything about the deal to return Gilad Shalit to Israel. Though of all the endless things being written today, it’s interesting that perhaps the single most powerful piece comes from Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston: Bravo for these people, these Israelis. He notes that since the 1950s, Israel has released 13,509 prisoners for 16 soldiers.

Anyway. If I’m online already, I might as well tell about a book I recently read: A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, by Thomas Sowell. He presents his topic succinctly:

One of the curious things about political opinions is how often the same people line up on the opposite sides of different issues. 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 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. (p.3)

Sowell’s thesis is that people see the world through what he calls a ‘vision’, which forms and informs how they understand what they see. These visions are not sharply defined or cogently articulated ideologies; rather they are loosely understood frameworks. Most of us adhere to a version of this vision or that one, without ever being aware of doing so, and without recognizing that our political adversaries don’t recognize theirs, either. Significantly, they are mostly unchangeable. The two major visions which informed political discussion in the late 18th century are the same ones which most of us hold in the early 21st.

Sowell calls the two visions the ‘constrained vision’ and the ‘unconstrained vision’. 18th century proponents of the constrained vision include William Godwin and Thomas Paine, while Edmund Burke and Adam Smith represent the constrained version. People who see the world through the constrained vision understand the human condition to be, well, constrained: there are inevitable limits on what Man can achieve. Reality is far too complex for any single individual or even any group to understand all its ramifications, and therefore nobody can know how to correct its myriad imperfections.

People who think it’s in the power of people to perfect the world are, obviously, unconstrained. Both sides agree that reality is sorely lacking, but they disagree totally on what can be done about it. If you recognize the constraints of reality, you don’t have any pretensions, you don’t seek the action or policy that will correct the world, and you don’t allow yourself to believe that any one group of people know how to fix it. If you’re of the opinion that the world can be mended, you’ll constantly be on the alert for the policy which promises to achieve this, or the group of people who have figured out how. If you’re of the constrained persuasion you seek the best results which society has so far achieved, and look forward to incremental improvement over time; if you’re unconstrained you’ll constantly be on the lookout for solutions and hopeful that the next brilliant leader will show a way to make everything alright.

If it sounds like I prefer the one vision over the other, I apologize. Sowell, interestingly, manages to pull off an entire book without ever taking this position or that, though I personally came back with the impression that he leans to the constrained vision. Of course, the two pristine positions are both unrealistic, precisely because reality really is messy. Yet as broad guidelines, most of us lean towards the one vision or the other, most of the time.

Here, as an example, is Sowell using the template to demonstrate how proponents of each vision understand the phenomenon of war (p.158-9).

Given the horrors of war, and the frequent outcome in which there are no real winners, those with the unconstrained vision tend to explain the existence and recurrence of this man-made catastrophe in terms of either misunderstandings, in an intellectual sense, or of hostile or paranoid emotions raised to such a pitch as to override rationality. In short, war results from a failure of understanding, whether caused by lack of foresight, lack of communication, or emotions overriding judgement. Steps for a peace-seeking nation to take to reduce the probability of war therefore include (1) more influence for the intellectually or morally more advanced portions of the population; (2) better communications between potential enemies; (3) a muting of militant rhetoric; (4) a restraint on armament production or military alliances, either of which might produce escalating counter-measures; (5) a de-emphasis  of nationalism or patriotism; and (6) negotiating outstanding differences with potential adversaries as a means of reducing possible causes of war.

Those with the constrained vision see war in entirely different terms. According to this vision, wars are a perfectly rational activity from the standpoint of those who anticipate gain to themselves, their class, or their nation, whether or not these anticipations are often mistaken, as all human calculations may be. That their calculations disregard the agonies of others is no surprise to those with the constrained vision of human nature. From this perspective, the steps for a peace-seeking nation to take to reduce the probability of war would be the direct opposite of those proposed by people with the alternative vision: (1) raising the cost of war to potential aggressors by military preparedness and military alliances; (2) arousal of the public to awareness of dangers, in times of threat; (3) promotion of patriotism and willingness to fight, as the cost of deterring attack; (4) relying on your adversaries’ awareness of your military power more than on verbal communications; (5) negotiating only within the context of detergent strength and avoiding concessions to blackmail; and (6) relying more on good sense and fortitude of the public at large (reflecting culturally validated experience) than on moralists and intellectuals, more readily swayed by words and fashions.

Like other evils, war was seen by those with the constrained vision as originating in human nature and as being constrained by institutions. To those with the unconstrained vision, war was seen as being at variance with human nature and caused by institutions.

History, I’d add, doesn’t support one vision or the other. There have been moments in history when individuals or small groups guide society forward – the 18th century Enlightenment  is as clear an example as I can think of – but there are lots of cases where even the best and the brightest have no more success in improving reality than anyone else before or since. The question each group will answer differently will be Why: are the successes proof of the correctness of the intentions and the failures the results of counter-efforts of reactionaries; or are the successes the mere luck of incremental progress suddenly falling into place and the failures the simple structure of nature?

Your answer will say more about you than about reality.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Sérgio permalink
    October 18, 2011 8:57 pm

    Hi Yaakov,

    Thanks for the review and to bringing this interesting book to our attention (yet another in my endless reading list). One interesting question, which is raised in another interesting
    book, “The suicide of reason” (by Lee Harris) is which of these two ´visions’ are adequate when one´s civilization is at a great risk of collapse. Nowadays, islamic civilizations are fighting the ‘threat’ of the West (ie, modernity) by the usual methods of their tribal-traditional (or honor-shame, according to Landes) culture: back to fundamentalism and fanaticism. The West, on the other hand, seems to be surfing in that ‘unconstrained vision’,
    still oblivious of the threat of the islamic fanaticism. Harris proposes two possible strategies of reaction: enlightened tribalism and critical liberalism. The first means maintaining the
    traditions of Western civilization within western nations (rule of law, democracy, freedom of speeach and thought, etc), while ruthlessly resisting the inslaught of islamic inroads, without trying to “improve” those backward nations (‘bring democracy’, etc); the second is conceive that maybe an improvement of islamic-fanatical cultures may be possible, but it waill be in the very long-term, very slow, fuill of dangers and could failed all-together.

  2. October 19, 2011 8:23 am

    Hi Yaacov –

    First off, I think you have a small typo in the 4th paragraph. You label Godwin, Paine, Burke and Smith all as “constrained vision.”

    I am not familiar with this book, and it really is not clear to me what the distinctions are. One could also classify these opposing views as optomistic-pessimistic, societal vs. self-interested, or yin and yang. It seems to me that each of us operates out of mixture of the 2 visions, waxing and waning with circumstances. I think the political opinions people support have a lot more social influence than Sowell paradigm gives credit for.

    Chag Sameach

  3. milton permalink
    October 21, 2011 4:42 pm

    Fascinating issue. To narrow it down to a local perspective, consider the wide range of views that emerge when ex-army officers, including Chiefs of Staff present their approaches to border and security issues. Amnon Shahak vs Ehud Barak vs the late Dan Shomron or Raful. All these men possessed knowledge and experience yet reached very different conclusions as regards Israel’s major territorial and policy concerns. There would seem to be a good deal of personal psychology (amongst other factors) that influences any man’s vision of the world.

    • Silke permalink
      October 22, 2011 12:10 pm

      as a very general observation I have found over the last years that there are quite a number of people out there who do excellent and very fascinating analyses.

      But when at the end of their essays they come to propositions of how to deal with the issue (provided the issue is a Scylla and Charybdis one) they all of a sudden go short on imagination as to the pitfalls in actual life, quite often to the point that all of a sudden the keen analysers seem suddenly delusional.

      The reason for this is in my book that they all aim at coming up with the once and for all great solve everything overall plan whilst in real life I think conundrums are best dealt with in one step at a time manner like for example you’d chart a way through a swamp while always keeping the option to retrace your steps open.

      Odysseus’ interim solution to his S&C problem was to hang on to a cliff and wait for his boat to get spewed out.

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