Controversies in politics arise from many sources, but the conflicts that endure for generations or centuries show a remarkably consistent pattern. In this classic work, Thomas Sowell analyzes this pattern. He describes the two competing visions that shape our debates about the nature of reason, justice, equality, and power: the "constrained" vision, which sees human nature as unchanging and selfish, and the "unconstrained" vision, in which human nature is malleable and perfectible. A Conflict of Visions offers a convincing case that ethical and policy disputes circle around the disparity between both outlooks.
Sowell, an economist and author (The Economics and Politics of Race, etc.), presents a provocative analysis of the conflicting visions of human nature that have shaped the moral, legal and economic life of recent times. For the past 200 years, he writes, two visions ofor "gut feelings'' abouthow the world works, have dominated: the constrained vision, which views man as unchanged, limited and dependent on evolved social processes (market economies, constitutional law, etc.); and the unconstrained vision, which argues for man's potential and perfectability, and the possibility of rational planning for social solutions. Examining the views of thinkers who reflect these constrained (Adam Smith) and unconstrained (William Godwin) visions, Sowell shows how these powerful and subjective visions give rise to carefully constructed social theories. His discussion of how these conflicting attitudes ultimately produce clashes over equality, social justice and other issues is instructive.