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Thomas Sowell wrote A Conflict of Visions thirty-five years ago. It seems even more insightful now than when he wrote it. He dissected the difference between the “unconstrained” view about the supposed perfectibility of human beings and their surroundings versus the “constrained” view that imperfect reality and imperfect human nature present imperfect choices. The former viewpoint is given to utopian schemes which often have spectacular downsides. The latter is all about making the best of perceived trade-offs.
The expectation of perfection in the unconstrained view means that the status quo is always damnable. It is why revolutionaries who come to power often wind up being executed for betraying the ideals of the revolution which were never achieved or simply changed. Those who had voiced support for the rights of women and homosexuals are now pilloried for alleged insensitivity to transgender issues. Whatever the issue of the moment, the unconstrained view forbids gratitude, acceptance and affirmation of what exists and how it came to be.
The constrained view does not condemn the Founders for not freeing the slaves, nor enfranchising women nor expressly affirming the LGBTQ at the same moment they created the American model of governance to serve and protect natural rights. The Founders did that in a world where most Russians and Chinese were serfs, where Africans willingly sold other Africans, where Islamic rulers had conquered, enslaved and/or forcibly converted millions, where the Comanche, Lakota, Iroquois subjugated, enslaved or killed weaker tribes so as to build empires as the Aztecs and Incas had done before, a world in which there was only the barest flicker of ideas about personal freedom and autonomy, freedom of conscience, accountable rulers and equality before the law. The surprising thing in that world was not that slavery existed in the Americas but that it ever ended and that a continuous, living drive for equality under the law survived the onslaught of the basest of human defects, fears, and malevolence.
The constrained view is grateful that Washington, Madison, and Jefferson were hypocrites who put wondrous things in motion instead of just remaining on their plantations and giving up on such dreams. The constrained view is grateful for the example of the power of hope and strength of the character of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Abraham Lincoln when all around them counseled resignation and despair. In contrast, the unconstrained view is more likely to have a checklist of ideological failures of all historical figures. The unconstrained will operate under the prejudice that the past is villainous almost by definition.
I don’t know why the unconstrained view is so prevalent in modern America (bad education alone is not an explanation—my generation had no problem resisting the moral components of our education when it suited us) and why it drives every political issue:
Climate Change. Alarmists tell us we must save the world with Green policies. They refuse to acknowledge costs or even permit a discussion of the reality of trade-offs. The increasing likelihood that the risks are overstated and the certainty that the proposed solutions cost much and accomplish little are impermissible ideas. All demonstrations of allegiance to a Green agenda provide moral satisfaction, meaning, and social membership. Typical of the unconstrained view is issue monomania—nothing else matters or can be considered and once framed, the issue cannot be critically examined.
Black Lives Matter. We can only focus on perfecting the spiritual and cognitive state of white people and govern accordingly. Actual causes of social dysfunction and crime, self-defeating behaviors, prevalent warped value judgments and/or any disconfirming statistics may not be acknowledged. Signaling adherence to BLM (no matter how overtly stupid its ideology or warped its focus) provides moral satisfaction, meaning, and social membership.
COVID. We must let government-control policies continue to metastasize and only focus on deaths attributable to the virus. All other costs and even increased deaths from other causes due to shutdowns may not be considered. Wearing absurdly porous masks, ineffectual distancing rules have become virtue-signaling moral imperatives along with obligatory condemnations of the presumptive greed of those who want to reopen society. Restating these ideas in social media signal membership and provide moral satisfaction.
The unconstrained view also rejects accountability for itself. Think of the sheer idiocy and moral obliviousness of being a 21st century Marxist. How does one who expressly endorses the ideology of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro etc. feel entitled to deny any culpability for that choice but will nevertheless assert that a white, equality-loving, left-of-center American whose ancestors arrived from Poland or Italy in the twentieth century owes reparations for slavery? It is diagnostic of the unconstrained view that one assigns guilt but never accepts it (except as cost-free ritual when it suits).
I used to think that conservatives simply needed to work harder to make common sense notions more persuasive. I now think that something qualitatively different needs to be done to eliminate the attraction, the appeal of the sensibility that gives rise to the unconstrained view.Published in