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Down from Liberalism’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

Anyone who writes for a few years has to recognize that reviewers will not only disagree but also misunderstand. However, it is still a little much when a reviewer misstates something as basic as what a book is about.

A Conflict of Visions is a book about the history of ideas, offering a theory of broad and persistent ideological differences over the past few centuries between what are called “the constrained vision” and “the unconstrained vision.” This book neither criticizes these visions nor says which is valid or invalid, though it quotes or paraphrases what each has said against the other. Yet, in your April 28th issue, Professor T.M. Scanlon says that A Conflict of Visions is “a general criticism of liberal thinking” and that the conflict in the title is between “contemporary liberals” and earlier figures.

I defy Professor Scanlon to quote a single statement of mine in A Conflict of Visions to support these two bizarre distortions. (I trust that he will not resort to quoting plainly labeled paraphrases of what one vision has said about another and attributing them to me—for that way one could also turn the book into an attack on conservatism.)

Far from being a book about “contemporary” liberals or conservatives, A Conflict of Visions is heavily weighted with eighteenth-century figures. On the side of “the constrained vision,” in economics Adam Smith gets far more space than Milton Friedman, in law William Blackstone gets far more space than Richard Posner, and in politics Burke and the authors of The Federalist get far more attention than any modern exponents of similar views. This pattern also applies to “the unconstrained vision,” where William Godwin and Condorcet get far more attention than John Rawls, Laurence Tribe, Ronald Dworkin, John Dewey or John Kenneth Galbraith.

I defy Professor Scanlon to quote a single statement of mine to support his claim that A Conflict of Visions is about “contemporary” controversies rather than about the history of conflicting ideologies.

Neither is this book about liberals versus conservatives, though both are included in a much broader political spectrum that extends from Marx to Hobbes. While there are some liberals in “the unconstrained vision,” there are also philosophic anarchists like Godwin, socialists like G.B. Shaw and Edward Bellamy, as well as Rousseau, whom few liberals (or conservatives) would wish to claim. The conflicting visions approach cannot be reduced to a liberal-conservative dichotomy, or even to a broader left-right dichotomy. Figures like Marx and J.S. Mill, who are not too difficult to place on a left-right continuum, cannot be placed unambiguously in either the constrained or the unconstrained vision, for reasons that the book goes into for several pages each.

In short, Professor Scanlon has not reviewed the book that I wrote but has instead reviewed the distortions of his own imagination. He says of me: “He objects, for example, to Laurence Tribe’s argument….” I defy him to quote my supposed objections. Elsewhere, Scanlon speaks of my “resentment” that “is forcefully expressed” in A Conflict of Visions. I defy him to quote even a single example—from that book, which is supposedly the one that he was reviewing.

It will be interesting to see how Professor Scanlon evades the challenge to put up or shut up.

Thomas Sowell

Senior Fellow

Hoover Institution

Stanford, California

T. M Scanlon replies:

It would be misleading to say that A Conflict of Visions is a book about contemporary liberals and conservatives, thereby suggesting that any discussion of other topics was purely ancillary. For that reason, I did not say this or mean to suggest it. It would be equally misleading to say that Sowell’s book is not about contemporary liberals and conservatives, thereby suggesting that any discussion of them was incidental to the main point of the book. As the introductory discussion in my review made clear, the thesis of the book is that what Sowell calls the constrained and unconstrained visions are the central unifying ideas of two opposing traditions in political thinking which extend from Adam Smith and William Godwin in the eighteenth century down to Friedman and Hayek and Rawls and Dworkin in our own day. This is a thesis about eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century political thinkers and about the relations between their ideas. (I pointed out, incidentally, that “William Godwin…is cited as the clearest exponent of the unconstrained vision” and that there were more references to him in the index than to any other writer.)

In the critical portion of my review, I concentrated on what Sowell says about contemporary liberals because it was here that what he said seemed to me most clearly mistaken. I argued that he is mistaken about their views and therefore also about the relation of these views to those of their eighteenth-century predecessors. I might have taken issue as well with what Sowell says about Godwin, but my review was already too long.

Sowell emphasizes in his book that the conflict he describes between the constrained and unconstrained visions diverges from the more familiar dichotomies between right and left and between “conservative” and “liberal” as these terms are loosely used in contemporary political and academic debate. Several examples of this divergence were mentioned in my review: I cited Sowell’s observation that libertarians, who are often thought of as “on the right,” are not adherents of the constrained vision; I explained why Robert Nozick, in particular, does not count as an adherent of that vision despite his emphasis on “process”; and I pointed out that cultural conservatives do not always favor the processes that Sowell has in mind. This does not mean, however, that talk of “liberals” and “conservatives” is irrelevant to Sowell’s book since he offers analyses of what many writers normally so classified have said and claims to have identified the fundamental difference between their positions, among others.

With respect to Tribe, the relevant passage occurs on page 189 of A Conflict of Visions, where Sowell says, “Free-speech rights have likewise been viewed by Tribe in a substantive results context.” After quoting a passage in which Tribe mentions leafletting in shopping centers and some other First Amendment problems Sowell goes on to say that Tribe’s conception of free speech “is clearly a results conception, unlike Holmes’ process conception in which all that was at issue was exemption from limitation by government authority.” My point in the portion of my review to which Sowell refers was that his distinction between “process” and “results” is not an enlightening way of characterizing the difference between Tribe’s view of the First Amendment and the view which Sowell attributes to Holmes. I was thus raising a substantive question about the merits of his analysis. In his letter he ignores this issue and challenges instead my suggestion that he is here objecting to Tribe’s position. As I said in my review, “Sowell maintains that his purpose in A Conflict of Visions is not to argue for one of the visions he describes but rather to understand the nature of enduring differences in political outlook.” On the other hand, as I also said, it is quite clear where his sympathies lie, and I do not think that any careful reader could fail to conclude from this book that Sowell takes a concern with “results” rather than with “process” to be a fault. An adherent of what he calls the unconstrained vision would not describe that vision in the terms Sowell employs.

This brings me to the matter of resentment. Sowell repeatedly says that representatives of the unconstrained vision, because they believe that they can determine the good of society through the use of articulated rationality, want to place power in the hands of “surrogate decision-makers”—a “moral-intellectual elite,” he says at one point—and it is clear that the unconstrained thinkers are supposed to include themselves in this elite. In a more personal vein, he says that because they think that they have mastered the logic and morality of the common good, proponents of the unconstrained vision commonly accuse those who disagree with them of “bad faith, venality, or other moral or intellectual deficiencies.” This clearly amounts to a charge of arrogance. Given the frequency with which this idea is repeated (the phrase “surrogate decision-makers” occurs at least sixteen times in the course of 135 pages), I took Sowell to be expressing some resentment at what he sees as a general assumption of moral and intellectual superiority on the part of unconstrained thinkers. As I said, such resentment does not seem to me unreasonable—it is offensive when people are quick to assume that the moral high ground is theirs alone. This is one point on which I felt some measure of agreement with Sowell. I would be sorry to learn that I had misinterpreted him.

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