Down from Liberalism

Thomas Sowell is an economist who has attracted much attention for his conservative views. Sowell writes a widely syndicated newspaper column, in which one finds a steady stream of spirited attacks on liberal ideas and policies.1

For example, Sowell attacks businessmen who oppose apartheid by divesting themselves and their companies of holdings in South Africa; the effect, he writes in his column, is to deprive the blacks there of both jobs and training. In the US, state-sponsored programs of “slum clearance,” he thinks, reduce the options of the poor who live in slums by forcing them to spend more for housing and less on food, clothing, and other goods.

One might regard these attacks as a series of unrelated disputes about the probable consequences of various policies. Sowell, however, sees a larger pattern. Liberals, he says, characteristically believe that there are solutions to all social problems. They are quick to intervene in pursuit of the outcomes demanded by their conception of social justice, while ignoring the larger processes that are at work. As a result, they wind up hurting the very people whom they wish to help. In A Conflict of Visions this theme is developed into a general criticism of liberal thinking in political philosophy, legal theory, and social policy. This criticism is presented in the form of an analysis of the fundamental difference between the political positions that people take.

Sowell observes that people who agree on one issue frequently agree on others as well. The same people are often found on the same sides of controversies over such diverse questions as military spending, drug laws, monetary policy, and international aid. A Conflict of Visions tries to explain how these alignments come about. One familiar explanation appeals to differences in the breadth of sympathetic concern: some people are strongly moved by the fate of people different from themselves, such as the poor, drug addicts, and victims of famine, while others are strongly concerned only with members of a narrower group with whom they identify. A second common explanation sees the difference as moral: a disagreement over what rights people have, what obligations citizens, individually and collectively, have to others at home or abroad, and what political institutions must do for their citizens if they are to be accepted as legitimate.

A basic thesis of A Conflict of Visions is that both of these explanations are mistaken. The fundamental difference separating liberals and conservatives, according to Sowell, is a difference in “visions,” that is, in very general views about how the world works, what possibilities are open to us, and how much it is possible for us to know. People who hold different visions also tend to have different moral views, but these moral differences, Sowell contends, are not fundamental. Rather, they are consequences of more basic disagreements about causality and knowledge.

The conflict referred to in the title of Sowell’s book is between two such visions. According to what he calls the “constrained vision,” human beings…

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