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52 Books!

Last night I finished reading A Conflict Of Visions-Ideological Origins Of Political Struggles by Thomas Sowell. Along with the reflections on the text I always have when I finish a book was a sense of pride that I had just finished reading my 52nd book of the year. Reaching a goal is always satisfactory, demolishing it even more so.

I deliberately chose a book by an author I strongly admire for #52. Thomas Sowell is a deep thinker, and adept at communicating the results of his deep thought with more clarity and brevity than one would think possible. I've written about him earlier in this blog in my Black History Month entry. I picked up his Basic Economics at Borders  the same day I got A Conflict Of Visions, and after I finish reading that he will be in a tie with Ayn Rand and Michael Chabon for author I have read most in 2008.

As the subtitle indicates, this book attempts to explore why people have differing political philosophies. He begins by presenting the following conundrum:

"One of the curious things about political opinions is how often the same people line up on opposite sides of different issues. The issues themselves have no intrinsic connection with each other...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 is too uncontrolled to be a plot."

He spends the rest of the book explaining this phenomenon. His thesis is that people have two basic different views of human nature that shape their political philosophies. One is an unconstrained view, that believes that human nature is malleable and perfectible. The other is a constrained view that believes human nature is flawed and not very amenable to change.

These two views of human nature, or "visions" as Sowell calls them, affect the way policy is made. "The great evils of the world" says Sowell , "are seen in completely different terms by those with the constrained and unconstrained vision." Those with the unconstrained vision ask why there is war and crime, while for those with the constrained vision the question is why there is peace and why there is a law-abiding society.

The difference in the question being asked results in differences in policy. "In the unconstrained vision" writes Sowell, ""there are are no intractable reasons for social reasons and therefore no reason why they cannot be solved, with sufficient moral commitment." But in the constrained vision, "whatever artifices or strategies restrain or ameliorate inherent human evils will themselves have costs...so all that is possible is a prudent trade-off".

Sowell starts in the 18th century for examples of the different visions. Adam Smith, with his belief that rational self-interest was the best we could expect from people, is an example of the restrained vision. William Godwin, author of Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, is an example of the unconstrained vision. A more familiar example he cites is The American Revolution as an example of the constrained vision and The French Revolution as an example of the constrained.

As the book progresses, he cites more recent  examples, such as F.A. Hayek as an example of the constrained vision (many of the Sowell's views remind me of Hayek) and John K. Galbraith as an example of the unconstrained. He also explores policy and philosophical implications of the different visions in chapters entitled "Visions Of Equality", "Visions Of Power", and "Visions Of Justice".

Sowell himself is an adherent to the constrained vision and makes no attempt to hide the fact. But this is a book worth reading even for those with the opposing vision, and it's damn near mandatory for those who aren't sure which vision they adhere to. A Conflict Of Visions
is more about defining what the battle is about than about winning it. It's not a book you should wait until you've read 51 other books to read.



Congratulations! I'm still on 10.
Thanks. You've probably retained more from your 10 than I have from my 52. And the years not over yet. :)