What's fueling political attacks?

Two fundamental visions of human nature lie behind political rhetoric: Do limited individuals need institutions like markets to aggregate the knowledge of many? Or can humans unlimited in both intelligence and morality decide what's best for society?

By , Guest blogger

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    In 'Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles' (Basic Books, 2007, 352 pp), Thomas Sowell argues that visions of humanity as limited or unlimited fuel the divide between liberal and conservative.
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Apparently left-liberal pundits are convinced that people oppose government expansion either out of stupidity or cupidity—not, say, out of a sincere belief in freedom. The oft-repeated story is that ignorant and misguided masses are being led by greedy business interests. Paul Krugman’s recent column is one of many examples in the genre where billionaires intent on ravaging the country provide the bucks while clueless Tea Partiers provide grass roots brawn.

The best insight regarding this type of criticism comes from Thomas Sowell, whose analysis of two distinct visions of human nature puts current attacks into long-term perspective. Jerry O’Driscoll referred to this work in his comment on anti-intellectualism, a charge often levied by the same left-liberal critics.

In A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (published 1987, new edition 2007), Professor Sowell contrasted two fundamental views that go back several centuries. In one vision, each individual has inherent moral and intellectual limits, hence progress depends on institutions like markets to aggregate the knowledge of many and established morality to take advantage of the wisdom of past generations. In this tradition belongs Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek and the US Constitution with its many checks and balances.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

The other view does not recognize inherent boundaries to human intelligence and morality—the potential is limitless and while most of humanity is well below the maximum, certain individuals are so wise that they know what’s right for society. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Godwin, and the French and Russian revolutions exemplify this vision of unconstrained potential.

Ironically, the proponents of the unconstrained vision argue for greater equality yet favor intellectual elites with the requisite wisdom. Mr. Sowell quotes Ronald Dworkin: “a more equal society is a better society even if its citizens prefer inequality.” The citizens presumably don’t know what makes for a better society because they lack wisdom and virtue. Hence equalizing policies have to be imposed on them whether they like it or not.

This is not a theoretical issue. Notice, for instance, that the new medical entitlement law was passed despite widespread popular resistance. Americans will be obliged to get health insurance regardless of their preference.

By contrast, if you regard individual rationality as a limited tool, the difference between the intellectual elite and ordinary people is small and confined to specialty fields. Mr. Sowell points out that in this view, “there is no such general superiority as to justify one group’s restricting the discretion of others and acting as surrogate decision-makers for them.”

As a member of the elite, Professor Krugman certainly sounds like he’s sure of possessing limitless wisdom. He knows what’s right! So why would anybody take a political position that he dislikes? The unconstrained vision leads straight to the conclusion that opponents have to be dumb or venal.

In A Conflict of Visions Mr. Sowell shows the many ramifications of the two views but does not engage in criticism. He does that in other books, The Vision of the Anointed and The Quest for Cosmic Justice. Just to be clear, he’s not in the unconstrained camp and neither are most ThinkMarkets bloggers.

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