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Understanding Left & Right:
Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions

[1]2,344 words

Thomas Sowell
A Conflict of Visions
New York: W. Morrow, 1987

An individual’s stance on one particular political issue doesn’t necessarily indicate anything else about them, but it’s a reasonably reliable predictor of their stances on other issues, in other words their overall ideology. There are single-issue voters, and those who vote for policies insofar as they benefit their particular group, but most politically-minded people have a set of positions that place them somewhere on a Left/Right continuum. There are a variety of names for these two general worldviews, and depending on the place or era, one term (such as liberal) can be used to describe positions that are in line with either end of the spectrum. The terms Left and Right themselves can be traced back to the French Revolution, when those who wanted to maintain the status quo sat on the right side of the President in the National Assembly, and those who supported the overthrow of the status quo sat on the left.

Regardless of terminology, there are roughly two general political outlooks, and the split seems to stem from different underlying assumptions about humans. In his book A Conflict of Visions, the economist Thomas Sowell tried to get at the essence of the Left/Right divide in the Anglophone world. Sowell noticed that people who were at odds with one another on one political issue more often than not found themselves on opposite sides on other issues. He theorized that their divergent positions arose from different assumptions, and that two distinct stances on a particular issue could both be logically sound means of achieving the same desired ends, depending on the assumptions each side was reasoning from.

Sowell described these assumptions as visions, calling the Right-wing position the constrained vision, and the Left-wing position the unconstrained vision. To him, the crux of the divergence seems to be discordant views on human nature, with the Right believing in an evolved, and in a way flawed, human nature, while the Left tends to either not believe in human nature at all (tabula rasa), or thinks that it is negligible, with all people being equally endowed with the ability to reason, enabling them to suppress their instincts in accordance with moral and philosophical tenets. Some on the Left even believe that man’s nature is peaceful and fraternal (the idea of the “noble savage”), and that any behavior to the contrary is brought about by the corrupting effects of society.

Given these deviating assumptions, even where Leftists and Rightists desire the same ends for particular political problems, they will advocate for very different means to achieve them. In many cases, the policies that one group will endorse as a solution (or an improvement) to a problem will be assumed by the other group to cause or exacerbate that problem. For instance, in the case of reducing crime, Rightists view violence and the desire to improve one’s conditions, even at the expense of other’s rights, as being inherent in human nature. They typically support harsh penalties for crimes, such as long prison sentences and the death penalty, as a way of deterring criminality and quarantining those for whom deterrence didn’t work. Leftists, on the other hand, see crime as arising from exogenous sources (e.g. poverty, upbringing, lack of education, etc.); they advocate for improved conditions as a means to prevent it, and for rehabilitative measures for those who’ve already committed crimes.

According to Leftist logic, Right-wing policies for reducing crime will actually increase it. Since prison is a dehumanizing environment which typically doesn’t focus much on rehabilitation, Leftists believe it will ensure recidivism, even turning minor criminals into much more hardened ones. By contrast, Rightists see Leftist measures as equally counterproductive, since shortening prison sentences and making prison a more hospitable environment lowers the deterrent effect. Rightists also tend to be skeptical of psychologists and their ability to “rehabilitate” criminals.

Other differences that Sowell picks up on are the two group’s views regarding knowledge and the human capacity for reason. In another of his books, Knowledge and Decisions, Sowell expands upon arguments made by Friedrich Hayek regarding knowledge and how it is dispersed throughout a society. Given the division of labor, variance in conditions across localities, and the idea that value is subjective (with valuations and preferences always changing), the Right sees economic knowledge as fragmented, localized, and erratic. This means that all of the relevant knowledge for organizing a properly-functioning economy can never be known to any one individual. In a market economy, this knowledge is conveyed piecemeal to various actors by things like freely fluctuating prices. The knowledge is lost, however, when the government takes control of the economy. This makes the free market far more efficient than a planned economy, at least according to most people on the Right.

The Right is also very skeptical of intellectuals and the implementation of their ideas in policies. They see even the brightest humans as flawed, with a reasoning capacity that is limited and highly susceptible to error. Rightists generally prefer existing methods (which at least have been tested, even if they’re imperfect) to a priori reasoning that only sounds good. In this sense, the term conservative is apt, but it is certainly not always applicable. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, for example, those who wanted to retain Communism would have been conservatives by this definition.

Cultural traditions and mores are a contentious issue, too. To the Left, being bound by tradition, which they tend to think arises either arbitrarily or through ignorance, stifles both freedom and progress. They believe in evaluating culture rationally, and if it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, abandoning it. Given the Right’s view of human reasoning ability, they are a lot more hesitant to change cultural norms. Rightists have a reverence for culture and tradition; they view it not only as something that binds a people together, but also as timeless wisdom that is passed down through the ages. They see cultures as having been subject to periodic changes over many centuries, and therefore having undergone an evolutionary process, retaining what worked best.

Returning to economics, besides Rightists viewing Communism as an inefficient system because of its lack of a pricing mechanism and the absence of competition, as well as its bureaucratization and vulnerability to corruption, its main principle is antithetical to human nature as they see it. Humans are selfish creatures, and to the extent that they exhibit altruism, it is generally hierarchical and limited. Rightists find the idea that people could be induced to work every bit as hard for the good of an abstract “society” as they would for their own benefit and that of their families to be extremely dubious. If a designated “need” is immutable irrespective of effort, then everyone’s “ability” will take a nosedive. The Right supports systemic incentives and disincentives to keep a flawed populace in line, and extract production out of them.

Yet another distinction between the Left and Right are their views on human cognitive and behavioral variance. Leftists tend to be egalitarians (in the biological sense), believing that mental variance in humans is either exclusively, or mostly, the result of environmental factors, while Rightists usually favor a more hereditarian (i.e., genetic) explanation for it. If a Leftist doesn’t hold to egalitarianism with regards to individuals, they usually do so when it comes to groups such as the sexes, and especially the races, which they regard as social constructs based exclusively on external characteristics. Right-wingers see race and sex as biological categories whose distinctions are more than superficial.

This rift is most salient in modern-day politics, especially with regards to racial discrepancies. The big push on the Left at the moment is what is known as “social justice,” which refers to the “injustice” of discrepancies in life outcomes among individuals, but more importantly between the races and sexes. To the Left, inequalities in income and wealth, representation in certain fields and types of jobs, incarceration rates, and so on are indicative of racism (white privilege), sexism (patriarchy), or just institutional failure, as well as inequality of opportunity. If you believe that all people – or at the very least races and sexes – are endowed with the same intelligence potential, and have no inborn differences as far as general temperaments or propensity for certain behaviors are concerned, how else would you explain disparate life outcomes?

There are a few on the Left and Right who attribute disparate racial outcomes to reasons other than these, such as culture (which they apparently think arises out of thin air), but most view the issue as an injustice. Incidentally, Sowell himself, while obviously a man of the Right, assumes mostly environmental causes for the black/white achievement gap, even though in Intellectuals and Society he stated that the data for either a hereditarian or egalitarian explanation was inconclusive. Sowell aside, the explanation typically given by Rightists for the bulk of the black/white achievement gap is that wealth and income are both strongly correlated with IQ. The black/white average IQ gap in the US is around fifteen points in favor of whites; therefore, it is to be expected that whites would be more successful if you are looking at group averages.

IQ is a controversial metric. While it is not a perfect measure of intelligence (which itself is hard to define and reach a consensus on), it predicts life outcomes that most people would assume intelligence would correlate with, such as income and wealth, success in school and job performance, and criminality. The general heritability of IQ in the US is estimated by most experts to be at least fifty percent, with some going as high as eighty-five percent. These percentages are inferred from studies of separately adopted twins (the best methods for gauging heritability at the moment). The racial gap heritabilities are considered to be in this range as well.

Along with intelligence, the Right sees other general mental and behavioral differences between the races as being partially inborn. Believing that intelligence is at least partially heritable, as well as predispositions for certain behaviors, they believe groups that were separated for thousands of years not only in dramatically different climatic and geographic environments, but under different cultural, economic, and judicial systems (all of which can exert selective pressure), are innately distinct. This leads the Right to view the variance in conditions of different countries as being at least in part a product of the genetic stock of those countries.

Given that the Left rejects the idea of innate mental differences between the races, they posit other explanations for differences between countries – and these explanations aren’t entirely dismissed on the Right, either. But the Left more often than not blames the bad conditions in some countries on other people (usually whites) and seeks retribution – or “social justice” – for these disparities. They feel whites have an obligation to take in and care for the world’s poor, not just because it’s ethical but because whites are alleged to be responsible for the conditions these people are in.

Major pushes on the Left are underway for open borders and globalism. These are resisted by the Right for multiple reasons. One of them is the degradation of First World countries by the importation of Third World peoples, whom the Right sees as being largely responsible for the conditions of their own countries. Another is the Right’s view that tribalism is part of human nature and that the mixing of genetically, culturally, and religiously disparate peoples in the same country and under the same political system will lead to massive conflicts. The Left rejects both of these assumptions because of their belief in egalitarianism, their denial of inherent tribal instincts, and their view that all peoples can use reason to govern their behaviors.

As far as globalism is concerned, in terms of it being a system of world government, it isn’t an exclusive desire of either the Left or Right. There are those who want to systematize the world, and those who want to keep politics as local as possible. But as far as which group is more likely to advocate for globalism (imperialism), from my anecdotal experience, it’s the Left by far.

For the sake of brevity, I haven’t gone through all of the distinctions between the Left and Right that the book covers. I can’t recommend A Conflict of Visions highly enough for those from either end of the political spectrum who want a more in-depth analysis of the political divide. But I will conclude by offering my opinions on what can be done to ease existing political tensions, toward making the best policy decisions going forward.

On many issues, the Left and Right share common objectives, whether it is reducing crime, increasing productivity, maintaining peace between countries, or improving the poor’s lot. Far too often, especially on the Left, either the agenda of the opposing group is looked upon cynically, or they are assumed to hold their positions out of stupidity or ignorance. I’m not saying that there aren’t scumbags in the world who use politics to further evil agendas, or that everyone who holds a political position can provide an articulate, well-reasoned defense of it, but we should, at least initially, give our political foes the benefit of the doubt that they genuinely believe their policies will improve society.

Having a deeper understanding of our opponent’s (and our own) views will help us in this respect. At the end of A Conflict of Visions, Sowell makes a similar appeal, along with a plea for a more empirical approach to politics. Like him, I’m pessimistic about either happening on a significant scale, but we should at the very least make a conscious effort to hear each other out, and seek evidence to support our beliefs. If these differences can’t be reconciled by finding middle ground, though, then a separation along ideological lines would be the best course. In that situation a federalist type of system could be in order, with the bulk of policy decisions being made by states and municipalities.