The Roots of Political Conflict

He had a systematic mind and an incredible memory, and that really impresses young people! They want conclusions, even if the conclusions are wrong! A completely honest person would not provide them with that.—Turgenev, Rudin

Thomas Sowell has authored a new book, Intellectuals and Society, which is now on my wish list. In this post I want to comment on an earlier volume which deals with similar themes—the personal and philosophical expectations behind our political choices. A Conflict of Visions is a dispassionate, empirical study which explains the deep roots of the “left-right” divide. According to Sowell, some believe that man is essentially “constrained” or limited in the scope of his abilities. This means that many of our choices are mutually exclusive. For example, if we spend money chiefly on consumer goods we cannot invest it in durable items; if we subsidize ethanol as a renewable fuel we may increase the cost and scarcity of grain for food.

Along these lines it is felt that unfortunate aspects of life, such as human conflict, are innate and recurring although they should be ameliorated as much as possible. Yet another school of thought believes any limitations or drawbacks to human conduct are due to “special causes” which admit of a final and radical resolution through political methods. As Sowell explains:

Crime is another phenomenon seen in entirely different terms by believers in the constrained [conservative] and unconstrained [leftist] visions. The underlying causes of crime have been a major preoccupation of those with an unconstrained vision of human nature . . . . For those with the constrained vision, people commit crimes because they are people—because they put their own interests or egos above the interests, feelings, or lives of others . . . . But to the believer in the unconstrained vision, it is hard to understand how anyone would commit a terrible crime without some special cause at work.

For the unconstrained, it is social inequality rather than bad personal choices that cause people to steal or kill. Sowell points out that individuals on the left want to “localize evil.”

There must clearly be some cause for evils, but insofar as these causes are not so widely diffused as to be part of human nature in general, then those in whom the evils are localized can be removed, opposed, or neutralized, so as to produce a solution.

Human behavior is no longer seen as a constant, with roughly equal potential regardless of time or place. But there is a problem with this attempt to quarantine vice through ideological warfare, while treating virtue as  incarnated in enlightened elites. It leads to an ethical double standard. This is what happened in the gulags and concentration camps of the twentieth century.

The concluding lesson of Sowell’s book is not noncommittal “pragmatism.” Ideals can be worthwhile. Nevertheless we must admit the short-comings of any social system, even those that appear attractive to us.

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