In his seminal work ‘A Conflict of Visions’, economist Tom Sowell contrasts theories of two basic paradigms that govern sociological conceptions of civilization. Broadly speaking, they are the ‘constrained’ vision and the ‘unconstrained’ vision. The former posits a notion of mankind that is inherently and unavoidably selfish and tries to harness self-interest to achieve results that benefit others. From such an understanding is capitalism derived as well as the idea of a balance of power to keep ambitious factions from overturning the status quo. The latter vision operates on the implicit assumption that human nature is noble and concludes that the problems of humanity originate from external factors. According to this perception, societal institutions either oppress or otherwise hinder and distort the innate benevolent nature of the individual, which would revert back to its ‘normal’ state when released from such shackles. Sowell traces the epic struggles between these two broad ideas for centuries and throughout the Western tradition.
In the United States, one can hypothesize that such a conflict has been the philosophical basis for much disagreement in day to day affairs. This clash can also be seen between the two dominant ideologies of our time – the Left and Right. In a nutshell, the Left sees itself as being the saviors of the world, who have a moral obligation bring the rest of their fellowmen into new, more progressive eras of understanding. Journalist William Buckley aptly expressed another aspiration for those on the other side “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so…” With such divergent understandings of their role in society, it was inevitable that both sides began feuding with each other.
It is important to understand the historical tendencies and variations of both sides, for by this we can interpret how each will respond to various ideas and stimuli. According to Sowell, the Left’s vision is extremely resistant to facts and reason. This occurs for several psychological reasons. Firstly, if facts prove this vision wrong, then a well-nurtured morally elevated self-image can be quickly shattered. Secondly, if recurring problems are indeed self-inflicted, then the world shifts from being a target of social justice crusading to one of introspective self-improvement. While the father of communism Karl Marx would enthusiastically approve of the first project, the Christian Apostle St. Paul would more likely choose the second course. A resistance to facts and logic animates a certain dynamism in accomplishing one’s objectives, as contrary evidence is cast to the wayside. A less ambitions group would have to wrestle with a reality that the revolutionary either ignores or ascribes to conniving enemies. Insofar as analogous periods in history can be brought to bear, the revolutionary loftily points to a new era and effectively appeals to the universal yearning to transcend the present.
In the narrower political sphere, this dispute expresses itself in appeals to ‘personal responsibility’ on the right and the blaming of ‘society’ on the left for a myriad of social problems. Because the right views the problems as innate, little can be done in a free society except attempting to cultivate higher moral values among the underclass through institutions such as religion, education and the broader culture. In the meantime, the right seeks to minimize damage to others by ensuring that socially deviant behavior is condemned and punished. Leftists see this as misguided and disingenuous, voicing support for a more inclusive society for those with ‘diverse’ life choices.
Indeed, the unwillingness to confront evil has been a major reason why many luminaries of the left convert later in life to join their previously reviled opponents on the right. Being concerned more with external social action rather than internal character development, it is not uncommon for people to take ‘progressive’ left-wing positions in order to provide cover for personally objectionable behavior. Their fellow travelers assist in this effort by lending rhetorical cover. To some espousing formidable social reform projects, ideology usurps the role that religion played during the medieval crusades. Unbridled passion, appeals to emotionalism and crowd dynamics are other tendencies of such social revolutionaries. Frivolity and irrationality bedevil the Left, who tend to proliferate in areas that do not require logic to advance, including the creative arts, journalism and academia.
All these proclivities should be treated by the Right as a strategic challenge rather than intellectual exasperation. As a matador parries the lunges of a bull, each liberal shortcoming must be shrewdly and relentlessly turned against itself. Before undertaking this task, we must also unemotionally investigate our own propensities that may hinder our efforts. Nevertheless, this blog is convinced that it is easier to teach the Right how to be strategically oriented than it is to teach the Left how to comport their self-image with lessons from the Age of Enlightenment. This, of course, does not mean that it will be easy.