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The Constrained Vision, The Unconstrained Vision, and the 2008 Election:

Several times through the years I've had occasion to refer to Thomas Sowell's superb book A Conflict of Visions. This week, Peter Robinson sat down with Sowell to discuss the relevance of the book to understanding the 2008 election. Peter's column is here.

Sowell's judgment?

Asked if Obama represents the purest expression of the unconstrained vision since Franklin Roosevelt, Sowell, himself an African-American, replies: "No. Since the beginning of American politics."

SSFC (www):
Lincoln, the purest visionary (though not necessarily in Sowell's "Vison of the Anointed" sense) in major American politics ever, proved to be a pragmatist once in office.

Not that Obama deserves any comparison to Lincoln.
10.24.2008 2:50pm
Mhoram:
I love reading Sowell and have tremendous respect for him, but he is doing the same thing that others on the far right are doing: The sky is falling!!! If our guy doesn't win, then the world will come to an end!!!

They are wrong, just like the far left was wrong in 2000 and 2004. America is strong enough to deal with either a far-right or a far-left president and survive.

We survived Grant and FDR and Nixon and Carter and GWB. We can survive Obama
10.24.2008 2:56pm
James Gibson (mail):
I agree with Sowell's Analysis of what the court will be like after Obama gets his fifth justice. The four liberals we presently have not only ignored all the facts in the heller case, they then turned around and embraced the new gun control philosophy that there are no individual rights in the Constitution or the Bill or rights. While Obama talks of restoring peoples individual rights he says were trampled by Bush, his justices, in the name of their feelings, will trample them for anyone they personnally dislike. Heaven help the man or woman who the justice just takes a personal dislike to and bends the law to full-fill some need of to punish.
10.24.2008 2:58pm
James Gibson (mail):
Mhoram, I get the distinct impression that you are voting for Obama eventhough you know he'll eventually be a failed president. That you will vote for him even though you know it will cause pain and even suffering in the future simply because you believe we are strong enough of a nation to weather that storm.
10.24.2008 3:04pm
Andrew J. Lazarus (mail):
You want to tell me the neocon foreign policy in the Middle East is a constrained vision?! How about Ronald Reagan's "City on a Hill" metaphor?!

This isn't philosophy. This is hypocritical political campaigning dressed up in big words.
10.24.2008 3:05pm
Anon21:
James Gibson: It's pretty unlikely that Obama will have a chance to shift the balance of the Court. Unless one of the five conservative Justices develops a serious health condition, all of them will probably serve into 2017.

Now, if the GOP can't win in 2016, then they'll have a problem. The makings of the same kind of problem Democrats had from 1968-1992, when Republicans controlled the Presidency 20 out of 24 years and appointed 10 Justices. It is very possible that Kennedy and Scalia will either die or retire prior to 2020, regardless of which party controls the White House.
10.24.2008 3:07pm
Anderson (mail):
Sorry, I quit reading after "superb book by Thomas Sowell."
10.24.2008 3:09pm
gab:
All you need to know about Sowell is embodied in this quote,


"Classical left ideology," responds Sowell. "It will create disasters in the economy."


Uh, Tom, look around pal - we have a disaster right now. Or haven't you noticed? Are you claiming that it was brought about by "classical left ideology?"
10.24.2008 3:13pm
SSFC (www):
Sorry, I quit reading after "superb book by Thomas Sowell."


Sad.
10.24.2008 3:13pm
wm13:
gab, what is the misery index? What was it on the day you voted to re-elect Jimmy Carter?
10.24.2008 3:18pm
EricPWJohnson (mail):
Great....
10.24.2008 3:18pm
lurker-999 (mail):

I love reading Sowell and have tremendous respect for him, but he is doing the same thing that others on the far right are doing: The sky is falling!!! If our guy doesn't win, then the world will come to an end!!!

They are wrong, just like the far left was wrong in 2000 and 2004. America is strong enough to deal with either a far-right or a far-left president and survive.

We survived Grant and FDR and Nixon and Carter and GWB. We can survive Obama.



I sure hope you're correct, but frankly I'm scared. The man is a dedicated Marxist, and a talented demagogue -- and he is very intelligent. That seems like a very dangerous combination.
10.24.2008 3:21pm
Arkady:
Anybody else detect the irony in this:


The French Revolution, by contrast [to the American Revolution], embodied the unconstrained vision. "In France," Sowell says, "the idea was that if you put the right people in charge--if you had a political Messiah--then problems would just go away." The result? The Terror, Napoleon and so many decades of instability that France finally sorted itself out only when Charles de Gaulle declared the Fifth Republic.
10.24.2008 3:23pm
gab:
Well done wm13, now go look up "non sequitur"...

And while you're at it, check out CNBC (it's that TV station thingy that shows what the stock market is doing) and let us know how well the "rightist ideology" is working these days..
10.24.2008 3:25pm
eyesay:
For those of us who haven't read A Conflict of Visions, would someone kindly point to a good summary explaining what Sowell means by “The Constrained Vision” and “The Unconstrained Vision”?

The Wikipedia article on Thomas Sowell includes this paragraph:
Many modern ideological struggles can be traced to two visions: the vision of the anointed and the vision of the constrained realist: Sowell lays out these concepts in his A Conflict of Visions, and The Vision of the Anointed. These two visions encompass a range of ideas and theories. The vision of the anointed relies heavily on sweepingly optimistic assumptions about human nature, distrust of decentralized processes like the free market, impatience with systemic processes that constrain human action, and absent or distorted empirical evidence. The constrained or tragic vision relies heavily on a reduced view of the goodness of human nature, and prefers the systematic processes of the free market, and the systematic processes of the rule of law and constitutional government. It distrusts sweeping theories and grand assumptions in favor of heavy reliance on solid empirical evidence and on time-tested structures and processes. [Boldfacing, hyperlinks and footnote removed]
That paragraph has survived unchanged at least since August 2008 despite numerous other revisions, so I assume it accurately reflects Sowell’s views, yes?

Is the Vision of the Anointed the same thing as the Unconstrained Vision?

I may have further comment on this topic after I am enlightened by responses to my questions so far.
10.24.2008 3:26pm
Opher Banarie (mail) (www):
gab wrote:
Uh, Tom, look around pal - we have a disaster right now. Or haven't you noticed? Are you claiming that it was brought about by "classical left ideology?"

Well, actually, gab, it is classical left ideology that got us into this mess. Democrats in Congress, led by Barney Frank and Maxine Waters, and Democrats in the White House during the Clinton Administration, undid the traditional requirements for home mortgages (established credit, steady income, significant downpayment, etc.) in an attempt to "equalize" home ownership opportunities.

Yes, Wall Street greed and a fair amount of fraud made the situation worse, but it wouldn't have come to this had mortgages not been given to people with no downpayment and no likelihood of repaying the loans.
10.24.2008 3:28pm
David Warner:
SSFC,

"Not that Obama deserves any comparison to Lincoln."

Not yet. Though I wouldn't foreclose the possibility.
10.24.2008 3:28pm
eyesay:
lurker-999: “The man [Obama] is a dedicated Marxist, and a talented demagogue”

Please supply a link to one or more credible sources to support the claim that Obama is a dedicated Marxist.

Please show how Barack Obama is a more talented demagogue than George W. Bush under the training and advice of Karl Rove.
10.24.2008 3:32pm
A Law Dawg:
Please show how Barack Obama is a more talented demagogue than George W. Bush under the training and advice of Karl Rove.


Have you ever heard Bush give a speech? My 8-month old daughter is more coherent.
10.24.2008 3:52pm
astrangerwithcandy (mail):

Well, actually, gab, it is classical left ideology that got us into this mess. Democrats in Congress, led by Barney Frank and Maxine Waters, and Democrats in the White House during the Clinton Administration, undid the traditional requirements for home mortgages (established credit, steady income, significant downpayment, etc.) in an attempt to "equalize" home ownership opportunities.


thats right! a worldwide financial panic and its caused entirely by barney frank and maxine waters!
10.24.2008 3:54pm
James Gibson (mail):
Anon21:
James Gibson: It's pretty unlikely that Obama will have a chance to shift the balance of the Court. Unless one of the five conservative Justices develops a serious health condition, all of them will probably serve into 2017.

literally everyone expects Stevens and Ginsburg to retire on the belief they have stayed in office simply to prevent Bush from putting a conservative in their seats. But Scalia is 72 which makes him older then "guilty until proven innocent" Breyer and Souter (who some expect to be the third up for replacement). And in the case of Scalia some people have been noting his weight and the possibility of high blood pressure. So your argument is invalid.

In the name of preventing the loss of liberal seats on the court you protect the ability to gain a majority. Thus having a swing voter such as Kennedy or now retired Day O'Connor becomes a mute point. Would Obama put on a conservative to maintain the four/four balance with a swing voter. Or would he go for party loyalty and his beliefs and make a solid majority for one side which would only be open for adjustment in ten years. As they say, its through the courts presidents have their longest legacy: for good or for bad.
10.24.2008 3:59pm
Ben P:

Have you ever heard Bush give a speech? My 8-month old daughter is more coherent.


2 words

"Kent Hance"

Several sources over the years have talked about the development of Bush's political personality. Bush's "good ol boy" image is pretty carefully crafted and was pushed as a central point of both his campaigns.

It's also true that Bush's strongest element seems to be the business conference room rather than the packed auditorium, but he's certainly a more passable speaker than a great many of the politicians I've seen speak.
10.24.2008 4:09pm
Ugh (mail):

Sowell's judgment?


I don't see any judgment at all, sir.
10.24.2008 4:33pm
SSFC (www):
David Warner,

SSFC,

"Not that Obama deserves any comparison to Lincoln."

Not yet. Though I wouldn't foreclose the possibility.


I pray for Obama's sake, and for that matter my own, that he never has to face the sort of tests that made Lincoln incomparable.

FDR's presidency was a picnic in comparison to Lincoln's.
10.24.2008 4:41pm
Obvious (mail):
Lurker999: "We survived Grant and FDR and Nixon and Carter and GWB."

What is your evidence that we've survived GWB?
10.24.2008 4:49pm
Jmaie (mail):
Uh, Tom, look around pal - we have a disaster right now. Or haven't you noticed? Are you claiming that it was brought about by "classical left ideology?"



Sorry gab, but the statement "A leads to B" is not the same as "B is always caused by A", and is not refuted by claiming so.
10.24.2008 5:09pm
Jmaie (mail):
Just because GWB is a talented demogogue is not a reason to sell Obama short :)
10.24.2008 5:19pm
Obvious (mail):
" Sen. John McCain, who is trailing, has by and large embraced the constrained vision," from the Forbes article.

I have read all of Sowell's books and have great respect for him, but I wish he would take the impressive theoretical insights he made in Knowledge and Decisions and apply them to the US military and American foreign policy. The idea that a man who keeps leaping to bail out one failed economic institution after another and feels wars--the great unconstrained vision of state power--in even more countries is just what America needs (getting tough with Iran, staying forever in Iraq, projecting force abroad, etc.) is a CONSTRAINED VISION??? That's just silly.

If Sowell would say: both candidates have a grossly unconstrained vision, and therefore America is in for a rough time, but if you don't want to sit home on election day, my thoughtful opinion is that McCain's is a slightly more constrained vision than Obama's, I could respect that a lot more. But among academics and scholars, Sowell ranks among those most willing to modify their views to accommodate their politics.
10.24.2008 5:22pm
byomtov (mail):
Sowell certainly demonstrates a mastery of the McCain talking points. Beyond that, there's not much there.
10.24.2008 5:51pm
eyesay:
More than three hours ago, I asked for, among other things, explanation of what Sowell means by "The Constrained Vision" and "The Unconstrained Vision". Here I am, a liberal offering the opportunity for conservatives to spread their gospel and inform the unenlightened about the good news offered by one of their great prophets, and nobody wants to evangelize.
10.24.2008 6:44pm
A Law Dawg:
More than three hours ago, I asked for, among other things, explanation of what Sowell means by "The Constrained Vision" and "The Unconstrained Vision". Here I am, a liberal offering the opportunity for conservatives to spread their gospel and inform the unenlightened about the good news offered by one of their great prophets, and nobody wants to evangelize.


It's Friday.
10.24.2008 6:53pm
trotsky (mail):
Once upon a time, Sowell was an entertaining and enlightening puncturer of liberal pieties.

Lately, he's gone quite off the edge in his fear and loathing of Obama. Hard to explain, beyond that politics makes people crazy.
10.25.2008 2:02am
David Warner:
eyesay,

In the (very) off chance that you are sincere in your plaint.
10.25.2008 4:29pm
jukeboxgrad (mail):
ben:

Bush's "good ol boy" image is pretty carefully crafted and was pushed as a central point of both his campaigns.


An important point, and much overlooked.

After seeing the electoral success of a simulated yokel, the GOP decided to nominate a genuine one.
10.26.2008 10:29pm