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A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles

4.32 of 5 stars 4.32  ·  rating details  ·  1,119 ratings  ·  109 reviews
In this classic work, Thomas Sowell analyzes the two competing visions that shape our debates about the nature of reason, justice, equality, and power: the “constrained” vision, which sees human nature as unchanging and selfish, and the “unconstrained” vision, in which human nature is malleable and perfectible. He describes how these two radically opposed views have manife ...more
Paperback, 352 pages
Published June 5th 2007 by Basic Books (first published 1986)
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First thing first. Thomas Sowell is freeking brilliant!

This book could be titled "Why Democrats Think Republicans are Stupid and Oppressive and Why Republicans Think Democrats are Arrogant and Evil."

Or maybe more simply "Conservatives are From Mars and Progressives are From Venus."

Sowell presents a compelling argument regarding the root causes for the political divide we find ourselves in, and explains why the two sides continue to talk past one another. Sowell identifies two conflicting "vision
Megan Blood
I finally made it through this one. This is not an easy read--it's like digging through a research paper. There are lots of supporting quotations from various sources--great for support, terrible for easy reading.

BUT, this is THE best explanation I have ever found for political differences. He explains that people tend to have certain 'visions' of society: "constrained" (conservative) and "unconstrained" (progressive). He explains that much of the tension between the two groups happens because t
This book gets high mark for its depth of research--Locke, Rousseau, Paine, Burke, Godwin, Hayek, Galbraith, Godwin, Holmes, Blackstone, Smith, Mill, Dworkin, and many others are featured--but ultimately the theory doesn't cohere.

The premise is that there are two incompatible "visions" of society--ways of looking at the world, each with their own hidden suppositions and internal logic. Consequently, there is no common vocabulary and no grounds for reconciliation, forming the basis of much modern
Wow, reading this book was like riding my bike up a very steep hill. It required great effort, concentration, and perseverance. Yet I found it profoundly enlightening. It was a description of "the ideological origins of political struggles", based on two different visions of man and his limitations or lack thereof. I am amazed at two things: first, that Sowell could present both visions so even-handedly, and second, that the unconstrained vision, which favors government intervention into economi ...more
This is an excellent book that thoroughly discusses the nature of ideological values, morals, and beliefs. Sowell uncovers the origins and ulterior meanings of human thought and action. His writing is very clear, focused, and well researched. I actually found out more about my own views while reading this book.
I read this after having read similar books with a similar premise: namely, that there exist fundamental and irreconcilable differences between the worldviews of conservatives and liberals, and that all political conflicts are therefore primarily due to different worldviews talking past each other. The books include Lakoff's "Don't Think of an Elephant", Haidt's "The Righteous Mind" and Weston's "The Politcal Brain", and I think my reading of this book was probably unfavourably shaded by these p ...more
Jarrod Jenkins
Conservatives and liberals approach policy from different assumptions about human nature. Conservatives assume people are inherently greedy and will behave in their own best interest. For this reason, incentives must be in place to encourage good behavior and punish bad behavior. Liberals assume that people are mostly good and will not behave in selfish ways if given the choice. For this reason, they often support policies that enable people to continue making bad choices. They believe that bad ...more
Michael Robinson
Thomas Sowell's, A Conflict of Visions is a well written balanced look at what is at the heart of the seemingly intractable political divide that exists in the United States today.

For those like me that have witnessed the deep political rift between those on the political left and those on the political right and then asked, what philosophy or philosophical visions are at the root of it all, this book is worth reading.

Sowell draws upon a wealth of resources and sources to provide and explanati
The Thousander Club
Adam C. Zern offers his thoughts . . .

"Quite honestly, this was the book I didn't know I was waiting for. Thomas Sowell lucidly and convincingly makes the case that nearly all (with some caveats) political struggles come down to a basic conflict of the visions that is espoused by the participants. He breaks them into two fundamental groups: the constrained and unconstrained visions. In our modern vernacular, in which the ideological scale-left to right-is basically useless, Mr. Sowell presents
Void lon iXaarii
One of the hardest to follow books I have ever gone through... and I say this having read books with a neologism dictionary in the other hand more than once... but this is not necessarily that kind of issue. Partly it's the construction on a lot of big historical and cultural data, but mostly i think it's the fact that... the author expresses so many hiiiiigh level truths that as the book progresses he's forced to express himself in such long series of abstract words that I do believe he long s ...more
Jeffrey Howard
I cannot give this book enough praise. Sowell has provided an incredible framework for understanding the nature of political struggles due to competing worldviews and views on human nature. This book joins my personal canon of current issues and politics.

He convincingly shows the logical extensions of two primary worldviews. It would be an oversimplification to say that the "constrained" and "unconstrained" worldviews he identifies are synonymous with "leftist" and "rightist". This book offers
I can see why Sowell considers this among his best three works. In A conflict of Visions, he presents a generalized philosophical model that frames every major economic and political viewpoint. He references many prominent thinker on both sides of his model, which is based not on left vs. right, nor authoritarian vs. libertarian, but instead on constrained vs. the unconstrained visions. So many ideological discussions about politics, religion, trade, and social justice would be far more enlighte ...more
Donna Trimble
This is essential reading if anyone hopes to understand how the subconscious vision most of us carry affects our perspective in relation to politics (the constrained and the unconstrained visions as Sowell calls them). Sowell does not make a judgement here as to which is preferred, or correct, and rather asks the reader to understand the visions. I care about politics, and about the economic, judicial, regulatory and social direction of my country and felt it was important to understand, as a co ...more
I finally finished this book. it's amazing. I have a friend who once said, "Any book worth reading once should be worth reading again." I don't buy that - there are a lot of books i enjoy only once and wouldn't repeat. But this book would be on a short list of books if I were limited, because you could read it over and over and still have a lot to learn. it's dense - there are a lot of ideas packed in it. I would like to take a course with this as the text and explore modern politics with it.
Tom Keffer
Insightful book on the underlying differences between conservative and liberal world views. Sowell denies a direct parallel between his dichotomy ("constrained" vs. "unconstrained" visions of human nature) and conservative vs. liberal labels, but it is hard not to read it that way. In the constrained vision, individuals are limited in capacity, selfish, and stuck as they are. In societies, though, guided by Adam Smith's invisible hand of self-interest, they create processes (laws, institutions, ...more
This is the second time I've read this book. Sowell's premise and analysis of the differing social visions is fascinating, and while his prose should be considered to be at a high reading level, the concepts he unpacks will change your way of thinking about political disagreements. This book is also interesting in that while Sowell unpacks the implications of both theories, he does not espouse or argue for the correctness of one or the other, which leaves the reader free to consider the question ...more
Powerful analysis.
This was a fantastic book. It was very well written and thought out. It read much like a philosophy book. Everything was very well expressed and followed a very direct line of logic. The book addresses the fundamental differences between the visions (many expressed in political beliefs) that can be boiled down to a basic premise: whether or not man is inherently flawed or whether he can be perfected. From this premise rises persuasions for or against the role of government, planning institutions ...more
I read this as part of my mental prep for a crazy election year - I was hoping it would provide some perspective (and help keep my blood pressure down). This book presents the two camps that political philosophy generally fall into, which are the root of the conservative and liberal movements. The "constrained" or conservative view is concerned with the rules of society and says humans are not intelligent enough to change society w/out bringing about unforeseen negative impacts - for example, re ...more
Amazing. This should be required reading for all 9th grade civics classes but it won't be so you will have to go out of your way to read it and to make your kids read it.

I came to the book having already picked a side in this debate but if you haven't this will go a long way toward explaining the differences between the two sides of most ideological discussions.

In my case, the benefit in reading Sowell's break down of most ideological debates into a dichotomy of visions came from the explanati
Allen Bagby
This is a very even handed analysis of the conflicting visions that have influenced the world—probably, since the beginning of time. Although I've read many Thomas Sowell articles online and enjoyed interviews, this is the first book of his I've read. I was blown away by his thorough parsing of these two distinct visions. He brings to light distinctions that explain how our vision of humanity affects our worldview. I reaffirmed by own worldview reading this book. Sowell presents two fundamental ...more
Stephen Tryon
This is a classic that has had a profound impact on my leadership style as well as on my political philosophy. The beauty of this book lies in its exposition of two fundamentally different, yet plausible, conceptions of the human condition, and Sowell's use of these two conceptions to illuminate how reasonable people can disagree on fundamental issues. In my own book, Accountability Citizenship, I describe Sowell's work as follows:

Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions is the most elegant expres
Sowell's thesis is that the fundamental source of disagreement between the "constrained" and "unconstrained" visions (which roughly correspond to conservatism and liberalism, respectively) is a disagreement over how constrained we are by human nature. The constrained view sees humans as fundamentally flawed ("original sin", in the Judeo-Christian tradition, although it is entirely possible to come to this conclusion for secular reasons, as I have). This is why those with the unconstrained vision ...more
Why do those occupying different points on the political spectrum never seem to get my reasoning though I go to great lengths to logically support my position? Why do those talking to me from the other side seem to view me as likewise "thick-headed".

Perhaps the reason for this dissonance goes beyond the issue du jour. Perhaps there are fundamental assumptions concerning the nature of man that inform our opinions and prevent us from seeing the soundness of the opinions of our opposite number, an
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Eric Lassen
I finally finished this one, its not an easy read in that it was very technical. But I understand that it needed to be that way, it is not polemical but a dispassionate exposition on the history of two conflicting visions of human nature and how those visions have informed many ideologies and conclusions. This should be required reading because it is enlightening and makes you think differently about all of the rhetoric you hear in the media.

The conflicting visions are the constrained and uncon
In "A Conflict of Visions" Thomas Sowell contrasts the two most common approaches of political thought. As Sowell says, which I think provides a brief summary of his thesis: "The analysis here is not intended to reconcile visions or determine their validity, but to understand what they are about, and what role they play in political, economic, and social struggles. The question is not what particular policy or social system is best but rather what is implicitly assumed in advocating one policy o ...more
This book provides a simple and appealing lens through which to view major dispositional differences among people on opposite sides of some long-standing social, economic, and political debates. And like many powerful lenses, once you’ve taken a look, it’s difficult to unlook. I guess the danger is that once comprehended, these types of frameworks lead one to seek (and find) confirmation everywhere, transitioning from useful theory to unyielding cult. Of course that doesn’t mean that the basic t ...more
Shea Mastison
Thomas Sowell is brilliant. This book begins by dichotomizing different visions into 'constrained,' and 'unconstrained' categories; and then breaks down the differences. Constrained visions value the systemic processes in society; while unconstrained visions tend to focus on results or outcomes.

The author explains in detail how the visions don't necessarily have rigid political implications, and tackles the philosophical systems that have qualities found within both visions.

The book is dry, bu
Mike Thoennes
If you have ever wondered why liberals 'are blinded to the obvious', or visa-versa with conservatives. This book helped me to see this issue from a much different perspective and clarified this mystery somewhat. It is a very good read, but it is an informational book, and Thomas Sowell is a top tier thinker and therefore I would put this in the 'text book' category. Read it if your interested in understanding the times we live in and are asking 'why' a lot.
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Thomas Sowell is an American economist, social commentator, and author of dozens of books. He often writes from an economically laissez-faire perspective. He is currently a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. In 1990, he won the Francis Boyer Award, presented by the American Enterprise Institute. In 2002 he was awarded the National Humanities Medal for prolific scholars ...more
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“Clearly, only very unequal intellectual and moral standing could justify having equality imposed, whether the people want it or not, as Dworkin suggests, and only very unequal power would make it possible.” 13 likes
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