I referenced “A Conflict of Visions,” by Thomas Sowell in my last entry. It serves as the perfect Segway to address another conservative concept that I’ve been pondering for a while now. It is the essence of human nature itself and how it is viewed through different ideological lenses.
“A Conflict of Visions,” is a dense and dry read, but a worthwhile one if you can manage it. It speaks to the question that so many idealists love to pose at parties and in groups when they want to act as if they are above the fray of political strife. Why can’t we all just get along? If people would just drop the political partisanship and pull together, we would all be so much better off. Cue John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Sowell addresses that question with an answer that is bitter medicine to swallow, but valid none the less. People can’t all come together because human nature defies this reality on every level. As humans, we have irreconcilable differences that are simply incompatible in the arena of governance.
Let’s look at it through the prism of pop culture, using two of my favorite television shows as reference points.
On one end of the spectrum, you have Star Trek. This represents a liberal/progressive worldview. In this reality, humanity has risen above itself and has all come together as one. All of the evils of mankind have been eradicated; poverty, racism, sexism, greed, war, Lady Gaga, etc. Humans have perfected themselves to the point that they don’t even need money to survive. The thing that gives them the greatest joy is to explore space and seek out new life and new civilizations. Sowell would have referred to this worldview as, the unconstrained vision.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, you have The Sopranos. In this universe, every single person is greedy, corrupt, gluttonous, adulterous, selfish, vain and often, murderous. Everyone is on the take and therefore is subject to the worst instincts of humanity. Of course, David Chase needs to sell this particular worldview convincingly, so he uses the mafia as its vehicle. But in this world, even the civilians who are not a part of a criminal organization are slaves to the lower elements in the human soul. Mr. Sowell would have labeled this worldview as, the constrained vision.
So, there we have it. In the unconstrained worldview, humans can be bettered to the point of near perfection. The best way to help them to achieve this state of near grace is to implement a one-world government. This government would see to the needs of the people, solving all of their problems through food, healthcare, jobs and education. If humans could merely overcome their impulses toward greed, violence and selfishness, they can be made to realize that community is the most important organism for positive change.
In the constrained worldview, humans collectively tend toward the bad. Individually, they can choose to act in a benevolent fashion, but there is no greater good that satisfies all. Once one or two people fold into a larger group, the varying interests of various tribes begin to compete. Therefore, government must set down a series of laws that will prevent the larger group from breaking down into anarchy. Yet, the constrained vision dictates that a government is made up of the same collective of humanity that is itself collectively governed by those same lower impulses that drive the populous. It is therefore necessary to set such laws that will allow for individualism to flourish, while keeping the powers of a central government present, but in check.
This conflict of visions is at the heart of the irreconcilable differences that have driven competing agendas for centuries. What is the role of government in society? Those who adopt Sowell’s constrained vision view the government in a limited capacity, generally seeing to matters of national security and legal enforcement, while leaving most other matters to the local governments that are closer to their specific communities. Those who subscribe to the unconstrained vision attribute more power to a central government, including financial equity, healthcare, education and so-called social justice.
The inherent problem with the unconstrained view is that, while it remains popular in many circles due to it’s emotional attractiveness, human history clearly falls upon the side of the constrained vision. For centuries, mankind has collectively tended toward greed, war, corruption and the subjugation of its fellow man. This is why Gene Roddenberry set Star Trek 300 years in the future. In his view, mankind could only conquer its own demons through the use of technology.
The original Star Trek series came to be 52 years ago and technology has advanced by leaps and bounds since the days of the black-and-white tube television. Yet, most evidence seems to indicate that the constrained vision once again holds sway. Even though we now live in a digital age when messages can be transmitted instantaneously, when medical equipment is at its greatest advancement, when food production is at a historic peak and when computers play a greater role in the classroom than they ever have, our world seems to be de-evolving into various factions with more and more rapidity with each passing year.
If you don’t care for my use of pop culture to illustrate my point, how about two historical examples; The American Revolution versus the French Revolution.
On the surface, the two revolutions appear similar. The Americans took up arms against an oppressive government because they were weary of being taxed without having a voice in a government that existed over 3,000 miles away from the colonies. The French Revolution occurred because the general populous was weary of being ruled by a monarch and the Catholic Church.
But there, the similarities end.
The French wanted (and ultimately got) their king’s head on a platter. The Americans merely wanted their king to leave them alone. The French rejected religion in all forms, while the Americans incorporated aspects of it into their founding doctrines, while making it clear that the church could not rule the nation. The French Revolution began in anarchy and was restored to order by a constitutional monarchy, which quickly collapsed and was followed by a reign of terror, a democratic republic, civil wars, internal revolts and ultimately, a military dictatorship under Napoleon. The American Revolution was fought by two traditional armies until England surrendered. It was followed by the implementation of a constitution and the formation of a representative republican government overseen by a duly elected president that has stood the test of time, even in the face of the American Civil War. The American Revolution succeeded because, once it ended, the Founding Fathers set down concrete principles of law in the Constitution for guidance. The French Revolution ultimately failed because it relied on sweeping generalities and abstractions as philosophical fuel.
How does this conflict of visions translate in today’s world? Although humans are very complicated, nuanced creatures, the modern manifestation of Sowell’s conflicting visions can be found on the left and the right in the western world. The unconstrained vision is most closely mirrored by Communism, while the constrained vision can be most closely identified with capitalism.
Both systems certainly have their good and bad points, but those who hold the unconstrained vision believe that a centralized government is best able to determine and see to the needs of its people. It is a matter of efficiency. A government can more effectively distribute wealth, prescribe medical care, feed its population and defend its borders by claiming title to and seizing the property of its labor force, which is the people whom it purports to serve. Yet, history indicates that governments who operate within this framework too often become wielders of absolute power, with the coercive imposition of idolatry for itself upon its citizenry.
Those who hold with the constrained vision believe that Communism has illustrated time and again throughout history why humanity collectively tends toward the bad. Communist revolutions from Russia to Cuba to China have always begun with noble intent, but have ultimately resulted in oppressive and totalitarian regimes lording the whip over the masses.
Capitalism, on the other hand, has been the rising tide that has lifted all boats. But while the boats are elevated by natural forces, it is up to each individual pilot whether they will sink or float. Although greed does crop up in capitalist systems, it also provides an environment in which individuals can most easily flourish and thrive upon their own achievements. Those who espouse the constrained vision acknowledge that humans tend toward greed and self-interest. It is far easier to care about your own self and the welfare of your family, rather than strangers. Capitalism, by its very nature, allows people to place their self-interests first. However, when a certain percentage of people begin to succeed and become wealthy, their own sense of self-interest infects those around them through free market commerce. Compulsory government intervention and confiscation is not necessary when an individual’s natural desire for food, shelter and employment will spur him or her on to either employment, or innovation, or possibly both. America is the most obvious example, though other western countries who have followed the capitalist model have met with success.
Sidebar: For a more thorough study of how capitalism has benefitted western civilization, read Jonah Goldberg’s recent book, “Suicide of the West.”
Readers seeking to poke holes in the constrained vs. unconstrained visions might point to the rise of Donald Trump as an argument that conservatism does not, in fact, champion the ideals of individual liberty. Yet, as I have tried to illustrate in these hallowed pages, Trump is not a conservative and his loyal supporters are not subscribers to modern conservatism. Trump represents populism, which is in itself a form of collectivism that exemplifies the constrained theory at its lowest form. While Trump’s adopted party now enjoys dominance in the American political arena, the pendulum will someday swing and, if so-called Democratic Socialists gain a foothold under a figure more compelling and articulate than Bernie Sanders, they too will swoon to the siren song of populism. Barack Obama served as a foreshadowing to what is to come, but more extreme times lie ahead for the American left.
I should point out that America does not represent capitalism in its absolute pure form. The government does regulate our economy to a degree; regulations that tend to fluctuate depending upon the party in power. Yet, the over-arching force that has shaped and continues to shape our country is capitalism. We are certainly not perfect, but our experiment in the cohabitation of government and the free market has largely been a success by any measure.
How do I view human nature? I think the Christian view comes closest to my thinking. We are all sinners living in a fallen world. If humanity is to receive any measure of salvation, it cannot come through human means, whether it be money or governmental force. It must come from a higher, more ethereal power, which is less tangible than anything that mortal hands can touch and mortal logic can comprehend. It must come from God. Sadly, most humans like myself are too constrained by our own limitations to fully grasp this very basic truth.