On Monday, historian and author Tom Woods discussed the premise
of Thomas Sowell’s book A Conflict of Visions
. According to their discussion, Sowell maintains that there are two main political convicions: an unrestrained vision of man and a restrained vision. The unrestrained vision believes that man and society are infinitely malleable and can be worked to perfection. The restrained view, in contrast, holds that a person at birth is finite — agreeable to a certain amount of molding, capable of a certain level of growth, but never perfectible. In an interesting digression, Woods and Malice quickly drifted into a discussion on how Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson fit into this scheme. (The two authors have previously debated the merits of Hamilton; Woods contends he is a skunk, and Malice maintains the opposite.) Hamilton, Jefferson, and even Adams are to my mind personalities who do not fit easily into any dichotomy: Jefferson was indisputably a romantic about human nature, yet he still had agrarian and decentralist reservations; for all of Adams’ wary conservatism, his moral vision made him more consistently anti-slavery than the liberty-loving Jefferson; and Hamilton managed to argue for both a strong executive and
a government that had built-in quarantines for corruption, since a certain amount was inevitable. Towards the end they make the point that a truly liberal and self-deterministic society would allow for both visions to exist simultaneously: that is, San Francisco can transform itself into a commune if it wants or California into an imitation of a European social democracy, but Texas remains free to be a Randian paradise. People voluntarily give up liberties all the time in the pursuit of more meaningful goals; the problem is if we use the State to strip
people of liberties by attempting to order their life for
I found the discussion most interesting because in the last decade or so, I’ve personally transitioned from the unrestrained view to the restrained, my long study of history and society having convinced me of the limits of human nature and the difficulty of controlling things external to us. I covered that transition more at length in my essay “Accidentally Evil: Considering Libertarianism
“. However, I don’t think the dichtomy is a left/right thing: George Bush’s attempt to remold the middle east in the style of a western democracy looks plainly like an unrestrained vision at work, and I think anarcho-capitalists are just as optimistic. Woods and Malice don’t go into that aspect, unfortunately.
Here is the climax of my essay mentioned previously, if you are curious:
Without realizing it, studying the history of these subjects lured me into the dark side: the Other Libertarianism. The American libertarianism. The market-obsessed libertarianism. When I studied urban planning, I came to realize how the government promotes city-destroying urban sprawl through zoning codes and highway and housing subsidies. When studying food, I grew disgruntled after realizing how successful regulations and subsidies are to letting corporate giants monopolize farming and make it an industrial enterprise, reliant on disaster-inviting monocultures and cheap oil that destroys the land. Every field I studied attentively, I found regulation in the way. I was a big fan of regulation: I viewed big business with fear and wanted a government that would keep a pistol pointed in its face all the time. I wanted the lion of the market to be chained and caged. But now I was seeing instances of it hurting people — and not just getting in the way of productive endeavors, but promoting power accretion. At first, I merely winced — oh, here’s bad regulation, we should remove it and make new regulation, regulation that will be good — but as I continued to run into those bits of bad regulation, I realized they were popping up with unfortunate regularity. They weren’t exceptions to the rule; they were the rule, an example of what happens when we ignore the limits of our knowledge and assume we can make things so by legislative fiat. I believe these community-destroying forces of sprawl and big business would hoist themselves on their own petards were they not on the life-support of public funding.
Though I’ve begun to appreciate the market as a means of sorting things out, I’m only slightly evil. I do not believe the chief end of man is self-satisfaction, or that money is the measure of a good life. My roots remain in simple living and the cultivation in myself the best fruits of the human condition.