A Conflict of the Conservative Vision

There is one popular framework of politics that I often think about. It is the basis of a book by Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions. I was introduced to it by my conservative father.

Sowell theorizes that the political right and left are defined by two distinct visions. Conservatives and right-wingers are supposedly adherents of a constrained vision. Whereas liberals and left-wingers are supposedly adherents of an unconstrained vision.

For some reason, this popped back into my mind on my walk this morning. Two thoughts occurred to me.

First, I’m not sure how accurate it is. I always feel the need to clarify that conservatism and liberalism are not necessarily the same thing as conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness. This is one of those cases where that is an important distinction to keep in mind.

Sowell is most directly talking about psychological predispositions here. But he seems to be assuming that they are the same as ideological labels as expressed through ideological movements. I have severe doubts that this is the case, not to dismiss the strong correlation. I just think something gets missed in too simplistic of categories.

When I consider conservative politics, I don’t see a constrained vision at work.

Plutocratic paternalism is not a constrained vision. Neoliberal laissez-faire globalization is not a constrained vision. Neoconservative nation-building and neo-imperialism is not a constrained vision. Corporatist progressivism that dismisses the precautionary principle is not a constrained vision. Theocratic nationalism is not a constrained vision. A large militarized police/security state with heavily guarded borders is not a constrained vision.

Yet all of these things define the political right.

Sowell doesn’t really mean a constrained vision. I think even he knows that this is the case. What he actually argues for is constrained empathy, compassion, and morality. It is an attitude of me and my own, but me and my own can be quite unconstrained. A me and my own attitude would only be constrained, if it respected everyone else’s me and my own attitude. Obviously, that isn’t the case with the American political right.

The extreme version of the constrained live-and-let-live worldview are the anarcho-libertarians. And they tend to be left-wingers.

Conservatives don’t want to constrain their vision, their power over others, or their ability to act in large ways. What they want to constrain is having to concern themselves about the consequences and the externalized costs. They choose to constrain their sense of moral responsibility and social responsibility. So, in their worldview, a corporation should have the right to act unconstrained, which is to say they shouldn’t be constrained to the rights of workers, protection of the environment, etc. Instead, everyone and everything else should be constrained to their agenda.

This angle of responsibility brings me the second thought.

When I consider Jesus’ teachings, I can’t help but feel that whatever he was preaching it for damn sure wasn’t the ideology of the political right. I’m not saying it was liberalism either, just certainly not conservatism and even more certainly not right-wing libertarianism.

Jesus’ vision was as unconstrained as one could imagine. He was preaching about an unconstrained attitude of compassion and care. It was universal love for all of humanity. No limitations. No questions asked. Just help the needy and defend the weak. It wasn’t an overtly political vision, but in psychological terms it was the opposite of conservative-minded.

The only times Jesus spoke of constraint was when people sought to act without genuine moral concern for their fellow humans. In those instances, he would say such things as,  “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” But all this was saying was that people should constrain their hatred, bigotry, and judgment in favor of an unconstrained vision of love.

I’m forced to conclude that Sowell’s conflict of visions is something other than what it is portrayed as.

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Some additional thoughts:

The ideas of constraint and unconstraint aren’t objective categories. It depends on what they are being defined according to.

What kind of constraint or unconstraint and for what purpose? Who is implementing, controlling, and enforcing the constraint or unconstraint? Who is being constrained or unconstrained? Who is benefiting and who is being harmed? What are the costs, especially externalized costs, and who is paying for them?

To be fair, all of the confusion involved can’t just be blamed on conservatives. I only focused on conservatives because it is a way of framing politics that is particularly popular among conservatives.

In reality, liberals are no more consistently unconstrained in a principled fashion than are conservatives consistently constrained in a principled fashion. Many liberals might like to think of themselves as being more unconstrained than they actually are, but liberals aren’t anarchists or anything close to it. There are more things liberals seek to constrain than unconstrain.

I personally fall more on the side of unconstraint, but not the careless and mindless unrestraint that is prevalent in our society, especially as seen among the extreme defenders of laissez-faire capitalism. I’m certainly not critical of conservatism because of Sowell’s claim of it being an constrained vision, at least not when compared to my own principles and ideals. I wish conservatives were more constrained and supportive of constraint.

I’m all the time advocating for the precautionary principle. That has to be the single greatest expression of genuine conservative-minded constraint. Yet it is political liberals who hold it up as a central value and standard, a guidepost of wise and responsible decision-making. If conservatives really gave a shit about constraint, they’d start with the precautionary principle.

I have an overall unconstrained vision, but certain conditions are necessary in order to have an actual functioning society that is as unconstrained as possible. Those conditions, in a very basic sense, are themselves constraints. The whole issue isn’t as binary as a conservative like Sowell would like it to be. The conflict of constrained versus unconstrained only exists in Sowell’s brain and in the brain of anyone who shares his view.

Many conservatives would consider me utopian in my desired unconstraint. I’m very much a leftist in my belief in human potential as being preferably unrestrained (as much as is possible), something conservatives tend to fear. I’m not seeking perfection, as conservatives suspect. I don’t even know what perfection means. That seems like another projection of the conservative mind.

What conservatives too often mean by constrained is that they don’t want to question their own assumptions. They want to take their beliefs as reality, and so constrain all of politics to their narrow view and all of society to their simplistic understanding. They want a rigid social order that constrains others to their worldview.

This connects back to my last post. Howard Schwartz, an author on liberty in American society, commented on that post. He pointed out that this kind of person is seeking stable essences for the purposes of psychological security. As I’d put it, they are constraining their own minds in order to lessen the stress and anxiety they feel when confronting cognitive dissonance.

My oft repeated position is that the world is complex. This is true, whether or not we like it. Constraining one’s beliefs about reality doesn’t constrain reality itself. I favor an unconstrained vision simply because only it can encompass that complexity. I also favor it because, as long as we have globalization, we better have a vision of social and moral responsibility that can match its scope.

Oddly, it is for this very reason I can simultaneously defend certain practical constraints to an even greater degree than is seen in mainstream American conservatism. I’m a cautious-minded progressive, a wary optimist.