One of them is The Federalist Papers, a book which needs no introduction. Possibly the most important of our founding documents, it offers a glimpse into the original intent of the US Constitution as envisioned by those who actually wrote it. Hamilton, Madison and Jay published the these 85 essays anonymously in order to garner support for ratification of the Constitution. I was introduced to this book as a college freshman taking an Intro to Politics elective (taught, of course, by a self-described radical). It was pretty much the only book assigned to the class that made any sense to me. I ultimately switched my major from music to political science in large part because of this book. Perhaps more on this at a later date… For now, if you don’t already own The Federalist Papers, click here. Now.
My Number One go-to book, however, is Thomas Sowell’s classic, A Conflict of Visions. It distills all political debate down to two fundamental groups — those who have a ‘constrained’ view of human nature and society, and those with an ‘unconstrained’ view. It helps understand the dichotomatic worldviews held by conservatives and liberals, and why, as the author declares in the opening paragraph, “the same people line up on the opposite sides of different issues.”
Those with a ‘constrained’ vision believe that human nature is limited, that we are inherently selfish and operate out of self interest without regard to the well-being of others, and the societal good is derived through the unintended consequences of our actions. This is the cornerstone of Adam Smith’s economic philosophy as expounded in The Wealth of Nations, the founding document of free-market capitalism, and is at the root of libertarian-conservatism as it exists today. It holds that humans are flawed, that we are not naturally inclined to do anything other than what is in our self-interest, yet by doing so within the constraints of human nature we can (and do) benefit others by our actions.
The ‘unconstrained’ worldview is one in which man is inherently virtuous, that all of the unvirtuous things we do are a result of flaws in society, and that through actions that are designed to improve society we can approach perfection. Results and intentions are all that matter, and preferred outcomes can be accomplished by government policies with as long as they are enacted with good intentions. There is no limit to what we can achieve as long as our intentions are pure and we are willing to sacrifice our self-interests for the interests of all.
Sowell admits that no one really exists at either extreme; rather, people tend to occupy a place somewhere in between, possessing either a “more constrained” or “more unconstrianed” worldview. Yet A Conflict of Visions clearly illustrates the diametrically opposing worldviews held by conservatives and liberals, a brilliant analysis of the classic struggles between left and right, whether in the past, present or future. It puts all of our current policy debates into clear perspective.
This interview on YouTube was recorded just before the 2008 election. Sowell demonstrates how the two visions can be applied to concerns over judicial activism, the Iraq war, the economy, the election, Sarah Palin, and academic “intellectuals”. It’s just under 40 minutes long, but well worth the time.