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April 14, 2003

Left and Right

Opinion Journal has a great article on the dichotomy.
[...] Thomas Sowell has written two books pondering why the same people end up on the same side of issues that have no intrinsic connection. In "A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles," he writes that this is because they operate from two different "visions" of how the world works, indeed of human nature. In "The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy," he argues that the prevailing vision in the press, academy and politics has become so dogmatic that it has lost touch with reality.

Mr. Sowell labels the competing visions "constrained" and "unconstrained." The constrained vision argues that perfection is impossible, that social policy consists of structuring incentives for self-centered men, that life is a series of trade-offs. This vision is represented by the likes of Adam Smith, Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton (and of course, Dick Cheney and the Bush administration mindset).

The unconstrained version argues that man's imperfections are the result of bad institutions, that pure intentions matter more than actual effects, that rationality can solve problems once and for all. In the time of Smith and Burke, this tradition was epitomized by William Godwin, whose "Enquiry Concerning Political Justice" was popular in Great Britain until the public started to witness the excesses of the French Revolution.

For the path of the unconstrained vision ran through Rosseau, Voltaire and Thomas Paine (a defender of the French Revolution as well as a hero of the American one). Today's academy is in thrall of descendants of these French ideas. The academically popular "deconstructionism" promoted by Jacques Derrida argues that the conception of meaning or truth is another corrupting institution, merely expressing power relationships.