A Conflict of Visions

In the meantime, perhaps we shouldn’t vilify the person that we “know” is wrong, even terribly wrong, about matters which are of upmost importance to us.

Series: Visions, Worldviews and Divisions

Last Post: Meaningful discussion between people who disagree on the social and political issues of our day is often difficult. I posit that the primary reason that is true is because people approach those issues from radically different underlying presuppositions, especially those that comprise our worldview.

Topic #2: A Conflict of Visions

Over the last two years I’ve become far more familiar with the writing and ideas of Thomas Sowell. I wish I had started reading his book length works long ago because he has been enormously helpful to me.

One of his books that is especially insightful as we consider the deep divisions in our country is “A Conflict of Visions.”

Sowell suggests that there are two opposing visions which influence our positions on controversial social issues; 1) the unconstrained vision, and 2) the constrained vision.

Those who lean left tend to have an unconstrained vision, while those who lean right tend to have a constrained vision.

Now, one reason I like this approach to our analysis is that it assumes positive intent for both sides. Needless to say, to the degree that we vilify those with whom we disagree, the less likely it will be that we can reasonably discuss our differences. And without meaningful discussion, the chasm increases with nothing but negative consequences.

Of course, there are shallow, menacing, wrongly motivated people on both sides of the divide, but his discussion of visions allow us to assume the best about those with whom we most disagree.

The Unconstrained Vision

For Sowell, the unconstrained vision is a view of outcomes which anticipates finding perfect solutions to our societal problems. The key word is solution. Every problem has s solution, and that solution, rightly understood, altogether solves the problem.

As the name, unconstrained vision, suggests, there are no constraints to solving the problem. Perhaps there are obstacles, but they are never insurmountable; they do not have to lower our sights to the outcome we desire. If we apply ourselves and our resources we can achieve the outcomes we believe are correct in absolute terms.

So as an example, the unconstrained vision may explain the recent emphasis on equity over equality. Equality speaks to opportunity while equity speaks to guaranteed outcomes. Martin Luther King had, I believe, a constrained vision as he led the civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s to fight for equality. His dream, while beautiful, wasn’t of a future which guaranteed outcomes, but for guaranteed opportunity for all regardless of color of skin.

The BLM movement is demanding equity, equal outcomes for all no matter the cost, suggesting that their’s is an unconstrained vision.

The Constrained Vision

So then what is an constrained vision; what is constrained about it?

The constrained vision also seeks improvement to the social problems the society is facing. But it doesn’t seek a solution, or should I say, the solution. It thinks in terms of trade-offs. The constrained vision sees a serious problem which needs fixed. It assesses the resources that we have to throw at the problem, the possible consequences to the application of various resources, including unintended consequences, the barriers and obstacles which have to be overcome and the costs to do so. Additionally, the constrained vision recognizes the fallibility and corrupt-ability of humans.

Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com

All of these considerations are part of that which makes their vision constrained. They desire to fix problems but recognize that there are factors which will render it an imperfect fix. The constrained vision knows that the solution to one problem may create or worsen another problem. That is why the constrained visions thinks in terms of trade-offs.

Perhaps the difference is a realistic approach versus an idealistic approach. One seems to seek to constantly improve the unperfectable while the other is sure that the perfect solution is in reach and isn’t satisfied for anything less than. It is the difference between applying the vision of heaven in this imperfect world filled with imperfect people, while the other is seeking and expects heaven on earth, now.

Good folks on both sides. Good intentions on both sides. But which one yields the best results for most people in most situations. I want to discuss that going forward, Lord willing.

Beyond Getting Along

In the meantime, perhaps we shouldn’t vilify the person that we “know” is wrong, even terribly wrong, about matters which are of upmost importance to us. Perhaps we should try to imagine what kind of vision informs how they approach the problem. Perhaps we should respectfully ask them about their vision and talk to them on the basis of visions. Perhaps, just perhaps we will get a little further in our discussion if we do. Perhaps that will lead to better understanding, even if not agreement. Perhaps, in time, there will be a chance to influence and/or to be influenced.

But first things first. What kind of vision directs your ideas and efforts concerning societal and political problems? Are you primarily given to a constrained vision or an unconstrained vision?

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Next time: I Declare Myself and my Vision

Author: greg g bruce

Former pastor of a baptist church in a small town. Wonderful wife and four kids, 1 of the male persuasion and 3 of the female, aged 19 - 27.

2 thoughts on “A Conflict of Visions”

  1. Great post! I think my vision has become much more constrained in the past decade or so (which is developmentally normal as one’s brain changes in the post-university years, right?). I think I’m far more aware of the limits of policy or difficulties of achieving social change than I used to be.

    Your post made me think of constrained/unconstrained in two separate interactions.

    One you touch on here is conservative v. liberal. Defunding the police, progress on LGBTQ rights earlier this millennium, creating an American society without guns are all examples of more or less unconstrained, liberal visions (agree/disagree?). Would Sowell agree that there are unconstrained, conservative visions as well? I’m thinking of recent, state-level policies on abortion restrictions, abstinence-only sex education, free market economics.

    I also thought of it pertaining to theory v. politics. In this interaction, politics is always constrained. No politician can operate (effectively?) in Washington without realizing that trade-offs exist and any policy is going to be imperfect. It’s the theorists who are unconstrained because they are dreaming up a world that exists differently than ours does currently. The idealism of the theorists – liberal or conservative (but I would agree theory is predominantly liberal) – provides a vision that politicians can then constrain. Thoughts?


    1. NJR, I appreciate your always thoughtful comments. You are improving my modest blog with your responses by 1) making me think and write better and clearer, 2) giving any readers who care a wider perspective, and 3) demonstrating what constructive dialogue can look like. Thank you.

      Since you specifically asked what Sowell would say, and even though I have an idea of how he handles your question, I thought it’d be better to go back to his book to be sure that my answer is consistent with his thoughts. I think his answer, at least in part, relates to his distinction between “conflict of interests” in which people generally have good idea of all that is at stake for both (all) sides, and a “conflict of visions” in which there is a tendency to have far less understanding at all the issues involved. But I’m not sure so back to Sowell I go. This comment is now officially on hold…


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