By Jeff Rutherford
In the seventh chapter of Dr. Thomas Sowell’s 1987 book, A Conflict of Visions – Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, he described the difference between the political Left’s and the Right’s vision of power, force, violence, and war.
I find that chapter very instructive now in March 2015 to better understand the ideological dynamics behind the current heated debate over the prospects of a nuclear-armed Iran. I’d like to share those insights here.
As I’ve previously summarized in the article Groping for Utopia, Dr. Sowell’s overall thesis of the book is that the unconstrained vision (of the political left) sees man as inherently good and perfectible, and hindered only by difficult circumstances; while the constrained vision (of the political right) sees man as inherently flawed and forever prone to violating each other’s natural rights and liberty. Political conclusions drawn, and actions taken, from these visions are perpetually in conflict.
In the political terminology of 21st-century America, the unconstrained vision of the left is called Progressivism, and the constrained vision of the right is called Conservatism. I will substitute those terms in some of the following excerpts:
“Given the horrors of war, and the frequent outcome in which there are no real winners, those with the [Progressive] vision tend to explain the existence and recurrence of this man-made catastrophe in terms of either misunderstandings in an intellectual sense, or of hostile or paranoid emotions raised to such a pitch as to override rationality. In short, war results from a failure of understanding, whether caused by lack of forethought, lack of communication, or emotions overriding judgment. [Progressivism’s view of the] steps for a peace-seeking nation to take to reduce the probability of war [are shown in the side-by-side comparison below.]”
“Those with the [Conservative] vision see war in entirely different terms. According to this vision, wars are a perfectly rational activity from the standpoint of those who anticipate gain to themselves, their class, or their nation, whether or not these anticipations are often mistaken, as all human calculations may be. That their calculations disregard the agonies of others is no surprise to those with the [Conservative] vision of human nature. From this [Conservative] perspective, the steps for a peace-seeking nation to take to reduce the probability of war would be the direct opposite of those proposed by [Progressives.]”
In the direct side-by-side comparison I have arranged above, derived from pages 158-159 of the 2007 2nd edition of Sowell’s book, these recipes for peace are shown to be more than just different visions – they are literally in conflict. Most of the actions recommended in one vision are prescribed to be avoided in the other vision. Hence the heated battle rages in the global political arena right now over how to deal with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.
In the excellent format of Sowell’s entire book, he goes on to skillfully contrast the political philosophies of historic figures to further illustrate the origins of this abrasive conflict over the causes and prevention of war:
The origin of the unconstrained (Progressive) view of the causes of war is explained by referencing the 1793 book “Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness” by English philosopher and novelist William Godwin (1756 – 1836).
“In Godwin’s unconstrained vision…a nation’s ‘inoffensiveness and neutrality’ would present no military threat to cause a ‘misunderstanding’ with other nations or to ‘provoke an attack.’ To Godwin, the buildup of military power and the forging of military alliances, or balance-of-power policies, were likely to lead to war. Godwin deplored the cost of maintaining military forces, which included not only economic costs but also such social costs as submission to military discipline and the spread of patriotism, which he characterized as ‘high-sounding nonsense’ and ‘the unmeaning rant of romance.’ ”
The origin of the constrained (Conservative) view of the causes of war is explained through the writings of three of America’s founders, Alexander Hamilton (1755 – 1804), James Madison (1751 – 1836), and John Jay (1745 – 1829). Sowell quotes specifically from “The Federalist Papers” #4, #6, #7, and #11 published between November 7 and November 24, 1787.
“War, as seen in the constrained vision of The Federalist Papers, seemed to require virtually no explanation…. To the Federalists, it was obvious that ‘nations in general will make war whenever they have a prospect of getting anything by it.’ Far from seeing war as an evil with localized origins in despots, they argued that there were ‘almost as many popular as royal wars.’ ”
“…War did not require a specific explanation. Peace required explanation – and specific provisions to produce it. One of these provisions was military power: ‘A nation, despicable by its weakness, forfeits even the privilege of being neutral.’ ”
Sowell concludes the chapter I’ve been quoting with the following points which are amazingly pertinent for the current political controversy over the nuclear arms control negotiations with Iran:
“The amassing of military power by a peaceful nation is dangerously counterproductive according to the [Progressive] vision, and absolutely essential to preserve peace in the [Conservative] vision. These opposing views are as common today as they were in the eighteenth century….”
“The [Conservative] vision…sees unprovoked aggression – whether by criminals or nations – as something to be systematically deterred, rather than something that can be rooted out by better understanding conveyed to those lacking it, or by defusing emotions which might otherwise override judgment…. War-makers [are not] seen as requiring, or likely to derive much benefit from, the articulated rationality of the [intellectual elites] of society.”
“By contrast, the [Progressive] vision sees a larger gap between current human capabilities and the ultimate intellectual and moral potential of the species…. This [self-] imposes on the elites a duty to seek more influence on the course of events. [To these intellectual elites,] deference to the less-advanced beliefs [of the Conservative vision] would be an almost fetishistic abdication of responsibility. This is especially so where resort to force or the threat of force is involved….”
“Both visions see the abuses of power…. They disagree widely and fundamentally on the means of controlling it.”