By Jeff Rutherford
Imagine this scenario:
The setting is a candy store. A child throws a temper tantrum in the jelly bean aisle. The parent resists at first, then gives the child the candy he’s yearning for, hoping to make the child feel more loved. Others nearby shake their heads in dismay, believing the parent just did the worst possible thing which will only make the child feel entitled and demanding.
Here’s an opposite scenario:
The setting is a junior league soccer field. A child loses his footing in mid-stride, goes down and gets a skinned knee. He gets up immediately and walks towards his parent on the sidelines. The parent instinctively starts towards the child. Then seeing the child isn’t limping, decides to sit back down and let the coach handle the situation, hoping to make the child feel more resilient. Others nearby shake their heads in dismay, believing the parent just did the worst possible thing which will only make the child feel isolated and unloved.
My point here is not to examine who’s right and wrong, but to illustrate how two distinct types of parents can view their role differently. They don’t just disagree – they each feel that the other is making things worse for their respective child.
Each of us has an instinctive perspective about life and the world around us. In our large modern society, the geographic, cultural, religious, and economic factors that form our world views are not homogenous. There are quite different viewpoints about how to live and how to participate in local, regional, and national communities.
Meanwhile, access to mass media and ease of travel/relocation has increased the intensity of our interaction with each other. In fact, it’s hard not to interact with each other closely, especially when major public incidents occur. Disagreements are becoming wider and deeper. But why? Do you find yourself frustrated, wondering why decent Americans can’t agree?
As I’ve written about several times before, there’s an excellent 1987 book by American economist & philosopher Thomas Sowell, PhD called “A Conflict of Visions — Ideological Origins of Political Struggles.” In it, he objectively describes two broad categories of people:
- Those he calls “unconstrained” thinkers who tend to be idealistic and prone to assume that society’s problems can be solved through good will, good intentions, and expending unlimited amounts of society’s resources. Their goals are unconstrained.
- Those he calls “constrained” thinkers who are more realistic and apt to focus on limited mitigations for problems that are usually unsolvable due to incurable aspects of human nature. They accept circumstances and outcomes that are imperfect across society as a whole, and devise ways to personally adapt to the reality as best they can. Their goals are constrained.
In the second half of the book, Sowell explains a very interesting aspect of this “conflict of visions” in modern Western societies. He asserts that it’s not just that we disagree on solutions to problems. The vigor of the conflict is much worse than that. The full problem is that the methods that “unconstrained” thinkers would use to solve a problem are viewed by “constrained” thinkers as the worst possible thing you could do. And vice-versa. They each think the other’s solution will exacerbate the problem.
For a current example, some people today think the worst thing America and its Pacific region allies could do is confront North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un with warnings of severe sanctions and other more dire consequences if he doesn’t give up his nuclear weapons program. These “unconstrained” thinkers believe this will only provoke N. Korea to lash out, so they want to continue to talk and seek common ground and try to persuade through positive diplomacy. In sharp contrast, there are other people who think the worst thing America and its allies could do is not confront N. Korea to force them to back down and abandon their militaristic ICBM threats to the region and conceivably even the mainland U.S. These “constrained” thinkers believe N. Korea has been appeased for too many decades already, with no results except for N. Korea being emboldened to keep disrupting geopolitical stability because they think it enlarges their stature and regional power.
See? Once again, each side thinks the other’s approach makes the situation worse.
There’s a lot of that kind of thing in the two sides of the current gun control debate too. Applying Sowell’s observations about conflict of vision, here are three of the many reasons why the gun control debate will never be resolved:
- Citizens of mega-huge cities view the pros & cons of the issue differently than citizens of smaller towns and rural/remote areas, so their respective views about what is a “danger” are quite different.
- Some people are willing to delegate the caretaking of their well-being to society’s safety net run by “the authorities”, while other people feel safest when they are responsible for protecting themselves.
- Some people instinctively feel that giving individuals the ability to use a gun against another person is the cause of the problem of gun violence, while other people instinctively feel that ability is the solution to the problem.
The perspectives described in Sowell’s book have helped me usually avoid getting overly frustrated and impatient with American political discourse. There will always be different types of people, along the lines of the “constrained” and the “unconstrained.” The tug of war between them will still be occurring centuries from now. It’s a free country. Liberty is never easy, or boring.