Why Do Americans Disagree So Much About Politics? Meet Thomas Sowell

Why Do Americans Disagree So Much About Politics? Meet Thomas Sowell

Question: Why is it that if you know someone’s views on abortion, you can pretty much figure out their views on everything else from corporate tax rates to climate change? One of the best answers to this question comes from Thomas Sowell, the American economist and social theorist who is currently a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. In his classic book, A Conflict of Visions, Sowell attempts to answer the question of why the same people tend to be political adversaries on issue after issue, when the issues vary enormously in subject matter and sometimes hardly seem connected to one another.

He opens the book this way, “One of the most curious things about political opinions is how often the same people line up on the opposite side of different issues.” Sowell claims the root of these conflicts are conflicting “visions” of human nature. The book then unpacks the two basic visions of human nature, namely the “constrained” and “unconstrained” visions.

The “constrained vision” sees human nature as fallen, flawed and in need of moral boundaries to keep it in check. It is a vision of human nature with deep roots in the Judeo-Christian worldview. Those with a constrained vision prefer the systematic processes of the rule of law and the experience of tradition. Compromise is essential because there are no ideal solutions, only trade-offs. This was the view of Adam Smith and many of the founding fathers of our land, even if they were not individually Christians. It is this view that underlies our American Constitution. The whole point of creating a system of checks and balances is to protect us against the worst aspects of fallen human nature. Hence, the constrained view sees expansive government as dangerous because of the intrinsic nature of human corruption and greed for power.

In direct opposition to this, the “unconstrained view” sees human nature as essentially good. This was the view of French social critic and thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau (b. 1712). It is the view that underlies the French Revolution. In short, those who hold to an unconstrained view of human nature believe that we are morally able to choose the good more often than not. Because of this, they believe that there exist some people who have overcome self-interest and are immune to the influence of power and can act as surrogate decision-makers for the rest of society. While the constrained view emphasizes the fallen nature of humanity and the limits of human reason, the unconstrained view sees humanity as essentially fixable by society’s elite. Hence, the unconstrained view sees expansive government as helpful to assist all citizens in their quest for moral perfection.

With this brief exposition of these two views of human nature, it should be pretty obvious why these two camps do not get along very well. More to the point, there is very little common ground between these two views of the world. Those who hold to the constrained view of human nature will inevitably come to different conclusions about immigration, LGBTQ+ issues and welfare programs than those who do not. How could it be otherwise?! The worldview gap, at this point, is simply massive—too massive it seems—to exist within the same marriage, family, church or even political party. That is why Americans (and other nations) disagree so much about politics.

by Jay Childs, Senior Pastor
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