Sowell's A Conflict of Visions
By Arnold Kling
My excuse for not reading A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell was that I had already read a fair amount of his other work, and how much new could he have to say? But John Baden pressed me to read it, and it was very worthwhile.
Everyone should read this book, but few people will, so let me try to summarize it.
I think of the book as describing two fundamental differences between left and right. One is that the right thinks that social problems primarily reflect basic constraints, while the left thinks that they reflect the failure of good to triumph over evil.
For example, on health care, I will say that as individuals we want unlimited access to medical services without having to pay for them, but that this desire faces the constraint that it is economically unsustainable. On the left, it is an article of faith that the main problem is, as someone once said to me in a Q&A session, a lack of political will. Or, as another example, the front page story in today’s Washington Post is about health care industry lobbying, which fits well with the left’s narrative that our health care would be fine if it were not for those evil profiteering private sector actors.
The other difference between left and right concerns information and decision-making. Richard Thaler speaks for the left.
Some critics contend that behavioral economists have neglected the obvious fact that bureaucrats make errors, too. But this misses the point. After all, wouldn’t you prefer to have a qualified, albeit human, technician inspect your aircraft’s engines rather than do it yourself?
He is saying that experts should make decisions for others. Sowell describes this as the “surrogate decision-maker.” For the left, “society” should make decisions, and proper experts should make decisions for society. That is why Thaler is happy that the Obama Administration is going to dictate more strictly the types of mortgages people can have.
Those of us on the right think that knowledge is embedded in systems that evolve over time. The experts are not really smarter than markets.
The left believes that wise and moral experts could solve problems if not for their evil opponents. The right believes that the so-called experts do not have nearly enough knowledge to be dictating to everyone else. Think of the late William F. Buckley’s remark that he would rather be ruled by a set of people randomly chosen from the Boston phone directory than by the Harvard faculty.
Overall, I come away from A Conflict of Visions very pessimistic, because my views are fundamentally different from those on the left. We will talk past each other, and no one will get anywhere. Moreover, I can see why the left would not want me to be able to experiment with a non-statist society. From their point of view, it would be immoral for me to secede from their utopia. If Patri Friedman ever creates a seastead, its inhabitants will be imprisoned for tax evasion, treason against the planet, or somesuch.