Conflict of Visions

I suppose the Constitution has seen better times. Time Magazine asked last year if it’s still relevant, a former Speaker of the House scoffed at the notion that a radical expansion of federal power might be forbidden by it, and a fair portion of Americans can’t tell you the first thing about its contents.

We’ve become so preoccupied with teaching the mechanics of the Constitution (e.g., three branches, bicameral legislature, checks and balances) that we have forgotten a truth about man that informs it, and which undergirds its very purpose.
United States Constitution

That scrap of wisdom is that man is self-interested, possessed of limited knowledge, and self-deceiving. All of which means that he is capable of doing evil and calling it good.

The American founders understood this, but it flies in the face of our modern civic religion, which may be summed up as a faith in the goodhearted man. Voters hew to their parties like tribes, and come election time they quickly learn to parrot the narrative of virtue about their major candidate, handed down to them by their tribal shamans. The problem with America, they think, is that we just need to get rid of the bad people and put in some good, honest, hard-working leaders to direct us to a bright, shining, jobs-filled future where gas stays below three dollars a gallon.

Once people get worked into a frenzy about the goodness of their leader—be he a former oil man who promises to whip the daylights out of the terrorists, or a former community organizer who promises free medical care—they get impatient with people who question their man, and impatient with restraints on his power.

Thus do so-called conservatives back radical expansions of federal power in wars against drugs and terrorists, and thus do so-called liberals restrict the meaning of the word “choice” to the extraction of unwanted fetuses. We’ll do so much good for you, each tribe tells us, if we can just have some running room.

To which the Founders would reply: we shot and bombed and bayoneted a whole pile of guys for talking that way.

America has a Constitution that restrains the federal government precisely because man, no matter how virtuous compared to his fellows, can deceive himself, once he holds the reins of power, and enslave the rest of us in pursuit of his vision of heaven on earth. We would do well to remember that, and teach children the same.

So on Constitution Day, while of course I hope everyone reads the document itself, I recommend we all spend a little time getting reacquainted with Thomas Sowell’s Conflict of Visions.

And if you’ve never heard of it, well, you’re welcome.


  1. fnook

    Usually like your writing and appreciate your interesting links but this is not one of your better posts. Pompous, preachy, pox on both parties, etc. I’m sure you know plenty of self-identified conservatives who despise the drug war. And please provide an example of a so-called liberal restricting the meaning of the word “choice” to mean only freedom of a women to choose whether to bring an unwanted fetus to term. Plus, do you really believe the Constitution does not provide any support for protection of intimate personal privacy/liberty from unwanted state intrusion?

  2. Post

    Fnook, I was going for reasoned and erudite, but sometimes with me that comes across as pompous and preachy.

    I don’t think I was saying that the Constitution doesn’t protect intimate personal liberty – though if that’s just elaborate code for “right to scrape or burn a fetus out of one’s womb,” one has to take some pretty elaborate leaps to discover where that is a constitutional matter, rather than one governed by state laws.

    As for the denuding of the idea of choice, what do you think of this?

  3. Abel Winn

    In the interest of truly throwing a pox on both houses, I’ll point out that most who profess to be “pro life” don’t exactly live up to the term when it comes to things like war, the death penalty and the zealous application of police force.

  4. foundling

    The preamble of the constitution does say provide for the common defense,a far as war is concerned, the country came into being because of war. I’m sure the founding fathers would be aghast at the thought of partial birth abortion our abortion period. Limited government is clearly spelled out on the document. We must return to sanity and bring our fiscal house to order or we will not be able to do the things the government should be doing

  5. Abel Winn


    I think the founders would also be shocked by the size and scope of our military, and the number of countries abroad in which we keep it stationed. They fought a war, certainly, but one of their reasons for it was that Britain maintained a standing army in their lands in time of peace. George Washington, for one, would be sorely disappointed at how little attention we’ve paid to his farewell address.

  6. David Andersen

    Abel – I think it’s pretty clear that most people who use the term ‘pro-life’ are talking strictly about abortion and not every other facet of life and death. Otherwise we could get really silly and claim they are hypocrites for pulling weeds from their garden. And even so, I’m sure we could find people who are pro-life in every sense you mention. Finally, I don’t necessarily find it logically inconsistent to be against abortion and for the death penalty (and really, how many people are pro-war?). Generally speaking, we don’t abort the guilty, do we?

  7. Abel Winn

    Hi David,

    One could definitely find people who are pro-life in every sense that I mentioned. I’m one of them.

    Tony had posted a video showing a lot of “pro-choice” democrats admitting that they don’t think people should have choices in a number of non-abortion related circumstances. So I was just commenting that in the same way, most pro-life people are fine with death/killing in other circumstances.

    It’s certainly possible to be logically against abortion and in favor of the death penalty, since there’s no question of guilt or deserving to die on the part of a fetus. But in this case it’s not really life per se that one is in favor of. It’s something more akin to justice, I would think.

    As for being pro-war, I doubt there are many people who are in favor of it for its own sake. But I believe strongly that the preponderance of people have a very low threshold for when they would consider it justified. Similarly, most people aren’t openly in favor of overly aggressive police force, but an awful lot of them will excuse it after it has occurred. And I have personally sat at Tony’s table and heard someone (not Tony or any of his relatives) laud the shooting of a mentally disturbed man on an airplane as “a good kill.” In case Gene Healy is reading this, I’ll hasten to add that Tony took the opposing view.

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