Idealism is best in moderation

Thirty-five years ago, he was made a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and nothing indicates that the strong flow of manuscripts and articles from him will run dry anytime soon. Sowell’s doctorate is in economics, but it is too narrow to call him an economist. He is a social scientist and a humanist; he does not shun philosophy and is happy to tackle a diverse range of topics.

If you, for example, wish to deepen your understanding of the current Swedish debate, there are few better books to read than Sowell’s 28-year-old A Conflict of Visions. There, he argues about how some people always tend to find themselves in opposing camps of opinion, despite the fact that the issues being discussed do not seem to have very much to do with each other. If you like having a strong defence, you are usually also for severe penalties and early grades in school, while it is much more common to find prison-sceptics and opponents of school grading in pacifist circles. Sowell speaks, of course, not about binding rules without exception, but about general patterns.

The explanation, he says, lies in differing conceptions of how the world is and how cause and effect are interrelated; he talks about opposite “visions”. One of his ideal types is ”the unlimited vision”, which holds that people are good by nature and societies can flourish into perfection if only people are freed from narrow habits and traditions. Against this, stands the “limited vision”, which emphasises the imperfection of individuals and communities, which believes that people act according to rewards and sanctions rather than general benevolence, and which believes more in the robust and feasible than the grandiose.

For those who feel at home in the unlimited version, noble intent is at the centre; for those who identify with the limited version, it is about the practical implications. Should you find people who can be linked to both alternatives, you can, for the limited vision’s part, talk about conservatives such as Burke, liberals such as Hayek, and social democrats of the reformist school.

Within the unlimited vision are radicals of many kinds: from principled liberals like Condorcet and Thomas Paine, who quarrelled with Burke and wrote The Rights of Man, to the Swedish social engineers of the 1960s and ’70s. As regards financial matters, they had different ideas but, whether they advocated laissez-faire or political micromanagement, they were confident that man’s honest intentions would create a happy society as soon as they were no longer burdened by the baggage of history and limp everyday compromises. The market liberals thought that the inherent goodness of liberated individuals would take care of everything; the social engineers believed in enlightened rulers acting in the public service. Neither has had much sympathy for the ”limited” liberals, conservatives and social democrats who talked about balancing interests and values against each other, about finding balance and compromise and who admit that human self-interest is as strong a force as generosity.

Now, if you believe that man is not only good but also infinitely capable of shaping society for the better, it becomes, as Sowell writes, “either an intellectual puzzle or a moral failure”, that there are people who do not think the same as you: “Allegations of bad faith, meanness, or other moral and intellectual deficiencies have been much more common in the unlimited vision’s criticism of the limited vision than vice versa”.

This brings us to Sweden in 2015, where the idealism-realism conflict – which has striking similarities with unlimited-limited – has emerged as the most complex and relevant. Expressen’s political editor, Anna Dahlberg, has pointed this out in several sharp articles. The left-right dimension still plays the most important role in our party elections, with the tradition-alternative dimension an increasingly important competitor, but the opposite that is idealism-realism now cuts straight through the big parties, and idealism’s assertiveness and self-righteousness has a constant advantage in our tightly screwed media environment. “Anyone who is attracted by budgets and other limiting perspectives will immediately hear that he or she is ‘setting group against group’ and has no sense of human dignity”, notes Dahlberg.

Those who are actually engaged in what I believe is one of democracy’s most fundamental tasks – to create a balance between moral values and practical considerations – have found it desperately hard to be heard and have an adult conversation with the people. Here, one can truly speak of a crisis of politics. Thomas Sowell doesn’t solve this for us, but he makes it easier to discern what has happened.

PJ Anders Linder

VD och chefredaktör i Axess. 

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