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The conflict of visions

By Dara Macdonald - posted Monday, 19 July 2021

In 1987 Thomas Sowell published the book Conflict of Visions and in 2006 it was republished due to its ongoing validity. To political pundits, the left and right are still holding on to ancient political positions. The left historically has held up and held to a political philosophy that believes in the perfectibility or at least the ability to improve man (the unconstrained vision). Whereas the constrained vision (usually found on the right) saw human nature as limited and forever flawed. Sowell uses the works of Adam Smith and William Godwin to demonstrate this point:

Godwin referred to “men as they hereafter may be made,” in contrast to Burke’s view: “We cannot change the Nature of things and of men—but must act upon them the best we can.

In political philosophy, this difference manifests as belief in the state's ability to produce progress. Whereas political ideologies of the right try to limit the scope of government involvement because human nature is fixed and therefore the project of trying to make humankind better through technocracy will inevitably fail. Leftwing political ideologies, on the other hand, are more comfortable using power, so long as the intention is good, and the aim is to try to improve people or their lot. 


However, neither left nor right present-day thinkers are particularly concerned about bedrock political philosophies and in many cases, such as the post-liberals on the right and the post-materialists on the left, have actively disavowed them. 

The thinkers and ideas that are in transcendence give meaning more than mere political ideologies. These are religious ideas, and not by accident. In a secularised world there is a gaping hole for meaning that is being filled by new and old theologies. 

In many ways left and right have changed places and whereas leftwing secular religions, such as environmentalism, are highly constrained in nature, the right holds unconstrained visions in the form of traditional religions which mostly contain some transcendent value or principle. 

These new ideologies of consequence produce much the same debate on the political stage. The left still argues for a less limited government, but do so because they want to prevent hell or create a heaven on earth that is consistent with the constrained visions they hold. Likewise, the right still holds a limited view of government if they believe that heaven is either not possible on earth but many thinkers on the right have been tempted by a kind of machiavellian instinct to use political power to further their own religious vision.

It is my contention, and I will unpack this, that the constrained religious visions on the left are what is currently driving unconstrained political discourse on that side of politics, whereas the unconstrained visions on the right are continuing the constrained political views. 

Religious Visions

The question that needs to be answered upfront is: What is a religion? Defining religion is an endeavour that both law and anthropology has undertaken. 


Law needs to define what a religion is for the sake of taxation, whether an organisation can be said to be a charity determines if they pay tax, can tax deduct donations, or even receive funds from the state as many countries in Europe do (say Hungary where money gets allocated to recognised religious organisations).

The previous definition in common law which decided what was and was not a religion was the test of belief in one or many gods. However today - thanks to the litigious Church of Scientology - the definition is now a belief in some supernatural principle or thing, and codes of conduct or ethics that give effect to that belief. 

Anthropology needs a definition of religion to classify different social phenomena. It follows the work of sociologists Durkheim and Weber, and says religion is:

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This article was first published on The Conservative Vagabond. It is the first of a four part series.

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About the Author

Dara Macdonald writes at The Conservative Vagabond.

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