Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Other Nobel

There is an interesting op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal today about the Nobel Peace Prize. Bret Stephens argues that the committee often selects people who are "Goodists"--people who think all conflict stems from avoidable misunderstandings.

This reminds me of an interesting book by Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. Sowell argues people tend to have one of two overriding visions about humanity. One he calls the unconstrained vision. He uses William Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice as a work that illustrates this approach. (Godwin was Mary Shelley's father, I believe.) To Godwin the essence of virtue is the intention to benefit others. With proper education and enlightenment, human beings could behave with the best interest of others and bring about social good. The second vision about humanity is the constrained vision. Examples would be Adam Smith and the authors of the Federalist Papers. Human beings have moral limitations and tend to be egocentric.

The two visions lead to different views about how to organize social and political life. For one thing, the unconstrained vision sees education as a way to move society forward and toward perfecting humanity. The constrained vision values education but does not see education as the key to making people better. The unconstrained vision does not look to incentives to affect behavior while the constrained vision does. The constrained vision also looks for ways to reduce the power one human being has over another. The constrained vision looks for political systems that includes ways to separate power and to slow down or limit government. The unconstrained vision usually leads to view that seeks a more active government.

The op-ed piece is worth a look. Even more, Sowell's book is a good read.

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