I don’t think we get much out of framing politics as the Tragic Vision vs. the Utopian Vision

by Andrew Gelman on June 10, 2013 · 2 comments

in Political Theory,Public opinion

Ole Rogeberg writes:

Recently read your blogpost on Pinker’s views regarding red and blue states. This might help you see where he’s coming from: The “conflict of visions” thing that Pinker repeats to likely refers to Thomas Sowell’s work in the books “Conflict of Visions” and “Visions of the anointed.” The “Conflict of visions” book is on his top-5 favorite book list and in a Q&A interview he explains it as follows:

Q: What is the Tragic Vision vs. the Utopian Vision?

A: They are the different visions of human nature that underlie left-wing and right-wing ideologies. The distinction comes from the economist Thomas Sowell in his wonderful book “A Conflict of Visions.” According to the Tragic Vision, humans are inherently limited in virtue, wisdom, and knowledge, and social arrangements must acknowledge those limits. According to the Utopian vision, these limits are “products†of our social arrangements, and we should strive to overcome them in a better society of the future. Out of this distinction come many right-left contrasts that would otherwise have no common denominator. Rightists tend to like tradition (because human nature does not change), small government (because no leader is wise enough to plan society), a strong police and military (because people will always be tempted by crime and conquest), and free markets (because they convert individual selfishness into collective wealth). Leftists believe that these positions are defeatist and cynical, because if we change parenting, education, the media, and social expectations, people could become wiser, nicer, and more peaceable and generous.


My reply:

As with Pinker’s writing on red and blue states, I think Pinker is lacking some historical perspective here. I do not think it’s all correct to say that “rightists like small government.” I think it’s more accurate to say that rightists like large government when it’s controlled by the right, and leftists like large government when it’s controlled by the left. And how do you classify, for example, right-wing clerical governments? Do they have the tragic vision (because they are conservative) or the utopian vision (because they want a single church to be in control)?

And then there is the conjunction between “small government” and “a strong police and military.” Guatemala for many years ago had small government (for one thing, the people who ran the country did not want to pay taxes) and a strong police and military. Put these together and you get a demonstration of “the tragic vision”: the strong police and military killed hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans. More generally, what does it mean to have a strong police and military with a small government? Who then is in charge of all these armed men?

Pinker’s characterization of leftism seems to miss something too. Try taking his statement, “if we change parenting, education, the media, and social expectations, people could become wiser, nicer, and more peaceable and generous” and flipping it around: “if we change parenting, education, the media, and social expectations, people could become more foolish, nasty, warlike, and selfish.” After all, if people can be changed in one direction, why not in the other direction?

Also, I agree with Pinker that lots of issues get grouped into left and right, but I don’t see tragic vs. utopian as so central. For example, lots of conservatives want to restrict birth control and abortion. I don’t see this fitting into a tragic vision of human nature. Perhaps it is a utopian vision (all potential babies deserve to be born) or a conservative vision (the roles of men and women should remain traditional).

As with many such binary divides, I think this classification tells us more about the person doing the classifying than about the reality that is being classified.

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