Wednesday, July 21, 2004

The Dirty Harry Coalition

I have often wondered what unifying principles are shared by two different groups of right of center people, those who are religious and those who are not. I believe the answer to that question can be found in one of Clint Eastwood's movies, where Eastwood plays the iconoclastic police officer Dirty Harry. At one point Dirty Harry says: "A man's got to know his limitations."

But, Thomas Sowell wrote a book titled "A Conflict of Visions" that presents the unifying attitudes of rightwingers in a more philosophical perspective. Rightwingers tend to subscribe to a "constrained vision of man." According to this vision, man is inevitably burdened by moral, intellectual and physical limitations. Sowell quotes Adam Smith's thought experiment regarding a horrible earthquake in China and how little such an event would impact an Englishman compared to the Englishman's loss of his own little finger. The constrained vision of man accepts the fact that human beings tend to care about themselves more than others.

An alternative vision of man is what Sowell describes as the "unconstrained vision." According to this vision, man is naturally good, healthy and wise. But, the existence of artificial institutions cause man to be bad, sick and ignorant. Private property, corporations, marriage, patriotism and family represent these artificial institutions, according to the unconstrained vision.

Constrained visionaries (members of the Dirty Harry Coalition) understand, instinctively or intellectually, that these institutions are vital to the creation and maintenance of civil society among self-regarding individuals. The existence of "artificial institutions" is a result of man's natural fallibility and vanity, not a conspiracy sold to us by a handful of men.