Fact and fiction are eerily matched and juxtaposed in an extremely plausible alternative to the paths actually taken by the two armies. A single spark of inspiration, in a single moment, is all that it takes to move history in a decisively different direction. All that follows that moment is quite plausible, even likely, given what is known of the personalities, fears and abilities of the generals involved.
It really does help in making sense of conflicting political ideologies.
The most important thing I would say to anyone who reads this book is not to be put off by the terminology. Sowell is brilliant, and he has, I believe, discovered and articulated the key attribute, what he calls the conflicting "visions," distinguishing two ideological camps, labeled (inappropriately in my opinion) as the "constrained" and the "unconstrained."
The conflicting "visions" are not merely a set of opinions or points of view. The weakness and vagueness of that label, as well, are misleading and unfortunate. Sowell's "vision" is like a lens, through which a person with one vision or the other sees some things but is essentially blind to others.
The "unconstrained" are not constrained by the market, human nature, the words in the Constitution, or reality. Instead, the best and the brightest among them, being uniquely smart enough to imagine a better world, decide for the rest of us how we must behave in order to achieve that better world. They are the "surrogate decision-makers," as Sowell likes to call them, the Platonic philosopher kings known in the real world as dictators, tyrants, arrogant bureaucrats and activist judges. The result is a libertarian's nightmare, and this is where the terminology seems inappropriate.
The most visible attribute of the "unconstrained" is their obsession with a pernicious form of equality, strained to the point where those who achieve less must be made equal by means of transfers of wealth funding subsidies. The unconstrained reject the notion that such transfers, even when voluntary, constitute charity, believing instead that the beneficiaries are entitled, by notions of "social justice," to receive whatever it takes, from anyone possessing it, to make them equal.
The rest of us, in this imagined better world designed by the unconstrained, are severely constrained by the decisions made by our surrogates. Those of us who find themselves in Sowell's "constrained" camp, constrained by their acceptance of human nature for what it is, prefer a world in which individuals are free to make their own decisions, with limited constraints provided by the rule of law and free markets, not surrogates. Such freedom comes much closer to the sense of "unconstrained," in my view, than Sowell's version of "unconstrained." The terms "free" and "unconstrained" are virtually synonymous, in fact, so it seems odd that there would be less freedom in the unconstrained world than in the constrained. (Sowell explains how the unconstrained define "freedom" differently from the way I would define it, thus illuminating the source of that oddity.)
So it is important to keep in mind that Sowell's constrained/unconstrained dichotomy refers to political leaders and the architects of a society and not to its inhabitants.
Sowell takes great pains to be even-handed, avoiding advocacy of one vision or the other, and to explain that his labels do not fit well with known political persuasions. It should be clear that I am firmly in the "constrained" camp, so I am not similarly hobbled by the duty to be neutral. I believe, for example, that libertarians, true libertarians anyway, belong just as firmly in the "constrained" camp, although Sowell's pains include an effort to show that both visions are represented among libertarians. I would also say that the current (since 2008) political powers in the United States, both presidential and (at least until the 2010 mid-term elections) legislative are firmly in the "unconstrained" camp. Sowell is, of course, correct (in writing long before 2008) in pointing out the lack of ideological purity (or purity of "vision") in the political movements of our time. But in doing that, he actually weakens the very point he is making so well -- that his concept of those two conflicting visions goes far in explaining why people of differing political persuasions just don't seem to see the same things.
Labeling aside, Sowell's point is well worth the effort to understand and to apply it to the real world. This book is well worth reading.
The narrator, Michael Healy, has been severely criticized by other listeners. I could find fault with his performance too. His pronunciation of German words is terrible, which is forgivable in a foreigner, though I can't imagine how he gets "Luther" out of "Lothar" and not only because the "h" is not pronounced in that context in German. But he is certainly not "droning," as one reviewer put it. I, too, was somewhat put off at the beginning, but I think that was only because his style was different from the earlier, excellent narrators. Or maybe it just took him a while to get into the story. In any case, he did get into it and made the story interesting.
Regarding the story itself, it becomes clear that Russell (and probably Downing too) is an ardent socialist. As a free market capitalist sharply opposed to socialism, I was offended by the moral equivalency drawn between Soviets and Americans. Although that comes out to some degree in earlier novels, it is the principal theme of this one. That was ideologically offensive to me, but don't let it turn you off. If you are not a fan of socialism already, you learn a lot about how those of that persuasion think and, most importantly, how that played into mid-20th century history.
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