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May 9, 2016

The Epistemic Limits of Radicalism

Kuznicki explores the implications of libertarian radicalism being based on epistemic humility.

In my previous column I argued that nearly everyone in the political mainstream of the developed world is already radical on at least three matters when compared to most others in recorded history: In sharp contrast to most recorded accounts of both political theory and political practice, we moderns are more democratic, more egalitarian, and – yes – more libertarian than they were. By a lot.

I got pushback about including democracy in the list: Given how democracy and liberty really can be at odds with one another, shouldn’t we avoid more radicalism in that direction?

Perhaps. But Stephen M. Walt did a good job recently of explaining why democracy is a good thing, even taking into account its many foibles:

Stable democracies have better long-term economic growth records (on average) and do much better in terms of protecting basic human rights… [D]emocracies are less likely to kill vast numbers of their own citizens through famines or ill-planned acts of social engineering, mostly because corrective information is more readily accessible and officials can be held accountable. Democracies are as likely to start and fight wars as any other type of state, but there’s some (highly contested) evidence that they tend not to fight each other. On balance, therefore, I think it would be better for most human beings if the number of democracies in the world increased.

I agree. All libertarians value peace, basic human rights, and the avoidance of disastrous social engineering, which makes democracy an effective means to important libertarian ends. It’s certainly not perfect, and yet democracy probably frustrates our enemies even more than it frustrates us.

But I’d like to ask a different question: Given my defense of a kind of libertarian radicalism, what can be said about its proper limits?

Let’s start by recapping the argument. We moderns have already torn up the traditionalist rulebook, which held that some people were intrinsically more fit to govern, and that others were intrinsically fit to submit and obey. One’s lot in life, one’s social station, was destiny, and it generally meant that one was either a ruler or a subject, but almost never a free individual.

We have decisively rejected this idea, at least as a norm; to this very day, and despite the significant growth of government regulations and expense, one of the surest ways to condemn a government action of any type is to link it convincingly to the bad old custom of establishing permanent, state-run social classes or divisions. To the extent that a government action resembles that, it usually becomes suspect, even for modern liberals. We might prefer that modern liberals listen more often when we claim this to be the case, but that’s a long, long fight to be had.

The result of the modern revolution has been a steady improvement in many measures of human well-being. Solutions that previous eras had either written off or never considered – those that generally involve leaving people alone to do as they see fit – have turned out to work pretty well in many areas where success could not have been expected in advance.

As a result, the radical libertarian hypothesis now seems both reasonable and well-evidenced. But it’s a strange pro-radical argument that I’ve offered here, because it rests on the premise that we don’t really know as much as we’d like. We are radicals here precisely because we have just learned that we are prone to getting big, important things dead wrong. Our ancestors did it, and we infer that we are likely still doing it too – and then, we might ask, how dare we hypothesize so boldly?

It may be reasonable to move further in the direction of liberty. But it’s not certain, on the terms of this argument, that good things will result from every attempt that we make. At least this form of radicalism-in-principle must seemingly lead to incrementalism in practice. From the observation that the history of political thought and political practice has been too authoritarian, we get a testable hypothesis about the direction of future reform, but nothing more.

The possible missteps are easy to enumerate. Our idea of what liberty actually entails may, yes, be imperfect. Our instantiation of liberty in one area may make existing state-based practices unworkable, without appropriate plans for what to do when they fail. We may find state-based solutions to certain problems morally unacceptable – and yet have no morally acceptable alternatives to them, either: The problem of brute interpersonal violence itself seems to me to fall into this category, in that both the problem and the solution on offer may be equally bad; in cases like these, intellectual modesty suggests that we stay with the evil we know.

A radicalism based in on epistemic humility clearly can’t mean doing just whatever we modern radicals get into our heads to do. It must be a radicalism as to the end goal, but one tempered by a practical humility. A reasonable libertarian radicalism will test and check. It will move slowly. It will acknowledge that much remains to be learned. But unlike many still-current approaches to politics, it will have learned something from the mistakes of the past, and it will enjoy, if tentatively, an inspiring vision of the future.

This is part of a series