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Apr 20, 2016

The Reasonableness of Radicalism

It’s reasonable to reach radical conclusions.

By historical standards, nearly everyone now living in the developed world is a radical democrat, a radical egalitarian, and a radical libertarian.

Do you believe that “one person, one vote” is a pretty solid rule for decisionmaking? Maybe it’s not perfect, sure. But would you at least recognize it as plausible? If so, then by historical standards, you are a radical democrat. “One person, one vote” is an idea almost unheard of before the nineteenth century. Today we take it for granted, and we expect all deviations to justify themselves, with a strong initial presumption that they can’t. We argue often about which subjects should be brought to a vote, but almost never about who gets to vote, when the time arrives.

Do you believe that there’s no such thing as a noble or a master race? That no one is rightfully born to privilege, merely because of their bloodline? If so, then you are a radical egalitarian, at least by historical standards. For the vast majority of western history, social station was almost entirely a function of belonging – or not belonging – to a privileged race or caste.

Do you believe that people should generally be left alone, above all when they’re not actively harming anyone else? That makes you a radical libertarian. For almost all of history, and in all parts of the world, the presumption of right has lain with the state, which was simply assumed to have the rightful authority to prohibit whatever it found disagreeable: The crimes of worshiping and publishing wrongly. The crime of dressing above one’s station. The supposed crime of witchcraft. The crime of selling bread (or nearly anything else, really) without a guild’s permission. The crime of running away from one’s so-called master.

The idea that the state should have to prove its case against the individual, and that the individual might win, is both audacious and recent.

Radicalism is reasonable on all of these enormous matters simply because the developed-world mainstream is already radical. We have already completed a colossal break with the past, almost without realizing it. We may pay more in taxes than people in the past, but on virtually any other measure, we’re vastly freer.

In this, we are radicals for liberty. All of us. It’s not just we wild-eyed kooks at the Cato Institute. It’s almost anyone. Even Hillary Clinton. Even Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. Across all of history, the past’s political and social institutions, and the theories that have sought to justify them, have been pervasively undemocratic, inegalitarian, and authoritarian.

Our relative radicalism leads us to some embarrassment when discussing the past: When we go looking for the heroes of liberty, we are in a sense forced to whitewash nearly all of them. Do we like John Locke? Perhaps, though he didn’t think that atheists – or Catholics, for that matter – could be citizens. Should Alexander Hamilton be on our money? Or Andrew Jackson? Both owned slaves, as did ten of the first twelve presidents. And just imagine what they might say if we asked them about women voting, or about abolishing the so-called crime against nature. (Thomas Jefferson, a radical in his own time, recommended lifting the death penalty for sodomy – only to replace it with castration.)

Our break with the past is so pervasive, and so complete, that it can be hard to appreciate its full dimensions. In a way it can be easier to forget them entirely. But once we have decided squarely to face our sheer modern weirdness, a variety of responses are possible.

These responses start, straightforwardly, with the suggestion that maybe we, and not the past, are the ones who are in the wrong. We are at the very least in the minority, and minorities don’t have any special claim to truth. What can we possibly know that Thomas Aquinas or James I did not? Were they not men of great intellectual accomplishment, of great probity and wisdom? Why should we not go back to the forms that humanity has more or less always known?

This response might hold water, but for the fact that we present-day humans are wealthier, healthier, better-educated, and notably less violent than our ancestors. We’re also relentlessly improving ourselves, in a process that shows no signs of slowing down. This is a claim that no other era can make to a like degree.

We’re doing something colossally right, at least when compared to the past, and this leads us to our second possible response: Perhaps today we have it all pretty much figured out. Sure, some tinkering around the edges might still be necessary, but that’s about it. We’ve basically perfected the art of governance.

To say that that’s glib would be an understatement. To call it Panglossian would be a kindness, because not everyone knows who Dr. Pangloss even is anymore. Most accurate would be to call this response familiar: Every age likes to congratulate itself on being the one that’s finally figured it all out, once and for all.

Or rather, every age’s ruling class has hired people do it. They are known as court historians. And they are rarely if ever correct.

This brings me to the third and final view that I will consider. It is also my own: We today are still not radical enough. We may have taken democracy to its logical limits, or at least nearly so, but in many other ways we may still suffer the same biases as our ancestors. We humans have always been wrongly predisposed toward a command-and-control view of the state and its subjects. So is it really so crazy to suspect that we’re still making the same mistake? Can we not generalize to one more case, and say that we who are alive today are probably not so different from all of them?

Much more work would be needed to establish this position as something more than a reasonable hunch. Considered alone, the history of our pro-political bias can only teach us so much. But do I think we’re probably all too similar to the people of the past, even despite our notable modern oddities. A more radically modern social order, one that employed more systematically the everyday radicalism that is all around us, would entail vastly more self-government and a vastly less intrusive state.

Am I right? I don’t know, of course, but I do find this the least unreasonable of the three responses set forth to the problems raised by considering how we differ so greatly from the past.

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