What’s the difference between liberalism and radicalism? Which is “better?” How is “better” determined?
Liberalism is the belief that the king has the right to rule and that when we want him to make decisions different from those he is currently making, we ask him respectfully, even firmly, but always recognizing his ultimate right to decide.
Radicalism is the belief that the king’s power is illegitimate and that those affected by decisions ought to have some say in how they are made. It’s a belief that there shouldn’t be a king at all.
How does one decide which one is “better?” It depends on what one wants, which depends on what one’s values are. If you believe that some people should, or must, make decisions while others should, or must, have decisions made for them, then you are likely to end up in one camp. If you believe people are fundamentally the same, then you are likely to end up in another.
This is actually a crucial point. There is a widespread belief that some people are less capable of making decisions and that this lack of capability isn’t due to social circumstances, but rather is rooted in people’s DNA. I’m not arguing we’re all the same, or that there aren’t disparities in talent, or that some people aren’t born with severe (biological) problems.
But collectively, do you believe people are capable of choosing their own preferred set of outcomes? Consider an early 19th-century plantation. The work duties of the plantation consist of the plantation owner, the overseers, and the field slaves. The owner makes the ultimate decisions, the overseers ensure the work gets done, and the slaves do the actual work.
Should the plantation owner have the power to run the plantation? Your answer depends on your values. Suppose you think the answer is no. You now have a plantation with only overseers and field slaves. Should the slaves remain the in the fields, with the overseers continuing to ensure the work gets done while occasionally meeting amongst themselves to make plantation decisions? Could the slaves participate in decision making? Should they? Whether your answer is yes or no, is there anything about a division of labor that has some people picking cotton all day and others administering discipline all day that needs to be addressed?
Your answers to all these questions depend solely on your values. Your values determine whether or not you believe the king, or the plantation owner, has the ultimate right to rule. Your values also determine whether or not you think some people should have calloused hands while others have engaged minds. The question is not, ultimately, what is right or wrong. The question is what are your values? I don’t really need to know what your values are. But you should.
Liberalism versus radicalism is a question only you can answer. But it’s worth asking: If you believe the plantation should have no owner, but that it should have overseers and field slaves … how do you think the slaves will react to you? You might think the slaves are not sharp enough to deduce your position on the matter. But if they are, and they do, what do you suppose their reaction will be?
If the slaves believe they do not have the competence to do anything other than pick cotton, they will likely agree with you that an overseer/slave demarcation is necessary. If they do not believe in their own incompetence, their reaction will likely be different.
Suppose you have a plantation with no owner, only overseers and slaves. Do the overseers have a vested interest in ensuring the slaves believe in their own incompetence? What would happen to the overseers’ position if the slaves began to see people as more fundamentally alike than different? How might this affect the things the overseers discuss in their plantation meetings and the types of decisions they ultimately make?
Whose side are you on? Are you on the side of the owner, the overseers, or the slaves? Can one really tell a tree by the fruit that it bears? If so, can the slaves tell what side you’re on by what you say and do? If they can, are their subsequent reactions and emotions justified?
When it comes to economics, whose side is the left on? Do you want to liberate the slaves, or do you just want their support to help overthrow the plantation owner? Is some inequality in a society a necessary or desirable thing? If you believe this, shouldn’t you be honest about your belief? If you’re not being honest about it, why not?
Classism runs deep in this society, so deep that almost no one sees it, much less understands it. If you want to understand it, think about the plantation.
Eric Patton lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. Hate mail can be directed to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.