Winter 2011 issue -- Did Jane Austen approve of slavery? In her novel Mansfield Park, published in 1814, the wealthy pater-familias Thomas Bertram is mostly absent, because he is off tending to his plantation on Antigua—where the fields would have been worked by African slaves. Yet, when he is mentioned, and again once he returns to his home, he is a positive and respected figure. Slavery isn’t a problem in the novel. His slave-holding leaves no more moral stain than does his bank account.
Some self-described progressive academics have chided Austen on this point. Here, the academics imagine they
would have stood up against the dominant beliefs of the time. They
are committed to human dignity. They
oppose slave-holding, They’re for religious toleration, too. They approve of the welfare state. They are pro-democracy.
The truth is, though, that Austen, like most of us, based her world view in the world she knew. She took a great deal of what was normal in her world as right and proper. Her 20th century critics are much the same: they mostly worship economically at the altar of socialism. That god has already failed repeatedly. Furthermore, there is good evidence that more economic freedom yields better results for most people’s health, wealth, and well-being. Still, socialistic government is a pervasive aspect of normal life today, in forms that range from outright communism to smothering nanny-states. One could argue that statism is to our day as slavery was to Austen’s. And then, to be for democracy in the U.S. these days is like being for music: it’s such a common-place aspect of life
When one steps outside on a bright day, one first squints at the glare. But then, one’s eyes adjust. It’s the same when one peeks into a dark room or looks out on a starry night sky. This process, known as adaptation, enables our senses to adjust to the new conditions and make them a baseline that we don’t even notice after a time. Sunglasses may turn the world brown or yellow for a few minutes, but soon all seems normal again. And it’s the same with other senses: one can adjust one’s palate to a greater or lesser baseline of salt, fat, spiciness, or sweetness in one’s food.
A similar process occurs at higher cognitive levels. One moves to a different city and everything looks different until one learns one’s way around. One needs to carry a map and attend to street signs until one has formed a mental map and no longer needs to think about the route. In every aspect of life, we have acquired conceptual frameworks from past experience, and they function automatically to help us assimilate information about the world and direct our actions. These frameworks set our expectations about what to expect in present and future experience. They create our sense of what is normal.
As long as circumstances are within the range of the normal, the automatic functioning of a conceptual framework is a boon. It frees our conscious minds to focus on the task at hand, to pursue our goals. But when circumstances change more radically, violating our sense of normality, our goals and expectations have to adapt to accommodate the change. For example, many studies have shown that lottery winners quickly adapt to their new wealth and tend to return to the same level of happiness as before; and that victims of misfortune such as a crippling accident, likewise get past the initial sense of loss.
People also tend to adapt to their societal environment: to the beliefs, institutions, and mores of their time. Billions of people today live in third-world countries, places with public services that are terrible and with economies that feature inefficiency (and thus, poverty) that is ubiquitous, crushing, and, by first-world standards, unnecessary. Television, cheap travel, and the internet have exposed the residents of the third world to the standards and mores of rich countries.
Still, it is amazing how willing people are to assume that their societies must keep on working the way they do. And we don't just see this in the third world. We see it in the U.S. public education system, too, which succeeds in providing comfy employment terms for teachers, while consistently failing to lift up generations of sub-par students. We see it in failing industrial cities such as Buffalo, New York, where too many people still take their society as the measure of how things ought to work. The Buffalo region’s economic promoters don’t say “we are are assiduously reforming a troubled economy.” Instead, they say that the Buffalo Niagara region offers “a phenomenal quality of life.” If that were true, promoters wouldn’t be needed in the first place. What about the tax rates and the crushing regulatory environment? Not a peep. Those can’t be the problem, can they?
To overcome our tendency to societal accommodation, we need to step from the darkness into the light, conceptually and morally. We need the abstract equivalent of passing from oppressive heat into a bracing chill. We need to understand what is good in normality, and what isn’t.
That’s where radical thinking comes in.
Three Cheers for Radicalism
To see this, look at how the ongoing economic malaise is shaking Americans’ assumptions.
Normality doesn’t seem comforting all of a sudden. Great numbers of people are sensing that something isn’t right in our current arrangements. They are starting to ask: Where should we be headed? But this question can’t be answered without getting back to the root, rebuilding from the foundation. It can’t be answered without a return to radicalism.
Millions have been hearing at least an echo of Ayn Rand
’s radical individualist and pro-freedom message from Atlas Shrugged
. From 2009 onward, the new radicals of individualism have rallied under the banner of the Tea Party movement. And their voices have been heard: in the hard Republican line pushed by the Congress elected in 2010; in the rise of Rand fan Paul Ryan as the chief voice on economic policy in the House of Representatives; and even in the Obama administration’s 2011 lurches in favor of some
freer trade, some
less regulation (in some areas), and some
Others are doubling down on the statist dreams of the Left. The Occupy You-Name-It camp-outs that started in the fall of 2011 called for a radical expansion of government power to seize the wealth of any who had it and provide free education, subsidized incomes, and free health care, among other goodies.
The result is that now the fundamental moral conflicts in our society, the basic clashes in world-views, are out in the open. The Tea Party has pushed the conservatives to identify exactly what they wished to conserve. The far Left has challenged middle-of-the-road altruists and paternalists to identify why they aren’t full-bore socialists—or admit, finally, that they are.
Since the Enlightenment of the 18th century, the West has stood, more than anything else, for a commitment to an open society, to reason as the basis of knowledge, and to happiness as the goal of living. In fact, these basic values underlie modern technological civilization itself. They are the values the Arab Spring of 2011 was groping toward, however imperfectly. They are being realized (if still only partly) in the economic renaissance of India and China.
These values of modernity need to be reaffirmed in each generation if they are to animate the culture. They need to be understood in terms of fundamentals: what they mean and how they cash out in the lives we lead. (That is the kind of work we do here at The Atlas Society, for instance.)
But we cannot put these values into practice without a clear understanding of them—an understanding rooted in fundamentals, in other words, a radical understanding. When the culture at large grasps these values with clarity, it will be ready to put aside the compromises with unreason and self-sacrifice that are slowly destroying us.
Radicalism is a full-on commitment to what we take to be true, important, and universal. When combined with objectivity, it takes us out of our own circumstances and connects us to the underlying reality. It keeps us from accommodating ourselves to the way we live merely because we live that way. Radicalism helps us keep pointed toward a better life and a better society in which to live it.
William R Thomas has written on topics in politics, ethics, and epistemology, and has spoken internationally on the theory of individual rights and Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. His works include Radical for Capitalism, and, as editor, The Literary Art of Ayn Rand. He is the director of programs for The Atlas Society.