Social change and radicalism

Current departures such as “gay marriage” are often defended as examples of the natural development of institutions with the times. To oppose them is said to be an arbitrary attempt to freeze social development at a particular point. Such claims don’t hold up. While it’s true that changing conceptions, interests, and ideals have repeatedly led to changes in institutions of all kinds, modern attempts at social and cultural reconstruction are quite different from past developments.

Some of the differences:

  1. The extent of the changes intended. An attempt categorically to abolish sex roles as a legitimate principle of social organization is incomparably more radical than (for example) attempts by the Catholic Church to get rid of polygamy or divorce. It is more radical even than the Bolshevik attempt to get rid of private property—sex is more basic than money. The same could be said about multiculturalism, which in substance is the demand, backed by force of law, that all particular cultural standards be deprived of public authority, and so of necessity replaced comprehensively by rational universal standards devised by bureaucrats and experts and enforced by the state bureaucracy.
  2. The nature of the standards imposed. The goals of modern social reformers are freedom, equality and efficiency. What’s notable about those things is their absolute abstraction and disembodiment. What they tell us is that there are no objective substantive goods, only human desires, so what is desired must be taken to be what is good. Further, since all desires are equally desires their objects must be viewed as equally valid goods. The point of politics and morality then becomes the maximum equal furtherance of human desires. Such a standard is radically at odds with any concrete image or tradition of the good life. Since desire is unlimited, such a standard creates an open-ended demand for total continuing social and moral reorganization, with market and bureacracy as the only conceivable principles of order. Nothing similar had ever been imagined before the modern period.
  3. The means at the disposal of reformers. The modern bureaucratic state and its allies and agents (e.g., corporate employers) have much more ability than previous governing institutions to force people to act in ways at odds with their own habits, attitudes and perceptions. The modern system of public education and modern mass communications also vastly increases the influence of reforming elites over social life.

Liberals betray the weakness of their position through the vehemence of their assertions. What frees them from the obligation of debate is the claim that their opponents are out-of-the-mainstream extremists whose views need not be considered. Liberal control of the media and the bureaucracies of expertise have caused many to accept that claim in spite of its lack of substance. It should be obvious that is the liberals, who insist on eradicating the traditional and even biologically-based institutions by which men have always lived in favor of purely formal arrangements, who are the extremists. In its public confrontation with liberalism the Right should insist on that point.