Tibor R. Machan
A radical is one who reconsiders the most basic aspects of some issue, so
a political radical would fret a great deal about fundamental
constitutional principles, trying to get them right and then champion
In the current parlance of politics radicals, like progressives, are
supposed to be located on the Left, while conservatives or traditionalists
on the Right. But in our time all this needs rethinking because some ideas
associated with America?s founding are very radical?they overturn
centuries of what was the normal in governance of societies. The notion
that individual human beings are sovereign and government is an
institution established to serve them in securing that sovereignty is
wildly new, even today. Most of human history lived with the statist
habit, with decisions made by some few on top and the rest following or
having to dodge their orders, in any area of life?most of the time,
although here and there the absolute sovereignty of governments started to
In our era there is a great deal of confusion about just how governance
is supposed to line up. There are still those aspiring to be kings and
even emperors, and even the few democracies fail to fully acknowledge the
sovereignty of individuals. Instead they practice more or less constrained
mob rule. The thinking about what is the proper constitution of a human
community is all over the place, at least among mainstream commentators
and players. There is nothing close to a consistent idea about this as a
No wonder, given that the true radicalism of individualism has still not
been fully acknowledged, let alone accepted. It is not the Left that is
radical?indeed, the Left is firmly reactionary, what with the belief that
government is all, that society is some ?organic body? (or ?whole,? to use
Karl Marx?s term). There is no progress going on with those who have
appropriated the label ?progressive,? quite the opposite?their ideas are
nearly all regressive.
The Right, especially in America, is a combination of a bit of
radicalism?since the American founder had certain very radical notions?and
some traditionalism?given that the method of relying on past wisdom mainly
is embraced by Rightists. They are so distrusting of most people that
radicalism is rejected by them on principle.
So neither the Left, nor the Right has a clue as to how to accommodate
the revolutionary finding that it isn?t tribes, societies, countries,
nations, ethnic groups, but individual human beings who are sovereign.
This is very tough for all of them to adjust to?it means relinquishing the
most traditional of political concepts, namely, power over other people.
The habit of relying on such power is imbedded in the institutions?laws,
regulations, customs?as well as the frames of mind of those who are
players in the game of politics. All one needs to check this is to listen
to how these folks speak?always it is ?we? this and ?we? that, referring
to one or another of hundreds of different groupings of people but caring
not a whit about the individuals making up those groups.
Will it ever get sorted out? Perhaps?there is no historical necessity
about this, although some, like Herbert Spencer, believed it will and in
time individualism will be the mainstream viewpoint. (In contrast, Marx
believe just the opposite?history is driving us toward world wide
collectivism.) In fact, however, history isn?t doing squat?it is people
who do stuff and they are basically free to think any way they want, even
if most of it is nonsense.
Sure, there are some pressures to move in feasible directions, to embrace
human life-supporting approaches even in politics, but they do not have
the force of necessity about them by a long shot. That?s the point of that
wonderful motto, coined by Wendel Phillips in 1852, that ?Eternal
vigilance is the price of liberty."
In short, it?s up to us. And we can do it or screw it up. And right now,
with the confusion of readjustment still in full force, screwing it up
seems likely to be in our future much more than less. Though in time there
could be a turnabout and the radicalism of American individualism, the
humanist, classical kind, could well sweep the globe.
Machan teaches business ethics and history of political philosophy at
Chapman University. He is the author of Neither Left nor Right (2004) and
a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, CA.