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Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Lie of the 21st Century

I'm tired of hearing all this talk of a "21st century regulatory framework" that Barack Obama and others so ceaselessly promise to create. Such people speak as if there is something special about the new century, as if we know something about human beings and politics that people in the twentieth century did not. This claim that there is something superior about the knowledge of the 21st century is not a particularly odd claim, though it is perhaps false. There is a further claim smuggled into it, however, that is plainly ridiculous. The more ridiculous claim is that the 21st century is, simply by virtue of the passage of time, morally superior to the past. Certainly we have advanced scientifically. We have bigger and better computers. And for reasons such as these I can understand the origin of the misguided claim that such technological advances constitute more knowledge. But even with that understood, I cannot understand what sort of foolishness it is that leads people to think that we are making moral progress. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the fashions of the twenty-first century are better than the twentieth.

What is most worrisome about this way of talking is that we talk of moral evils as if they are merely a matter of the whims of a later age, rather than of an objective standard. Behavior, this way of talking suggests, should be condemned simply because it is outdated. Some speak in this manner, for example, about treatment of women or of racial groups. There was a time, such people say, that we thought women lesser, or that we enslaved people, but now we've matured past such behavior. This talk is just as degrading as sexism and slavery. Such talk says not that the past behaviors are wrong in terms of some objective standards, but instead merely acknowledges that such behaviors have gone out of style as human beings have moved on. Such talk is akin to talk about fashion in clothes. One hopes such moral fashions are not as susceptible to vintage trends as clothes are.

A century or so ago G.K. Chesterton said this of such foolish talk:

Some fall back simply on the clock: they talk as if mere passage through time brought some superiority; so that even a man of the first mental calibre carelessly uses the phrase that human morality is never up to date. How can anything be up to date? -- a date has no character. How can one say that Christmas celebrations are not suitable to the twenty-fifth of a month? What the writer meant, of course, was that the majority is behind his favourite minority -- or in front of it. Other vague modern people take refuge in material metaphors; in fact, this is the chief mark of vague modern people. Not daring to define their doctrine of what is good, they use physical figures of speech without stint or shame, and, what is worst of all, seem to think these cheap analogies are exquisitely spiritual and superior to the old morality.

The fact of the matter is that the 21st century has no character. What we need is not a 21st century regulatory framework, nor a 21st century anything else. What we need is the regulatory framework that is simply right. We need a regulatory framework that accords with the good of human beings as human beings, regardless of time and place. It is my contention that such a regulatory framework regulates only one thing: the use of force by some citizens on others. You may, of course, disagree with my advocacy of minimal government. I must insist, however, that in doing so you make claims about what is objectively right. Whatever we conclude, we must abandon the popular sophistical foolishness about the 21st century.