I have a certain old friend who’s very bright and thoughtful. He’s a respected attorney with a responsible government legal job. I have a lot of respect for his intelligence and his intellectual honesty, but our ideas about politics and society are strongly opposed.
When I wrote Sunday about the idea that taxation is theft, he strongly disagreed, arguing that the idea was impractical and “naively idealistic.” He referred to what I said as an “untennable radical position.” I don’t want to re-argue that debate here. Instead, I want to look at other radical positions that seemed pretty untenable when they were first proposed.
Hundreds of years ago, it was taken for granted that kings had special rights that ordinary people didn’t have. He was seen as having his power from God and any opposition to the king was opposition to God. It was called the “divine right of kings.” The king had rights that made him little short of being a god in his kingdom. No one was allowed to judge or oppose the king except for God Himself.
It was a radical idea that “all men are created equal.” It caused anger, persecution and civil wars. Very few people believed it at first — just the radicals. In time, though, the idea became more and more obvious. Insofar as their civil rights, there was no justification in the law distinguishing between two different people. Even though the application of the idea today is uneven and imperfect, it’s at least an ideal that almost everyone subscribes to.
That untenable radical idea became accepted as truth.
When Martin Luther realized that the Roman Catholic Church was doing things at the time that conflicted with scripture, he had to know that his understanding of truth was radical. This led him to a number of radical ideas, including that the Bible should be available for people to study for themselves. He nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg. It was a radical move.
As far as the established church was concerned, his position was untenable. The fight over his idea led to schism and even completely unjustified war. Finally, though, even the Catholic Church accepted that Luther had been right on some points. The scriptures were for the people to read for themselves. Even if there’s disagreement about who gets to interpret scripture, the Catholic Church that tried to destroy Luther eventually accepted the truth of his position — and many of his ideas are accepted even more widely in other Christian churches.
Luther’s untenable radical idea that the people should have scripture and that salvation is through faith alone is accepted as truth by most Christians today.
When abolitionists argued that slavery was immoral, right-thinking people were appalled that some people were attacking a bastion of civilization. When suffragettes demanded that women be given equal legal right as men, most people initially hated and feared the idea — both men and women. When civil rights protesters in the United States started arguing in the middle part of the 20th century that it was immoral for governments to treat white people as superior to black and brown people, it was the source of almost endless conflict, hatred and anger.
The radical ideas won. Slavery was understood to be immoral. It was understood that women should have equal legal rights as men, even if some people disagree about what that should look like. And the radical notion that a black woman should be able to sit anywhere on a public bus came to be understood as obvious.
In each of these cases, the untenable radical idea was finally accepted as truth.
Today, I’m told by my friend that people having control over their own possessions is an “untenable radical position.” I believe it’s only a matter of time before my assertion joins the ranks of these other truths as things that once seemed radical, but which were eventually accepted as obvious.
I disagree with the politics George Orwell professed, but he was an insightful observer of the world. He pointed out how difficult it is to see the truth when he wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle.”
When I was younger, I didn’t understand that taxation was theft. The idea would never have occurred to me. It was just a part of normal life to me. Even I was finally faced with the idea because I read it somewhere, I rejected it. Even after I accepted that government should be strictly limited (in a libertarian way), I still saw taxation as a necessary evil. It took me a long time to realize that it was just evil, not necessary.
The fact that other radical ideas have come to be accepted as truth isn’t proof that this idea faces the same future. Plenty of other radical ideas have ended up dismissed as the ravings of crazy people and been consigned to trash cans where they belonged. But it’s not a reasonable objection to an idea that it’s allegedly untenable or demonstrably radical. Truth has a long history of first appearing as impossible and radical.
It’s not easy to oppose the status quo. People are rarely happy to hear that you’ve come to change the world as they know it. But in time, more and more of them accept the ideas that are worth accepting, confounding and angering those who favor the status quo.
With all due respect to my friend — in the literal sense of the phrase — I’m willing to argue the morality of freedom. Over time, I suspect everyone will accept this untenable radical idea as truth, even if it seems impractical to those who oppose it today.
Note: I have at least one more point to make about this subject before we leave it for awhile, so be watching for an article about why freedom can work in the practical sense to provide the kind of society we all want — without taxation or other coercion.