Justice and the Status Quo

A short discussion of not letting our present-minded biases blind us to just how much better the world could be.

Choose any time in the past distant enough that it feels culturally distinct from our own. We needn't go back far to find such an alien world. Now, ask yourself if that society lived up to the standards of justice we demand today. Was Mississippi in the 1950s just? Eighteenth-century France? Florence under the Medici? Caesar's Rome? (This last you can certainly find odd corners of the internet that will say "Yes," but those corners tend to have little understanding of the culture of Rome, and even less of justice.)

The answer, in all these cases, is rather obviously "No." And not just in a "things could've been better" sense, but those cultures were so fundamentally unjust by our current standards that radical changes were called for. And yet, if you'd asked whatever the equivalent at the time was of mainstream, centrist, perhaps even generally liberal minded commentators, intelligentsia, "influencers," or politically engaged thought leaders whether the status quo was largely just, most of them would've said "Yes." Most would've looked at calls for significant disruption in the name of justice as maybe a bit shrill, or not taking civility and decorum seriously enough, or just unrealistic and irrational. Yes, things could be better, of course, but disruption is, well, disruptive, and things work well enough that wisdom says to leave them mostly alone, no?

From our perspective today, that sort of historical tut-tutting of justice talk, and of calls for making society not just a little better, but radically better, comes off as naive at best. There's no point in the past we can point to and say, "They should've stopped there. They should've decided that was good enough, and so dismissed the calls to make it better." Obviously, the world is more just now than if we'd stuck by those reasonable centrist standards, and that good enough status quo, of 1300s Europe, or 100 AD Rome, or 1950 Mississippi.

The point is--and it's one we all-too-often refuse to acknowledge or directly confront--our time, today, is just another point in history. To believe that we really have, somehow, reached the "good enough" status quo, the very moment future generations will look back on and say, "Okay, yeah, that's where they should've stopped," is to substitute status quo bias (and the appeal of being personally comfortable within that status quo) for clear-eyed understanding of history, and reasonable, rational, and genuinely humane cultural critique.

This is especially true for those of us committed to the cause of liberty, and those of us who believe people shouldn't just be relatively freer, but radically freer. I've written about how easy it is, while talking in the rhetoric of liberty, to slip into defense of the status quo. One way to avoid that is to critically examine our feelings that now, today, the present we lucked into living in, is somehow unique among all other points in history--points that where, themselves, at one time a now, a today, a present people lived in--and resist the pull of presentism. Our world is better than it used to be, sure, but as far as "achieving the best possible," we're only getting started. And future generations will judge us harshly for deciding we'd done enough.

History's heroes are never the ones standing atop it and yelling stop. They're never the ones demanding that calls for greater justice and freedom be quiet and non-disruptive. We should strive to be the kind of people future generations will sing the praises of, not the kinds of people future generations will view, rightly, as thinking their world was good enough.

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