“Don’t go to extremes.” What could be sounder, more reasonable advice? Moderation is extolled everywhere as one of the highest virtues. Drink in moderation. Enjoy good food in moderation. Take an interest in your favorite hobby - in moderation. Too much of a good thing can be just as bad for you as poison, right? “Moderation is the silken string running through the pearl chain of all virtues,” said Joseph Hall.
In civics classes, we are taught that “democracy” functions based upon compromise. Compromise brings people together. Compromise is the only way that conflicting interests can exist together peacefully. Moderation is unselfish. It respects the interest of all parties, and is willing to “give and take.” Moderation is fairness.
On the website http://moderaterepublican.net/, Moderate Republicans are described as believing:
“…that government does have a basic social responsibility to help those in need; a belief that the nation does have international responsibilities.”
“Moderate lawmakers are consensus builders. But then again the art of legislating is that of compromise, negotiation, and recognition that other views have merit. This does not mean Moderates compromise core values, but rather they understand the complexities of passing intelligent legislation that benefits the greater good.”
“Moderates were the first internationalists. The nation, they contended, had a critical role to play in advancing democracy in the world.”
I’m not sure how this platform would be considered substantially different than that of Woodrow Wilson’s in 1912. Yet, this is without question the platform of George W. Bush and the present Republican party, their 2000 campaign promises notwithstanding. The so-called “neo-conservatives” are nothing more than moderate Republicans. What could be wrong with that?
The media often describes American politics in 2008 as “extremely polarized.” Yet, any sober analysis of American politics would conclude that the debate is now between centrist, moderate Republicans and ultra-liberal, socialist Democrats. A Republican president and Congress have passed increases in entitlement spending greater than any since the 1960’s. A Democratic congresswoman has threatened to nationalize the oil industry, scarcely eliciting a mention in the media, much less a cry for her censure or impeachment. Individual liberty is so far off the table in political debate that it produces almost no results when searched on major news sites (besides the occasional article on Ron Paul). How did we get here?
I suggest that extolling the virtues of moderation has played a major role. In political debate, we are given the impression that a range of issues constitute moral dilemmas where competing but equally worthy interests must be considered and an equitable compromise reached. How do we enact legislation that supports labor while not constricting economic growth? How do we fight hate crimes while preserving free speech? How do we support Israel without inflaming further hatred among Muslims? How do we ensure healthcare to all Americans while maintaining fiscal responsibility?
None of these dilemmas are real. A government limited to its proper role faces no conflict. The litmus test in any political debate is simple: Whose liberty is being threatened? By whom? The only proper answer for the government is to defend liberty.
Using this standard, all of the so-called dilemmas evaporate. How do we provide healthcare? Government does not. It has no way to provide anything without attacking liberty. How do we support Israel without incurring more terrorism? We don’t. We take no sides and try to be friends with both. If they attack each other, we mind our own business. Our liberty is not threatened by age-old, regional conflicts on the other side of the world. How do we support both labor and management? We do neither. We enforce the sanctity of contracts and otherwise keep government out of it.
When it comes to wine, women, and song, a little moderation is a very healthy thing. When it comes to questions of liberty, I suggest that it is a deadly poison. If liberty is one extreme and slavery the other, how could we ever benefit from a compromise? Reflecting on the choices we’ve been offered over the past 100 years, we have constantly had to choose between giving up a little liberty or giving up a great deal. Government never proposes to get smaller or surrender any control. When a new government program or initiative is proposed, the choices never include more liberty. In the best case scenario, moderation carries the day, a compromise is reached, and only a little liberty is lost. However, the next debate starts from there.
Seen in this light, it is clear why an establishment bent on socialism or more government control would extol the virtues of moderation and compromise. When it comes to issues of liberty, moderation is like the old saying, “heads I win, tails you lose.” Extremism is an easy position to vilify – nobody likes an extremist. Even John McCain’s rhetoric (when he remembers his lines correctly) has shifted imperceptibly from “terrorists” to “extremists” when talking about threats in the Middle East.
I have a friend that is a few years younger than me that has always been a Democrat. Often, when we’ve debated politics, he has argued that the Republicans are crooks, the party of ignorance and religious fundamentalism. Our age difference is small but critical in that he has never known a Republican party that could be described any differently. A few months ago, he called me very excited about a television special he saw about Barry Goldwater. He went on for several minutes telling me what I already knew, that Goldwater was “a real American,” “a true patriot,” and that “there is no one in politics that is anything like him.” My friend does not remember a Republican party that would nominate such a man.
It was the present “neo-con” platform of the moderate Republicans that Goldwater defeated in 1964, although he lost the general election by a landslide. Why did he lose? He was characterized as an extremist, a label he welcomed, saying,
“Let me remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Critics of libertarianism often label the movement “extremist.” The most common obfuscation of the debate is to argue that “liberty doesn’t mean that you can do anything you want,” or that “liberty doesn’t mean no government at all,” as if either of these represented the true positions of libertarians. However, these arguments are effective because they use the buzz word “extremism” and count on a public that will hear that word and accept the rest without critical analysis. They certainly would not consider that perhaps extremism in the defense of liberty is a virtue.
Perhaps the only way to truly ensure liberty is to banish moderation and compromise completely. As crazy as that may sound at first, a little reflection reveals otherwise. If liberty means never to initiate the use of force, what is the moderate position? Initiating a little force? If liberty says that taking the fruits of someone’s labor without their consent is stealing, what is an acceptable compromise? Stealing a little? If liberty says that a person’s life is his own to do with as he wishes, so long as he does not violate the rights of others, what does the moderate say? Is his life only partly his own? Before rejecting extremism in the defense of liberty, revisit these questions and ask yourself this: Do we really want liberty in moderation?