Monday, January 11, 2016

Extremism in the Defense of Moderation is No Virtue

In 1964, Barry Goldwater ran against Lyndon Baines Johnson for president of the United States. The Goldwater campaign was ill-fated, but it featured several memorable speeches which modern libertarians hold dear to their hearts. One of them was from a young actor named Ronald Reagan, who endorsed Goldwater with a masterpiece of small government rhetoric that’s as applicable today as it was back then. And another, from Goldwater himself at the Republican National Convention, featured one of the most famous paraphrased quips of libertarian philosophy:

“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

Will Wilkinson, Vice-President of the libertarian-leaning Niskanen Center, recently wrote an essay refuting that claim. I would like to rebut his rebuttal. In this post, I’ll go through his article line by line to thoroughly defend the quote. He begins:

“Goldwater’s apothegm is completely wrongheaded. It’s one mistake after another. Understanding why it’s wrong is useful and important. It’s a good first step toward an understanding of why, more than a half-century after Goldwater’s failed campaign, an attraction to extremes and a disdain for moderation has left libertarianism languishing at the margins of American political life.”

Before I start, I don’t think libertarianism is “languishing at the margins of American political life.” I think it’s one of the fastest growing ideological affiliations in the country, both explicitly (with more people identifying as libertarian) and implicitly (with more people identifying as both fiscally conservative and socially tolerant, which is the essence of libertarianism, even if they don’t recognize it as such). But that’s neither here nor there, so I’ll ignore the slight for now. Wilkinson continues:

“The chief difficulty with “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” is that it pretty straightforwardly violates history’s most popular and plausible theory of virtues and vices. According to Aristotle, virtue is a mean between excess and deficiency. I happen to think Aristotle is basically right. It follows, almost by definition, that extremism is going to err on the side of excess, except in extraordinary circumstances that legitimately call for extreme measures. That’s the simple philosophical objection: virtue is a form of well-calibrated moderation in temperament. The porridge of virtue is always just right. Vice is too hot or too cold, a disposition to extremes.”

This is bad argumentation for two reasons. First, it’s “pretty straightforwardly” just an assertion, not an argument at all. Saying “Goldwater’s theory violates Aristotle’s theory, and I think Aristotle’s theory is right” is no different than saying “I think Goldwater’s theory is wrong,” which is itself the very thesis he’s trying to prove. I happen to think Aristotle is basically wrong – so there!

Second, equating extremism with vice “by definition” is not only an assertion, but a categorical assertion, which is ironically pretty extreme! Whereas Goldwater makes a claim about only one sort of extremism – extremism in defense of liberty – Wilkinson makes a claim about any sort of extremism, which hardly seems a moderate position on the issue. Put differently, Goldwater is saying “extremism is sometimes justified,” while Wilkinson is saying “extremism is damn near never justified.” At this point in the essay, those positions aren’t even contradictory; couldn’t the defense of liberty be considered one of those “extraordinary circumstances” Wilkinson refers to? But the moment Wilkinson attempts to make them contradictory by making his own statement universal (later in the piece, he repeats the claim that “extremes are vices by definition” without caveat), his statement becomes self-contradictory by transforming itself into an extreme stance. As Oscar Wilde put it, “everything in moderation – especially moderation.”

But my primary objection comes from this passage:

“There is a whiff of violence, or at least danger, about extremism. Extremists reject mainstream opinion, including mainstream opinion about acceptable political tactics. To embrace extremism in defense of something is to at least flirt with the idea that violence isn’t out of the question.”

This is dead wrong, and it’s the heart of Wilkinson’s error throughout the remainder of the piece. Extremism need not flirt with violence at all. In order to qualify as an extremist, you must reject mainstream opinion on at least one issue – but you needn’t reject it on all issues. Accordingly, extremists need not reject mainstream opinion about “acceptable political tactics” whatsoever, and that includes mainstream opinion on the tactic of violence. This is particularly true when the most central tenet of the “extreme” ideology you endorse is the non-aggression principle, aka the rejection of violence or the threat thereof.

Another of Goldwater’s famous quotes was that “politics and governing demand compromise,” (in the context of warning that “preachers”, who he feared would not compromise, might take over the Republican Party). Compromise is about the most moderate political tactic I can think of. What Goldwater likely meant by “extremism in defense of liberty,” and what modern libertarians certainly mean by it, is not a set of extreme tactics to bring about liberty, but a set of extreme ideas regarding liberty – that is, the ideal of liberty taken to its logical extremes. Libertarian extremism means supporting a set of policies that lie very far outside mainstream American political thought, especially in Goldwater’s day, without saying one thing or another about how those policies are to be advocated or enacted.

It is very possible to pursue extreme ideas through moderate and conventional means. It has been done before. The idea that women should be able to vote, or even to own property, was once thought to be a very radical idea indeed. But eventually it came to pass, and it did so through essentially nonviolent, democratic means: a constitutional amendment, passed in much the same way as dozens of other amendments before it. In like fashion, I advance a whole host of extreme positions, from legalizing prostitution and cocaine to drastic reductions in government spending. I think nude undocumented immigrants from Syria should be able to sell their vital organs at a Westboro Baptist Church protest without breaking any laws – that’s pretty extreme! But I would never dream of using violence to make it so. Wilkinson cofounds these things.

He continues:
“the embrace of extremism is the embrace of extreme measures, and violence—the “means” that is normally off the table—is the extreme measure par excellence…[I]t’s a very short step from extremism in defense of liberty to violence in defense of liberty.”

Again, extremism is NOT necessarily the embrace of extreme measures. But even if it were, he Wilkinson is wrong again, because not all extreme measures entail violence.

Mahatma Gandhi was a pretty extreme guy, in both his tactics and his beliefs. One of those beliefs was that India ought to break free from Great Britain and become its own country. Another was pacifism. This unwillingness to use violence did not prevent Gandhi from utilizing very extreme measures (like refusing to eat until his supporters stopped being violent, and marching enormous distances to the sea to reclaim a bit of stolen salt) to great effect. If Wilkinson is to be believed, the absence of violence makes Gandhi a run-of-the-mill moderate.

But pacifism is not a moderate position, and neither is libertarianism. These ideologies are extreme precisely because they are so much more likely to reject violence than mainstream political thinkers. In such cases, equating extremism with violence is particularly disingenuous.

Next up is the argument that libertarian extremism amounts only to coded racism:

“Goldwater, you’ll recall, opposed the Civil Rights Act on “constitutional” grounds, and his nomination speech came just two weeks after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. It requires a special sort of obtuseness to insist that Goldwater was only making some sort of abstract, historically acontextual point about the politics of liberty. Indeed, it’s Malcolm X who takes “extremism in defense of liberty” literally, as a strategy for the liberation of oppressed people, exposing and inverting its racially-coded meaning.”

I now pause my defense of Goldwater’s quote to stick up for Goldwater the man. I see no reason to put “constitutional” in quotation marks, as if it were some novel and unlikely objection to for a principled libertarian to make. On the contrary, it’s precisely how you would expect a libertarian to react to the seizure of new and un-enumerated federal powers. The legal challenges to the Civil Rights Act made it all the way to the Supreme Court, even in the peak of the liberally-dominated Warren area. These were no frivolous objections. I happen to share them. When constitutional questions were not at stake, Goldwater steadfastly supported efforts to combat discrimination. He voted against his party in FAVOR of both Civil Rights Acts which Congress passed prior to the 1964 rendition. Even the 1964 edition left Goldwater deeply conflicted. In explaining his vote, he took care to clarify his position:

I am unalterably opposed to discrimination or segregation on the basis of race, color, or creed, or on any other basis; not only my words, but more importantly my actions through the years have repeatedly demonstrated the sincerity of my feeling in this regard…

throughout my 12 years as a member of the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee, I have repeatedly offered amendments to bills pertaining to labor that would end discrimination in unions, and repeatedly those amendments have been turned down by the very members of both parties who now so vociferously support the present approach to the solution of our problem…

I maintained high hopes for this current legislation…It is with great sadness that I realize the non-fulfillment of these high hopes….

I realize fully that the Federal Government has a responsibility in the field of civil rights. I supported the civil rights bills which were enacted in 1957 and 1960, and my public utterances during the debates on those measures and since reveal clearly the areas in which I feel Federal responsibility lies and Federal legislation on this subject can be both effective and appropriate. Many of those areas are encompassed in this bill and to that extent, I favor it.

I wish to make myself perfectly clear. The two portions of this bill to which I have constantly and consistently voiced objections, and which are of such overriding significance that they are determinative of my vote on the entire measure, are those which would embark the Federal Government on a regulatory course of action in the area of so-called "public accommodations" and in the area of employment--to be precise, Titles II and VII of the bill. I find no constitutional basis for the exercise of Federal regulatory authority in either of these areas; and I believe the attempted usurpation of such power to be a grave threat to the very essence of our basic system of government, namely, that of a constitutional government in which 50 sovereign states have reserved to themselves and to the people those powers not specifically granted to the central or Federal Government.

If it is the wish of the American people that the Federal Government should be granted the power to regulate in this two areas and in the manner contemplated by the bill, then I say the Constitution should be so amended as to authorize such action in accordance with the procedures for amending the Constitution which that great document itself prescribes. I say further that for this great legislative body to ignore the Constitution and the fundamental concepts of our governmental system is to act in a manner which could ultimately destroy the freedom of all American citizens, including the freedoms of the very persons whose feelings and whose liberties are the major subject of this legislation…

This vote will be reluctantly cast, because I had hoped to be able to vote "Yea" on this measure as I have on the civil right bills which have preceded it; but I cannot in good conscience to the oath that I took when assuming office, cast my vote in the affirmative. With the exception of Titles II and VII, I could wholeheartedly support this bill; but with their inclusion, not measurably improved by the compromise version we have been working on, my vote must be "No".

If my vote is misconstrued, let it be, and let me suffer its consequences. Just let me be judged in this by the real concern I have voiced here and not by words that others may speak or by what others may say about what I think.

This explanation is compelling to me. Even if it is not to you, it should be more than enough to excuse Goldwater from charges of racism on account of that vote alone. History is written by the victors, and too many people would have you believe that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a straight up contest between good and evil with no grey areas in between. In truth, it was the byproduct of a very messy political process that had to overcome legitimate, principled objections as much as it had to overcome racism. Did it do more good than bad? Absolutely. Would I have voted for it? Yes. Are there parts I would like to overturn even today? Also yes. If you think this makes me a racist, you do not understand the nuances political philosophy as thoroughly as you should.

But even if you are convinced that Goldwater was a big fat stinking racist and content to dismiss everything he ever said as a result, it’s still irrelevant to whether or not extremism in defense of liberty is vice. It shows only that you define liberty differently than Goldwater. If so, merely reimagine that the quip was uttered by one of your favorite political heroes, and evaluate its merits then. If the conception of liberty you personally seek to advance were considered “extreme” by most people, would defending that conception be vice, solely on account of its incongruence with popular opinion? If not, you agree with Goldwater. Is it more virtuous to pursue your conception of justice evenly and completely across the board, or to moderate that pursuit by limiting it to certain cases? If you think the former is better, you agree with Goldwater.

Next Wilkinson brings up the example of Timothy McVeigh, arguing that he claimed to pursue “extremism in the defense of liberty,” but surely behaved evilly. He concludes that argument with these lines:
Malcolm X and Timothy McVeigh knew perfectly well what “extremism in defense of liberty” really means, and we ought to stop pretending that we don’t know it, too. Almost everyone who repeats Goldwater’s slogan is guilty of hyperbole and doesn’t really mean what he or she is saying.”

If Wilkinson listened to five minutes of what libertarians are saying, instead of one out of context snippet, he would find it is he who is guilty of hyperbole. This too is its own kind of straw man. Liberty and its defense mean different things to different people, but not all of those conceptions are correct. McVeigh’s conception was not correct, because in reality, his murders did nothing to defend liberty for anyone. Al Qaeda doubtlessly considers its murders “extremism in defense of liberty” too, but that doesn’t mean they actually are. The ability of some people to misconstrue a political statement and its implications does not render that statement false.

By analogy, some people in Baltimore construed the idea that “black lives matter” to justify committing arson against random hospitals and pizzerias. In truth, the fact that black lives matter did not justify such violence – particularly for those patients and pizzeria employees/patrons who happened to be black. But the errant application of the black lives matter mantra does not discredit the mantra itself, nor make it counterproductive to continue utilizing the slogan in future political activism.

Towards the end of his essay he traces the disputed historical origins of the saying, but from my view that’s irrelevant to its modern application. He concludes that etymology merely by repeating his earlier claim that “extremism…means a willingness to use extreme tactics—to water the tree of liberty with blood, if need be.” It is only by equivocating extremism with violence that he can credibly support his underlying principle: “that extremism is a vice, whatever it is in defense of.” That equivocation is essentially the whole of his rebuttal, and its nonsense.

Update: Ilya Somin, another libertarian who is both much smarter and much more accomplished than myself, agrees with me.


  1. This, and Ilya's, counter-arguements I think pretty much expose the flaws in the interesting, but misguided, point Will was trying to make.

  2. Today, the examples of violent extremists are plentiful. To tout the virtues of extremism in promotion of liberty is irresponsible and dangerous. There are plenty of ways to advance the cause of liberty without framing extremism as a responsible path forward.

    1. There are also plentiful examples of violent moderates. Most US presidents come to mind. That doesn't mean moderation is inherently violent, though, and neither does the existence of many violent extremists invalidate nonviolent extremism (nor render it irresponsible). The point is that neither necessitates the other, and that's where Will's characterization of Goldwater went wrong.