On the Saying that “Extremism in Defense of Liberty is No Vice”
“Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
These deathless lines are generally credited to Barry Goldwater, but he didn’t write them. Karl Hess, Goldwater’s lovable anarchist speechwriter, put them in the Arizona senator’s Republican convention acceptance speech. “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!” Goldwater actually said, in a slightly less pithy formulation. “And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” It’s a rousing sentiment, however it’s phrased.
This uncompromising spirit of immoderation praised by Goldwater has consistently characterized the “freedom movement” that rose from the rubble of his ill-fated campaign, and his stirring quip has served as a sort of unofficial libertarian motto. But 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.
Goldwater’s dictum consists of two propositions, both false. In this post, I’ll take on “extremism in defense of liberty…” In a second installment—soon to follow—I’ll tackle “moderation in pursuit of justice…” Together, these two posts will amount to the beginning of a defense of moderation in politics, an introduction to the themes of this blog, as well as an explanation of its ironic name.
So let’s get started.
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.
But let’s put Aristotle aside for a moment. The questionable character of extremism is anyway right there on the surface of our ordinary understanding of the term. 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.
As Karl Hess noted in his memoirs, shortly after Goldwater delivered his famous speech, Malcolm X very logically connected “extremism in defense of liberty” to the idea of black Americans defending their rights by “any means necessary.” Here’s Malcolm X:
My reason for believing in extremism—intelligently directed extremism, extremism in defense of liberty, extremism in quest of justice—is because I firmly believe in my heart that the day the black man takes an uncompromising step and realizes he’s within his rights, when his own freedom is being jeopardized, to use any means necessary to bring about his own freedom or put a halt to that injustice, I don’t think he’ll be by himself. [Emphasis added.]
This makes a lot of sense. Throughout its history, America’s white supremacist institutions have been so violently opposed to the liberty of black people that it was not unreasonable to believe that something extreme might need to be done to finally win them a modicum of freedom. That said, if extremism in defense of liberty is warranted, it doesn’t quite follow that it’s okay to use any means necessary to that defense. (Malcolm X certainly would not have endorsed, say, the nuclear annihilation of Manhattan in exchange for the end of systemic racial oppression in America.) Nevertheless, it’s true that 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. Malcolm X was right that it’s a very short step from extremism in defense of liberty to violence in defense of liberty. And if violent extremism is ever warranted—is ever morally permissible and, therefore, not a vice—then the violent racial oppression of the mid-century American South arguably did warrant it.
This dip into American racial politics with Malcolm X is not in the least tangential to the meaning of “liberty” and “extremism” in the context of American politics. It’s worth pausing here to reflect on the fact that for centuries white Southerners saw the sustenance of slavery and racial apartheid as very much a matter of their liberty. Over the course of American history, all the way up through Goldwater’s 1964 acceptance speech, “extremism in defense of liberty” was at least as likely to imply the willingness to deploy violence to maintain white supremacy as it was to mean anything else. 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. Moreover, given America’s long history of brutal racial oppression, Malcolm X’s interpretation of the maxim as an endorsement of violence was perfectly natural and logical.
If the formulation had never showed up in a famous line in a famous speech that means a lot to certain people, there wouldn’t be much of a question about the plain meaning of “extremism in defense of liberty.” Consider the case of Timothy McVeigh, who murdered 168 people in a federal building in Oklahoma City with a truck bomb. McVeigh saw his attack as a blow for liberty in a war against the tyrannical American state that had murdered its own citizens at Waco and Ruby Ridge. When he was picked up by police a few days after the massacre, McVeigh was wearing a t-shirt that said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” quoting Thomas Jefferson. McVeigh was executed by the undiminished state believing he’d nobly refreshed the tree of liberty with blood. “Extremism in defense of liberty” seems like a natural way to describe what Thomas Jefferson prescribed and what Timothy McVeigh did, doesn’t it?
This isn’t to say that people who like to repeat Barry Goldwater’s famous quote think that they are sticking up for domestic terrorism. Of course they don’t. The point is that 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. Barry Goldwater himself certainly didn’t think that it is “no vice” to murder scores of innocent people in defense of liberty. Of course he didn’t!
However, it is interesting and quite telling that when Goldwater attempted to explain his glorification of pro-liberty extremism, he cited (this is according to Hess) the Allied invasion on D-Day as an example of the principle in action. The awesome scope and stakes of D-Day suggest that Goldwater did understand that “extremism” has something to do with possibly killing people. So it would seem that the senator’s own example cuts against the sensible, charitable interpretation of the first half of his dictum, which is that all he was saying is that, when liberty is at stake, a certain principled inflexibility is called for. According to this line of thinking, all Goldwater had in mind were hardball political tactics, such as, for example, suspending some functions of government for a week or two rather than raising the debt ceiling again. Though it’s true that some Democrats think that’s pretty “extreme,” shutting down the government over the debt ceiling isn’t very much like D-Day, is it?
The backstory of Goldwater’s maxim is interesting and very confusing. It’s hard to sort out competing claims about its ultimate source. It is widely believed to have come from a memo written by Harry Jaffa, a disciple of the political philosopher Leo Strauss. Jaffa certainly took credit for it. According to Hess, who put the line in the speech, Jaffa said he had taken the idea from a Lincoln speech. According to William Safire, Goldwater—or one of his ghostwriters—said he got the quote from Taylor Caldwell, a writer of blockbuster historical novels. For her part, Caldwell said she passed Goldwater a Cicero quotation (which she probably made up) well before his nominating convention speech. She doesn’t mention Jaffa. Anyway, here’s Caldwell’s possibly spurious Cicero quote:
I must remind you, Lords, Senators, that extreme patriotism in the defense of freedom is no crime, and let me respectfully remind you that pusillanimity in the pursuit of justice is no virtue in a Roman.
It seems that “extreme patriotism” in this context had to do with the swift execution of followers of Catiline, Cicero’s conspiring political rival. “Defense of freedom” had to do with the protection of the Roman Republic, and “pusillanimity in pursuit of justice” would seem to mean not summarily killing alleged traitors. Goldwater’s “extremism” has something to do with killing people, all the way down to its fake classical source.
Anyway, how one gets from Caldwell’s Cicero to Goldwater’s slogan is mysterious. In Caldwell’s telling, she found these lines (which it seems no other classicist has ever found) in a letter Cicero wrote to his son, which also contained a summary of Aristotle’s ethical theory. According to Caldwell’s possibly confabulated “translation,” Cicero said,
Virtue Is rightly defined as a Mean. And insofar as it aims at the highest excellence it is an Extreme … Extremes of excellence in virtue and in patriotism, should be honored by all just men.
This equivocation on the meaning of “mean” and “extreme” seem to be the crucial move, and key to understanding what’s wrong with Goldwater’s slogan as a matter of virtue theory. If, as Aristotle says, virtue is a mean between a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency—a middle-ground between two extremes—then to be virtuous is to have a certain kind of moderate temper. Extremes are vices by definition. But it’s easy to see how virtue as moderation may not be a useful idea if you’re trying to convince your kid that it’s an admirable thing to murder political rivals in defense of the regime, because that’s pretty extreme. So a little sophistry is in order.
The trick here is reframing virtue—a mean between extremes—as an extreme of excellence. Virtue is an excellence, after all. Obviously, “extreme moderation“ won’t do. That’s too oxymoronic and keeps the essentially moderate nature of virtue too much in mind. So excellence it is. And then you place “patriotism” next to “virtue,” as if patriotism is obviously a form of virtue. However, an “extreme of excellence” in patriotism is surely very different from “extreme patriotism” on an Aristotelian account of the virtue of patriotism. The virtue of patriotism, if it is a virtue at all, would be a point somewhere between the vice of indifference to one’s country and the vice of raving jingoism, or “extreme patriotism.” Maybe extreme patriotism isn’t a crime, as pseudo-Cicero maintains, but it’s exactly the sort of judgment-overriding emotional impulse Aristotle invariably condemns as vice. This is very shady stuff, whether it’s attributed to Cicero or Caldwell.
So what’s the story? Caldwell sent all this fake Ciceroniana to Barry Goldwater? To Harry Jaffa? And Jaffa wrote up a version of the slogan, Goldwater liked it, and told Karl Hess to put it in his acceptance speech? I have no idea. One way or another, Goldwater ended up with “extremism in defense of liberty.” If he had said, “Extreme patriotism in defense of liberty is no vice,” he would have been wrong. Extreme patriotism is too much patriotism. It is a vice. If Goldwater had said, “Extreme virtue in defense of liberty is no vice,” it would be hard to disagree. It’s hard to disagree with tautologies. But “extremism” does not mean “extreme virtue.” It means a willingness to use extreme tactics—to water the tree of liberty with blood, if need be.
Sometimes there is a need. Sometimes circumstances legitimately call for extreme measures. A civil war to free enslaved human beings would be a good example. Goldwater’s example, D-Day, is another case in which extreme, extremely violent, measures were not unvirtuously excessive. That’s probably why Goldwater thought of it when pressed. But even he could see that D-Day is the exception that proves the rule. The rule—the general principle—is that extremism is a vice, whatever it is in defense of. If you’re engaged in a literal war between good and evil, then maybe you’ve got to do what it takes and kill people. But politics is not war. If you’re a senator from Arizona, or a think tank scholar engaged in normal domestic politics of a stable liberal democracy, extremism is no virtue.
In the circumstance of normal liberal-democratic politics, not only is extremism a vice, it’s also bad strategy. In next week’s post, I’ll argue that “moderation in pursuit of justice,” in addition to being virtuous after all, is more likely than the extremist rejection of moderation to move American policy in a pro-liberty direction. Stay tuned.