On the Saying that “Moderation in Pursuit of Justice Is No Virtue”
In my inaugural post, I argued that the first half of Barry Goldwater’s famous slogan was false. Today, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I’ll attack the second half: “moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
To my mind, this proposition is even more obviously false than “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” It’s easy to show instances of vicious extremism in defense of liberty—to find counterexamples to the principle. I mentioned Timothy McVeigh’s act of mass murder, which is an uncontroversially extremist act which he saw as an attempt to defend liberty. I think this is a pretty clear application of the commonsense meaning of “extremism in defense of liberty.” Extremism in its plain, common meaning suggests a willingness to use violence, and Goldwater seemed to recognize this when he advanced the D-Day invasion as an example of “extremism in defense of liberty.” Still, it’s pretty clear that Goldwater didn’t mean to be exhorting anyone to vigilante libertarian terrorism. So it’s only natural to resist the idea that Goldwater’s slogan implies that vigilante libertarian terrorism is no vice, even though it clearly does imply this when we interpret his words in the most straightforward, least tortured way.
Counterexamples to “moderation in pursuit of justice is not virtue” abound, but are more intuitively persuasive. Stop to think for a moment about the opposition between extremism and moderation. I’ve been interpreting this opposition as one of political tactics. We’re talking about how to go about defending liberty and pursuing justice as a practical matter. So let’s draw a line between the most extreme to the most moderate tactics. Launching an incredibly bloody war to end slavery, as Abraham Lincoln did, is definitely on the extreme end of pro-liberty, pro-justice tactics. What’s on the far moderate end of the spectrum? How about sober, rational persuasion? What if you were to succeed in defending liberty and achieving justice through a sound, persuasive argument? Isn’t pursuing justice in this way obviously virtuous?
Milton Friedman, the great libertarian economist, is reputed to have convinced Richard Nixon that a volunteer army would be more effective than and morally preferable to an army of conscripts, leading Nixon to end the draft. If you think the draft is an unjust violation of freedom, as I do, then you’ll think Friedman did pretty well pursuing justice and defending liberty. Indeed, Milton Friedman was a model public intellectual, relentlessly pursuing freedom and justice, as he understood them, through calm, clear, civil, rational discourse. He pursued justice in a way that was at once virtuous and moderate. If you agree, then you ought to agree that it’s false that “moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” If you disagree … well, then I don’t think you understand what “virtue” or “moderation” mean. Seriously, what could be more virtuous, in terms of political behavior, than appealing to the reason of political leaders? And what could be more moderate?
If you don’t like Milton Friedman, or love the draft, there are scads of examples of people having good success pursuing and achieving justice through plainly moderate, plainly virtuous means. Take Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life and legacy we celebrate today. In my last post, I mentioned that Malcolm X was an advocate of (very possibly justified) violent extremism in defense of liberty. That’s what “by any means necessary” was all about. MLK, by contrast, was a champion of “moderation in pursuit of justice,” who promoted a principled strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience. The black residents of Montgomery, Alabama managed to desegregate the city’s buses through a boycott that lasted over a year. On the extremism-to-moderation scale, boycotts seems less moderate than rational persuasion. But Alabama’s white ruling elite, who maintained Jim Crow through a combination of official coercion and extremist racial terrorism, weren’t open to rational persuasion on matters of racial equality. A sustained boycott was a moderate, restrained way for Montgomery’s black citizens to display the force of their numbers and the intransigence and their collective will to achieve justice. A more extremist strategy approach to desegregating the buses might have involved direct physical tactics for shutting down the system: mechanical sabotage, bombings, turning buses over, slashing tires, etc. Given the apartheid system’s violent, systemic denial of liberty to blacks, I won’t say that any of these tactics wouldn’t have been justified, or without virtue. But MLK and the Montgomery Improvement Association’s moderate nonviolent approach was clearly more virtuous than extremist tactics would have been.
The boycott was also very effective. And it is partly as a consequence of the virtue of their tactics that Martin Luther King, Jr. and the MIA were in the end effective not only in ending the segregation of the Montgomery buses, but also in creating a much larger nonviolent civil rights movement that helped bring about the end of Jim Crow in an almost miraculously peaceful way. Even when extremist tactics in defense of liberty might not count as a vice—as in the case of fighting brutal institutional racism—the important thing is that they work. The appeal of extremism is that it’s more likely to make something happen, and soon. Moderation appears to be no virtue—simply looks like weak-kneed pusillanimity—when it has no chance of working. But the danger of extremist tactics is that they lead to retrenchment, retaliation, war, and needless death. Obviously, it’s better and more virtuous to pursue and achieve justice through moderate tactics that don’t involves this sort of terrible risk. And it’s especially perverse to say that that “moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue” when the fact is that the virtue manifest in certain moderate tactic—the dignity of high-minded forbearance, the bravery of facing violence with nonviolence, the solidarity of a persecuted community united in righteousness—often helps to explain why they are effective in achieving justice.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s all that needs to be said to put “moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue” permanently to rest. But more needs to be said about why so many smart people who care about liberty don’t see this as an obviously wrong-headed proposition.
As I suggest above, some people understand the implicit continuum from extremism to moderation as a continuum of effectiveness. Goldwater’s slogan seems pretty sensible if you hear it as: “Effectiveness in defense of liberty is no vice. Ineffectuality in pursuit of justice in no virtue.” Can’t argue with that! But, of course, Goldwater didn’t say that. And there’s no reason to believe that, in the ordinary conditions of liberal-democratic politics, that extremism is more effective than moderation.
I think it’s even more common to understand the implicit continuum from extremism to moderation as a continuum running from principle to compromise. On this interpretation Goldwater’s adage is close to Tom Paine, in The Rights of Man, who said, “Moderation in temper is always a virtue, but moderation in principle is always a vice.”
Paine here voices the standard Aristotelian view of moral virtue, but insists we mustn’t bend on principle. Why not? The virtue of a principle is truth. So “moderation in principle” means muddying the truth and conceding falsehood. You don’t arrive at truth by balancing competing falsehoods in the way that you arrive at virtue by finding the mean between excess and deficiency. Aristotle says this, too, and there ought to be no question that he was right.
But Goldwater was talking about political activity—about the pursuit of justice, the defense of liberty—not making an epistemological point. In terms of practical life, political or otherwise, moderation in principle means hammering out workable compromises with people who hold to different principles. If that’s a vice, we’re all in big trouble. Disagreement is one of the fundamental conditions of life, not to mention liberal social order. The ability of people who disagree about important things to nevertheless live peacefully under common institutions governed by common rules depends critically on “moderation in principle.” This need not be understood as moderation in the sense of watering down our principles, or admitting that they are wrong in order to get along. Milton Friedman and Martin Luther King, Jr. never backed down from their radical principles. We need “moderation in principle” in the sense of being willing to negotiate toward public rules that do not perfectly conform with our principles, and to abide by those rules, even as we act to change them in the direction of our principles.
How should we act to change the rules in the direction of our principles? That’s the question Goldwater’s adage asks and wrongly answers. Do we burn the buses or boycott them? Do we terrorize people who disagree with us and seek to impose the rules we like? Or do we try to work it out as calmly, peacefully, reasonably, and cooperatively as possible? Do we pound the table and scream at people who disagree with us in “principled” terms they don’t accept, and then get sullen and surly about the stupidity of the world and the fact that we never get our way? Or do we try to understand why people disagree with us, and try to show them that they’ll actually get more of what they want under rules closer to the ones we prefer? Which of these options appeal to people who see no virtue in moderation? Which appeal to people who do?
The fact of disagreement—the fact and indelibility of pluralism—means that even if everyone agrees in a general way about the importance of liberty or justice, we’re still going to disagree about the details of what exactly liberty is and what exactly justice requires. If we all go in whole-hog for extremism in defense of liberty, our disagreements about liberty are bound to become rancorous and ugly. Some of us think that liberty requires never taxing anyone for any reason and some of us think liberty requires taxing some people and giving the money to other people who don’t have as much to ensure that they have the resources they need to exercise their rights and liberties in a meaningful way. A free-for-all of extremism isn’t likely to bring anyone around, so what good is it? At best, extremists about rival conceptions of prime political values hive off into polarized camps and regard each other as bitter enemies in a high-stakes culture war. And this sort of enmity breeds mutual distrust. Cooperation breaks down and gains from cooperation go unrealized, even on matters about which where there’s no underlying disagreement. At worst, extremists call for their allies to literally take up arms in revolution, and some of them do.
A healthy ethos of mutual respect and civil peace is one very good reason to embrace moderation in pursuit of justice and liberty. Another is that the fact of pervasive disagreement strongly suggests that at least some of us, and maybe all of us, are wrong at least some of the time.
I started thinking seriously about politics when I first read Ayn Rand. I’ve come a long way since then, but here I am, vice president of a libertarian think tank. I have close friends who started thinking seriously about politics when they first read Karl Marx or Noam Chomsky. They’ve also come a long way, but they too bear the stamp of their youthful enthusiasms. The degree to which our contingent starting points shape our opinions decades later is really quite startling. Recognizing that our opinions have path-dependent histories, and that they might have been very different, ought to give us pause, ought to soften us to the possibility that rival opinions have merits that we have yet to recognize. It ought to open us to the possibility that other people might be correct about some things in precisely the same way that we feel ourselves to be correct. If you can manage to dampen your prickly, self-defensive, partisan instincts, you can start to actually listen to opposing arguments, rather than scrambling mentally to refute them even as they’re being uttered. When you listen to people like this, every so often they really do help you see that you’ve been making an intellectual mistake. So you clear up the mistake and adopt a better principle. If you can moderate your emotional attachment to your principles, on the grounds that smart people disagree and you might be wrong, you’ll become less vulnerable to error and more likely to be right.
Something else happens when you actually listen to people who disagree with you. They tend to feel that you’re treating them with respect, because you are. And this tends to make them like you a lot better than they would otherwise. They feel called upon to reciprocate, to treat you with respect, too, leaving them open to actually hearing you, to being persuaded by what you have to say.
Practical politics involves a lot more than intellectual chit chat. Politics is not a parliamentary debate tournament, and it’s a lot less nice. It involves a lot of sophistry, demagoguery, bullying, horse-trading, logrolling, and sausage manufacture. Be that as it may, if you want to get anything done in politics, on any issue, you need allies. In order to win reliable allies, you need other groups, other factions, to trust your faction and feel that, at least, you don’t disrespect them. The spirit of moderation that engenders open-mindedness and mutual respects helps a lot in this regard. Maybe this is the most compelling reason to embrace moderation in pursuit of justice: it’s more likely to work.
Winning and keeping the allies needed to achieve practical political success has always been hard for libertarians. One reason it’s so hard is that the most popular brand of libertarian thought is more a theory of the illegitimacy of the state than a theory of government, and leaves no dignified place for political activity. Insofar as the Locke-inspired libertarianism of Ayn Rand, Murry Rothbard or Robert Nozick is a theory of government, it is a theory of minimal, constitutionally constrained government that looks nothing like any regime that has ever existed. The ideal minimal-state constitution (however it is imagined to have been installed) takes nearly everything off the table of democratic negotiation, leaving the permanently circumscribed functions of the state to be performed as constitutionally specified. The constitution may call for elections and legislatures to staff the government and set policy within the narrow bounds laid out in the governing charter. But if the constitution is well-designed, government is a smooth, rational, rule-bound mechanism that practically runs itself. Elections don’t matter much when elected officials have so little power and so little discretion. Of course, a lot of libertarians don’t think this sort of minimal, constitutionally constrained government can possibly stay minimal, and that it would be better if there’s no state at all. That leaves no space for politics, as it is commonly understood.
My point here isn’t to criticize this picture, though there’s a lot wrong with it. My aim is simply to point out that there’s little room in the picture for the roiling adversarial mess of multiparty democratic politics. Accordingly, libertarians tend to see democratic politics as an ungodly festival of thuggery and mutual predation. Active political participation is seen as wicked, futile, or both. It’s hard to think of a political philosophy less likely to inspire its adherents to throw themselves into the hard work of real politics, or to see any virtue in it. A corollary of the standard libertarian stance is that almost every faction and interest group active in democratic politics is pursuing something it probably shouldn’t have through means nobody should be allowed to use. Libertarians tend to be pretty vocal about their disdain for the process, and everyone invested it in, which can make it hard for them to warm up to potential political allies, and vice versa, in those cases when they manage to overcome their contempt for politics and seek to get something done democratically.
In the context of a more or less healthy liberal democracy, those convinced of the virtuelessness of moderation—whether they be hard-line libertarian or socialists—tend to insult and alienate people who might otherwise be allies, all but guaranteeing a lack of practical political success. The funny thing is that when fire-breathing dogmatists predictably fail to make any headway democratically—“working within the system”—they tend to perversely interpret this as evidence of the hopeless corruption of the system and the pointlessness of trying to get anything done using ordinary “moderate” democratic political tactics. This, in turn, confirms in their minds that extreme measures may be called for, since “moderation” seems to get nothing done. It’s a cozy, self-reinforcing loop of principled ineffectuality.
When you think about politics this way, “moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue” is an agreeable pithy summation of your idea that democratic politics, and the negotiation and compromise it demands, is morally corrupt. But moderation in pursuit of justice is a virtue! The constant negotiation and renegotiation of the rules that govern common social and commercial life is a completely unavoidable reality that can be faced with more or less intelligence, with more or less virtue, with more or less goodwill, and with more or less strategic savvy. Libertarians too often fixate on abstract theories of political legitimacy that imply that participation in political negotiation tends to be corrupt and corrupting. So they sideline themselves, voluntarily neutralizing any influence they might have had in democratic negotiations over public policy. The not very surprising consequence is that public policy turns out a little less libertarian than it otherwise might have been. When libertarians do jump into the political arena, they too often do it uncertainly and with a nagging sense of moral contamination, schizophrenically waffling between supercilious ideological purism—“Really, the state shouldn’t be involved at all…”—and ad hoc, dirty-hands moderation—“But, anyway, here’s my plan for replacing Social Security with forced investment in the stock market!”—perplexing and unnerving some would-be political allies, straight-up alienating others.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Libertarians don’t have to start from an abstract theory of an ideal state (or of ideal statelessness). We can draw instead on our Scottish and Austrian roots—on Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek—and see polities and economies alike as dizzyingly complex emergent systems that we should try to understand and improve, but not as the sorts of things about which we can make reliably decisive moral judgments, and certainly not the sorts of things we ought to seek to replace wholesale with castles of imagination built on philosophical theory.
We can see the value of liberty less as a datum of pure reason and more as empirical fact, borne out by the ways freedom “in the wild” is observed actually to promote human happiness, health, wealth, creativity, and cooperation. We can acknowledge that we are always already situated within economic and political structures, and that we inhabit them alongside many, many millions of people who have many, many different ideas about the best way to live. We ought to be able to see that people in contemporary capitalist liberal-democracies are on the whole freer, richer, healthier, and happier than people have ever been. Ever. And we should have the intellectual modesty to admit that the value of liberty—as it shows itself in the world, rather than in our fondest theories—doesn’t justify a quest for total liberation from the liberal, capitalist, democratic welfare state, but calls instead for a good-faith effort to persuade our fellow citizens that we’ll all be better off if we make more room for freedom.
If this comes across as a “moderate” version of libertarianism, that’s only because it’s based on a principled preference for empiricism over philosophical speculation, and takes Hayek’s worries about the “fatal conceit” of rationalism seriously. I happen to think something along these lines is the best version of libertarianism, and it’s my version. As a purely philosophical matter, I think it has every advantage over the abstract, rights-based theories of state legitimacy that tend to breed libertarian contempt for moderation and political participation. One of the many philosophical advantages of a principled, moderate libertarianism is that it can make good sense of that fact that moderation in pursuit of justice is a virtue. And, as should be clear by now, that’s a profound strategic advantage.
A libertarianism that has a place for democratic politics has a place for the virtue of pursuing liberty and justice through moderate, democratic means. A libertarianism that can see dignity and virtue in democratic participation, that doesn’t need to insult potential political allies, or scare them off by constantly pining for what most people see as a crazy, scary, speculative utopia … a libertarianism like that can win friends and influence people. This sort of libertarianism, comfortable with moderation, can actually move the needle—can actually deliver incremental pro-liberty policy reform.
I don’t know about you, but I want more freedom in my lifetime. I want it soon. And I’m not moving to a charter city or a man-made island. I want more freedom here, in America—which is, by the way, never going to be a majority-libertarian country. But that’s okay. We can make it a considerably freer country, anyway. It’s possible to nudge enough people to see the merit in moving the dial a little toward liberty on this or that specific issue, issue after issue, over and over again. That is, it’s possible if enough of our fellow citizens will listen to us, if they will trust us, if they come to regard us with the respect that is engendered by respect. Moderation, among other things, makes all this possible. I want more freedom. Here. Soon. So, if moderation’s no virtue, it’s no virtue for me.