Why I Am Not a Moderate
“What the liberal must ask, first of all, is not how fast or how far we should move, but where we should move.”
— F.A. Hayek, “Why I Am Not a Conservative”
“I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”
— Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
Lately my Niskanen friends and colleagues have been putting a lot of thought into their — I suppose I should say “our” — intellectual position in a complicated political landscape. This is undoubtedly partly a matter of branding, but it’s also a serious attempt to diagnose the ideological sources of the current crisis and to think about productive habits of mind for moving beyond it. This enterprise has roots that are old in terms of the Center’s lifespan — Will Wilkinson inaugurated the Open Society Project with a two–part essay on moderation and extremism — but in the last few months it’s become an active cottage industry. The highlights have been:
Jerry Taylor, “The Alternative to Ideology”
Brink Lindsey, Steven Teles, Sam Hammond, and Will Wilkinson, “The Center Can Hold: Public Policy for an Age of Extremes”
Brink Lindsey, “Republicanism for Republicans”
Aurelian Craiutu, “The Radicalism of Moderation”
Brink Lindsey, “The Niskanen Center’s Double Move”
And on Monday we will meet under the theme “Beyond Left and Right: Reviving Moderation in an Era of Crisis and Extremism.” (I will be, as it were, speaking for the negative.)
Bridge-building and coalition-shaping
Part of the point of this effort has been coalition-building for opposition to the Trump administration. Niskanen has served a valuable role as a focal point for conservatives and libertarians who take the threat of the Trump presidency seriously, hosting the private “Meeting of the Concerned” since early in the administration, organizing public support for protecting the Mueller investigation, and leading public discussion about how to shape a post-Trump conservatism and center-right party. (N.B.: I have not been involved in any of those myself, and I have no knowledge beyond what has been publicly reported about the Meeting of the Concerned.) This is all very important work, and it has required a big-tent approach. It fits well with the “coalition of all democratic forces” approach Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare has called for, and with the emphasis Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt offer in How Democracies Die on whether supporters of constitutional democracy and the rule of law can hold together in moments of crisis, standing against their apparent ideological allies on one side or the other who are veering toward system-undermining autocracy. This is not a moment for overemphasizing ideological divisions among those who are trying to resist the astonishing combination of corruption, incompetence, aspirational authoritarianism, racism, and assaults on liberal, constitutional, and democratic norms that the current administration represents. We need both some ability to maintain unity and trust among opponents of the administration in the present and some ability to do so among the factions of a possible cleansed Republican Party in the future. (Even though I think that in the short term it is important that the Republican Party suffer crushing defeats and be shut out of power for several years, in the medium term constitutional democracy relies on the existence of competing parties, and we will need a Republican Party that is capable of responsible turns in power.) In the face of a president who is in every sense immoderate, “moderation” has obvious appeal as a rallying point. To the degree that “moderation” can serve that temporary but urgent purpose, so much the better for moderation.
This appeal to moderation, moreover, hearkens back to an important and honorable 20th-century tradition that saw those committed to liberalism, constitutionalism, and democracy as a crucial kind of center against the extremes of communism and fascism. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. praised The Vital Center; ideologically rival parties that were committed to remaining within constitutional-democratic procedures came to be thought of as center-right and center-left; and many, many invocations of W.B. Yeats’ “Second Coming” were solemnly pronounced. I have argued that market liberalism and libertarianism at their best are a part of that tradition, appreciating the order of liberal markets and constitutional democracy under the rule of law, the value of the distinctive form of politics and economy that Benjamin Constant saw emerging and fought to establish. It’s important to reaffirm that species of libertarianism against the pathological but sometimes popular “burn it all down” anti-institutionalism that goes under the same name. So I’m happy not only to see the moderate center defended amidst the current crisis but particularly to see it done so in ways that are continuous with that market-liberal tradition. It can’t help but appeal to my deep affection for Montesquieu, the theorist of political moderation par excellence.
It is in the nature of a coalition that its members have other interests or allegiances than to the coalition. A political coalition among factions doesn’t dissolve those factions; it requires them to prioritize what they have in common, for some period of time, for some reasons. It can sometimes gradually reshape the factions, leading to a more permanent sense of shared purpose; well-functioning political parties typically do this. But a transpartisan coalition for an emergency — think of the governments of national unity that sometimes take power during wartime in parliamentary democracies — is quite explicitly not that. It expects that the various coalition members will remain who they are. In the present context, #NeverTrump neoconservatives will mostly still be neoconservatives in 2021, and #Resist democratic socialists will mostly still be democratic socialists. Indeed, the early stages of the Democratic presidential nomination race are revealing that all the traditional factional splits within that party are alive and well.
So if “moderate” is a useful coalition name for what some people share in the current crisis, that does not make it a complete intellectual or political description. It’s a political adjective, and we should expect the nouns it modifies to survive intact: There will be moderate neoconservatives and moderate social conservatives and moderate progressives and so on.
And so, even after reading many essays by my colleagues, I don’t understand the reluctance to just say “moderate libertarian,” the eagerness to instead replace the noun with the adjective.
When the Center’s new policy vision and associated conference attracts praise from Jonathan Chait and David Brooks, on the one hand, that’s great. Brooks has been a particularly prominent Never Trump conservative and Chait has been an invaluable chronicler and analyst of the Trump administration and its scandals, doing important work keeping many moving parts in mind and in the public view. That’s good company to be keeping in 2019!
But it’s also — I don’t think it’s disrespectful to either of them to say this — a little weird. After all, Chait has been an especially scornful critic of libertarian ideas and organizations over the years, including of Brink Lindsey’s proto-Niskanenite push for a Bush-era “liberaltarianism.” And Brooks was the progenitor of “national greatness conservatism,” the Teddy-Roosevelt-inspired branch of neoconservatism that disdained the “nihilistic mediocrity” of liberal society with its private commercial prosperity and individual liberty, seeking instead big, glorious projects around which the nation-state could rally us to overcome our mere private lives.
Politics makes strange bedfellows, and crisis even more so. The occasional feeling that you’re in a Tom Lehrer joke about who your friends are is a small price to pay. At the end of the day, though, Chait is still a centrist liberal, and Brooks is still his own, idiosyncratic kind of conservative. What they have in common with each other in opposition to Trump doesn’t dissolve their ideological distinctiveness, and what Niskanenites have in common with them doesn’t dissolve ours, either. “Moderate” may be a good way to think about what we have in common, but it’s nobody’s complete intellectual description. With all respect to Niskanen president Jerry Taylor, it is not a substitute for the kind of general system of principles he now calls an ideology.
Why I am (not only) a moderate
If “moderate” is a name for intellectual and moral virtues — acknowledging fallibility and the limits of knowledge, avoiding monomaniacal utopian blueprints, responsiveness to evidence, recognizing the legitimacy of disagreement — then it is no substitute for having a sense of one’s own about policy goals or the direction of change. It merely conditions how they should be pursued.
If “moderate” is, like “the vital center,” a name for attachment to the overarching structure of constitutionalism, the rule of law, and fair democratic competition between rival parties, then it is not a substitute for choosing a party to support.
And if “moderate” is the name of a substantive position, then it risks being nothing at all, or at least nothing stable, only something defined with reference to the shifting sense of who counts as extreme. It has much in common with the conservatism Hayek criticized in “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” taking its cue from a direction set by others and saying only “slower, more prudently.” But it is perhaps even less substantive than that. It can be driven by a constant both-sides-ism and a perpetual repositioning so that one is always equidistant from either.
Now, Taylor and my old graduate school friend (and fellow Niskanen senior fellow) Aurelian Craiutu disagree. (See Aurelian’s two books on the question, the first of which includes a valuable chapter on none other than Benjamin Constant.) Their writings on the topic are filled with confident negative definitions: moderation is not merely unprincipled compromise, it is not directionless, it is not rudderless, it is not only a mood or a style. It is what is exemplified by the greatest statesmen and thinkers who have gone under that banner.
It could mean all of that. But it could also mean the pernicious tendency to always view the side-taking of partisan politics with distaste (see Nancy Rosenblum), the desire to give it the unity of purpose characteristic of what Oakeshott called “enterprise associations.” In the United States this often manifests as businessmen and billionaires presenting themselves as getting past partisanship and being willing to govern a contentious and diverse polity like they governed their firm, with common sense and good ideas taken from wherever you can find them, and a complete failure to see that politics is relevantly different from that. And it could mean mere mushy centrism and difference-splitting. It could mean the simple patrician unease when politics gets noisy, as it always does when previously excluded groups are fighting their way in, the moderation Martin Luther King criticized. It could mean the hubris of the technocrat, Adam Smith’s “man of system,” convinced that by rising above mere ideology he becomes smart enough to remake the world at home through bureaucratic planning and abroad through sheer military power. It sometimes means all of those things together.
However necessary the Montesquieuian virtues are, I don’t think the association of “moderation” with them is any stronger in American political discourse than the association of “moderation” with those tendencies. And if we’re just stipulating definitions such that a political word means only its best tendencies and not its worst … well, we can also do that with an ideological concept like “libertarian” or “classical liberal.” There are plenty of bad associations that have built up around those, and more are building up every day as they’re appropriated by the identity politics movements of white men who think that the greatest threat to liberty — the only threat that really matters — is when someone is criticized or stigmatized for saying something that other people think is racist or sexist, and real freedom is the freedom to “just ask questions” about racial inferiority. But I don’t see that there’s any more reason to cede “classical liberal” to the Intellectual Dark Web than there is to cede “moderate” to Howard Schultz and Mike Bloomberg.
From my perspective, I’m not even particularly sure that adopting the posture of pure moderation would shake off the baggage that’s accumulated about libertarianism. Two of my least favorite tendencies in contemporary libertarian discourse are, first, a reflexive and smug both-sides-ism and whataboutism, the overeagerness to dilute any critique of any political actor with an above-it-all complaint about one of their opponents; and, second, a disdain of so-called identity politics that too often veers into a smirking affection for “political incorrectness” for its own sake. Maybe I won’t ever succeed in talking other libertarians into rejecting those. But if there’s one place those complaints shouldn’t drive me, it’s into any camp that self-identifies as moderates or centrists. When the latter group wants to indulge in above-it-all both-sidesism, exactly what it often does is to play along with some panic or another about identity politics: those previously-excluded groups making their noisy unfamiliar case. At least the libertarian has the principled resources — however often they’re not used — to say “these voices are bringing important information into the open about the way they have been oppressed, and I should listen.” The moderate, as King saw, might not.
Why I am (still) a libertarian
I am, no doubt, a somewhat heterodox libertarian, and partly because I do share the commitment to Montesquieuian moderation. I can give a reasonably concise statement of my heterodoxy. I’m a libertarian who thinks that taking libertarian commitments seriously entails a more thoroughgoing critique of racial injustice and encourages a closer embrace of democracy than has been usual. I think, for reasons well defended by my Niskanen colleagues many times, that liberal markets and open trade should be accompanied by social insurance of various kinds; this is a modification of rather than an entailment from basic libertarian ideas. And I think that preventing catastrophic climate change calls for more radical action than could be justified on even a loose interpretation of libertarian ideas, though preferably action that works with markets rather than against them, such as a carbon tax. For the political theorists in the audience, I could add as a methodological matter that state-of-nature thinking, social contractarianism, and anarchism are dead ends and should be replaced by a Smithian-Hayekian realist theory of politics. But in terms of actual politics, I can describe where I am in about a hundred words, using “libertarian” as the baseline, and politically well-informed people will have a pretty good sense of what it amounts to.
If I start with the concept “moderate” … well, I wouldn’t begin to know where to go next. I could go toward “socially liberal and economically conservative,” which is the traditional way of trying to make libertarianism sound like a kind of centrism, but that’s just a longer way to the libertarian starting line. And it relies on senses of “liberal” and “conservative” that are pretty unstable these days; in the era of Trump, does “economically conservative” still imply free trade? I could position myself relative to Joe Lieberman, or Mike Bloomberg, or Bill Clinton, or Susan Collins, or Howard Schultz … but I wouldn’t know how to position myself relative to all of them at the same time, and leaving the impression “I’m kind of like them” doesn’t add any true and useful information compared to the description I walked through in the previous paragraph.
And “socially liberal and economically conservative,” precisely because it sounds so mushy, fails to communicate a great deal of what I still think is clearly right in libertarianism. Like Will Wilkinson, I reject utopian blueprints partly on the basis of our limited knowledge; we will learn new things as we move in a direction. But that’s fully compatible with moving in a direction, and with having a clear sense of evils one aims to mitigate or end. We don’t need a constitution for libertopia in order to be deeply committed anti-autocrats, which I take to be the core of libertarianism’s political project.
We don’t need utopian blueprints to move toward radically unwinding the American prison and police system and the drug war, or to move toward much more open borders and limit the caging power of immigration enforcement, or to recommit to freer trade and to push back against destructive economic nationalism. Niskanen’s “Captured Economy” project and the Teles and Lindsey book that intellectually shapes it have a direction: progressive market opening, based on aggressively moving to unwind the kludgeocracy and the massive regressive rent-seeking that it makes possible. While moving toward these goals, should we be open to new evidence, pragmatic about means, respectful of disagreement, and pluralistic about values? Yes. But it’s a libertarian direction to go in, however moderately and prudently we do so.
Here at Niskanen and at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, I have criticized libertarians and organized libertarianism pretty often, and I’ve encountered a good bit of criticism suggesting that I was looking for the payoff that comes to the professional apostate. But my criticism is never in that spirit; it is always offered with a belief that people who are right about fundamental things ought to be persuadable about what I see as their real implications and applications. If we’re defining political words to mean our understanding of their best versions, then that’s what I’ll keep trying to do with “libertarian,” and if we’re using words in ways that are recognizable within American political discourse, well, I can explain myself a lot more clearly by using “libertarian” as a baseline than by using “moderate.”
Similarly, I am not, unlike Brink Lindsey, a republican (small-r), because on my understanding republicanism is precisely the tradition that rejects pluralism, private commerce, and the liberty of the moderns in favor of the public virtue of the imagined ancients. Yes, the American founders were balanced uneasily on the cusp between that republican tradition and a liberal world that they didn’t quite understand. The success of the American experiment mostly lay in its inadvertent flexibility and ability to adapt to the world of commerce, diversity, and permanent, contesting political parties that republicanism warned against. There are some valuable continuous elements between republicanism and liberalism, including an attention to the separation of powers and the rule of law and an indictment of the abuse of public office for private gain. If appealing to those elements in republicanism can provide (capital-r) Republicans with a rallying point for rebuilding a party that is committed to constitutionalism rather than to demagoguery, then, great; see above under “coalition-shaping.” But that continuity with the tradition of republicanism certainly doesn’t seem to me any greater than the continuity of a reformist libertarianism with what it comes out of.
Moderation and the current moment
Our theme on Monday is whether moderation is particularly suited to this political moment, to a time of extremes and hyperpartisanship. For all the usefulness of “moderation” as a coalitional word that I discussed above, I think the answer is no. Yes, it is a time for reaffirming liberal constitutional democracy, the value of disagreement and pluralism. Yes, it is a good time to try to reshuffle old ideological cleavages in order to break the patterns that led to the Trump presidency, and to offer new visions of what a much better center-right could be. But it’s not a time to allow the extremism of the authoritarian populists of the right to drag our frame of reference. It’s not a time to so insist on finding equal threats on both sides that a first-term, backbench member of the House of Representatives is inflated to somehow being the equal and opposite of the president of the United States. It’s not a time for the “white moderate” to try to bury the importance of public racism because calling attention to it makes the Midwestern white working class uneasy; if we refuse to identify the racism at the heart of Trumpism, we will not be able to understand it and its abuses. And it’s not a time to disdain partisanship. Weak, deinstitutionalized parties are one source of the present crisis (in the U.K. as well as the United States, by the way). And however good a job the professional investigators and prosecutors do in the coming weeks, their findings have to be taken up by elected politicians. Standing above it all is not the right response to a time for choosing.
This is the final in a loose series inspired by the 200th anniversary of “Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Moderns” by Benjamin Constant, a great classical liberal who was also a democrat, and, in his way, a moderate. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here.
Jacob T. Levy is Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory and Director of the Yan P. Lin Centre for the Study of Freedom and Global Orders in the Ancient and Modern Worlds at McGill University; author of Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom and scholarly articles including, most recently, “Contra Politanism” and “Political Libertarianism;” and a Niskanen Center Senior Fellow and Advisory Board Member.