The Libertarian Movement: Too Extremist, Too Moderate, or Just Right?

Did Barry Goldwater's famous quote about "extremism in the defense of liberty" deform the libertarian movement?


Some interesting recent sprouts in the fertile field of libertarian activists and polemicists arguing about appropriate or effective techniques for same, launched by the Niskanen Center's Will Wilkinson's two-part essay (highly shared and lauded in social network spaces where libertarians dwell) trying to totally destroy, as the kids say on the internet, the famous statement from Barry Goldwater's 1964 acceptance speech for the Republican Party's nomination: "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of liberty justice is no virtue."

That Goldwater slogan, Wilkinson thinks, has warped libertarian brains ever since. As Wilkinson notes, the words were "put" in the speech by future libertarian movement firebrand Karl Hess, though Hess in his memoir Mostly on the Edge says he got the phrase from Straussian superstar Harry Jaffa. Credit or blame for it is a muddy trail Wilkinson strolls down at his leisure.

The first part reads mostly like pure intellectual history of the phrase, and has little obvious relevance to the contemporary libertarian scene or the Niskanen Center's mission. Wilkinson brings out, amidst the aforementioned twisty and inconclusive forensic history of the phase, that it could (or even should) be interpreted to defend violence, that southern racists believed their violent extremism against black civil rights was in defense of their liberty, and that Timothy McVeigh blew up a lot of people in what he thought was a protest against government attacks on liberty.

Since no one in the modern aboveground libertarian movement openly advocates murderous violence (or seem openly inspired by Goldwater's phrase much even if they disagree that it means "murderous violence in defense of liberty is OK"), one must go to part two, focused on "moderation," for modern relevance.

Wilkinson stresses he's concerned with practicality. If one can achieve victories for liberty by means of persuasion, and not the "extremism" of violence (with Lincoln's actions in the Civil War as an example of the latter), surely that's preferable? Surely, and persuasion is what libertarians try to do, more or less successfully.

When libertarians accuse others of being insufficiently extreme in their libertarianism, it's generally not about the means (always persuasion of some sort, in some arena) but the ends. Milton Friedman's polemical success in eliminating the draft is labeled a victory for "moderation" because it was based in persuasion and not violence. One could argue that Friedman's goal, though, was extreme in calling for a complete end to the draft, not to just limiting its application or widening loopholes or limiting its time periods or raising soldiers' salaries. It didn't seek a small change in the draft; it called for a huge, one might even call "extreme," change.

But Wilkinson says:

In terms of practical life, political or otherwise, moderation in principle means hammering out workable compromises with people who hold to different principles….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….

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….

That "extremism" in the ideological sense won't bring anyone around seems unproven, and at least slightly belied by the history of the modern American libertarian movement in terms of winning ideological devotees—that is, "bringing people around." It has not in most cases brought around either enough or the right people for many or most specific policy changes, to be sure.

Real political change, Wilkinson points out, of necessity involves negotiation and persuasion with people who don't agree with you on core issues. It requires actual human interaction based on at least some trust and some sense of respect. 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."

Movement libertarians, Wilkinson says, often argue from a position of such essential mistrust or moral condemnation of state action, a desire for a government of a size and function that has never been real in history, that it "takes nearly everything off the table of democratic negotiation…[leaving] no space for politics, as it is commonly understood." Thus, they tend to be bad at

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….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.

Wilkinson advocates instead that libertarians should:

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.

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.

Some very broad brush observations: Perhaps that "nudging" has to or at least can come from education or conversion in the "extreme" forms of libertarianism? Why would people keep shifting even little bits toward liberty if they don't believe it, and mightn't belief in it motivate the shifts? It could be that Wilkinson wants a more purely empirical libertarianism that stresses mostly or only issues that see obvious improvements for most people in their circumstances by libertarian change, unconnected with larger questions of the moral purpose of government. That may be what he means, and it may be true. But many desirable libertarian changes, such as those related to defense or criminal justice, seem to me empirically to be mostly motivated by a high-minded sense of justice, as the changes have very small to non-existent effects of the lives of most citizens.

Wilkinson's empiricism would feel more rooted if examples of "incremental pro-liberty reform" that were blissfully free of libertarian extremism, however defined, were provided. (As long as it's agreed that the "extremism as violent revolution" part he spent so much rhetorical time on is irrelevant to anything about the libertarian movement or modern America in general.) After the fog of violence is waved away, as it should be, I interpret him as saying that coming into real politics—defined apparently as the part where one is actually crafting laws and getting legislative bodies to pass them, which the Niskanen Center's efforts are about, not electoral politics—like gangbusters with "it's a pure libertarian solution we are seeking" is a bad idea.

It's possible I'm mistaken in understanding the precise arena in which he means this advice to be taken, but electoral politics may be where moderate attitudes of compromise are more appropriate, if one wants votes to matter, since no electable candidate is apt to have a full body of extreme libertarian ideas. Is this advice being given only to voters who have to vote for a specific flawed candidate, or to politicians, who have to vote for some specific flawed law or proposal that comes to their attention? If it was, it makes some sense.

But for activists and proposers and crafters of policy ideas that you hope will become law, why not be a consistent and hopefully persuasive voice for a proposal that goes all the way you want to go? If you don't, who will?

If you lose that fight and the choice then becomes, do you as libertarian individual or institution become a "supporter" of half-measures in the sense of declaring that well, you and whatever political forces you command are OK with and consider such half-measures a better option than the status quo, that's different and likely wise. But perhaps that version of moderation doesn't need to shape the initial process of what ideas libertarians active in politics propose and advocate.

Not to say there is no real world evidence for the good effects of avoiding libertarian extremism. For one example, I'm sure it has helped medical marijuana liberalization that most of the people pushing it avoided linking the issue with complete legalization at first.

Then it likely helped the rising tide of complete pot legalization that it is usually not linked with complete drug legalization, as much as that might annoy me. Arguments about costs and medicine and harmlessness and overkill that a more extreme libertarianism might condemn as besides the real point about self-ownership seem to be very convincing.

However, some older crusades of libertarian content, from abolition to abortion to civil rights, seem to largely have both succeeded and been motivated by "extreme" positions of justice sought for and achieved. And, by definition, if we are ever to have complete legalization, some people somewhere sometime have to rigorously plump for complete legalization.

It may also be that winning in the real scrum of politics is less ultimately about "respect" from those who disagree, though it may have that as a necessary-not-sufficient condition, and more about convincing the people one is interacting with either that one is right or that one has created a political inevitability. I don't see how either of those ends must be or even would necessarily often be achieved fully divorced from staking out an "extreme" libertarian position.

The Niskanen Center itself has no problem advocating what to most Americans is an extreme position on letting in Syrian refugees, and relies on moral fervor in doing so. ("Moderation" as a floating value might lead to the assumption that even the Center should move its policy positions closer to the status quo, for its sake, if moderation is thought to trump correctness or actual preference.)

Neither I nor anyone else has adequate evidence for what is the best technique for libertarian political change, or indeed that there is a singular one. It is unclear if Wilkinson believes in a more purely elite model of such change, or if he believes that politicians must be swayed by a passionate and large enough portion of the electorate valuing and demanding libertarian change. That seems to me a vital point to settle or at least consider in this question of extremism v. moderation.

Likely in some issues, merely winning over a core policy elite is enough (as might well be the case for some issues of concern for Niskanen Center, like specific military spending priority changes or tech privacy matters). But for some others, perhaps more mass popular energy is needed. (I doubt a carbon tax will seem politically possible until enough politicians are convinced that opposing one will be politically disastrous; similar for more and easier legal immigration.)

A theory or empirically presented sense of exactly how policy change happens is likely needed to convince someone who thinks, roughly and colloquially, that if politics is a game of moderation and compromise by nature, let's make them moderate and compromise in our direction by starting from the farthest edges of libertarian principles, not from a position that has been pre-compromised by that sort of moderation.

Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy at the Washington Post offers what he calls a "moderate defense of extremisim in defense of liberty" that captures some interesting aspects of what that phrase might mean for the modern libertarian movement.

Somin points out that often extreme libertarian positions are just right. In fact, if one is selling one's work as libertarian, and Wilkinson does call Niskanen Center a "libertarian think tank" (though its president, Jerry Taylor, seems sure there is essentially no support in America for libertarianism), that should be good reason to advocate those positions. The caveat would be Wilkinson's belief, as detailed above, that pushing those extreme positions just won't work in American politics.

But maybe the way to make them work is the slow game of public ideological persuasion that has been the business of libertarian organizations since the late '40s that aren't strictly about the legislative scrum. Perhaps the purest and most extreme form of those ideas will be, to many at least, the most persuasive or at least the most energizing. As I quoted libertarian economist Richard Ebeling in my book on the history of the modern American libertarian movement, Radicals for Capitalism, people aren't inspired to go to the barricades to eliminate a milk subsidy.

Somin adds that there are examples where ideological extremism does seem practical, as in the moral energies of abolitionism and civil rights, and that extremism has a political value Wilkinson might miss:

Another advantage of advocating extreme positions is that the presence of strong, articulate advocates of them makes more moderate reformers seem mainstream and reasonable by comparison. The existence of extreme, but intellectually serious advocates of Open Borders helps the cause of more moderate immigration reformers in the long run. If Open Borders is seen as an extreme, but legitimate part of public discourse, moderate reform can no longer itself be portrayed as unthinkable extremism.

Somin also points out to Wilkinson, who frames his libertarianism as Hayekian, that Hayek himself was a loud believer in utopian radicalism in a libertarian direction as a positive force in political and social change. Hayek credited the Socialists' (mistaken) utopianism as one of their powerful and successful selling points. (There is always, with thinkers as complicated as Hayek, more to "Hayekianism" than just any one quote of Hayek's. Still, the man had studied the rise of socialism in great detail and he may well have understood something important about how dominant political ideologies can and do change.)

While the whole "extremism in defense of…" phrase's importance as a driving force of libertarian strategy or tactics seems questionable to me, Wilkinson has raised important issues in his take on it—big and eternal questions for political radicals whose answers are likely eternally contingent.