Additional thoughts on extremism in defense of liberty—a rejoinder to Will Wilkinson

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Institute has posted a thoughtful reply to my critique of his argument against extremism in defense of liberty. He also responds to some elements of a critique by Brian Doherty of Reason. Wilkinson's main point in his reply is that promoting extreme views is poor political strategy because it alienates potential supporters and undermines even moderate reforms in your preferred direction, because public opinion comes to associate them with extremism. This is sometimes a genuine danger. But it does not prove that advocating extreme views is inherently a poor political strategy, merely that it has downsides that must be weighed against the benefits.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in Wilkinson's analysis is his failure to consider what would happen if a political movement limits itself to promoting only moderate reforms, while abjuring any advocacy of more radical approaches. Such a strategy effectively truncates the political spectrum. That which previously seemed moderate would now seem to be extreme, and could more readily be dismissed as a fringe view. Moderate proposals can only be moderate when there are serious, more extreme alternatives to which they can be compared.

Wilkinson cites the case of conservative attacks on Obamacare as a form of socialized medicine as an example of how a relatively moderate policy might be painted as extreme. However, Democrats could not have portrayed Obamacare as the only viable—and moderate—alternative to socialized medicine were there not articulate and forceful advocates of the latter. The existence of this plausible, more extreme alternative is what led many to conclude (wrongly, in my view) that Obamacare is a moderate, even "conservative" policy, as Wilkinson himself calls it. His view of Obamacare might well be different in a world where there are no serious advocates of socialized medicine.

This is one of several ways in which extreme and moderate advocates of a given cause can work together to achieve victories that neither could achieve alone. As I emphasized in my earlier post: "Often, a successful movement needs both extremists and moderates. The former can provide inspiring ideals and map out long-term goals, while the latter are often better-positioned to make short-term political progress." Historically, most successful political movements needed both extremists and moderates to make progress. The antislavery movement, the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and—most recently—the gay rights and gun rights movements, are all good examples.

Wilkinson also overlooks the fact that an extreme, but consistent vision can sometimes be more appealing and inspiring than one that seems squishy and incoherent. Wilkinson's counsel of moderation is primarily directed to libertarians. But it is no accident that those libertarian thinkers who had the biggest impact on public and elite opinion tended to be fairly radical in their views, and advocated major departures from the status quo. They include people like Friedman, Hayek, and Ayn Rand, among others. If Friedman and Hayek had limited themselves to arguing for modest marginal reductions in taxation or government spending, it is unlikely they would have achieved even a fraction of the success and recognition they did.

None of this proves that promoting extreme views is always good strategy, or that moderation is always doomed to failure. The proper balance between the two is likely to vary from issue to issue. It may also vary from person to person. Some members of a movement (e.g.—academics and other intellectuals) can best contribute to its success by advocating relatively extreme, but principled versions of its agenda. Others, such as politicians and lobbyists, are likely to be most effective if they proceed in more moderate, incremental fashion.

Wilkinson also briefly responds to my argument that extremist positions in defense of liberty are justified because they often turn out to be valid, and contain greater truth than moderate views:

[O]ur political ideals often reflect accidents of history, such as happening to have read Ayn Rand before reading Karl Marx. I said that the pervasiveness of disagreement about moral and political principles implies that our convictions are far from obvious, and so we ought to be open to the possibility that we're missing something in the same way we think others are missing something. And I said that openness to the possibility that we're wrong makes us more likely to catch the errors that we have made, and therefore more likely to arrive at principles that aren't mistaken.

Everything Wilkinson says in this passage is true. But none of it provides a justification for preferring moderate views to more extreme ones. It is true that "our convictions are far from obvious," that they are often the product of "accidents of history," and that we should be open to the possibility that we might be wrong. But these points apply to moderate political views no less than extreme ones. Indeed, the former are often even more likely to be the result of accidents of history and biased thinking than the latter. Many people come to hold moderate views (defined as those in the mainstream of the political spectrum of the day) simply because they are, by definition, the ones most prevalent in their society. In addition, moderate views are often the product of status quo bias. In a society where slavery is prevalent, most people may simply take its existence for granted, and assume that it must be justified. For reasons summarized in my original post, the fact that a given view enjoys the support of majority public opinion is at best a very weak indication of its truth.

Both moderates and radicals should strive to be aware of the possible shortcomings in their views, and both should try to be truth-seekers rather than "political fans" cheering on their respective sides, while making little or no effort to consider opposing views. But our cognitive shortcomings are not a justification for preferring moderate views to more extreme ones. Often, rigorous truth-seeking will lead you to become more extreme rather than less.