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A moderate defense of extremism in defense of liberty


Barry Goldwater.
Barry Goldwater.

Will Wilkinson of the libertarian Niskanen Center has posted two much-discussed articles criticizing Barry Goldwater's famous statements that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" and "moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." He is particularly eager to persuade libertarians that they are too prone to extremism, and should instead embrace moderation. Wilkinson makes some solid points. But extremism in defense of liberty has more benefits than he gives it credit for.

Wilkinson defines extremism mostly in terms of the use of extreme means to achieve liberty or other political ends. But, both in the original context of Goldwater's speech and in many other situations, extremism is often defined in terms of views that diverge greatly from the mainstream. When Goldwater was attacked as an extremist, it was not because he urged his supporters to resort to violence and other extreme tactics, but because he held many views that were distant from those of the median voter (which is one of the reasons why he suffered a landslide defeat in the 1964 election). Few libertarians today advocate violence or other extreme political tactics. To the extent we qualify as extremists, it is usually because we hold many views that are highly unpopular.

I. Extremist Defenses of Liberty Are Often Right.

If extremism is defined as distance from the mainstream rather than advocacy of violent tactics, it turns out that there is at least one good reason to be an extremist in defense of liberty: extremist defenses of liberty often turn out to be right. Before the Civil War, abolitionists who wanted to immediately free all the slaves and grant equal rights to blacks were extremists. The moderate position was either to maintain the status quo or seek gradual abolition, perhaps coupled with relegating blacks to second-class citizenship or deporting them to Africa.

For most of human history, only extremists favored giving women the same liberties as those enjoyed by men. Wilkinson cites Martin Luther King as an example of moderation. King was indeed moderate in the sense that he rejected violence. But, by the standards of his time, he was an extremist in many of his views on public policy. When he first demanded immediate and total abolition of Jim Crow segregation, that was an extreme stance. Moderates argued for a gradual easing of segregation, and for putting off the abolition of racial discrimination in particularly sensitive areas, such as legalizing interracial marriage in states where majority public opinion was bitterly hostile to it.

We would be much worse off if not for these and other examples of extremism in defense of liberty. Some of the greatest historical triumphs of liberty were set in motion by people who were extremists relative to the mainstream views of their day.

None of this proves that extreme views are always right, and moderate ones always misguided. The point is not that we should always adopt the most extreme possible positions, but that there is often little or no relationship between the validity of a position and its distance from mainstream opinion. Mainstream public opinion is heavily influenced by ignorance and irrational thinking, and therefore is at best a very weak barometer of truth. Extremism isn't always a virtue, but neither is it necessarily a vice, either.

II. Extremism and Political Strategy.

Even if extreme views are often right, they can sometimes be politically counterproductive. Wilkinson worries that extremism might make it more difficult for libertarians (and perhaps others) to make incremental progress. If you can be stigmatized as an extremist, others may be unwilling to work with you, or even to seriously consider your position.

This is indeed a danger. But advocacy of extreme views can also often facilitate political progress. The histories of the antislavery and civil rights movements are among the relevant examples. An extreme, but consistent and inspiring position can often move people in a way that a more nuanced, moderate one cannot. As Alex Tabarrok points out, "[i]f instead of abolition, [the early antislavery movement] had settled on the goal of providing for better living conditions for slaves on the voyage from Africa, it seems quite possible that slavery would still be with us today." The extreme idea that the slave deserves freedom because he is "a man and a brother" turned out to have a lot more resonance than the more moderate and pragmatic argument that we should mitigate the plight of slaves at the margin, or that we should cut back on the use of slave labor because free labor was more economically efficient.

Wilkinson cites F.A. Hayek as a good example of a "principled, moderate" libertarian. But Hayek in fact understood the appeal of extreme and even "utopian" ideas, and urged libertarians to embrace them:

Free trade and freedom of opportunity are ideals which still may arouse the imaginations of large numbers, but a mere "reasonable freedom of trade" or a mere "relaxation of controls" is neither intellectually respectable nor likely to inspire any enthusiasm.

The main lesson which the true liberal must learn from the success of the socialists is that it was their courage to be Utopian which gained them the support of the intellectuals and therefore an influence on public opinion which is daily making possible what only recently seemed utterly remote. Those who have concerned themselves exclusively with what seemed practicable in the existing state of opinion have constantly found that even this had rapidly become politically impossible as the result of changes in a public opinion which they have done nothing to guide.

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.

Wilkinson also worries that the seemingly extremist mindset of many libertarians makes it hard for them to make progress by making ordinary political alliances with other groups. There may well be some truth to this. The further apart two groups' views are, the more they are likely to view each other with great hostility, and the harder it will be for them to cooperate. That said, libertarians do in fact have a long history of often-successful cooperation with other groups. They have worked effectively with conservatives on efforts to lower taxes and cut back on economic regulation, and with many on the left to promote drug legalization, among other causes. Most recently, libertarians have successfully collaborated with both liberals and conservatives on promoting asset forfeiture reform, and curbing eminent domain abuse.

I am a fairly radical libertarian myself, and advocate plenty of very unpopular positions. Like the people Wilkinson censures, I believe that democratic politics is badly flawed, and that a high percentage of the groups active in it are "pursuing something [they] probably shouldn't have through means nobody should be allowed to use." That has not prevented me from working with mainstream conservatives on opposing Obamacare and protecting property rights, and mainstream liberals on promoting immigration and same-sex marriage, among other issues.

Wilkinson uses Milton Friedman's key role in the abolition of the draft as an example of successful "moderate" libertarian political strategy. But when Friedman first began to advocate repeal of the draft, it was an extreme stance rejected by most of the mainstream on the right and left alike. Friedman's opposition to the draft is an example of effective extremism, not moderation. Had Friedman stuck to the moderate position that the draft should be reformed, but not ended, young Americans might still be subjected to forced labor today.

Even some of the libertarians Wilkinson cites as paradigmatic examples of uncompromising extremism actually worked hard to build coalitions with non-libertarians. Murray Rothbard, for example, sought to make alliances with groups as varied as the New Left in the 1960s and 70s, and nativist, xenophobic conservatives in the 1990s. Rothbard's problem was not opposition to coalition-building, but his terrible judgment in selecting potential allies.

It would be foolish to assume that extremism is always good political strategy. Whether it is or not will often vary by circumstances. 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.

In sum, extremism in defense of liberty is neither objectionable in and of itself, nor necessarily an obstacle to effective political action. It isn't always the best approach either. We should not be too extreme in our defense of extremism. But we should not go to the opposite extreme of condemning it either. Moderation in our assessment of extremism turns out to be a virtue.

UPDATE: I have revised this post to include the case of Milton Friedman's opposition to the draft as an example of effective libertarian extremism. I initially decided to leave it out for lack of space. But co-blogger David Bernstein persuaded me that it should be added.