Political Moderation

Here in America we’ve survived another national election (yet again the most momentous in our history!), so following up on my post last week about moderation it seems timely to offer a few reflections on political and ideological moderation.

Having been a dogmatic libertarian earlier in my life, I well understand the allure of political immoderation: the pride of having all the answers, the intellectual gratification of complete consistency and absolute certainty, the beautiful devotion to a moral ideal, the self-transcendence of being part of a movement that aims to change the world, the feeling of superiority over those who lack our special insights, the peculiar pleasure that accompanies righteous anger, and all the rest.

I also understand the deep historical roots of American extremism, given the founder effect of the religious zealots, avaricious adventurers, and other crazy Englishmen who four hundred years ago crossed the stormy North Atlantic in creaky boats to settle a howling wilderness – followed by a continuous stream of risk-takers and borderline fanatics ever since.

So I get it, I really do.

But – and this is perhaps the biggest “but” in human society – utopia is not an option. If I am two or three standard deviations beyond the median voter in my allegiance to progressivism or populism or environmentalism or libertarianism or religious fundamentalism or any other ism, then in a pluralistic society like modern-day America my viewpoint will never be triumphant unless the movement I’m a part of brings significant force to bear against the freedom of thought and action of those we disagree with or whose way of life we dislike. Maybe I believe that such a use of force is morally justified; maybe I believe (with Lenin) that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs”; maybe I believe it’s not really force if I outsource it to government bureaucracies or big corporations or social media mobs. But my self-deception shouldn’t mean the rest of you need to be in thrall to my extremism.

Average folks (those mythical median voters) aren’t extremists. They want good governance, basic competence among public servants, a lack of waste and corruption, respect for the citizenry, decent schools, low crime, public order, stable prices, peaceful transfers of power, and the like. Extremists often have disdain for such “bourgeois” concerns, but they are blind to the fact that “little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice” (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations).

How does one become more moderate, politically or otherwise? The advice Aristotle gave in Book 2 of the Nicomachean Ethics might be relevant:

We must consider the things towards which we ourselves also are easily carried away; for some of us tend to one thing, some to another; and this will be recognizable from the pleasure and the pain we feel. We must drag ourselves away to the contrary extreme; for we shall get into the intermediate state by drawing well away from error, as people do in straightening sticks that are bent.

But this is hard, because if I tend toward an extreme then dragging myself away toward the opposite extreme will feel like compromising with an unalloyed evil. In my experience it’s easier to open myself to a wide range of perspectives (e.g., by reading widely in multiple disciplines, preferably from non-partisan sources) and then let those perspectives percolate in my brain for a while. Naturally, this means I need to spend less time reading people I agree with; this is a feature, not a bug.

Another activity I find especially helpful is to look seriously at how my preferred ideas and policies have been applied in the real world – and reflect on whether the evidence indicates success or failure in relation to human flourishing. This seems to be what led to changes in my thinking about intellectual property rights some twenty years ago, based on my experience in the open-source software community. A more recent example is marijuana decriminalization, about which I’m on the fence: free-market economic theory predicts that legalization would cause the black market to collapse, but apparently that hasn’t happened, to deleterious effect here in Colorado and elsewhere (see a recent analysis entitled “Marijuana’s Black Market 2.0” at City Journal). In a similar vein, my environmentalist friends might be interested in how Finland’s Green Party committed to nuclear power as a way of reducing CO2 emissions. Examples could be multiplied many times over.

As with personal moderation, political moderation might seem to lack the excitement of Nietzsche’s living dangerously. Yet more and more I’ve come to realize that radicalism is overrated, and to appreciate the value of a principled incrementalism.

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