Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Reflections on Political Moderation

In light of our recent discussion of political moderation in our look at Harry Clor's book On Moderation, it seemed prudent to try to apply, or at least consider, its role in current political discourse. Sven Wilson's article at Pileus and the recent discussions about pragmatism at Ricochet have prompted me so do go at both. For the most part here I just want to bandy the ideas around and see what turns up, so pardon my discursive rambling and lack of final answers.

First off we should consider definitions. We remarked that one aspect of political moderation is simply settling for less (with the factor of expediency being the tradeoff.) For example, you could consider the authors of the constitution of settling for less by signing a document that didn't address slavery and lacked a bill of rights. Passing it despite such flaws was a compromise, and with liberty of all things. They didn't know whether what they did would trend toward liberty or tyranny, but I think most people would suggest the outcome was reasonably positive for liberty. Yet not all compromise is inherently moderate. I'm sure much of the left considers recent healthcare initiatives as precursors to more comprehensive plans.

Such proposals, and many other contemporary ones, present a particular challenge because they present conflicts not just of administration or policy but of philosophy of government. You can debate and compromise about administration or policy rather easily if everyone agrees about certain fundamentals. The notion of government, and society in general, implies some type of accord. Federalism itself implies that everyone agrees on some things, most people agree on a larger set of things, and so on down to the local level. One of the political benefits of federalism and liberalism is that they allow people to get along without agreeing on everything. (It is the contention of many liberals, i.e. classical liberals and libertarians, that society trends toward centralization and consensus, creating a need to fight regularly and vigorously for individual rights. Even Aristotle, no libertarian, observed that the state was a naturally occurring construction.) Let us, though, consider political moderation specifically relative to liberty since I think it is the principle people would least like to compromise with.

Let us consider the non-political, though, for a moment. Internally we compromise even with liberty. For while in the political sense we may free to do what we wish so long as we harm no one, we must curb certain desires in order to preserve the ability to do certain things even though we would wish to do everything we wanted all the time if possible. Perhaps there is a philosophical question we must address in the difference between a hierarchical organization of values and one that is based on imperatives. Compromise is certainly more amenable to the former.

Most people compromise somehow, but perhaps the more interesting question is whether the compromise leads to an unraveling of the value. Is the current illiberality (as perceived by libertarians) of the U.S. simply the result of previous compromises with liberty? It would seem so, at least to a large extent. How else could it have come about? Unfortunately, though, taking a "hard line" might not actually bring about the idea, as much as it preserves the integrity of the person holding the idea.

Does one compromise in the case of emergencies? (Rand's "The Ethics of Emergencies" comes to mind.) What if the alternative is globally catastrophic? I recall not too long ago there was a discussion by mainstream libertarians (it might have been at The Volokh Conspiracy) where the question was if you would violate property rights to save the world somehow. Is this "extreme?" If not, what is? On the other hand the left frequently labels Ron Paul as an extremist. Perhaps in order to be moderate one has to be aware of the most absolute extremes and then see where a given proposal lies. Such was Clor's contention and it seems a prudent, even necessary, measure in order to recognize the moderate position. 

Is there a hierarchy of values, though? Are some more important or at lest more generally agreed upon than others? A prohibition of murder is quite common amongst societies. It is safe to say if one person believes you can kill and steal, that he can't live with anyone else. But how many values are there which require accord? Very few, libertarians would say. On the other hand there are people who believe it is acceptable to pass extensive laws protecting (or that they think will protect) the environment. Can these two groups live together?

Ought either side compromise? The answer seems to be rather obvious, that people agree on some things and not others. Federalism would seem a force of help here for any number of parties. Perhaps living together is only possible within some federalist-libertarian framework in which initiating force is not permitted and people tend to live and move to jurisdictions with laws they favor. For example, one might have strong or even extreme ideas but not don't claim the right to exercise them over anyone else. Is this plausible, utopianism, or simply libertarianism? Do permanent institutions like states mandate bonds among people, bonds which force accord and thus compromise? If this is so, then one's opinion of the legitimacy and/or necessity of the state might dictate whether compromise is a necessity. If the state is necessary, then you have to compromise with it lest you prevent it from completing its necessary function.

Now if there is a hierarchy of values then to be "completely" free, intelligent, et cetera, one might have to sacrifice much else and be completely lacking in other things to accomplish such consistency in one part of your life. Is this desirable? Even if the situation is moderated, who wants to be "half-free" or "half-loved?" Perhaps the missing element is the role of choice and hence (in part) why liberty has found so many adherents. Everybody does, as we said, make compromises, but everyone wants to make them themselves. Still this approach does not seem to help in a situation of hierarchical values.

In that situation perhaps one may only compromise with a value if one thinks the compromise will benefit that same value somehow later. Perhaps it is only acceptable to jeopardize it temporarily if you hope by that means eventually to strengthen it. As we said, in the manner of Aristotle, these situations are too many to foresee. We observe though that imperatives are not so amenable to compromise. Is to have one, then, even "to be moderate" itself immoderate?

Perhaps this is a case of over-thinking an issue. Many people, even people who believe strongly in a cause, recognize limits to it in some circumstances.

One thing seems clear, though. As Mr. Wilson said, compromise is not a virtue in itself, only doing something good is (regardless of whether or not compromise is involved.) Moderation is a good not insofar as it splits the difference but as it achieves some particular good.

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