Moderates, Extremists, and Liberty

Gary Galles
Issue CCC - October 2, 2011
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As I have observed the mainstream media (MSM, to the cognoscenti) over the past few decades, I have noted a growing infatuation with the words moderate and extremist. Those words, paired together in a particular way, have become far more common.

In California, where I live, every time the legislature has trouble passing a budget, pundits blame it on a decline in the number of moderate members, whose seats are now held by extremists. Of course, what is really involved is that Democrats, who have long dominated the legislature, have found it harder to buy off enough Republican votes to impose their budget priorities, which invariably involve increasing the burden on some to give more to others. When opposition-party members who are only moderately attached to the principle of self-ownership (moderates) are replaced with those more firmly attached to it (extremists), at least with regard to taxes, the price of buying the necessary swing votes can rise dramatically. Democrats cannot impose their agenda as easily and gridlock becomes more common.

The MSM treatment of the tea party during the debt-ceiling impasse followed much the same line. In the wake of a historic expansion of federal power and spending, where 40 percent of every dollar had to be borrowed, pundits called for moderates, because they would compromise toward President Obama's demand for higher taxes, rather than the current extremists, who wanted to undo some of the new and improved profligacy in government outlays.

In both of these examples, and many others (such as the MSM treatment of Rep. Ron Paul throughout his political career), the moderation called for is always moderation in defense of some aspect of liberty (self-ownership), so that further inroads can be imposed, with those firmest in their defense tarred as unreasonable extremists.

However, I recently discovered that this tendency is of longer standing than I had been aware of. In an "electoral manifesto" published in November 1830, Frederic Bastiat offered a dead-on discussion of the same problem in France. Since he expresses himself with his characteristic clarity, wit, and irony, I think it is worth recalling:

To the electors of the Department of the Landes:

[I]t is above all the moderation which plays a role in this army of sophisms.

Everyone wants moderates at any price; we fear extremists above all … since the center is definitely between the right and the left, we conclude that this is where moderation lies.

Were those who each year voted for more taxes than the nation could bear moderates? What about those who never found the contributions to be sufficiently heavy, emoluments sufficiently huge, and sinecures sufficiently numerous … the betrayal of the confidence of their constituents.…

And are those who want to prevent the return of such excesses extremists? I mean those who want to inject a dose of moderation into spending; those who want to moderate the action of the people in power … those who do not want the nation to be exploited by one party rather than another.…

[T]he government … tends strongly to … expand indefinitely its sphere of action. Left to itself, it soon exceeds the limits which circumscribe its mission. It increases beyond all reason … It no longer administers, it exploits.… It no longer protects, it oppresses.

This would be the way all governments operate … if the people did not place obstacles in the way of governmental encroachments.

[L]iberty should not be bargained over … it is an asset so precious that no price is too high for it.…

[P]rodigality and liberty … are incompatible.

But where can there be liberty when the government, in order to sustain enormous expenditures and forced to levy huge fiscal contributions, must resort to the most offensive and burdensome taxation … to invade the sphere of private industry, to narrow incessantly the circle of individual activity, to make itself merchant, manufacturer, postman and teacher.… Are we free if the government … subjects all its activities to the goal of enlarging its cohort of employees, hampers all businesses, constrains all faculties, interferes with all commercial exchanges in order to restrain some people, hinder others, and hold almost all of them to ransom?

Can we expect order from a regime that places millions of enticements to greed all around the country … increasingly spreading the mania for governing and a zeal for domination.

Do we want then to free government from the plotters who pursue it in order to share out the spoils, from factions who undermine it in order to capture it, and from the tyrants who strengthen it in order to control it? Do we want to achieve order, freedom and public peace?

Do we want the government to take more of an interest in us than we take in ourselves? Are we expecting it to restrain itself it we strengthen it and become less active if we send it reinforcements? Do we hope that the spoils it can take from us will be refused.… Should we expect a supernatural nobility of spirit or a chimerical impartiality in those who govern us, while for our part we are incapable of defending … our dearest interests!

Electors, be careful. We will not be able to retrieve the opportunity if we let it slip … we should not shut our eyes to the evidence … if there has been no material improvement, have we at least then been given any reason for hope? No.

[L]iberty … are we going to destroy its work with our votes?

Frederic Bastiat recognized that, in his era, politically popular "moderation" resulted in expanding government coercion, while extremism, which was continually attacked, meant commitment to defending liberty. Unfortunately, little seems to have changed when it comes to political punditry, beyond the explosion of media in which to misrepresent that crucial issue. But fortunately, if we recognize with Bastiat what is really at stake — a liberty too precious to be bargained over — such misleading rhetoric cannot fool us into becoming accomplices in destroying liberty with our political choices.

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. Send him mail. See Gary Galles's article archives.

This article was published on and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

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