Isaac Cambron


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Will Wilkinson on Extremism and Libertarianism

Jan 6, 2016

Will Wilkinson has a piece on Barry Goldwater’s line “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice”. I guess the idea is to use his criticism of that line as a sort launching point for a larger discussion about libertarianism. I don’t have any particularly strong opinions about libertarianism as a whole and I have no special affinity for that quote, but I think the piece ends up being pretty empty.

Here’s what seems like the core of the argument:

If, as Aristotle says, virtue is a mean between a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency—a middle-ground between two extremes—then to be virtuous is to have a certain kind of moderate temper. Extremes are vices by definition.

We also have that violence is part of the extremism bundle:

The questionable character of extremism is anyway right there on the surface of our ordinary understanding of the term. There is a whiff of violence, or at least danger, about extremism. Extremists reject mainstream opinion, including mainstream opinion about acceptable political tactics. To embrace extremism in defense of something is to at least flirt with the idea that violence isn’t out of the question.

I will give Wilkinson that no one’s moral system holds violence to be a virtue in itself, so I’m on board with this labeling. And if he wants to define virtue in such a way that it precludes extremism, who am I to argue, except to point out that sometimes maybe we shouldn’t be virtuous? But the problem is that Wilkinson doesn’t really believe that extremism=non-virtue is tautological for any useful sense of virtue:

Throughout its history, America’s white supremacist institutions have been so violently opposed to the liberty of black people that it was not unreasonable to believe that something extreme might need to be done to finally win them a modicum of freedom.


Sometimes circumstances legitimately call for extreme measures. A civil war to free enslaved human beings would be a good example. Goldwater’s example, D-Day, is another case in which extreme, extremely violent, measures were not unvirtuously excessive.

I think there’s a great deal of danger in throwing around Aristotle’s definition of virtue haphazardously. It’s not that it’s wrong, it’s that it asks “excess” and “deficiency” to do the heavy lifting, while simultaneously relegating them to the background. Virtue is staying well between some hash marks, but who sets those hash marks, and are they set right? And in that last quotation, look how much work “legitimately” is doing. Extremism is unvirtuous except when it’s actually justified. In the case of, say, slavery, the problem is precisely that the hash marks were set so insanely wrong by society at large. How extreme of action your moral framework justifies is a function of how different the hegemonic definition of “excess” and “deficiency” differ from your moral framework’s. So “when is violent action justified?” is the actual question here, the thing on which the quote’s truth (or at least value) hinges. Its answer is “when it’s in defense of liberty”. Wilkinson disagrees, obviously, but doesn’t really tell us why. The concluding paragraph gives us a hint:

If you’re engaged in a literal war between good and evil, then maybe you’ve got to do what it takes and kill people. But politics is not war. If you’re a senator from Arizona, or a think tank scholar engaged in normal domestic politics of a stable liberal democracy, extremism is no virtue.

But just a hint. Politics clearly can be war—the American Revolution was a political war—but I think Wilkinson simply means everyday American politics. If the argument is merely that the stakes are too low to justify violent action—that the moral calculus doesn’t add up—then I agree, but then I wonder what bearing all the preceding paragraphs have. Perhaps the point is that Goldwater is wrong because he leaves out even a handwavy notion of proportionality; it’s clearly untrue that any imposition on your freedom justifies any action. But who interprets the line that way? No one, apparently:

Almost everyone who repeats Goldwater’s slogan is guilty of hyperbole and doesn’t really mean what they’re saying. Barry Goldwater himself certainly didn’t think that it is “no vice” to murder scores of innocent people in defense of liberty.

In fact, Wilkinson doesn’t even think the quote itself implies that:

That said, if extremism in defense of liberty is warranted, it doesn’t quite follow that it’s okay to use any means necessary to that defense. (Malcolm X certainly would not have endorsed, say, the nuclear annihilation of Manhattan in exchange for the end of systemic racial oppression in America.)

Certainly, Goldwater himself had a hard time articulating how the imposition of being forced to let black people use your supposedly public bathroom can be usefully compared to the threat of Axis domination of the world, and thus justifies morally equivalent action. But as Wilkinson points out, “it requires a special sort of obtuseness to insist that Goldwater was only making some sort of abstract, historically acontextual point about the politics of liberty.” In other words, the reason that Goldwater thought the delta between how the world ought to work and how it works was only sufficiently big, in his mind, to justify violence is that he was profoundly racist. Which doesn’t tell us anything other than racism can make people jerks.

On the one hand, I’d certainly be sympathetic to the point that the “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” doesn’t really constitute a principled moral position, that it isn’t dispositive on any actual questions of right and wrong. But on the other hand, that’s also why, once we’ve waded through a lot of definitional fiat, it ends up being a banal point to quibble with. What’s missing here is an engagement with the moral philosophy of libertarianism as it relates to this quote: when should you resort to extreme measures on behalf of freedom, and how does that compare to how people apply that line?