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Moderation: Virtue or Vice?


The death of Rhode Island Senator John Chafee provides an occasion to look at some fundamentals of what passes for political philosophy in the United States. Chafee was one of those Republicans best loved by big government advocates everywhere, including those at the editorial pages of the establishment newspapers. When he died of heart failure at 77, he was praised as a “moderate Republican.” President Clinton said Chafee’s name was synonymous with “bipartisanship.” The Washington Post wrote, “On issue after issue — access to health care, access to child care, environmental questions — he would patiently try to legislate rather than strike a political pose. Too often he was defeated by the parties, not least his own.” It is no coincidence that on each issue named by the Post, Chafee favored government coercion over the private property and the rule of law. Thus, to doggedly insist on limits to government power is merely to “strike a political pose.” To blithely authorize expansion of power, oblivious of the inevitable bad consequences, is nobly “to legislate.”

That is bias parading as objectivity. The establishment leaders and media claim to value frank and open debate. But where the rubber meets the road, they brand as “extreme” any opponent who refuses to yield his principles and they praise anyone as a moderate who adopts their one-sided positions. In other words, the defenders of the fundamental political status quo really don’t want a debate at all. They pay lip service to diversity, but they draw the line at diversity of political thought.

When you get right down to it, there are only two fundamental political philosophies. Today’s dominant philosophy holds that government, which some romanticize as acting in the name of “the people,” may use physical force to accomplish its goals, even if it means coercing people who have not aggressed against others. Taxation and government distributive and regulatory measures entail such force. The minority, libertarian, view holds that it is wrong to use force against peaceful people even to achieve desirable ends.

Note the relationship of these two philosophies to commonly accepted moral principles. Most of us agree that no private individual has the right to coerce peaceful people or appropriate their belongings. No one would approve of my taking my neighbor’s wallet so that I may have retirement income or build bombs to drop on Serbia. The statists, however, believe that the conduct forbidden to me is permissible for government. The libertarian, in opposing government intervention in all creative pursuits, simply asks how the state, or “the people,” can have rights that no individual possesses. The statists don’t bother themselves with that question. The inconsistency between personal and political morality is ignored. They have to ignore it because there is no coherent answer to the question posed by the libertarian. The state can have no rights not first held by private individuals.

That doesn’t stop the state from wielding illegitimate powers founded on fictitious rights. The statists are at least partly aware of that illegitimacy and that bothers them. That’s why they smear anyone who persists in pointing out their inconsistency. Anyone who refuses to compromise his belief in individual freedom has to be silenced by way of the smear. That tactic is intended to avoid a discussion of principles.

This explains why people like Senator Chafee are so revered. By lionizing Chafee for his “moderation” the word is put out: the way to respectability is compromise-which means: acceptance of state coercion.

But some things cannot be compromised. Individual freedom is one of them.

The irony is than the Republican Party is no more committed to individual freedom that the Democratic Party. Despite their surface differences, each supports a spectrum of government powers that steal from and otherwise compel peaceful, productive citizens. Moderate Republicans, therefore, are those willing to compromise even more than the bedrock of the party does. They eagerly depart even further from the principles on which this country was founded.

No wonder they are so beloved by avowed statists everywhere.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.