Radicalism and Moderation: Friends or Foes

JohnKnetemann

Students For Liberty is a big tent organization. We have classical liberals of many kinds within our ranks, whether conservative libertarians, anarchists, minarchists, objectivists, left-libertarians, or moderate libertarians.

For me, I have been all over the radar of classical liberalism. I joined the movement as a neo-conservative interested in the message of Ron Paul. I attended my first Students For Liberty Regional Conference in 2013, and was almost immediately sold to the ideas of anarchism and minarchism. I say both because I flipped between the two frequently. I could wake up on a Monday and feel particularly radical as an anarchist. By lunchtime the next day I would feel much more like a minarchist, but only to switch back to an anarchist the next day. I have heard this internal conflict is common among many minarchists and anarchists debating whether there should literally be no government or if there should just be a government the size of a piece of sand.

As I came into the movement, Ayn Rand was an early influence. I joined SFL, which was under the leadership of Alexander McCobin, probably the most knowledgeable objectivist I had ever met. So not only did I affiliate myself as an anarchist/minarchist, but I also thought of myself as an objectivist to some degree. Then I joined a fraternity. How could an objectivist reconcile being a part such an obvious display of collectivism, especially within the particular fraternity I was a part of? Selfish individualism was cursed, and altruistic brotherhood put on a pedestal. I abandoned objectivism.

I could continue going through each phase of my classical liberalism, however this story could go on for quite awhile. To make a long story short, I have affiliated myself as a conservative, an anarchist, a minarchist, an objectivist, a left-libertarian, a constitutionalist, and a moderate libertarian. Constitutionalism and moderate libertarianism is where I am at now. If I were to describe the key values of my ideas, I would use the words liberalism, tolerance, compromise, consent, and trade. I am as moderate as they come. I see no issue with libertarians making compromises in politics in order to make people more free. Though, it matters what the compromise is, of course. For example, I see no issue with the government putting high taxes on recreational marijuana if it means taking it out of prohibition and not throwing people in jail for a non-violent crime. I by no means like the high taxes, but it is a trade off I am willing to make.

However, radical libertarians will scoff at me for this. I imagine I will get plenty of criticism for what I just wrote. Radical libertarians appeal incredibly hard to a consistent political/philosophical framework, and refuse to accept anything less. Moderates appeal to pragmatism and marginal improvements. Radicals criticize moderates for being too compromising, thus being counterproductive to liberty. Moderates criticize radicals for having unrealistic goals, thus being counterproductive to liberty.

Though, is this the case? To me, I think both radicals and moderates should be more accepting of each other because they need each other. Both are incredibly important for both groups’ goals.

For a moderate, the radical pushes the Overton window. In the arena of ideas, a radical will push for extreme positions. In the case for liberals, the anarchist will push for the abolition of the state, the abolition of prisons, the abolition of law enforcement, etc. When they advocate for these ideas, they may convince a few to their view point, but in total, I think most people don’t accept these arguments. However, while people may not accept the views of prison abolition, they may still agree with the sentiment of the anarchist that injustice is being done. This is the queue for the moderate to come in. The moderate libertarian comes in and advocates for prison reform. That now seems much more reasonable in direct relation to prison abolition. The audience (audience in a general sense) may have not accepted the prison reform argument before because they thought it too was too extreme, but in comparison to the anarchist’s views, it is sensible. The moderate clearly benefits from the radical.

For a radical, the moderate also pushes the Overton window. The moderate is the one that is enacting marginal change in politics. Every time the moderate libertarian passes governmental reform or downsizes the government in some small way, the radical’s position only seems that much more realistic. An audience may be entirely skeptical of eliminating government all together, but every time the moderate downsizes government, this provides evidence for the radical to use to advocate for an absence of government. Imagine an anarchist saying: “You say that you find the abolition of the state unreasonable. However, if we look at example A, B, and C, we can see that the government becoming uninvolved in these areas greatly increased quality of living. It could, thus, be argued that it is the same with all government”. Furthermore, when a government is small in contrast to being huge, completely getting rid of it is definitely less of a leap for people to make.

With this lens, it is obvious to see that moderates and radicals aren’t clashing with one another, but instead helping one another with their specific goals. They have no intention of helping each other, but their actions help one another regardless. So much so that I would say they not only help each other, but they need each other in order to accomplish their goals, especially within the scope of classical liberalism.

Though, I am a moderate. So I am willing to make a compromise on this view…