Will Wilkinson of the Niskansen Center has written two separate posts supposedly proving the famous Barry Goldwater quote false. That quote goes something like this: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” It’s become a classic call the “arms” in libertarian circles, and rightly so. The quote captures the revolutionary spirit of liberty, and the enthusiasm of those who champion a free society. Wilkinson begs to differ. In two rather long-winded posts that don’t seem to accomplish anything, Wilkinson lays out his case against the immortal Goldwater quote (written by Karl Hess). Both posts really seem to be nothing more than an attempt to throw cold water on a cherished, galvanizing sentiment among liberty-lovers.
Before addressing Wilkinson’s objections, I want to consider what the Goldwater quote conjurs up in the hearts and minds of liberty-lovers. When libertarians hear this, they aren’t usually equating “extremism” with violence. In Wilkinson’s second post, he uses Timothy McVeigh’s mass murdering act as an example of extremism “in defense of liberty”. I’m sorry, but I don’t see how the rest of his essay can be taken seriously. I have never encountered a libertarian who was of the opinion that mass murder against innocents would count as acceptable “extremism in the defense of liberty”. “Extremism in the defense of liberty”, to every libertarian I’ve met, denotes intransigence, an unwillingness to compromise, to sacrifice principle to expediency. Violence isn’t on the spectrum between extremism and moderation for almost all libertarians. If you take violence out of the equation, Wilkinson’s essays become a rambling, nit-picky attempt to
When I think of the difference between extremism and moderation, I think of the difference between a Ron Paul and every other Republican politician. Ron Paul was of course not violent, but he was considered “extreme” in his political views by the mainstream political Establishment.
The Goldwater quote is a rousing sentiment that stirs up the idealism of libertarians, and the history of liberty is filled with similar quotations. I suspect that, contra Wilkinson, libertarians are dusting off their Aristotle to glean the exact meaning of “extremism” and “moderation”.
“Moderation” gets us nowhere. Rand Paul is a prime example of the futility of moderating a defense of liberty. It loses the idealists, the die-hard supporters, and gains nothing in return.