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Moderation: Then and Now

June 4, 2001

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AristotleIn ancient times, the philosopher Aristotle championed a policy of moderation, by which he meant steering a path between two faulty extremes. For example, there is an alternative to acting cowardly and being rash, and that moderate position is the virtue of courage. This doctrine of the mean, as it came to be known, is the core of ancient ethical teaching. It embraces the kind of behavior we expect from people we admire: wisdom, prudence, justice, temperance, and the like.

In our time, however, the policy of moderation has become confused with a policy of pragmatism. That is to say, when someone is identified as a moderate, say, in Congress, what is being conveyed is that this person does not adhere to any firm political and public policy principles but vacillates between ones that happen to be in vogue.

Some folks believe, on principle, that taxes ought to be reduced because the money belongs to individual citizens, not the state. Hence, they support tax cuts. Others hold, again on principle, that taxes should be increased because wealth belongs to us all and, except for some personal expenses, it needs to be available for public expenses. Hence, they vote for tax increases.

Now comes the moderate: "Let’s have taxes up to the point that people will not revolt, but let’s not actually worry about who the money belongs to. It is all a matter of expediency and what we can get away with."

In many areas, moderation has come to mean merely lacking principle and/or trying to keep power by way of shrewd public relations. Hence, a moderate Democrat is someone who rejects the principled position of committed Democrats. Instead, the person backs whatever policy meets with the widest consensus throughout the country or otherwise is in the politician’s best interest. The view here is that it is quite fine to be a majoritarian, whatever the moral quality of the majority's position may be, because it is best for one’s career.

Jim Jeffords (VT)A moderate Republican is said to reject various positions of traditional Republicans—such as being pro-life, pro-business, pro-military. He can't be counted on to reject or endorse any particular philosophical bent of any legislation. Whether he supports or opposes a tax cut, for example, depends on factors unrelated to the merit of the ideals behind the bill.

In short, he is unprincipled and wishy-washy, and never sticks his neck out. This is considered to be virtuous, elevated, and wise, whereas thinking that adheres to ideals with intelligence and vigilance is treated as dogmatic, rigid, and even unthinking.

What would one think of applying this sort of classification to personal and social morality? Suppose someone vacillated between telling the truth and lying. Or engaging in consensual versus forced sexual relations? Or dealing with people peacefully versus occasionally deploying physical force. Would one consider such people moderates? Would they be the level-headed, sensible people amongst us? Or would they be spineless, weak-willed people who lack the character and the willpower to do the right thing when it's difficult?

I'd rather know where a person stands on various kinds of issues so I can count on what he or she will do rather than deal with one who lacks a moral center. In politics, this means not embracing compromisers and not championing those who want to subject public policy to the arbitrary, popularity-driven will of politicians and bureaucrats, but instead looking for people who have principles one can count upon.

Only when you have taken a stand can we discuss whether your principles are good or bad. As it is, with this adoration that appears to be bestowed upon moderates, what is being promoted, practically speaking, is not the rule of law—which requires principled commitment to live by various legal ideals—but the rule of the arbitrary will of those who happen to have power. Whatever they say at the moment is what becomes law.

Throughout the world, where countries are in turmoil, the most common cause of the turmoil is the absence of a workable legal infrastructure. There are no reliable, dependable policies and laws that can ensure that people act with an eye to long-range consequences. This is why so many of those countries are in economic disarray and lack civil order.

One reason so many people still trust the economy of the United States is that its legal system has the reputation of being dependable and steady, at least as compared to other countries. With the current media promotion of the ideal of "moderation," however, that reputation is in peril.

Once it becomes evident that, in the United States, politicians and bureaucrats, not stable legal rules, govern, the confidence in the country will begin to diminish. That is just one casualty of abandoning the ideal of principled politics. The modern notion of moderation has become nothing more than a justification for the ancient vices of cowardice, obsequiousness, shamelessness, and buffoonery.

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Tibor R. Machan teaches business ethics at Chapman University and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. See his Mises.org Archive or send him MAIL.


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