Moderation, Tolerance – and Reality

A liberal friend was lamenting on facebook today the state of affairs where Newt Gingrich is a moderate.

Frankly, and as a conservative, I'd have to agree.  There's no question he fits the category reasonably well: his own views seem to be more or less in line with a conservative ideology, but he doesn't seem to be over-committed to any of them, is in many ways a "DC insider", and has proven more than willing over his political career to play ball with the big-government kooks.  Hardball, sometimes, but Verlander doesn't stop being a pitcher because no one can hit him.  When conservativism (at least supposedly) favors small government, that all makes him either a hypocrite or a moderate or perhaps both – but I'm feeling polite.

And this is one of the guys supposedly headlining the supposedly conservative Republican candidate selection?  Sheesh.

There's a simple problem with moderation: some topics simply don't allow for it.

If my family are pacifists, and your family believes in a universal draft, and we agree to "compromise" and just draft one person per family, that's not a compromise – your agenda has won in principle, and the rest, as Churchill said, is just haggling about the price.

If some crazy professor thinks we should force abortions to prevent population growth, and some priest thinks abortion is evil – occasionally a medically necessary evil to save more life, but still not a good thing – and the "compromise" is that people can kill infants if they want to, that's not a compromise: the side that thinks killing the babies is okay has won in principle, and the only question is who gets to decide who has to die.

Are we seeing the problem here?

Sure, there are issues on which compromise is possible, but in order to compromise some level of agreement is necessary.  If, for example, I think a car is worth five thousand dollars, and the dealer thinks it's worth sixty-eight hundred, we can eventually compromise, perhaps at six thousand.  But it's only possible because we both agree the car is worth something.  If I'm a Luddite who thinks cars are a deception of the devil, the car has what can only be described as negative value, and any possible sale – even if I were to frustrate the dealer so much he convinced me to buy the car for $1 – is a net win for the dealer who thinks it's worth something.

If you say you think that all violence is always wrong, and I'm in favor of executing petty thieves, but you get argued into justifying self-defense, you've lost the logical argument – only the degree is in question, not the fact of retribution.

Which is why recent politics show up as a lot of nonsense.  For example: One side – supposedly extreme – wants to stop spending money we don't have.  The other side – supposedly backed up by the ivory towers – wants to spend even more money we don't have than we're already spending.  And the supposed "compromise" positions have, at their most conservative, suggested that we should spend less money that we don't have than we're currently spending, but really there's nothing wrong with spending money we don't have… which is a net win for the people who want to spend money we don't have.

In case you've somehow missed the point to this point, here's the short version: if the choices are "all" and "not any ever", "some" is not a compromise: it's a logical victory for the side of "all" and future choices will move further and further towards "all" unless actively overturned.  Political Exhibit A?  Growth of the United States Federal government since... let's say since World War One at the absolute latest.


  1. Umm...how about growth of U.S. Federal government since the War of Northern agression, Lincoln railroading states' rights and suspending habeas corpus, the unitary theory of the executive, etc. It's a more or less incidental point, but I think the expansion of (let's call it what it is) central power began long before the end of WWI.

    Also, politics is a pragmatic game. It's about fighting battles of attrition. If Newt looks like he's going to slow the slide more and/or better than someone else, I'll vote for him. Why get exercised about the fact that this is illogical and corrupt? Are we surprised? Let Plunkett be who he is...

  2. I was trying to keep way way away from that topic – that's why I chose a later (indisputable) date and threw in the "at the latest". We've discussed this before (offline) and while I don't disagree with you, it's not necessary to make the point, and tends to derail discussion in a black hole sort of way. (Assuming anyone reads my blog, that is.)

    While again I agree that politics is pragmatic, I think the fact that things which are going on are wrong, and that "compromise" is not a long-term solution, gets lost in the noise of the pragmatism of the moment. If Hitler shoots ten Jews every day, and someone persuades him to only shoot five, it's an improvement of sorts – but it's an entirely negative improvement, as the basic problem persists.

    I object to the idea commonly put forward of compromise as a principle. Compromise is a necessary fact of politics, but in order to compromise you have to start with two positions to compromise between.

  3. Godfrey's Law. You lose.

    I'm not sure the scenarios in question are similar enough to warrant the analogy with Hitler shooting Jews. This is an instance of reductio ad absurdam. Not all political matters deal with clear and distinct moral categories of good versus evil; far more often, I think, prudence dictates between mundane options, between competing goods, and even competing evils.

  4. In the spirit of petty objections, I'll note that I always heard it referred to as Godwin's Law, not Godfrey's – and in any event it's merely a rhetorical guideline, not a logical principle.

    And in fact, contrary to your allegation, there is no argument made ad absurdam: the illustration is a clear case of the logical principle and moral principle coinciding, which is more or less the opposite of the reductio. I admit that many of the other situations I cited are murkier morally, but not logically.

    To say that politics is a game of compromise and unclear choices is not incorrect; but too often the lesser evil ends up presented as a good in se instead of being recognized for what it is.