Monday, 10 August 2009

On Extremism

It is fashionable to advocate moderate government policies. “Extreme”, or radical, views are frowned upon or openly attacked. In some cases, it is right to denounce extremism. However in today’s world extremism per se is denounced, and I believe this is a serious error.

Part of the reason for this fashion is the widespread belief in the left-right political paradigm, wherein all political viewpoints are placed on a 1-dimensional axis and called either “left-wing” or “right-wing”. At the two extremes of this political paradigm are said to be Communism (extreme left) and Fascism (extreme right). Since both of these views are generally considered (rightfully) bad, most people conclude that a good position must lie somewhere between the two extremes – the moderate position.

The terms “left” and “right” are ill-defined, and different people tend to have their own personal definitions of what these terms mean. “Left-wingers” tend to oppose private property and support massive wealth redistribution. “Right-wingers” tend to oppose heavy wealth distribution and support price controls (tariffs, subsidies, minimum wage, etc), product controls (regulations) and behavioral controls (bans on guns, drugs, prostitution, etc).

For a more in-depth analysis of the left-right political paradigm, see

The view that extremism per se should be denounced, and moderate views embraced, has led to the idea of moral relativism. This is the view that there is no such thing as absolute right and absolute wrong; that there is no such thing as absolute ethics, merely relative ethics. (It has also led to the popular view that truth is relative; that there is no such thing as absolute truth and absolute falsity, but merely different interpretations.)

Moral relativism and the rejection of extremism per se are misguided and dangerous, as the following simple example shows.

Consider a serial killer who murders children at a rate of 1 per week. Suppose that this particular killer is “above the law”; that is, murder laws do not apply to him.

Consider the following two positions could one take with regard to this situation:

1. The "Extreme" View; one could advocate that this killer should stop killing immediately.
2. The "Moderate" View; one could advocate that he cut down to, say, 1 child-murder per month.

There is little doubt which one of these is the correct moral position to advocate. Only by taking the first position can one consistently say that murder is wrong per se (a statement which few would disagree with). Few people would argue that the more moderate position is superior to the extreme position in this case. It could be said that the moderate view is more “realistic” and “achievable”. A reduction in the rate of child-murders would always be welcomed, but stopping the serial killer completely should always be held high as the ultimate goal and the only correct moral position.

If the number of murders this serial killer commits is a given, one could advocate a different form of murder:

3. The “Opposition” View; one could advocate that instead of murdering children, the killer should murder pensioners instead.

Few people would actually take this position, even though it may be “achievable”, because the wrong in this situation is not the particulars about who is being killed, but rather the concept of murder itself. Debates about whether it is preferable for children or pensioners to be killed would entirely miss the point.

Another position one could take is:

4. The "Other Extreme" View; one could advocate that the killer should kill more children, say, 1 per day.

The only people who might take this view are those who consider murder to be not only legitimate and acceptable, but also consider an increased murder-rate to be preferable. It is difficult to see how this position could ever be justified.

Let us now consider another example.

Government is defined as an organization with a monopoly of arbitration (law) over a certain territorial area. Being the sole producer of law, government is in the position to put its own actions “above the law”. They declare that some crimes committed by them are in fact “legal”. The most obvious example is taxation. There is no way to view taxation other than as mass theft carried out by the government against taxpayers. The word “tax” is a mere euphemism for theft-by-government.

Since governments write the law, they can choose how much they wish to steal from each person. After income tax, national insurance, council tax, VAT, excise taxes, and many other forms of taxation (notably inflation), it is not unusual for government to steal over half the income of the average individual. Consider the following two positions that one may take on this issue:

1. Anarchy; one could advocate that the government should stop stealing immediately.
2. Smaller Government; one could advocate that the government cut down its stealing to, say, 20% of individual income, and limit its activities accordingly.

Once again, it is clear which is the correct moral position to advocate, assuming one recognizes that taxation is theft and theft is immoral. And yet, there are more proponents of small government in the world than there are anarchists. Many people believe that government should be small (usually limited by a constitution to the protection of life, liberty and property) but should not be eliminated completely – i.e. “minarchy”.

As with the case of the serial killer, any reduction in government theft is to be welcomed, but it should not be advocated as the ultimate goal. Statists are unable to argue that stealing is wrong per se, because they advocate theft on a small scale. If stealing is not wrong per se (as all statists believe) then it is hard to argue against taxation on moral grounds.

Again it could be argued that small government is more “realistic” and “achievable” than no government at all. Some politicians advocate minarchist positions because it is more palatable to the general public than anarchy. Ron Paul is probably one of them, given his background in Austrian economics and friendships with anarchists such as Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell. This is a strategic decision. Rothbard and Rockwell frequently ally with minarchists against big government, while continuing to hold aloft the ultimate goal of libertarian anarchy.

While there are more minarchists than anarchists, the most popular political viewpoint is the following:

3. The “Opposition” View; one could advocate that the money stolen in taxation be distributed differently, or the form of government altered.

As in the case of advocating the serial killer targeting pensioners rather than children, this view completely misses the point. The wrong here is not the particular form of theft, or how the stolen money is distributed; it is the act of theft itself that is wrong.

Unfortunately, most mainstream political debate centers around what should be done with the loot. There are those on the “right” and those on the “left”, and every election a new group is elected, on promises to change the way government loot is distributed. Rarely is the amount of taxation or the size of government at the center of debate; merely the form of government, and which individuals will get a larger or smaller share of the stolen money. The morality of taxation is never discussed at all.

Over the years, government has grown bigger and bigger, stealing more and more wealth from productive individuals. The reason for this is the prevalence of the following view, which is naturally encouraged by governments through their control of education and the media.

4. The "Other Extreme" View; one could advocate that government increase stealing to, say, 60% of individual income.

Just as in the case of the serial killer, advocates must regard the act of taxation not only as legitimate and acceptable, but that higher taxes are preferable. Those who believe in increasing the size of government and the amount of taxation are called Communists (left-wing) or Fascists (right-wing).

Because it is fashionable to hold a “moderate” view, with both left- and right-wing elements, the government, as it has increased in size, has become a mixture of Communism and Fascism. Some industries are nationalized (and there is little or no debate about this), such as the protection, law enforcement, road management, money, education and healthcare industries. Other industries are heavily cartelized through regulations, such as the media, pharmaceutical, agriculture, banking, energy and insurance industries, which, due to nominal private ownership, are often mislabeled “free market” industries. All private businesses are subject to heavy restrictions on employee pay, working conditions, product controls and licensing. Personal behavior is regulated through bans on gun ownership, prostitution and drugs. The economy is distorted through inflation, fractional-reserve banking, subsidies, tariffs and other price controls. There is a large welfare state, transferring money from productive individuals to non-productive individuals, which is mislabeled “charity”. Finally, a significant portion of taxation is spent on overseas wars, mislabeled “peacekeeping” and “national defense”.

The obsession with details about the form of government – left or right – has led to virtually every area of life being controlled either directly or indirectly, by government.

The real debate should not be about how the government controls a certain industry, but about whether the government needs to be involved in that industry at all. Is government necessary?

It may be an extreme view to answer this question in the negative, but I believe it is the only ethical answer. All questions boil down to government vs. freedom, and freedom always wins.

No comments:

Post a Comment