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  /  Top News   /  Why Moderates Attack Radicals

Why Moderates Attack Radicals

In all times of state dominance, the instability of the system gives rise to two types of reformers: the moderates who want to work within the system but end up defending it, and the radicals who have the clarity to see that the only real solution is upheaval. If the latter prevail — and they often have in the history of politics — it is only after having endured the slings and arrows of the former.

The history of liberty is strewn with heroes who courageously championed radical reform, but in every case I can recall, these same people were traduced and reviled not only by the regime, but also by the moderate reformers, who always claimed to be working within the system. The moderates say that their efforts are being frustrated by the voices of the radicals, who are said to discredit the cause they purport to support.

This line of attack was used against the French liberal economist Frdric Bastiat, and still is. So it was with A.R.J. Turgot, the liberal reformer who served as finance minister under Louis XVI — Simon Schama says that his position in favor of radical reform discredited the efforts of the moderates. It was said of Cobden and Bright, as they sought to embarrass and disgrace the government and its bread tax. Their erstwhile allies constantly sought to muzzle them, with the idea that their extremism was harming an otherwise respectable cause.

So it was for Patrick Henry, who was urged to drop his agitations for revolution and, later, his attacks on the Constitution. F.A. Hayek was dogged by complaints that his radicalism was losing liberty more friends than it was gaining. Ludwig von Mises faced a blizzard of critics from German classical liberals, who somehow came to believe that liberalism’s greatest enemy was the scholar who refused to compromise.

Of course Rothbard faced a lifetime of tut-tutting from people who said his libertarianism was dangerously irresponsible. Today it is the same with this website, the Mises Institute,,, the Independent Institute, and every radical libertarian blogger, academic, or journalist who stands accused of harming the cause of reform by holding out an ideal.

The pattern repeats itself so often that it almost seems to be a law of history: the radicals who change history must do so over the resistance of the moderates, who claim to be friendly to the same cause, but somehow always end up on the side of established interests. Thus can we conjure up this conjectural conversation in the Kremlin, circa 1955:

Comrade Liberal: “Khrushchev knows the failures of Stalinism in economics. He should seize the chance and allow full private property in land, give the factories to the workers, allow people to work where they want, and empty the prisons of economic criminals.”

Comrade Conservative: “The way you talk! You are only discrediting the cause of reform! Our plan is to permit more personal production on public land, allow more flexibility in wages, speed up the applications process for permits to move, and give more power to regional economic councils so they can be more responsive to the people. Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good!”

Comrade Liberal: “But these are just cosmetic changes, and when they do not work, the cause of reform will have lost. We must tell the truth even if the powers that be don’t want to hear it.”

Comrade Conservative: “Don’t enlist me in your disloyal extremist efforts. What you propose is anarchy. You and your ideas remind me of the enemies of socialism we have worked so hard to eradicate. Better that you be silenced, else responsible reformers will never make any progress.”

Of course Khrushchev did reform along the conservative lines, and his failure ended up harming the idea of liberalization, thus delaying the inevitable and much needed upheaval for many decades. The upheaval happened anyway, and it occurred against the wishes and efforts of the moderate reformers, who had made their peace with the regime in the hopes of changing the system from the inside. The radicals on the outside couldn’t help but notice that the reformers seemed to be increasing, rather than reducing, the size of the state.

Concerning the dispute between moderates and radicals, the glaringly obvious is seldom pointed out: it is a heck of lot easier to be a moderate than a radical. To be a moderate means to side, at least partially and often largely or completely, with conventional wisdom. It means that you can be friendly with powerful people because you are no threat to them. It means you accept the legitimacy of the established mechanisms for change, and thereby implicitly approve them.

Think of a prison populated by those who are planning a break and those who seek better food and more exercise time. To look at the two groups, there is no visible difference between the way they treat the wardens, except that internally those who plan to escape regard them as the enemy, while those who seek prison reform reconcile themselves to the warden-prisoner relationship, and try to get the best terms for themselves.

Who do the reformers fear most? Not the wardens, but the radicals whom they believe are setting back their cause. The radicals know that the reformers are not friends at all, but sideliners seeking favors from the privileged elite, for to seek and gain favor from powerful people, even in an ostensibly sensible cause, is to infuse the existing system with a legitimacy it does not deserve.

The analogy works in a huge range of cases from taxes to social security to education to foreign policy. Reformers are forever congratulating themselves for their respectability, etc., but in fact they are part of the problem. If the cause of freedom wins, it will be because of the pressure from the radicals felt by those in power.

As Mises said, no government is liberal by nature. Governments grant liberty only when forced to do so by public opinion. What causes a government to act is fear of opposition. But somehow, against all evidence, moderate reformers continue to believe that the powerful can be influenced by praise, cocktail parties, and the suggestion of marginal reforms.

The difference between the radical and the moderate is not one of degree. It is an intellectual and mental outlook of a completely different sort, one that goes to the very heart of whether one views the people in power as the source of the problem, or the source of the solution.

Let’s consider an example.

A radical says: get the troops out of Iraq now! The implicit message is: the state cannot be trusted, the troops are causing trouble rather than helping, the US never should have invaded, and almost everything you hear from the government about this war is a lie.

A moderate reformer says: yes, get the troops out, but not yet. The implicit message is: we can trust the state to make the right judgment about when to leave, for now the troops are performing a service of some value, the invasion has done some good and we should complete the job, and the state is right that it is a source of some degree of order and justice in Iraq.

Now, this is a small change in words and political orientation that masks a massive difference in world view. The radical doesn’t trust the state to reform itself. The moderate does. The radical does not seek the state’s favor. The moderate depends wholly on it.

History, I believe, is on the side of the radical, for the moderate wants to play it safe. Now, for the most part, the moderate is a harmless creature, neither here nor there in terms of the overall direction of history, except in the following sense: he is useful to the powers-that-be as an instrument to keep the radicals in line.

This is precisely the role that the moderate critics of the Iraq War are now playing. They are blasting away at the antiwar crowd on the ostensible grounds that they too want to end the war, but we are making it harder for them to do so. What they are saying is that they favor the troops staying up until a certain point. This is the same as siding with the warmongers, just with different rhetoric.

The moderates always seem to come down on the side of the prison wardens. Only when the radicals have broken through the wall, and the path is perfectly clear and safe, do they grab the chance and make a run for it. In retrospect, for example, even moderate libertarians grant that the American Revolution, repealing the Corn Laws, and overthrowing Soviet central planning were wonderful things. But they know in their hearts that they would have lacked the courage to do their part.

This article was originally published on Feb. 5, 2005. 

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