Friday, October 30, 2015

Moderation as Vacuity

Americans sometimes claim to be moderate in their views.  "I don't believe in abolishing the Fed, for I am a moderate," is an example.  Moderation means limiting change to a moderate distance from present policy. But what if present policy is extreme?  Franklin Roosevelt might have said: "I don't believe in ending concentration camps for Japanese Americans. I believe in a more moderate course." Andrew Jackson might have said: "I don't believe in ending my policy of banishing all Native Americans east of the Mississippi. I believe in the moderate course of extending the Indian Removal Act to just one more tribe."

Is moderation as a mere increment meaningful in the context of policies whose effects are devastating or reprehensible?

There are other possible meanings, though. Perhaps moderation underlies a claim that state action is not a moral but a pragmatic question. "Only extremists hold that theft is wrong under all circumstances. We moderates hold that taxing some to redistribute to others is a pragmatic course."  Here, however, the claim is contradictory. If  morality that prohibits theft is extreme, why is the morality that motivates redistribution of wealth not an extreme? If it is wrong to say that theft is wrong, why is right to say that income inequality is wrong?

Since all government action involves violence, and since the elimination of violence is a prerequisite to the foundation of civilization, all government action involves moral choice.  Choice about violence,murder, or theft is inherently moral, and all government action involves violence, murder, or theft. Therefore, all government action is extreme if  extreme  is to be defined as making state decisions on the basis of morality.

A third possible meaning of moderation is that it accords with the majority.  The majority in America believe the claims made on television and in newspapers.  The writers in these sources are not well educated, and they have demonstrated a repeated capacity for advocating erroneous courses of action. One example was the Vietnam War.  Another was, in New York City, the urban renewal policies of Robert Moses.  A third was the Iraqi War and the strategy behind it. A fourth is America's monetary policy.  Ancient Athens lost the Peloponnesian War because it chose to invade Sicily, a decision that was politically popular. America's disastrous invasion of Iraq was similarly popular, and I was among the mistaken supporters.

In other words, defining moderation as incremental decision making, pragmatism, or accordance with majority rule potentially leads to policies that are extreme.  A fourth definition is mathematically certain, but it is also self-contradictory and equally vacuous.  The ancient Greeks defined sophrosyne (σωφροσύνη)  as temperance or moderation in the sense of  being well balanced.  Aristotle spoke of a range of virtues such as prudence, justice, and courage as well as sophrosyne. Moderation, in Aristotle's view, is the mean between two extremes.  Courage is the mean between rashness and cowardice, for instance.

Perhaps moderation in state action can mean the mean between two extreme courses of action.  In this sense, though, current American policies are not moderate.  An economy in which public debt is in excess of $55,000 per man, woman, and child, forty-four percent of whom have no savings, is hardly a mean between two extremes. It is an extreme. The same may be said of monetary policy. The tripling of the money supply in 2008 and 2009 can hardly be called a mean between two extremes: Historically, monetary expansion of that magnitude has led to economic collapse. Nor can we say that a nation that subsidizes one industry, banking, to the extent that the US government has is taking actions that are the midpoint between two extremes.

Moderation can be defined as a small increment over current policy, pragmatism, majority rule, or the mean between two extremes, but none of these meanings is inconsistent with policies that are genocidal, horrific, radically redistributive,  or economically destructive.  Americans' claim that their choices are moderate, like their claim that they are free or their claim that they are prosperous, is a chimera.

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