What’s So Bad about Extremism?

Jonah Goldberg echoes Barry Goldwater’s famous dictum, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue” in his latest column.

Consider the current immigration debate. The Senate version of the immigration bill calls for a three-tier system for illegal immigrants. If you’ve been here for fewer than two years, you’ve got to go. If you’ve been here for two to five years, you’d have to leave briefly at a convenient time and sign up for the guest-worker program. Those here for more than five years could get citizenship. It’s a perfectly centrist, middle-of-the-road solution. Everybody gets something. And, quite simply, it’s idiotic.

“You can see how it has the earmarks of a political compromise,” former Immigration and Naturalization Service Director Doris Meissner told NPR, “but from an implementation standpoint, it’s essentially unworkable.” Almost by definition, illegal immigrants don’t create a paper trail when they come into the country. Hence, proving how long they’ve resided here presents a real challenge. It also creates massive opportunities for fraud and opens the door to a truly extreme bureaucratic expansion where immigration officials will have to study everything from ATM receipts to soccer team photos to figure out how long each immigrant has been here. The extreme liberal position of blanket amnesty and the extreme conservative position of blanket enforcement both make a lot more sense intellectually and practically.

This sort of thing is typical across the political landscape. Personally, I believe the radical remedy of privatizing health care in this country makes a lot of sense. But, I’m also inclined to believe that the Left’s extreme solution of government-run health care—or “single-payer”—has a lot more going for it intellectually than the crazy quilt of regulations and grotesquely distorted markets we have today.

Goldberg’s argument is sound as far as it goes. Often, compromise solutions are indeed both unworkable and intellectually baffling.

Still, true extremism is often even worse. The “extremes” Goldberg cites on illegal immigration reform are not particularly extreme; their logical extensions–a shoot to kill policy at border crossings or true open borders–are.

And, while I tend to agree a pure market or a pure socialist system of health care both might be more efficient than the current patchwork solution, it’s not clear that either would be preferable. A pure market approach would leave the poor and the mentally incompetent unprotected; while that may have good effects from a Darwinian standpoint, that would be horrible morally. A pure government system might well be cheaper in the aggregate and would certainly be more uniform. It would also undoubtedly provide less choice and lower quality care for the vast majority who are now well insured or able to self-finance.

Compromise solutions also have the virtue of being socially acceptable. We live in a gigantic, diverse society. Even if it were politically possible for one side or the other to get 100 percent of what they want on each issue, such a winner-take-all outcome would polarize politics to a level that would make the current acrimony seem like a tea party.

Indeed, it could quite literally lead to civil war. Jonah Goldberg would doubtless have hated the Missouri Compromise of 1820. It was essentially arbitrary, morally bankrupt, and unconstitutional. Yet, when the Supreme Court overturned it with the 1856 Dred Scot case, the result was disastrous.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ken says:

    Actually James, the fact is that national health care provides far better health care at a much lower cost for more people than does our current free market based health care. At least that is the objective fact based on those countries that have a national health care plan.

    This success would be impossible to achieve here however as long as conservatives have any say in the matter. They would sabotage it every way they could to make sure it was a failure.

  2. floyd says:

    the only thing preventing a “civil war” today is a lack of geographical boundaries that match ideologies.red and blue states are often internally close to 50/50 on the issues that divide us, so i guess we’ll have to continue our “uncivil war” of politics.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Ken: A single payer system might provide better care for more people given that some people are only covered at the margins. But for the vast majority who are well insured, our system provides much better care, more choice, and more flexibility than seen in even the best state systems.

  4. madawaskan says:

    Goldwater made that comment in reference to fighting Communism-the pre-iminent threat to national security of the day.

    I don’t think he would be for undermining a war time President by citing extremism as a way to erode, and fracture the party.

    Goldwater was a work in progress and evolved overtime he came to loathe party disunity.

    He also didn’t cotton to racism and being of Jewish heritage-his mother-he had a famous story about how we was not allowed at certain golf clubs because of his last name.

    Finally, Barry Goldwater was one fine damn pilot and he loved the Air Force. He came to the Academy frequently and the cadets use to try and stump him and find a plane that he didn’t fly. One time the cadets decided to throw helicopters at him. Damn it if he hadn’t flown one of those or several.

    There is no way in hell Barry Goldwater would be liking what Buckley at NRO-the East Coast Republican that has decided he ain’t all that for the war-never really was thank you very much-is doing.

    There is no way in hell that Barry Goldwater would cotton to Republican’s throwing around impeachment as the neo-vote of confidence. There is no way in hell Barry Goldwater would like that faux patriot Michelle Malkin-and he’d tell her so in very colorful language.

  5. madmatt says:

    What vast majority of insured are you talking about…you must think 58% who even have health insurance have good quality service…that is so intellectually dishonest as to be amusing.

  6. ICallMasICM says:

    ‘At least that is the objective fact based on those countries that have a national health care plan. ‘

    Obviously you don’t know what the words ‘objective’ and ‘fact’ mean. There are benefits to national health care for some but it’s certainly not ‘far better’ for most people.

  7. To me, the real loss associated with a socialized system is the things we wouldn’t see. By taking a poorly functioning market system, as we have today, and making it more monopolistic we would punish innovation.

    Germany used to be called the “medicine cabinet” of Europe. Look at them today; little to no innovation in recent decades. The same thing has happened in Sweden, whose largest pharmaceutical company has its main research in the Boston area.

    I could go on, but Megan puts it better than I could:

    That also tells us that if we got single payer here, prices worldwide would have to go up, or R&D would collapse — industries that sell at marginal-cost pricing do not have big research budgets. Yes, my single-payer-loving friends, so would the 1% of industry revenues that gets spent on advertising, plus whatever boondoggles they give the doctors. I’m more worried about the 20% R&D spending, thanks. If Canadians and Europeans were smart, they’d stop snotting about our health care system and start rushing to assure us that it’s — “just awful — nothing you’d ever want to try for yourself”.