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.