Moderation is a much-abused and misunderstood position that is usually equated with fence-straddling or indecisiveness. Its ancient meaning, however, consisted in avoiding extremes of passion in both private life and politics. Therein lies our challenge for this troubled age.
The two most powerful secular substitutes for genuine religious faith in our time are egalitarianism and libertarianism. Depending on the issue, these seductive ideals have been embraced by both Left and Right. But by and large the passion for (as distinguished from the understanding of) equality concentrates the mind of the Left and a passion for liberty galvanizes the Right.
Like even the most addlepated ideas, these typically opposed ideals have some truth. After all, the Declaration of Independence teaches that “all men are created equal” in their rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The Preamble to the United States Constitution dedicates us to “securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
But the Declaration’s case for independence from Great Britain is based squarely on the moral virtue of prudence, which advised against revolution for merely “light and transient causes;” Indeed, that extreme political action was based on evidence of oppression and not only on popular discontent.
The Declaration also teaches that good government is based on “the consent of the governed.” But contrary to many partisans of democracy, this does not mean that the majority is always right. Both the Declaration and the Constitution enjoin the majority to be dedicated not only to equality and liberty but also to the common defense, the general welfare, justice for all and the Union of all the states.
The sheer complexity of government points to the necessity for prudence as we often must decide which of our national objectives to give priority in what Chief Justice John Marshall called “the changing circumstances of human affairs.” We must always be principled but always prudent too.
The doctrine which many mistake for prudence is pragmatism. Simply put, that poor substitute for the real thing enjoins us only to determine what “works,” whether or not we violate true principles. But the claims of pragmatism are as phony as the doctrine itself.
Notwithstanding the Left’s delirious love affair with equality, its minions these days often deny the obvious and proclaim their desire to solve problems. President Obama consistently said that health care was a mess that the Affordable Care Act could “fix.” But despite evidence of massive problems from a faulty website and under-enrollment to soaring premiums and deductibles, not to mention loss of insurance plans, competition and doctors — predicable defects of this government-run program — he insisted that a few adjustments here and there would save it. Of course, these will not “work.”
The Left’s obsession with income inequality betrays the vices of envy and jealousy behind the mask of idealism. The best judge of whether someone is paid too much or too little is the marketplace, not the government. What that really means is that free men and women should make these decisions for themselves. If leftists really loved liberty, they would understand that.
The Left has a fondness for libertarianism, though, when it comes to matters of the heart. Its mantra is that we should be free to marry the persons we love, regardless of their sex — or anything else, I suspect. But I maintain that this preoccupation has less to do with love of liberty than a desire to elevate heretofore (and forevermore) illicit desires with those which underlay good marriages and stable families which, in turn, provide the foundation for civil society and good order.
Libertarians on the Right share the Left’s obsession with sexual freedom, leading them to support legalization of recreational drugs, prostitution and abortion on demand. But what really gets their dander up are government commitments to national security and public peace. They are right that these can override individual liberty or group interests (think Muslims here), but they are wrong to imagine that they must be uniformly resisted.
Representative government necessarily entails discretion by our leaders who, if they are truly public servants, understand that without national security and public peace, neither liberty nor equality are possible. The independence of the United States and the safety of its citizens are the preconditions for the enjoyment of what the Constitution identifies as “the privileges and immunities of citizenship.”
Or course, this means we must secure our borders against any sort of invasion, not allow Democrats to harvest millions of votes or Republicans to hire cheap labor. Above all, we must uphold the lofty status of American citizenship. That entails ordered liberty and equal rights together, not the pursuit of one at the expense of the other.
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow Community College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of "Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org