Will Wilkinson’s criticism of Karl Hess’s dictum, as often attributed to Barry Goldwater, is clever and for the most part correct. But I’ll point out a few flaws, and a better way forward.
Wilkinson thinks that the first half of the statement “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” in plainly a violation of the Aristotilian understanding of virtues. Quite right, if one takes Aristotle as an authority, as Wilkinson confesses. Hess made the mistake of framing the statement in terms of virtues and vices, so working within that system is defensible. But I will claim that virtue ethics are insufficient for and unnecessary to do-ing justice.
The porridge of virtue may always be just right, but that must be in reference to something, viz. the status quo. Moderation cannot get us out of a system of injustice or a transitional gains trap.
But Wilkinson is right that extremism leads typically to violence. He then identifies Malcom X as embodying the ethic of extremism. X was known to reject the aid of white sympathizers. Under extremism they only get in the way. X saw the Civil Rights movement as blacks stepping up to claim equality as “within their rights” and when rights talk gets started, “any means necessary” quickly follows.
That white supremacy required some sort of exogenous shock to be broken is granted. We shall see what sort of shock actually worked.
It is important to Wilkinson that “We’re talking about how to go about defending liberty and pursuing justice as a practical matter.” Me too. Do-ing justice is what we should be about, but whether it can be done by a “we” is doubtful. Wilkinson prefers persuasion, as do I, but he limits his mechanism of persuasion to rhetoric. He claims a “sound persuasive argument” is “obviously virtuous.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is Wilkinson’s second example, after Milton Friedman, both masters of rhetoric, or sound persuasive argument. Wilkinson then claims that “the virtue of the tactics” employed by King determined the success of the bus boycott and the civil rights movement. But that is not enough. King openly accepted, and I will claim relied upon, the help of whites, in contrast to X.
The vehicle for success was less the distinction between extremes and moderation than the composition of individuals that were involved. King succeeded because he captured the sympathy of a sufficient number of whites. Those whites got involved and supported his movement. White people marched with King, supported his movement, and openly advocated for it.
Sympathy works (roughly) like this: The class that I consider “other” is at a social distance far enough from me that I don’t sympathize with their suffering. I sympathize with people who are like myself. When someone whom I consider alike to myself, someone with whom I sympathize, demonstrates sympathy with those I consider “other” I am forced into making a decision. Either I also extend my sympathy toward the others, or I must push the one whom I considered alike into the other category. Extension of sympathy is very costly. It requires a kind of abdication from the privileges I enjoy under the status quo. The loss of sympathy with a member of my community is also potentially costly. I may lose a friendship, or choose not to do business with such a traitor, and thus lose some surplus from exchange.
The sympathizing of the traitor has forced me into a corner. I will lose something either way, especially in the short run. The question is whether I can see the potential long run gains from the extension of sympathy. Many cannot.
Again, Wilkinson frames his discussion in terms of compromise and rhetoric, “moderation in principle means hammering out workable compromises with people who hold to different principles. If that’s a vice, we’re all in big trouble.” Indeed. But compromises only work when there are mutual gains.
With patterns of injustice, there are not always Pareto opportunities such that all will benefit, especially given heterogeneity of discount rates. Many people were harmed materially and psychically by the outcome of the Civil Rights movement. If we include Johnson’s welfare programs as among the outcomes of the Civil Rights movement there are many who will claim that even blacks were harmed.
Wilkinson identifies two large parties, those that started thinking seriously about politics by reading Ayn Rand, and those that started by reading Karl Marx or Noam Chomsky. I belong to a minority that got started with Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder. The Hauerwasian mafia, as they are sometimes identified, similarly start from a position of non-violence.
An economist who gets started here will read Murray Rothbard at some point and find some purchase in the Non-Aggression Principle. So I did. Rand and Chomsky came later for me, and then Aristotle and finally Adam Smith. I am certain that I misunderstand all of these.
The one option that economists and political theorists tend not to consider is simple charity. The way out of a transitional gains trap must be compensated for, but by whom? I maintain that it must be paid for by those who sympathize.
Dr. King’s movement was not successful because of moderation, extremism, or complacency. That movement worked because sympathizers gave. White people abdicated privileges, and made willing sacrifices for the sake of blacks.
Oppressed minorities are incapable of rising up to positions of equality in any other way. There is nothing about a bus boycott or a sit in or a march on Washington DC that can succeed unless some whites sympathize.
The advent of television made much of this possible. Sympathy is aroused by spectatorship. Until northern whites saw for themselves blacks and whites being sprayed by fire hoses on TV they were free from ever thinking about the problems of Jim Crow. Wilkinson rightly says that “if you want to get anything done in politics, on any issue, you need allies. In order to win reliable allies, you need other groups, other factions, to trust your faction and feel that, at least, you don’t disrespect them.”
Libertarians are cavalier about transitional gains traps. They say Kaldor-Hicks improvements are the best we can hope for in the real world. Systemically this is true. Bryan Caplan will say it is true even about wristwatches. But abdication and charity, sacrificial altruism as I have called it, is the only approach that has effected praiseworthy reforms. My only complaint is that we typically don’t have the patience or the fortitude to follow an ethic of sacrificial altruism all the way through a reform.
I can’t expect the oppressed to wait. Birmingham jail proved that to us. But that only means that I need to get moving faster.