The Virtue of Not Compromising (on Liberty)

Pepperdine University economics professor Gary Galles had an excellent column in the Orange County Register about the “moderates” vs. “extremists” debate in politics, and what the incessant calls for “compromise” really mean.

Writes Galles:

In California, whenever there is a state budget impasse, pundits blame the replacing of moderate members of the Legislature with extremists. What is really involved is that long-dominant Democrats have found it harder to buy off enough Republican votes to impose their budget priorities, which invariably involve increasing the burden on some to give more to others. When Republicans only moderately attached to the principle of self-ownership (moderates) are replaced with those more firmly attached to it (extremists), the rising price of necessary swing votes can rise dramatically, resulting in gridlock.

The treatment of the Tea Party during the debt-ceiling impasse was parallel. In the wake of an historic explosion of federal power and spending, pundits called for moderates, because they would compromise toward President Barack Obama’s demand for higher taxes, rather than extremists, who wanted to undo some of that profligacy.

In such cases, the moderation called for is always moderation in defense of some aspect of liberty, so that further inroads on liberty can be imposed, with those firmest in the defense of self-ownership tarred as unreasonable extremists.

He then offers some relevant quotes from 19th-century French classical liberal (not to be confused with today’s “liberal” philosophy) political economist and statesman Frederic Bastiat. Here are a couple of my favorites:

  • “[A]re those who want to prevent the return of such excesses extremists? I mean those who want to inject a dose of moderation into spending; those who want to moderate the action of the people in power … those who do not want the nation to be exploited by one party rather than another.”
  • “[W]here can there be liberty when the government, in order to sustain enormous expenditures … [must] invade the sphere of private industry, to narrow incessantly the circle of individual activity, to make itself merchant, manufacturer, postman and teacher … Are we free if the government … subjects all its activities to the goal of enlarging its cohort of employees, hampers all businesses, constrains all faculties, interferes with all commercial exchanges in order to restrain some people, hinder others and hold almost all of them to ransom?”

[* As a side note, for anyone with an interest in liberty and the morality (or lack thereof) of the state, Bastiat’s The Law (available for free online here and here) is a must read. First published in 1850, it has, unfortunately, proven to be remarkably prescient and is just as applicable today as it was when it was written.]

Ayn Rand also had some insight on the supposed virtue of compromise. As she stated bluntly through her iconic hero John Galt in Galt’s dramatic radio speech to the nation in Atlas Shrugged (and reproduced in For the New Intellectual), “In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit.” In addition, she reasoned in The Virtue of Selfishness: “There can be no compromise between a property owner and a burglar; offering the burglar a single teaspoon of one’s silverware would not be a compromise, but a total surrender—the recognition of his right to one’s property.”

It seems to me that we have been “compromising” in the direction of bigger and more intrusive government for generations, to our great detriment. Perhaps it is time we started defending liberty in earnest and compromising in the other direction, for a change.