Can One Be A Principled Moderate? And What the Hell Is A Moderate, Anyway?

Sorry, this is one of those posts where I am still struggling to figure an issue out, so bear with me if we wander around a bit and the ideas are a bit unfinished.

Kevin Drum and other progressives have been bending over backwards to argue that the now three year delay in implementing PPACA standards for private insurance policies is no big deal.

Really?  The PPACA is likely, for Progressives, to be the most important piece of legislation passed during this Administration.  Hell, based on the discussion when it was passed, for many it is likely the most important piece of legislation passed in the last three or four decades.  And when Republicans suggested delaying these same rules and mandates, e.g. during the government shutdown, they freaked, arguing that people should not have to go another day with their old crappy health care policies.

But now they just roll over and say, yeah, ho hum, this thing that everyone supposedly wanted is a political liability so its fine to delay it, no big deal.

If this were a signature piece of libertarian legislation (yeah, I know its hard to imagine such a thing) that was not being implemented by somebody I voted for and supported, I would be pissed.  I would be raking the President over the coals.

This difference in outlook may be why the Republican leadership hates the Tea Party.  The Tea Party gets pissed when folks they elect punt on the ideological goals they got elected to pursue.  They have no tribal loyalty, only loyalty to a set of policy goals.  The key marker in fact of many groups now disparagingly called "extremists" is that they do not blindly support "their guy" in office when "their guy" sells out on the things they want.

I have friends I like and respect -- smart and worldly people -- who are involved in a series of activities to promote political moderation.  What I have written in this post is the core of my fear about moderation -- that in real life calls for moderation are actually calls for loyalty to maintaining our current two major parties (and keeping current incumbents in office) over ideas and principles.

Which leads me to an honest question that many of you may take as insulting -- can one be a principled moderate?  I am honestly undecided on this.  But note that by moderate I do not mean "someone who is neither Republican or Democrat," because I fit that description and most would call me pretty extreme.  So "fiscally conservative and socially liberal" is not in my mind inherently "moderate".  That is a non-moderate ideological position that is sometimes called "moderate" because it is a mix of Republican and Democrat positions.  But I would argue that anyone striving to intellectual consistency cannot be a Republican or Democrat because neither have an internally consistent ideology, and in fact their ideology tends to flip back and forth on certain issues (look at how Republican and Democrat ideology on Presidential power, for example, or drone strikes changes depending on whose guy is in the Oval Office).

Moderates in my mind are folks willing to, or even believe it is superior to, take average positions, eg. "the PPACA just went too far and we should have had a less-far-reaching compromise" or "free trade agreements go too far we need a mix of free trade and protectionism".  They value compromise and legislative action (ie passing lots of laws in a fluid and timely manner) over holding firm on particular ideological goals.  I guess the most fair way to put it by this definition is they value consensus and projecting a sense of agreement and teamwork over any individual policy goal.

Postscript:  One other potential definition of "moderate":  One could argue that in actual use by politicians and pundits, "moderate" effectively means "one who agrees with me" and "extremist" means "people who disagree with me."  The real solution here may be to accept that "moderate" is an inherently broken word and stop using it.

Update:  There are areas where I suppose I am a moderate.  For example, I think that making definitive statements about what "science" has been "settled" in the realm of complex systems is insane.  This is particularly true in economics.  Many findings in economics, if one were honest, are equivocal or boil down to "it depends."  The Left is insanely disingenuous to claim that the science is settled that minimum wage increases don't affect employment.  But it is equally wrong to say that minimum wage increases always have a large effect on unemployment.  For one thing, almost no one (percentage wise) actually makes the minimum wage so we are talking about changes in the first place that affect only a couple of percent of the workforce, and may be mitigated (or exacerbated) by other simultaneous trends in the economy.  So of course their impact may not be large (in the same way that regulations on left-handed Eskimo Fortran programmers might not have much of an impact on the larger economy).

We have gotten into this bizarre situation that the science is suddenly always settled about everything, where it would be safer to argue that given the complexity of the systems involved the science can't be settled.  I liked this bit I read the other day in the Federalist

One of the more amusing threads that runs through the conversation among the online left is the viewpoint that the science is settled in every arena, and settled in their favor. The data backs the leftward view, and if it doesn’t, there must be a flaw in the data, or in the scientist, or secret Koch-backed dollars behind the research. This bit of hubris leads to saying obviously untrue things – like â€œevery economist from the left and right” says the stimulus has created or saved at least two million jobs. Or that there’s â€œno solid evidence” that boosting the minimum wage harms jobs. Of course the media knows that these aren’t true, but they largely give these politicians a pass, because dealing in data and with academic research is their turf.

Folks on the Left who want to blame the Tea Party for the destruction of civil discourse need to look at themselves as well, declaring the science settled on everything and then painting their opponents as anti-science for disagreeing.  As I have pointed out before, this sort of epistemology is not science but religion, the appeal to authority backed by charges of heresy for those who disagree.

If I were going to make a political plea, it would not be for moderation but for better more respectful practices in the public discourse.


  1. Lab Rat:

    Could a principled moderate be one who strives to take an empirical and pragmatic approach to each issue without an underlying political philosophy?

  2. Another_Brian:

    It depends on which principles you want to focus. I think the moderates are those who believe that the system works just fine as long as you have the right people working the magic levers to keep it running. While the opinions may change on who is the right person to work the levers, and how they should be working them, the principle that they adhere to is that the system isn't broken, it just needs reformed. They will speak in platitudes about eliminating "fraud, waste, and abuse", but won't identify a specific item that needs to be changed or eliminated. They will talk about reforming taxes, social security, immigration, and whatever other issue, but at no point will they identify what needs to be reformed in specifics, and will never consider abolition a valid means of reform.

  3. mesaeconoguy:

    “Principled Moderate” in political discussions = “nuance” in economic discussions

    Meaningless terms.

  4. Mercury:

    "If I were going to make a political plea, it would not be for moderation
    but for better more respectful practices in the public discourse."

    Indeed, moderation of conduct....and it not just in the realm of political discourse. You know, like the way they roll over at Coyote Blog.

    Politically all such terms are relative anyway. You can't pin them down with a strict definition or test. "Liberal" used to be about liberty, now it's about coercion. And "conservative"....well....there just isn't that much left to conserve anymore.

  5. Gdn:

    "Moderate" means different things in different contexts, and sometimes is the least reasonable common option . For example with abortion, one wing says the embryo is not a human life and the woman whose body it inhabits should have full autonomy; while the far wing says it is a human life, and as such should not be killed. A moderate that it is a human life, but the mother can can kill it if she really wants to.

    Likewise, state-controlled free markets, and a fair number of other moderate idiocies.

  6. MingoV:

    Overall political moderates don't exist, because we don't have overall ends to be moderate between. We can have single-issue or related multiple-issue moderates. A good example is someone who believes in gun ownership with government oversight. Another example is someone who supports abortion only when the fetal gestational age is less than 20 weeks.

    On some issues it's impossible to be a moderate. The left says the entire economy and all businesses should be in the hands of government. The right says we sort of want free markets and capitalism, but only if we can have lots of cronyism. How do you become a moderate in that scenario? Half the economy is socialist while the other half is capitalist/cronyist? Can't happen. In this situation the libertarians are the moderates. We want no government control and no government favoritism. But, we're considered to be extremists.

  7. MingoV:

    The moderate position is that a fetus is a potential human. However, it's undeveloped brain contains neither memories nor personality. Aborting an early gestational age fetus eliminates a potential human but not a human. Elimination of a potential human happens to half of pregnancies when the conceptus fails to attach to the uterus.

  8. bigmaq1980:

    "...make a political plea...for better more respectful practices in the public discourse."

    I'd settle for honesty - on all sides.

    But, won't happen. The ones who are honest often get drowned out by those who have a strong incentive to not be honest (circle back to your article on corruption).

  9. bigmaq1980:

    Kind of like the "average home price"...has only the thinnest bearing on my home price.

    "Moderate" depends on one's starting point, and is different from issue to issue.

    In conservative circles "moderate" has become synonymous with "compromise" (connotes "on principles", be it true or not), and "going along to get along", etc..

    In politics, the question ought to be formulated...Can a person or a group gain political power and implement their constituent's will without compromising on their principles?

  10. mesaeconoguy:

    Exactly, and note, when was the last time you identified a "moderate" leftist?

  11. David W:

    I can think of a moderate principle that seems reasonable and you might agree with. Don't change policy quickly. The proponents could be wrong, people have built their lives around the current rules, and change is expensive. Stick with small steps, phase-outs, grandfather rules, and change a little more tomorrow if it seems to be working. Basically Burkean conservatism, but with a different name.

    For example: I believe that the War on Drugs is a waste of money and lives that doesn't really accomplish much of anything. But, well, there's an argument I can't dismiss that illegal drugs really do mess up people's lives to the point where a ban of them is the lesser evil. Or for another example: Social Security is a bad policy that promotes moral hazard and the good parts can be done by private charity...but none the less if we ended it tomorrow, a lot of people would have nowhere else to turn. So maybe it's wise to start with a couple states legalizing marijuana only, and alter the SS rules so that next year's payments are a bit less generous. See if Colorado falls to reefer madness and convince workers to save a little more, and revisit the subject next year.

    You can only get that result, though, if you have moderate politicians in power. If everyone is governed by principle on each issue, rather than loyalty to the system and to gradualism, this year we'll abolish Social Security, next year we'll have a complete wealth confiscation and redistribution. Pretty soon we don't have a country anymore.

  12. mesocyclone:

    Yes, there can be a principled moderate. It would be a person whose principles produce policy views which are not radical or extreme on either side.

    This is very different from someone who views himself as a moderate because he splits the difference between both sides to pick his position.

  13. mesocyclone:

    BTW... I think you assertion that neither side has an internally consistent ideology is really misreading things. Certainly, perspectives will shift depending on who is in power. But that's not the same as being inconsistent - at least not in general. It's pretty clear that the Democrats have a consistent ideology towards a government-centric world in all areas except national defense and crime, whereas the Republicans are consistently towards a market-centric world except in those two areas. But, that doesn't mean that politicians of those parties will always behave with that consistency. Republican leaders, especially, are prone to liberal policies when in power - probably because they face a constant torrent of criticism from the left (which includes almost all of the media and almost all celebrities). Thus you see "compassionate conservatism" of Bush 43, for example. Unfortunately, Democrats are more consistently left (until it doesn't work electorally - see Wendy Davis in TX).

  14. obloodyhell:

    "Moderation" is me not claiming (even more, believing) you're an evil, self-absorbed bastard of an execrable excuse of a human being simply because your position on matters does not match my own.

    "Moderation" is realizing that an honest, decent person may disagree with you wholly and perhaps even be right, in part, if not in whole.

  15. obloodyhell:

    I'm with Mingo. I can understand the religious argument that that position is wrong, but we aren't supposed to base laws on religious doctrine. Unless and until you can define "human life" by some means agreed by most to be non-religious in nature, and find that a fetus of ANY age post conception matches that definition, you should not set law. It seems reasonable, on the other hand, to apply the "independent brain wave" concept to humanity. It may not be enough, but it does seem minimal, so, applying the precautionary principle, one might argue effectively that, once the fetus has an independent set of brain waves it's got a chance of having an independent experience of humanity. Current laws nicely mesh, in most places, with that notion.

  16. obloodyhell:

    I know more moderate Muslims than moderate leftists.... :-S

  17. mesaeconoguy:

    Well, that;s your problem...


  18. The Cob:

    Principled moderates are process-oriented, not ideology-oriented. They want the consensus-finding process to have procedural integrity. In this sense, the principled moderate has pre-committed to adopting whatever policy the group comes up with as long as the process wasn't corrupted somehow.

  19. Curtis:

    It is impossible to be a principled moderate for the simple reason that if you compromise your principles in favor of even one policy, then you don't really have any principles.

  20. Zachriel:

    MingoV: On some issues it's impossible to be a moderate. The left says the entire economy and all businesses should be in the hands of government. The right says we sort of want free markets and capitalism, but only if we can have lots of cronyism. How do you become a moderate in that scenario?

    By advocating a mixed system, one with a social safety net, but robust markets in other areas.

    obloodyhell: "Moderation" is realizing that an honest, decent person may disagree with you wholly and perhaps even be right, in part, if not in whole.

    "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it".

    Coyote Blog:Which leads me to an honest question that many of you may take as insulting -- can one be a principled moderate?

    Of course. On settled issues, such as the end of segregation, a moderate can zealously defend the status quo. On unsettled issues, such as abortion, they can zealously work towards change, while acknowledging that people have differing views, and that finding common ground is better than conflict.

  21. rxc:

    It is really difficult to be a moderate and be effective, because the people who really want to change/move the society do not think that they can do so by being "moderate". Therefore, they (the extremists) end up "driving" society, while the moderates just try to slow them down.

    I once read an interview with an environmental negotiator who, when asked about his negotiating strategy, said that when he goes into a meeting to discuss an issue, it is his practice to ensure that he takes the most unreasonable position in the room, in the direction he wants the negotiation to go, to ensure that he drives the entire process the way he wants it to go. Extremism is the way he makes things happen. Being moderate just means that he loses.

    Sad, but true.

  22. Roy:

    Hmmmm. The definition of human life determined by social consensus which can arbitrarily defy reality and pick whatever it wants as the litmus test (months of gestation, viability, birth, brain waves). Provided that everyone agrees the baby isn't human, 'cause we don't want folks going around murdering other folks. Good plan. What hinders us from really buying into it? Make the definition 17 yrs 364 days after birth. That way we can find out if the potential person has the quality of life (read "voting probability") we endorse.

  23. Roy:

    Right on, mesa. Kinda like mathematical moderate (imagine attempting that debate when quibbling about an exam grade), or engineering moderate.

  24. Daublin:

    When I think of a moderate, I think of someone who goes, we're not real sure what the right answer to this is, so let's not do anything too aggressive about it. Let's live and let live.

    In other words, I would think that libertarians are moderates, if you look at the actual policy proposals. Certainly such positions are not *centrist* however. So there's part of your answer: it's worth separating "moderate" from "centrist".

  25. jhertzli:

    The really amusing part of the "All hail the experts!" slogan is the way it can switch to "We can't trust the experts!" at a moment's notice.

  26. Austin:

    Pragmatism is mutually exclusive from principled. "Whatever works at the time" is no coherent principle.

    Empiricism is slightly better, though it does not grant a divining rod for policy choice. Facts may be both true and irrelevant. The benefit a principled ideology gives you is the motivation to sniff out irrelevance in your opponent's facts (but then, it may also bestow a blind spot to your own facts' irrelevances). For instance, the average height of my family went from 5'8" to 4'2" in the past year; but this says nothing about how my wife and I shrunk: we had a kid. This is a novel thought for some of the folks I've met who argue wage stagnation.

    Your moderate principle of choosing the empirics that convince you functionally only serves to link you to whichever ideologue markets his data better.

  27. treeher:

    "... almost no one (percentage wise) actually makes the minimum wage ..." Well, yes and no. Here we have a dynamic system with positive reinforcement. The small direct impact of mandating a sweeping increase in minimum wage will have large impact on labor due to union contract pay being tied to the minimum wage; wage compression where pay increases for others are needed (forced) to maintain pay equity; job cuts to avoid paying increased wages (which result in more work being asked of incumbents or lower level work being performed by higher paid employees); etc.

  28. Greybeard:

    Real interesting and thought provoking discussion. Glad I found this blog..

    I think that when you set a principle you are setting your extreme. For example: "The United States should have a strong defense." Moderation comes in when defining "strong". How strong? The strongest? Able to take on the whole world? Able to impose our will on others or able to prevent others from imposing their will on us? Extremist hawks want us to be able to take on the whole world. Extremist doves want to be able to keep others from imposing their will on us (if they agree with the principle). Moderates want someplace in the middle to balance social services, defense and cost.

    But there are some principles that can't be compromised. Abortion and the death penalty are two examples. I support one party's position on the death penalty and the other's on abortion. That doesn't make me a moderate, it just makes me a different kind of extremist.

    Part of the problem in our country is people saying "My way or the highway". That way does not lead to them making any progress towards their goals. If they even know or have the political will to clearly say how they want to meet the goal.

  29. Don Kirk:

    'Moderation' is the enduring ethic of the Axial Age (-6C), where three separate civilizations [China; Confucius's 'Middle Way,' India (Buddha's 'Middle Path,' and Greece (the #1 Delphic life-guide is 'Moderation in all things'] independently yet simultaneously developed the moral codes which recognized that extremism is life-diminishing and moderation is life-nourishing. Moderation is not simply a principle; it is a social and moral code of long-standing verity and relevance, like the Golden Rule, as a guide to life-flourishing.
    We ignore this enduring social code at our peril. In today's Greece, the marble inscription of the Delphi's maxim lays in the dirt from when the Persians smashed and sacked Athens more than two thousand years ago. When Alexander destroyed Persepolis (which also lays smashed in Iran), it was revenge for the sack of Athens. The Delphi maxim still lies in the Athens dirt, ignored or derided, and no one is going to be able to say today's Greece is 'moderate.'
    'Principle' is what ethics we choose to guide and live our lives. 'Moderation' is one of the two greatest ethical principles of human history.

  30. Matt:

    There is a crowd wisdom interpretation of moderate if the two radical positions on an issue which define the moderate are radical enough to alienate 90% of the population but sane enough to get 5-10% of the votes. The middle position defined by these radical positions then has content if not principle behind it.

  31. Ward Chartier:

    Would a principled moderate be a namby pamby fence sitter who, like our president, is "deeply concerned", but lacks the moral courage to actually do something?

  32. ModeratePoli:

    You make a caricature of pragmatism. It doesn't mean "whatever works," but that results matter a lot. If a set of principles (or the way they were implemented or enforced) ended up hurting a large number of people, the pragmatist would be questioning both the principles and the implementation. That sounds extremely sensible to me.

  33. ModeratePoli:

    Boy have you stacked the deck with your attributions of what the left wants, what the right wants, and what libertarians want. It's amazing if you actually believe this.

  34. W.C. Taqiyya:

    A moderate is a person who keeps eating his soup even if he finds a bone in it. A moderate doesn't think it's a hanging offense if the mechanic leaves a greasy thumbprint on the hood of his car. A moderate will vote for a politician who is less than 100% correct about every issue. A moderate will support a policy that might help others a bit more than it helps him if the overall effect is a step in the right direction. A moderate is a realist, he is practical and he doesn't let ideology get in the way of forward progress.