Bryan Caplan  

The Extremer Extremists

Great Moments in Numeracy: LBJ... Wikipedia's Error on the Disma...
I'm an extremist.  I freely admit it.  The status quo is deeply immoral, and would remain so even if there were many moderate changes in the right direction.  Many EconLog readers presumably think the same, even if they sharply disagree with my diagnosis of what's deeply immoral about the status quo. 

Still, no matter how extreme you are, there are almost always people on "your side" who are even more extreme than you are.  Due to myside bias, you probably spend a lot more time attacking those who don't take your views far enough rather those who take them too far.  But the fact that there are people more extreme than you is revealing.  You must think there's some reason why it's wrong to be any more extreme than you are. 

My question: What precisely are those reasons?

The most obvious umbrella responses:

1. Public relations.  Views more extreme than your own are counter-productive because they alienate the moderates you need to convince to get better results.

2. Transition costs.  While you agree with the extremer extremists about the ultimate goal, they underrate the transition costs of getting from here to there.  If we followed their advice, we'd pay a high social cost to modestly slash our "travel time," so it's better to go slower.

3. Latent pluralism.  Despite your often one-sided rhetoric and disdain for the "other side(s)," they actually make some valid points; they just overstate them.  Thus, even if you habitually dismiss the view that statist policies give bad incentives, you might ultimately agree that your policies would provide disturbingly bad incentives if they were pushed further than you advocate.  Picture a socialist who opposes a 100% marginal tax rate.  Similarly, even if you habitually dismiss the view that laissez-faire is bad for the poor, you might ultimately agree that your policies would be disturbingly bad for the poor if they were pushed further than you advocate.  Picture a libertarian who opposes the end of free emergency medical care.

4. Papered-over fundamental differences.  Even if you psychologically and sociologically identify with your extremer extremists, you don't philosophically identify with them.  They're just fellow travelers who fail to grasp the principles that really count.  Perhaps you're a Marxist Palestinian.  Most of the time, you act as if you and Islamist Palestinians want the same thing.  But you want to create a Middle Eastern USSR, while your Islamist allies want a theocracy.

Others umbrella responses?  How about your own answer to your own extremer extremists?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (24 to date)
Concerned_Dad writes:

Worth reviewing:
Tactical Reflections by L. Neil Smith

Michael Hamilton writes:

I am a radical libertarian, though there are plenty more radical than me. I submit the following:

4. We'll cross that bridge when we get there. Libertarianism proposes that most state functions should end, and anarcho-capitalism proposes to end the state entirely. But when imagining the progression from the current US government to Libertopia, it seems like there is a logical chronology for which policies will be enacted. E.g. deregulation of the auto industry before the privatization of roads, ending Medicare before privatizing courts, etc. While I'm sympathetic of more extreme libertarian ideas, I don't see the need to stake out a claim as part of my personal ideology while we are likely more than a lifetime away from a time in which I would have to make a policy decision about those issues.

Matt Drews writes:

How about plain old moderation/Oakeshottian conservatism? All radical change is risky, so if you have a relatively higher view of current society or relatively less confidence in your model/reasoning, you'll end up with less radical positions. You don't need to believe that the other side makes good points to accept there is a risk you could be totally and fundamentally wrong, especially if you are proposing a change to something not tested in some society already.

Trespassers W writes:

Here's one that I'll call Bayesian shrinkage: you fully agree with the extreme extremists, but you're just not as sure about your position as they are. You're aware that you make mistakes in your reasoning, fail to consider certain points, or there are some facts that underlie the position that are open to debate. You have to take some position, but since you're not entirely certain, you hedge. It's not that you believe something else, nor are you a sneaking relativist or a skeptic--there is right and wrong and you think you have a handle on what's right--but you won't push as strongly for the extreme position as an extreme extremist.

I'm not sure this is entirely coherent, but that rather supports my point. :)

sampleM writes:

Well Matt beat me to the punch. Some folks just have humility. We think that just as statist policies have unintended consequences, so might libertarian ones. One thing that has, to me at least, been persuasively demonstrated the last few years is that the free market isn't enough. There are all sorts of norms and customs that are necessary to promote a free society. I worry that some of my preferred policies could undermine something vital and lead to catastrophe.

Joe Cushing writes:

While I'm not for an end of all free ER care, I am completely for an end to government requirements for it. Let charities cover this. Am I more extreme than the person reading this? This free ER care is the basis for the individual mandate. "they are getting free care now, we should force them to pay for it." Why not just stop giving them free care?

Hugh writes:

There's also the question of diminishing returns; the more moderate libertarian proposals may give a greater return than the more extreme ones. Examples:

Stopping the increase in the volume of government regulation - good.

Abolishing traffic lights (OK I made that up) - not so clearly good.

Max writes:
Abolishing traffic lights (OK I made that up) - not so clearly good.

I was going to post a link here, but there are too many good ones to play favorites. Just google "abolish traffic lights" or something.

Steve Sailer writes:

Or, some of us are moderates for reasons explained by Aristotle and Confucius a long time ago.

Nicholas writes:

It is interesting how "moderate" and "extreme" positions are defined only by the status quo with complete disregard for the actual policy being proposed. For instance, proposing we live peacefully and interact with others through voluntary cooperation is radical to the point of bordering on dangerous. Meanwhile, taking anyone who disagrees with you in a material way, and locking them in a cage like an animal (or, if they are sufficiently adamant about not living in a cage for their ideas, they can instead occupy a pine box) is the cornerstone of a free society.

Gena Kukartsev writes:

I like my more extreme counterpart but I don't trust him. That is to say, for example, that I am willing to use more extreme views as a rhetoric tool in order to pull extremely inertial public view in "my" direction but I would be afraid to enact them this second.

Saturos writes:

Bryan has been "freely admitting" a lot of things lately. I guess it's the joy of freedom.

Greg writes:

yeah here is a response for you Caplan.

as a libertarian you must view all people as only individuals yet you ALWAYS lump all Palestinian together as terrorists and clearly think they should all be collectively punished.

Stop hating an entire group of people.

zur writes:

"Marxist Palestinian" "Islamist Palestinians". This is a difficult dichotomy to defend. There is definitely a group mentality --but the main issue to how to get rid of Israel. Theoretical considerations about Islam or Communism do not really enter into the minds of most Palestinians.
Islam is very dear to them, but that if they could get a sponsor like the former USSR they would go with that.

Renato Drumond writes:

Reasons 3 and 4 are good ones, I usually thought about my disagreements on those lines.

I also think that it's important to consider the effects of a policy change GIVEN that the rest of status quo remains the same. Sometimes the effects of a good step are eliminated or even reversed by a institutional chain reaction.

Becky Hargrove writes:

I am not extreme because I am proud of it. What woman wants to be extreme, who spent a lifetime trying to fit in? I am extreme by default and what people judge me to be, because no one wants to talk about the most basic thing in the whole world right now: that services have to be reconsidered, given new terms and structured freedoms in Hayekian market based terms. To even talk about how to go about that now, gets one into trouble. I do not want to destroy what is, only make it better...but how to even start when the conversation cannot even begin?

sampleM writes:

Nicholas says "For instance, proposing we live peacefully and interact with others through voluntary cooperation is radical to the point of bordering on dangerous. "

Because it is dangerous. The idea that people can live peacefully in a state of voluntary cooperation requires a certain view of human nature that hasn't been proven true. Perhaps no society ever existed like that means that its not possible. Thus attempting it could lead to a very dangerous outcome indeed. And even if something is possible doesn't mean that its probable. Think the American vs the French Revolution.

Seth writes:

Did you watch the Hatfield and McCoys this weekend?

On another note, I agree with Matt and Trespassers W. Learning that you don't know what you don't know is a liberating thing -- double entendre intended. It causes you to be a bit more cautious in replacing the devil you know with the one you don't.

This may be the source of the leftist lean in this country. Leftists don't know what they don't know and are much more willing to replace a functioning system with an idealized one.

Philo writes:

“Views more extreme than your own are counter-productive . . . .” No, the views aren’t counter-productive: *expressing* those views (in certain forums) is counter-productive. According to the above quotation, you are an extremer extremist than you let on, who soft-pedals his extremely extreme views for the sake of better public relations.

Collin writes:


When in history has there been the perfect society? Today as bad as the Euro crisis has been, think about Europe 100 years ago. Great society? Not really as they would wage the worst war in history all because of assination of an ArchDuke.

5) Maybe the Median voter in Western civilization keeps most people in line for the long run. For all the complaining about modern society, wars, violence and crime are their lowest historical point. (1950's comes close but there was a lot potential for wars.) Societies seem to forget to celebrate their victories and look at the past with rose color glasses. Look at how liberals may praise Reagan/Eisenhower or conservatives Clinton.


John Barker writes:

Maybe Ignorance?
Look at the Tea Party. Maybe they make valid points, but surely they have no idea what they are talking about. Or for sure the occupy "x" crowd, they make a valid point banks should not be bailed out, but because it is not fair vs. capitalism is a profit and loss system.

drobviousso writes:

N. The Dose Makes the Poison

I am in favor of a less aggressive foreign policy. I am not in favor of dismantling my countries military.

I am in favor of reducing the power of the fed. I am not in favor of abolishing the dollar.

I am in favor of a reduced regulatory state. I am not in favor of removing all regulation.

I am in favor of returning some legal precedent to the common law understanding at the time of the signing. I am not in favor of throwing out all legal precedent.

SheetWise writes:

"You must think there's some reason why it's wrong to be any more extreme than you are."

At least in public. Most people I know are a lot more extreme in their opinions than they are in their behavior, and consider policy decisions more in the context of how it will impact their routines than in how it will conform with their beliefs. If your objective is to influence policy, an extreme position will have fewer ideological allies.

I think Jefferson was addressing this in the Declaration.

"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."

John Fast writes:

I'm in an awkward position because I am not sure exactly what views to consider more extremist than my own. After all, how can one go further than "one-hundred-percent individual self-government"?

I might disagree with my fellow-libertarians who are atheists, but that's not about extremism, it's simply a disagreement about theology.

I might take issue with some imperialists who think we must spread libertarianism around the world by force -- and worse than that, by government force, financed by theft (taxation). But maybe the issue is that they don't go far enough in their libertarianism, i.e. they're not consistent.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top