(Editor’s Note: This commentary was originally published by the Ludwig Von Mises Institute on June 26, 2008.)
A friend recently commented that he has found
wisdom in moderation. He said it seems that truth and goodness are found not at
the extremes, but at the place of balance between extremes.
This can be very true, and is a very
Aristotelian idea. As he wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics, "…Virtue must
have the quality of aiming at the intermediate." In Aristotle’s examples, it is
cowardice and recklessness that are the extremes, courage the middle ground. It
is drunkenness and uptightness that are extremes, and moderate drinking the
My friend went on from this concept to state
that he believed in neither socialism nor capitalism, but in a mixed economy, or
what he called a "messy middle ground." There are two main problems with this
The first is that statements like this in the
abstract are meaningless. To construct a pretend spectrum, and place various
actions and beliefs on it and then to choose the "middle" between them does not
give meaning to that middle in and of itself. That is, without actual arguments
and definitions regarding what that middle choice or belief is, it is simply a
made up point on an imaginary spectrum on which other ideas are arbitrarily
placed. Using this logic, I could claim that, since the mean is always good,
green beans and omelet’s are both extremes and I prefer the middle ground. This
demonstrates the meaninglessness of a middle ground as good in its own right.
Most often those advocating an idea simply
because it is in the "middle" of their mentally constructed spectrum do so
because they lack any real arguments about the idea itself, and/or against the
other ideas to which they seek a "middle ground." For the idea of a middle
ground or moderation to have any meaning, the extremes must first be defined and understood as opposite responses to a common problem, and must be placed on an ordinal value spectrum, such as a standard of basic morality that always holds falsehood as bad and truth as good.
The second problem with the conclusion that,
since even Aristotle recognized moderation as the source of virtue, a mixed
economy is better than capitalism or socialism is that it departs from the logic
used in the earlier examples of courage and moderate drinking.
Courage and moderate drinking were the mean in
that either an excess or a deficiency was problematic. However, both courage and moderate drinking are extremes in another sense. Courage is a word that
describes the good state of mind in the face of danger. There is no case
in which courage itself is bad or not to be desired, since it is by definition
the proper balance between cowardice and recklessness — you cannot have too much courage, nor too little, only too much fear or too little. There is either
courage, or non-courage (cowardice, recklessness), just as there is either truth or falsehood. In this sense it is an extreme.
Perhaps this sounds like a simple matter of
definitional difference. There is, in fact, a fundamental difference here, meant to show that moderation is only good if it is moderating between two bad
extremes and to a good mean, and not if it is moderating between a good and a
bad. As Aristotle put it:
"But not every action
nor every passion admits of a mean; for some have names that already imply
badness, e.g. spite, shamelessness, envy, and in the case of actions adultery,
theft, murder; for all of these and suchlike things imply by their names that
they are themselves bad, and not the excess or deficiencies of them. It is not
possible, then, ever to be right with regard to them; one must always be wrong."
The mid-point between murder and non-murder is
not the good choice. Non-murder is. However, the moderation between not caring a
lick about the actions of another and caring so much you would use violence to
control them is a good middle ground — but this middle ground is not to be
confused with socialism.
Socialism is a system where government uses
force to tell people what decisions they can and cannot make. There may be
degrees of freedom within different socialist systems, just as a prisoner may be
treated better or worse by different wardens, but in that the individual is not
free, ultimately, to act, the systems are the same. If you are not free, you are not free.
Capitalism is an economic system that allows
people to make choices free from government intervention. All government
intervention is backed by the threat of violence — if it were not, it would not
be a government policy, but rather a voluntary recommendation, or a rule of a
voluntary association. The fact that one cannot avoid taxation and obedience to
a government without physical consequences proves that it is not a voluntary
institution, but one backed by force.
Advocating a "mixed economy" or a middle
ground between socialism and capitalism is nothing more than advocating a middle
ground between threatening your neighbor with violence if he doesn’t do your
will and not threatening him with violence. If he resists, it becomes the same
as the "middle ground" between murdering and not murdering. In that sense,
capitalism is an extreme, just as courage is an extreme against non-courage.
In another sense, there is a middle ground
economically. The middle ground is between caring so much about the economic
decisions people make that you would threaten them with murder to control them,
and caring so little that you would allow them to harm themselves or others. By
definition, you cannot escape the second extreme by application of the first.
You cannot care about individuals by threatening them with violence. Such care
must come peacefully and voluntarily; by persuasion, not force.
The middle ground in this case is not
socialism — or control by threat of violence — but a capitalist system in which
individuals voluntarily look out for one another, and peacefully persuade others
to look out for themselves and others. Capitalism is not a virtue in the way
that courage is a virtue; it is rather a framework that avoids the extreme of
violent coercion. Avoiding the one extreme, as a capitalist system does, does
not guarantee avoidance of the other extreme, just as not being reckless does
not guarantee you will be courageous. But again, avoiding the extreme of
neglecting others cannot be achieved by embracing the extreme of coercing them.
The true middle ground is to accept a
capitalist system (i.e. avoid the extreme of coercion), and choose personally to
care for and about others, and persuade them to do the same (i.e. avoid the
extreme of neglect). Since caring for others is a highly subjective, individual
concept, no form of coercive economic arrangement can bring it about, and only
one can allow it to occur.
In one sense capitalism is an extreme in that
it is the opposite of coercion. In another sense, capitalism is simply a system
that allows individuals to choose the middle ground between coercion and
neglect. Socialism, on the other hand, is an extreme in both cases; it is the
opposite of freedom, and it is not a middle ground between coercion and neglect,
but is itself coercion. Attempting to find a middle ground between coercion and
freedom is a bad idea. Finding a middle ground between coercion and neglect is a good one.
Capitalism is the only system which allows for
both of these. We should not stop advocating capitalism, nor should we stop
caring about ourselves and others in peaceful, voluntary ways.
I find it no less disturbing when someone says
both capitalism and socialism are extreme and they seek a middle ground than if
someone were to say both love and cruelty were extreme, and they sought a middle ground. Some vices or virtues are found in moderation, some are found in
absolution. As Barry Goldwater famously said,
"...Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! [...] Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
Capitalism is just. Socialism is unjust. There is no "messy middle."
Isaac M. Morehouse is the Director of Campus
Leadership for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational
institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in
part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly