• Ben Henschel

Progressivism & Moderation: Why Barry Goldwater was wrong, feat. Montesquieu & Locke

Senator Barry Goldwater, in his sentiment conveying that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue,” was far too absolute in his approach to governmental effectiveness. Justice, in Goldwater’s quote, stands to be some indicator of what is best for society, and thus, given its urgency, should not be handled “moderately.” It seems as well that the concept of liberty comes hand in hand with Goldwater’s vision of justice, considering liberty requires extreme defense and justice requires something more than temperate action, in his words.


But to adequately protect these concepts of liberty and justice through capable governmental structure and function, both “extremism” in liberty’s defense and “moderation” in justice’s pursuit are essential. Through Locke’s insistence on the protection of personal liberty and a Machiavellian approach to the extremism required to sustain it — along with a Montesquieian defense of moderate governments — both facets of Goldwater’s quote are, in the operation of protecting liberty and this form of justice, more virtue than vice.


Locke expressed the preservation of each individual’s freedom to be one of the most pressing functions of government. Once people form a society by submitting their natural rights to punish as they see fit and be governed by themselves, they “agree with other men” to “unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living” and “a secure enjoyment of their properties,” as well as “a greater security against any” that are not within their community. This establishes the people’s intentions to preserve their liberty, and the government, in turn, uses the natural rights which the people submitted to expand the freedom beyond its original capacity in the state of nature. Laws and government, above all things, work “not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom” for the common-wealth. More specifically, laws themselves should be “designed for no other end” than for “the good of the people,” and the legislative authority should operate only with goals of “preserving the community and the members of it” — any diversion from this goal would be illegitimate. It can be drawn, then, that Goldwater’s sentiments on the importance of liberty have merit in correspondence with Lockean government.


The Lockean recourse for a government subverting the will and freedom of the people is, by some measure, extreme and could be considered a vice in its extremism — but given the Machiavellian sentiment that vices and virtues often are defined based on the moral stance of the definer, along with the importance of preserving forms of democratic liberty, Goldwater’s sentiments of extremism as a virtue are legitimate. When the freedom of the body politic is not enlarged upon the formation of a society to a point of detriment, the people, according to Locke, are within their rights to alter the state. When a sovereign power acts questionably, “the people [are] the judge” to which the sovereign must answer to. This stems from the fact that the people, upon giving their consent and submitting their natural rights of reparations and deterrence, are the body which “deputes” and enlists the sovereign. When the performance of government does not match the people’s ensured expectations, they may “discard [it], when [it] fails in [their] trust.” This process being a sort of mutiny, which brings about connotations of disorder and extremism, may be seen as more vice than virtue. But this primarily depends on the priorities of the definer — if the people’s lack of liberty is less of a problem than mutiny, it may be seen as vice, and the opposite may be seen as virtue.


As Machiavelli notes, it could be found upon careful consideration that “something which seems a virtue” could lead to “ruin,” and something else which seems to be a vice could result in “security and well-being.” Thus, the Lockean notion that when — instigated “by the miscarriages of those in authority” — liberty is ceased or crippled, “the people have a right to act as supreme” and “continue the legislative in themselves” or “erect a new form” of government is a fundamental virtue.


With respect to Goldwater’s views of moderation in government as a vice, one might consider the fundamental necessity of it, specifically regarding the separation of powers and dutiful upkeep of the people’s will. Montesquieu contends that “political liberty is to be found only in moderate governments,” and even in these governments, power can be corrupted to erode that liberty. Moderate governments act as a nation’s security from tyranny and despotism, which is essential to the preservation of the people’s freedom. Considering a government with concentrated political power — such as a direct monarchy or totalitarian framework — is more likely to act in the interest of the sovereign ruler and not of the people’s liberty, partitions of power to different departments might mitigate the potential for error. Montesquieu elaborates on his sense that “there can be no liberty” when the “legislative and executive powers” of a government are combined to explain that, if “the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws,” certain “apprehensions may arise” that would leave the body politic immobile to the overwhelming control of this one-armed government.


Goldwater’s quote paints moderation to be excessively slow in its approach to urgent issues, which is a valid argument, considering the often-seen “state of repose” or “inaction” in mixed, moderate government. But this only-temporary delay of progress on an issue concerning freedom prevents initiatives that would inhibit that freedom from being quickly implemented. With a moderate and variably powered government, progress is enacted with the body-politic’s best interests moving “in concert,” determined by “the necessity for movement in the course of human affairs,” allowing only the sort of laws and actions that work to protect liberty rather than quickly granting passage to initiatives which threaten it. Considering the potential and tendency for moderate governments to pass actions which many consider to be extreme, and almost always consider to be in the body politic’s best interest, a framework akin to these descriptions would certainly be virtuous.

Although Goldwater was perhaps too quick in his indictment of moderate governments as a slow or ineffective vice for actions involving liberty, the sentiment that “extremism in defense of liberty” is virtuous is a commendable one.


Upon accepting the acknowledgement that both extremism and moderation in government are valid in areas of political necessity — for instance, in the pursuit of maintaining human rights for all individuals and ensuring equal opportunity where the law states it must be — one could fathom the much more sizable portion of problems which government could solve. Extremism without a moderate government, and moderation without due extremism, form governments that are not fully balanced and therefore not prepared to preserve liberty for its constituents. So, in only partial acceptance of Goldwater’s contention, the true protection of a common-wealth’s freedom requires moderate government capable of extreme legislation and strong recognition that the people, as the government’s deputor, hold the supreme authority of judging it.