The meaning of ‘moderate’

I understand why people resist the label ‘moderate’: it sounds mild, milquetoast, and, like its cousin ‘centrist’, like you orient yourself solely by comparison to others. Identify the extremes, position yourself somewhere inbetween, and, there, you’re a ‘moderate’.

But when I describe myself as a ‘moderate’, I mean something different.

When I was a teenager, I went on a bunch of Scout camps. I remember one, where a loud, aggressive kid called Adam — I must have been 17 or so, Adam around 14 — managed to get pretty drunk. This transformed him into (or revealed him to be) an excitable child, one minute jumping up and down, the next flashing everyone, the next bursting into tears. It got bad enough that the grown-ups found out, and believe me, they turned some pretty blind eyes to mild tipsiness. Anyway, later on, when we’d managed to get Adam into our tent and he had calmed down, one of them stuck their head in. “A word, Adam,” he said: “Everything in moderation.”

He didn’t say, “you’re too young to drink.” He didn’t say, “alcohol is bad.” He said, “everything in moderation.” He knew there was no point getting into a debate about the rights and wrongs of alcohol per se, or even alcohol for a 14-year-old. He focused on a message he could confidently deliver: whatever you do, just don’t go crazy, OK?

I’ve thought about that a lot since.

Aristotle argued that for every good, there are two ills: the ill of deficit, and the ill of excess. When I think about this, I can immediately see the truth of it. Confidence: too little, you’re painfully shy; too much, you’re heading for a fall, and probably pissing a lot of people off at the same time. It’s true of exposure to the sun, it’s true of work, it’s true of food, (and of specific foodstuffs).

In fact, there are vanishingly few things which are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, however you calculate that, on their own. Goodness comes not from the ‘right things,’ but the right amount of things: enough delicious food, enough healthy food; enough work to feel pride and earn a living, but not enough that you don’t see your kids. Even a certain amount of things we think of as bad, like war or unemployment, can have benefits; even things we think of as desirable, like money or physical attractiveness, can become problematic in excess.

To me, to be a ‘moderate’ means to embrace this essential truth. To focus not on abstract principles and binaries, but on finding the right quantity of things: the right amount of immigration, the right amount of growth, the right amount of inequality.

But they way we talk about issues makes this incredibly difficult. Human beings seem hardwired to think about things in binary terms. Immigration ‘critics’ talk about how immigration is bad, its ‘defenders’ talk about its benefits — when in reality, it’s too much immigration that strains services and community cohesion, and too little that denies economies flexibility, people from poor countries a chance to branch out, and so on.

To be a moderate is to be constantly translating our binaries and value judgments into quantitative judgments. Moderates understand that when Reagan said “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” he wasn’t saying government is always the problem, no matter how much modern Conservatives like to pretend he was. He was saying, right now, there’s too much government. Moderates understand that if you embrace ‘government is the problem’ as a lifelong principle, you’re likely to end up in a situation where there’s too little government instead.

Moderation, as a political orientation, recognises that ‘government intervention in the economy’ is neither right nor wrong; you need the right amount of government intervention, in the right aspects of the economy. Moderation says that prison is neither ‘about rehabilitation’ or ‘about punishment’; rather, it looks for the balance of punishment and rehabilitation that best achieves broader goals.

Take inequality. The debate about inequality tends to fall into two camps: one that says ‘inequality bad,’ and focuses on the ills of poverty, crime and unhappiness it can bring; another that says ‘inequality OK’, and points out the problems that can come from government action to reduce it. But both sides are talking about the issue in the wrong way. The anti-inequality advocates are rarely arguing for an end to inequality, merely for a return to the lower level of previous decades. The pro-inequality camp would all admit that there is some level of inequality that is uneconomic, immoral, undesirable; but they mostly avoid this admission. The two sides are not really ‘anti-’ and ‘pro-equality’ at all; they’re arguing ‘there’s too much inequality right now’ and ‘there isn’t yet too much inequality’, respectively.

This is subtly different to pragmatism, which tells us to focus on the consequences of actions, but offers strikingly little guidance on what to do if the consequences are unknowable or difficult to assess. Moderation, however, offers a clearer guideline: if in doubt, hew to the course which seems least likely to steer you into one of Aristotle’s ills, of deficit or excess. In the case of inequality, for example, a pragmatist might argue that more inequality would inspire ambition and boost growth; but another might argue that more inequality could boost crime. And they could both be right. So we throw up our hands, and do nothing. A moderate, however, would say: if we’re not sure about this, and there’s more inequality than there has been for fifty years, it’s likely that the smart thing to do is arrest its growth.

With the data revolution happening in government, in capitalism, and in our personal lives, our ability to quantify things, to assess the impact of our actions in quantitative terms, has never been greater. But we’ll misuse this information as long as we consume it through the lens of ‘is X good or bad’?

Asking: ‘What’s the right amount of X? What’s an acceptable range of X?’ is a habit of thinking that better reflects the reality of the world. I doubt Adam avoided alcohol completely after that Scout camp, but I bet he stuck to more moderate amounts.

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Author: Rav

City boy coping with liberal guilt and culture shock in Tanzania. Writes about development, politics, culture and technology.

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