By Merrill Ring

Does freedom really outweigh every other consideration?

I was reminded the other day of the 1964 slogan written by Harry Jaffa for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign:  “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”.

That is as bad today as it was then.  In fact I can imagine it being used by ISIS in its recruitment material.

Do we really think that anything goes in the pursuit of freedom?  Or maybe anything way out toward the end of the scale? 

Suppose we don’t imagine the situation being that of seeking liberty from a foreign power (say the colonies rebelling against England) but that of freedom within a settled nation, say within the United States at present.  Should we all be applauding Cliven Bundy and friends who are certainly seeking freedom (from regulations about public lands)?  What are we willing to allow them to do?  Blow up the local headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management?  Is that not extremism in the defense of liberty?

To say that extremism in the pursuit of anything very valuable is “no vice” is to say that it is a virtue, something to be commended.  But surely the entire talk of extremism and what the Jaffa/Goldwater slogan is criticizing, namely moderation in the pursuit of liberty, is not how we need to be thinking of the situation at all.  The real aim should be to be thinking of particular acts and of whether they are justified or not.  Does my pursuit of my freedom justify me in taking your property or your life?  Should I be free to shoot you because you are taking a shower in a house I own (an actual case)? Those are the questions that need to be asked, the terminology that needs to be used, rather than that of extremism and moderation. 


Notice that the conservative view expressed by Goldwater and Jaffa is so typically American:  freedom is the highest value and outweighs everything else.  We do not have the slogan ‘Extremism in the defense of justice is no vice’.  That freedom is the ultimate value is why matters of justice have such a difficult time getting traction in this country – pursuit of justice is always to be outweighed by considerations of freedom.