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Freeman Essay #47: “Moderation in All Things”

In this March 2000 Freeman column I argued that market exchanges and other privately arranged relationships promote moderation while politicalized decision-making promotes extremism.  My column is below the fold.

Aristotle wisely advised moderation in all things. Gluttons and fanatics self-destruct by refusing to make the tradeoffs necessary to lead a good life. “Don’t tell me that I can’t drink and carouse every night and not succeed in my career!” insists the fool. “I can have it all.”

Well, he can’t. No one can.

That’s the thing about tradeoffs. They’re unavoidable. If you don’t make your own tradeoffs, they will be made for you by nature, by chance, or by other people. And it’s a sure bet that when you abdicate your ability to choose how your tradeoffs are made, the ways that nature, chance, or other people make them for you will displease you.

As I read it, Aristotle’s counsel of moderation is no puritanical call for an austere life unadorned by intense sentiments, pleasures, and passions. Rather, he counsels personal responsibility and rationality in pursuing your sentiments, pleasures, and passions. You simply cannot enjoy limitless amounts of all the possible joys available in life. If you grasp unthinkingly at every pleasurable opportunity that passes your way, you will not be making choices. You will be reacting mindlessly. And your mindless pursuit of immediate pleasures will deny you access to other opportunities. You will enjoy fewer pleasures and much less happiness over the long haul than you would have enjoyed had you acted rationally.

Make whatever choices you wish, constrained only by your respect for the rights of others to make whatever choices they wish. But make your choices. Make them rationally and wisely. Your choices may differ substantially from mine. But as long as you choose your own tradeoffs rationally—without abdicating that responsibility to others or to fate—your prospects for a fulfilling life are promising.

The Aristotelian counsel of moderation is, thus, a plea to weigh tradeoffs mindfully. It has an important implication for public policy, which is this: true moderation (and its resulting happiness) is necessarily an individual pursuit and accomplishment. It cannot be achieved by a third party, whether that third party is a democratic majority or a dictator. The reason is that, in each instance, striking the right tradeoff requires assessing the relative merits of many different options in light of each person’s unique circumstances, opportunities, and aspirations.

Because you cannot know my preferences, hopes, history, and opportunities, and because I cannot know yours, neither of us is well equipped to make sound decisions for the other. Were I to attempt, even with excellent intentions, to make your choices for you, the result would not be moderation for you. The result would be immoderation. My inability to know your aspirations and circumstances inevitably would cause me to foist on you too much of some things and to deny you too much of others. Your life would be imbalanced.

Indeed, to the extent that you as an individual are stripped of your right to choose, you are stripped of humanity. Whether you believe that your capacity for rational thought is God-given or the exclusive product of natural selection, the fact is that you possess this capacity. Your capacity to think and to choose is who you are. Exercising it is what makes you an individual. The very concept of individuality is empty absent each person’s right to make his own life’s choices.

Some readers might respond with an “Of course. Who denies that freedom to choose is necessary both for human happiness and for the flourishing of individuality?” To this response I say: While many people pay lip service to this fact, too few really believe it.

Consider, for example, the demonization over the past several years of tobacco companies. This demonization occurred only because it is widely believed that people are mindless fools who lack sufficient capacity to judge and choose wisely. If people so lack the capacity to choose wisely that the mere sight of a cigarette jutting from the chiseled chin of a cowboy impels them to smoke, then a solid case might be made that tobacco companies are predators seizing profit from a fundamental human weakness—namely, an inability to choose and act wisely.

But if most of us truly believe both that people are capable of making their own choices wisely and that people’s freedom to choose ought not be throttled, then efforts to demonize tobacco companies would fail. It is today’s presumption that smokers are helpless dupes—that people are mere reactors rather than actors—that is the source of the current hostility toward smoking and tobacco companies. And it follows almost inevitably from this despairing view of humans-as-foolish-reactors that ordinary men and women must be protected from themselves by the Wise and the Good—or, at least, by those who fancy themselves anointed because they’ve achieved political power.

Of course, it’s true that even the most prudent amongst us sometimes make poor choices. It’s also true that some of us persistently react childishly rather than choose wisely. But one of the beauties of a society governed by the impartial rules of private property rights rather than by government dictates is that the consequences—good and bad—that fall on each decision-maker correspond closely to the consequences that these decisions have on others. If I produce a $200 computer that has all of the features and reliability of a model that costs $2,000, I prosper. If, in contrast, I use resources to produce chocolate-covered pickles, I lose money. Likewise, if I use my energy and time to acquire productive skills and knowledge, I prosper. If, in contrast, I squander my energy and time pursuing nothing other than my own immediate gratifications, I personally pay the price.

But when politics replaces freedom and personal responsibility, people who make poor decisions—for example, domestic producers who don’t invest as wisely as foreign firms—are often shielded from the consequences of their poor choices. Political favors enable such people to persist in their own immoderation, but only by taxing and regulating the rest of us in ways that compel us to support their immoderate behavior. In the end, society winds up with immoderately large amounts of the undesirable behavior protected by government and too little of the desirable behaviors necessary for a prosperous, free, and civil society.

To have moderation in all things requires freedom from immoderate government.


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