Craiutu on the Courage and Nonconformism of Moderation

Craiutu on the Courage and Nonconformism of Moderation

Craiutu on the Courage and Nonconformism of Moderation

Aurelian Craiutu is a professor of political science at Indiana University, who has spent a good chunk of his career thinking about what “moderation” means–from the perspective of someone who grew up in communist Romania during the rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu. 

Geoff Kabaservice talked with him for a podcast in April 2022. I’ll quote here from the transcript (“Why the leading challengers to liberalism and moderation come from the West, with Aurelian Craiutu,” Niskanen Center, April 29, 2022).

Craiutu’s comments resonated with me in part because of his clear-eyed view on moderation as a “difficult virtue that requires a great dose of courage, nonconformism, and risk.” My sense is that when you get together a room of people who share a common view, a dynamic can emerge in which people compete to show their degree of allegiance to the shared view, and in doing so, some of the people will stake out ever-more-extreme positions. In such a setting, being a moderate isn’t easy. Here are some comments from Craiutu:

I don’t want to identify moderation with centrism. The way in which I think about moderation is that it can be found on both sides of the political spectrum. There are moderates on the left, in the center, and on the right. It’s not necessary to be a centrist in order to be a moderate. So that’s something that I think can be demonstrated by looking at thinkers in the past, politicians and agendas. …

I’ve always been fascinated by moderate thinkers who are concerned with maintaining the balance of the ship. Keeping the ship on an even keel is, I think, one of the best definitions of what political moderation is all about — hence the image of the trimmer. The trimmer is the person who trims the sails in order to prevent the ship from capsizing.

There is no algorithm, there is no science that could explain what to do, when to act, when not to act. You have to have political judgment. You have to have political flair. You have to be like a tightrope walker. And in this regard, I think it’s one of the riskiest things to try to act as a moderate when passions run high, when reason is overcome by passion and most people just want to shout and express their dismay, their concerns and so forth, without concern for political moderation. It’s a virtue, as a title of my book says, a virtue only for courageous minds. It’s a paradox. The image of moderation is that of a weak virtue. And I think, and we can talk at length about this, that it is a difficult virtue that requires a great dose of courage, nonconformism, and risk. …

It’s one of the most difficult concepts to define because moderation constitutes an archipelago. There is political moderation, so we look at the institutional aspects of moderation: What are the institutions and mechanisms that limit power, that prevent power from being abused? And we know what those are: checks and balances, constitutionalism, freedoms, freedom of the press — a very important freedom — freedom of association, constitutionalism, bicameralism. And there are others: federalism maybe, decentralization, subsidiarity. All of those constitute what I would say is the institutional archipelago of moderation.

But there’s also, when we talk about moderation, a host of ideas related to its ethical part. What does it mean to be a moderate? Well, there are lots of things here that can be said. One thing that I would emphasize is that to be a moderate is the opposite of being a fanatic. A fanatic is someone who doesn’t put things in perspective; that subsumes everything under one category, one principle; that is ready to sacrifice everything for the pursuit of that single value, be that liberty, equality, pro-life, pro-choice, low taxes, you name it. So that’s one.

There is also implied in the ethical component of moderation a good dose of skepticism and awareness of one’s fallibility — which is a form of modesty, if you wish, and a form of humility. Moderates are people who tend to be modest and display a good dose of humility, understanding very well that they may be wrong, that they may have only a portion of the truth. …

And there is also the third aspect of moderation, which is religious moderation. Now that’s a topic that I have not written about, and I’ve thought a little bit about it, but there is a whole continent of religious moderation that I think needs to be rediscovered today. To be religious and to be moderate are two different things, but they’re not incompatible — on the contrary. Reinhold Niebuhr is one of the thinkers that comes to mind here. He was able to combine both political moderation and religious moderation. But there are others as well. …

I’ll give you an example, a concrete example here. … Raymond Aron was a great French political thinker, sociologist, and journalist who at some points in his career acted as a trimmer. For example, in 1968 he criticized the university system for being sclerotic. The university was then, as it probably is still now, very anchored in old practices that didn’t serve the student needs. And he thought that professors should be more available to students, they should put less emphasis on exams and more on engaging with students. So he was for reform in the system.

On the other hand, he was vehemently against the students’ revolt in ‘68 because he thought that they were interested in carnival rather than real reform. So he was a trimmer. To the students, he talked the language of the university administrators, arguing for finding a modus vivendi between their claims and the university’s needs and constraints. And to the university administrators, he spoke the language of the students, pushing for reform against the sclerotic practices and habits of the professoriate. So I think that it’s possible to be a trimmer, and a principled one. It doesn’t mean that everyone who claims to do some trimming will be successful in avoiding the charge of opportunism. But Aron, for example, was a successful one.

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Expert

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.

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