The belief in a “middle, moderate position” is pervasive in public discourse. Many people believe that extremes are automatically wrong and that some sort of moderate position must therefore be correct. People who can temper their beliefs are seen as superior thinkers.
This, of course, assumes that all possible positions can fit on a line with two opposite extremes, which is rarely the case. But most importantly, it also assumes that truth cannot be found on any “extreme.” This is trivial to refute: on a line between true and false, the truth will always necessarily be on the “true” extreme. This is not very impressive, I admit, but nevertheless illustrates the problem.
So let’s take a concrete example, the atheist-religion line. It is often posited that agnosticism is a “middle ground” between atheism and religion, and that it is the most “neutral” or “level-headed” position. But the definition of agnosticism is a denial of the possibility of knowing whether gods exist or not. Being an agnostic is, in reality, more of an evasion than an answer. Either one believes, or one does not believe: the issue of whether one can know or not is irrelevant. Someone who is agnostic because he thinks belief is irrelevant would automatically be an atheist, as he would not believe in the concept. Someone who is an agnostic because he believes in a higher power but does not believe in any currently popular ones would still be a theist, just not a religious one.
The issue is very simple: either one finds the notion of “gods” credible, or one does not. To say that one finds the notion of “gods” credible but holds out on belief is silly, and to say that one does not find the notion of “gods” credible but holds out on unbelief is equally silly. The notion of the “middle ground,” in this case, is more akin to that of the top of a chain-link fence.
Now let’s look at the Anarchy-statism line. Either one believes in the State, or one does not. But huddled between these two extremes is minarchism, a curious group of ideologies (non-Anarchist Libertarians, Objectivists, Constitutionalists, classical liberals, paleo-conservatives, etc) which holds simultaneously that:
1. Government is by nature corrupt, inefficient, immoral, has bad incentives. This is why it needs to be severely limited (“severely” relative to most or all the governments currently existing).
2. We need government to perform functions X, Y and Z, and no others.
3. We need government as the final arbiter in society, otherwise we’d have chaos.
As I already discussed, the basic premises of minarchism are mutually contradictory. It is absurd to claim that government, by its very nature, does most things badly but is needed to perform some other functions, let alone be the final arbiter of social rules. It is equally absurd to claim that government must be the final arbiter, which implies that it could not be limited by anyone or anything, but then to limit it to certain functions or a certain size.
The problem is that each premise leads to a completely different conception of government. Premise 1, if fully accepted, must lead us to the conclusion that government is undesirable for any purpose, since it would inevitably act immorally and corrupt whatever it does. Premise 2, if fully accepted, must lead us to the conclusion that government is desirable for certain functions only. Premise 3, if fully accepted, must lead us to the conclusion that government should be authorized to take over any function it desires.
The minarchist must hold to contradictory premises, because his “middle ground” demands both that he fully justify government as an entity and claim that government is vastly unjustified, at the same time. Like the agnostic who is caught between belief and unbelief, he is caught between two basic principles: belief in the State, and rejection of the State.
If you believe in the State, then believe in the State. Fully accept your moral premise that “might makes right,” and do not hold any pretenses that you can “limit” a group of people who establish themselves as the final authority, who hold all the guns, and make the laws.
If you don’t believe in the State, then don’t believe in the State. Fully accept your moral premise that political power corrupts society, and promote the elimination of political power. Do not hold to the pretense that the State can operate without coercion, extortion, kidnapping and murder, or that the State can effect social peace.
The most fundamental issue in such positioning is that the “middle ground” generally represents a compromise between two distinct and opposite sets of principles, which one must then pick-and-choose. We can see this with the cavalier treatment that “liberal Christians” give their own religion, picking and choosing rules and beliefs like a hungry hippo at a salad bar.
If we look at the kind of people who adopt the extreme positions, we find that one of their common property is that of being principled. This is what unites both devoted atheists and fundamentalist Christians. Their fervor comes from the fact that they fight for what they believe is right (and I am no exception to that fact). Both see their moral principles as being part of a larger worldview which gives meaning to their lives. Both want to change the world, or at least change the way people think.
Although I have much less experience with extreme statists, I would say the same thing is probably true of Anarchists and extreme statists like communists or fascists. Both certainly hold to moral principles and fight for what they think is right. Both hold to some form of class theory and have integrated their political beliefs into a larger framework of understanding.
I would certainly have more respect for a principled fundamentalist Christian or a principled communist than I would any obedient sheeple.