Epicurus and Political Moderation

We’re a big fan of moderation here on the Epicurus Blog. In fact, it’s one of our core values, as you can see on the banner above. Epicurus stressed that avoiding excess was a key aspect of achieving happiness, and we wholeheartedly agree. Thus, we reject rigid dogmas and are generally utilitarian in our ethics and morality.

However, the benefits of political moderation aren’t as straightforward. Political moderates emphasise caution, pragmatism and compromise. They are by definition averse to radical change. In a liberal democracy that treats its citizens well, this is generally a good thing. The present day United States is a textbook example of the damaging nature of political polarisation, where neither side is willing to make the necessary compromises in order to enact desperately needed reforms. Rather, the consensual model of decision-making found in most EU countries- where policy is borne out of compromise and coalition-building, not adversarial bickering and demonisation of the opposition- is vastly preferable.

But in countries that aren’t liberal democracies; where human rights are being violated, where a small group of elites squanders the country’s wealth, where corruption is rampant, and where businesses are overburdened; moderation is actually immoral. To watch injustices being carried out, and to respond by demanding compromise, is to betray those who are suffering. We can all compromise on what the tax rate should be, or how much should be spent on education, but not when people’s basic human needs and dignity are being denied.

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, I believe that the Conservative Party in the UK, as well as a large (and increasing) portion of the Labour Party are insufficiently moderate. The former has become totally committed to leaving the European Single Market, regardless of the consequences for business or people’s freedom. The prospect of rapidly falling migration or a weakened Pound does not faze them, in fact they welcome it. They have thrown their brand of caution and stable leadership to the wind, instead promising a utopia of free trade deals and vastly increased exports. Their unrelenting Euroscepticism is totally at odds with the analysis of the Bank of England, the Treasury, every major university and economics think-tank, as well as all of our allies around the world.

The ignorant radicalism of the Conservative Party’s approach to Brexit has contributed to the popularity of Labour’s own new-found radicalism. If the fall in the Pound is to be welcomed after Brexit, then why not after a Labour victory? The same could be said for any fall in the value of stocks or property. Conservatives can no longer argue against reckless gambles since they are taking one themselves. Moreover, Brexit was largely Britain’s older generation embracing radical change. In response, Britain’s young people have embraced radical change in the form of Corbynism- which may be Eurosceptic in ideology, but does not spew out nationalistic tropes like calling the EU an ’empire’, telling it to ‘go whistle’ over our unpaid liabilities, or criticising EU migrants. Unlike much of the Eurosceptic right, Corbyn does not advocate an adversarial relationship with the EU, but one borne out of mutual respect.

So if the Conservatives and Labour (as I explained in yesterday’s post) are insufficiently moderate, then why not support the Liberal Democrats. For the benefit of non-British readers, the Liberal Democrats are a bit like the US Democrats, minus the more progressive people like Elizabeth Warren or Dennis Kucinich. They are socially liberal, pro EU and pro immigration, and are the party most strongly in favour of reforming Britain’s anachronistic constitution. But on economic issues, they aren’t as left wing as Labour. They have never identified as a socialist party, and refrain from engaging in class warfare rhetoric to appeal to their middle class base.

I have a number of problems with the Liberal Democrats. In the 2017 election, a large part of why I didn’t vote for them was their then-leader Tim Farron. An evangelical Christian, Farron holds moderately socially conservative views on a number of issues, but does not wish for those views to be enacted into law. But when asked about those views, Farron repeatedly dodged the question, before eventually lying about his beliefs so as to avoid being mistaken for a political conservative. Following the election (and his party’s underwhelming performance), Farron resigned, claiming he couldn’t in good conscience continue to be the leader of the Liberal Democrats and be a Christian. My problem with Farron was not his Christianity nor his personal views, my problem was that he lied about them. It also seemed a bit inappropriate for an Evangelical to be leader of a socially liberal party; Evangelicals are much more socially conservative than mainline Protestants, who could be Liberal Democrat leaders without any problems arising.

Farron’s successor, Vince Cable, is in a different class. An experienced spokesman, he is highly intelligent and articulate, and thus attracts the media coverage his party so badly needs. My problem with Cable’s Liberal Democrats is some of their policies. On housing, they often block much-needed development at the local level, even if they sing the praises of house building nationally. The obvious example is Oxford West, where the local Liberal MP claims the city’s housing shortage can be addressed by building in the neighbouring town of Bicester. This is total tripe- there is plenty of land available to be built in Oxford, the problem is the green belt which prevents such development from happening. Considering that Oxford’s house prices are the highest in the country relative to local wages, opposition to house-building is totally unforgivable.

On Brexit, the party supports a referendum on the final deal, with the option of staying in the EU should the public find the deal unsatisfactory. This has the obvious appeal to Remainers of keeping the possibility of staying in the EU open. But this referendum would suffer from all of the problems of the first one. A complex issue would be presented as a binary choice, obscuring the nuances of policy. Lies and out of context information could be spread easily by either side. The sovereignty of Parliament would be violated and its expertise rendered inconsequential. And most importantly, there wouldn’t be any accountability. A lot of campaigners could promise all sorts of things, knowing they wouldn’t be held to account for having not fulfilled their pledges. Overall a second referendum is bad policy. We could legitimately stay in the EU, but only if Parliament votes to cancel the Article 50 process following a dramatic change in public opinion as shown by multiple opinion polls. Otherwise, we are going to leave, and the Liberal Democrats will probably just have to accept that.

As the closest thing Britain has to a moderate party, the Liberal Democrats aren’t a terrible bunch. We certainly need an explicitly centrist movement, to tame the extremes of left and right. But too often, they fall into the trap they criticise others for- promising the undeliverable. House prices cannot be lowered without significant development. A second referendum will not necessarily grant the wishes of beleaguered Remainers. And on the economy, Cable promises a Swedish style social democracy, but like Labour, does not propose the tax increases necessary to pay for it. Being moderate is about being honest and realistic. It is a virtue all of Britain’s parties have yet to learn.

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