Quote of the week...please share your favourite line from Ayn Rand's writings

“Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values.”

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Nature of Extremism

At our most recent Atlas Sunday Meet in Bombay, I was asked the following question--in somewhat similar words:
"Your view seems very extremist to me. Why do we have to look at extremes--Communism or Capitalism; free markets or government control? Can we not strike a balance between full and unregulated economy and some amount of legitimate control?"

My response was:
In popular parlance, extremism has a negative connotation. Any extremist position is considered immature at best and evil at worst.
However, extremism really is an invalid package deal. Nothing in the concept permits your mind to evaluate the content of the extremist position. It simply demands--without offering any evidence to your rational faculty--that any position labeled "extreme" must be rejected ipso facto.
In one of my blogposts on Leitmotif, I had said:
Anything regarded as "extreme," "radical," "ideal," "fundamental," or "principled" is viewed negatively or with suspicion.
In contrast, concepts like "open-minded" have come to refer to the attribute of someone who is unsure or uncertain of every idea and belief, of someone who is open to any and every kind of persuasion, of someone who is unwilling or incapable of committing to any point of view even if it is true to the best of his knowledge.
To me, this modern connotation of "open-mindedness" is more akin to intellectual promiscuity.

Whenever one is confronted with the package deal of "extremism," one has to unravel the contents of the position to properly evaluate the merits of the idea. For instance, being an extremist or an absolutist about human rights--the right of every human being to life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness--cannot conceivably be wrong.
And that is what capitalism is: it is an extremist position in the political and economic context about human rights.


  1. Jerry,

    This is an interesting question. I believe that another possible response could go like this:

    - I think that communism is morally wrong and Capitalisn is morally right.

    - There can be no morally right position in between these two extremes - just as there cannot be any right position between a right and a wrong position.

    - Now let me tell you why Capitalism is right, and Communism is wrong...

    In fact an even more basic thing to do would be to first ask the questioner this question: "Do you believe that there are black and white answers to moral questions, or not?"

  2. Hi Saurabh,

    Yes, your response is correct as well, but its more effective to identify and expose the fallacy in the question itself, i.e., in the distorted nature of the concept of "extremism" as used today.

    The idea is to get them to think through things deeply and arrive at their own evaluations of extremist positions. The idea is to get their minds to work critically.