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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Wisdom of Barry Goldwater

“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

Image Credit: The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum

Arizona native Barry Goldwater once visited a golf club on the East Coast that would not allow Jewish people on its links. When he was informed that he couldn’t play the 18 holes he came for, he famously responded, “Well, my father was Jewish but my mother was Episcopalian, so can I play nine holes?”

He despised stereotypes, collectivism, and groupthink in all forms and never shrank from saying so, no matter who it offended.

That was classic Goldwater in many ways. A successful businessman, author, and five-term US senator, he was well known for enlisting humor in the service of a powerful point. He believed all his life that each and every individual should be judged, as Martin Luther King put it so well, by “the content of his character.” He despised stereotypes, collectivism, and groupthink in all forms and never shrank from saying so, no matter who it offended.

The 1964 Goldwater campaign for president still resonates in my mind, though I was just eleven at the time. My father loved the guy. When I came home from government school one day and told him that all my teachers said Lyndon Johnson was the man to vote for, my dad instilled in me a healthy skepticism of classroom authority that’s only grown in the decades since.

The official slogan of the Goldwater campaign was: “In your heart, you know he’s right.” Democrats sneered in response, “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.” That was funny, but the policies they dumped on us when they beat Goldwater in the election were anything but. They said if the Arizonan were elected, we’d get a huge escalation in the Vietnam War; Johnson won and we got a huge escalation in the Vietnam War. They said if Goldwater won, the federal government wouldn’t care for people anymore; Johnson was elected and we ended up with a welfare state that broke families apart, trapped millions in lives of dead-end poverty, and foisted mountains of debt on generations yet unborn.

Barry Goldwater died 20 years ago, in 1998, at the age of 89. He lost a presidential election, but he fired up millions to the importance of things like limited government, rugged individualism, fealty to the Constitution, and sticking to principles. He thought of himself as a “conservative” (his best-known book, still a great read, The Conscience of a Conservative), but that was before the term “libertarian” came into wide use. I think today he might be more comfortable with the libertarian label, or perhaps “libertarian constitutionalist.”

Two decades after his passing, I can think of no better way to remember Barry Goldwater than to offer readers a selection of his own words:

It is a fact that Lyndon Johnson and his curious crew seem to believe that progress in this country is best served simply and directly through the ever-expanding gift power of the everlastingly growing Federal Government. One thing we all know, and I assure you I do: that’s a much easier way to get votes than my way. It always has been. It’s political Daddyism, and it’s as old as demagogues and despotism.


I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that have failed their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden. I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is ‘needed’ before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible. And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ ‘interests,’ I shall reply that I was informed that their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can.


The legitimate functions of government are actually conducive to freedom. Maintaining internal order, keeping foreign foes at bay, administering justice, removing obstacles to the free interchange of goods—the exercise of these powers makes it possible for men to follow their chosen pursuits with maximum freedom. But note that the very instrument by which these desirable ends are achieved can be the instrument for achieving undesirable ends—that government can, instead of extending freedom, restrict freedom.”


Surely the first obligation of a political thinker is to understand the nature of man. The Conservative does not claim special powers of perception on this point, but he does claim a familiarity with the accumulated wisdom and experience of history, and he is not too proud to learn from the great minds of the past. The first thing he has learned about man is that each member of the species is a unique creature. Man’s most sacred possession is his individual soul—which has an immortal side, but also a mortal one. The mortal side establishes his absolute differentness from every other human being. Only a philosophy that takes into account the essential differences between men, and, accordingly, makes provision for developing the different potentialities of each man can claim to be in accord with Nature. We have heard much in our time about ‘the common man.’ It is a concept that pays little attention to the history of a nation that grew great through the initiative and ambition of uncommon men. The Conservative knows that to regard man as part of an undifferentiated mass is to consign him to ultimate slavery.”


Throughout history, government has proved to be the chief instrument for thwarting man’s liberty. Government represents power in the hands of some men to control and regulate the lives of other men. And power, as Lord Acton said, corrupts men. ‘Absolute power,’ he added, ‘corrupts absolutely.’”


Those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. And let me remind you, they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies. Absolute power does corrupt, and those who seek it must be suspect and must be opposed. Their mistaken course stems from false notions of equality, ladies and gentlemen. Equality, rightly understood, as our Founding Fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences. Wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism.”


The graduated tax is a confiscatory tax. Its effect, and to a large extent its aim, is to bring down all men to a common level. Many of the leading proponents of the graduated tax frankly admit that their purpose is to redistribute the nation’s wealth. Their aim is an egalitarian society—an objective that does violence both to the charter of the Republic and the laws of Nature. We are all equal in the eyes of God but we are equal in no other respect. Artificial devices for enforcing equality among unequal men must be rejected if we would restore that charter and honor those laws.


I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is