Be an accidental moderate, or be mediocre

Monday, December 30th, 2019

There are two distinct ways to be politically moderate, Paul Graham argues — on purpose and by accident:

Intentional moderates are trimmers, deliberately choosing a position mid-way between the extremes of right and left. Accidental moderates end up in the middle, on average, because they make up their own minds about each question, and the far right and far left are roughly equally wrong.

You can distinguish intentional from accidental moderates by the distribution of their opinions. If the far left opinion on some matter is 0 and the far right opinion 100, an intentional moderate’s opinion on every question will be near 50. Whereas an accidental moderate’s opinions will be scattered over a broad range, but will, like those of the intentional moderate, average to about 50.


Nearly all the most impressive people I know are accidental moderates. If I knew a lot of professional athletes, or people in the entertainment business, that might be different. Being on the far left or far right doesn’t affect how fast you run or how well you sing. But someone who works with ideas has to be independent-minded to do it well.

Or more precisely, you have to be independent-minded about the ideas you work with. You could be mindlessly doctrinaire in your politics and still be a good mathematician. In the 20th century, a lot of very smart people were Marxists — just no one who was smart about the subjects Marxism involves. But if the ideas you use in your work intersect with the politics of your time, you have two choices: be an accidental moderate, or be mediocre.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    Between the Overton window and horseshoe theory, I can’t help but think that the political spectrum is a mirage.

    I self identify as a doctrinaire empiricist and pragmatist. Life experience has earned me the right to be rigid about certain things, but not about others.

  2. Lucklucky says:

    What is moderation? If someone wants our head, we give him the arm?

    At the political level, I think this concept is mostly wrong since I am seeing many so-called moderates being extremists.

  3. RLVC says:

    Astute observation, Harry.

    Some have observed that though there was, at one time, a political spectrum, it seems to have collapsed into a “centrist” singularity. And centrism, as everyone knows, means waging endless wars abroad and soaking the middle class at home.

    It’s a truly bipartisan agenda.

  4. Behind Enemy Lines says:

    Paul Graham’s a fine writer and an interesting thinker, especially on tech and education. But when he slips into party political issues, he misses as often as he hits. This article’s a good example.

    He tries to position the moderate as being on a scale of political opinion about halfway between an exaggerated right and left. In that sense, a moderate is really just someone who won’t start a ruckus at Thanksgiving. While this tells us something useful about a person’s character, it says nothing about the merit of their political views.

    For ‘moderate’ to be meaningful, Graham should be using a different scale: true / false or correct / incorrect.

    An intentional moderate (‘trimmer’) isn’t someone who deliberately chooses the middle path between right and left. He’s someone who tries to find a middle path between right and wrong, and therefore invariably comes to a position somewhere out on the left wing of politics.

    An accidental moderate isn’t someone who makes up his mind on each issue. An accidental moderate is someone who is ignorant of the issues and doesn’t want to squabble over them.

    Moderates are great to have around when political beliefs are friction-free enough that two parties can work together.

    When political beliefs are so far apart that two parties can’t work together, moderates are a downright liability. They’ll sell out a logical and just policy so that they can avoid conflict, or will be end up being suckers for the left wing’s emotional arguments.

    This is why the Democrat party in government is now stiff with ranty ideologues and yet so keen to work with Republican moderates. It’s the ultimate heads-I-win-tails-you-lose deal.

  5. Graham says:

    To paraphrase, extremism is no vice, moderation no virtue…

    Also, “extremist” is inherently both relative and judgmental. Calling someone a terrorist is, by comparison, merely a technical description of methods and goals.

    Besides, in the modern West, everything our fathers believed is extremist, anyway.

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