The Radical Moderate

Reflections on seeking truth over tribalism

Radical moderate. That’s how I’ve described my political persuasion for most of my life. To be a radical moderate means you let reason and information rather than emotion and bias dictate your beliefs. 

Being a radical moderate is a contrarian act, a Frankenstein. Reason and politics don’t typically go together. This may sound a cynical or hilarious statement, but I believe it’s undeniable given a simple logical reality. Most people don’t understand or even have the facts for reason to guide their beliefs, but everyone can feel and understand emotion. Politics is a popularity game, and since emotion speaks to the broadest audience, emotion rules the day. This has always been and will always be true of politics. 

Earlier this week, Bobby Goodlatte, a good tech follow on Twitter, tweeted that we need more radical centrists, and it made me reflect on two critical ideas I’ve learned about attempting the radical moderate path: 

1.     Your mandate is to side with truth, not the middle. 

2.     You need to choose when to defend truth with extremity.  

Siding with Truth 

There’s an Ayn Rand quote that haunted me for a long time as I figured out what it meant to be a radical moderate: 

“There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil. The man who is wrong still retains some respect for truth, if only by accepting the responsibility of choice. But the man in the middle is the knave who blanks out the truth in order to pretend that no choice or values exist, who is willing to sit out the course of any battle, willing to cash in on the blood of the innocent or to crawl on his belly to the guilty, who dispenses justice by condemning both the robber and the robbed to jail, who solves conflicts by ordering the thinker and the fool to meet each other halfway.”

I used to think that being a radical moderate meant respecting that there are well-meaning, smart people on both sides of any argument, and therefore you should try to find common ground. That’s not what being a radical moderate means. Being a radical moderate means your mandate is to discover and side with truth, period. To give credit to the side in error because you’re trying to land in the middle is a fool’s errand. Take a side, make a bet, but don’t sit in the middle for the sake of centrism.  

No political party has a monopoly on truth. Sometimes the truth will be on the right, sometimes on the left, sometimes up or down, so the radical moderate must deny tribal party allegiance in favor of truth, wherever it lives. To emotionally align with some political party is to cede the desire for truth. We all have natural political tendencies, but you can align with truth or with your political tribe. They won’t always match. The radical moderate chooses truth.

Choosing When to Be Extreme 

The problem with centrism is that moderates aren’t compelled to act, even radical ones. When you use reason as your guide, you reduce emotion, but emotion is often a stronger spark for extremity than truth, and extremists act. They protest. They petition. They start businesses. They go all in. I learned this as an investor. 

When you use the radical moderate approach between bull and bear, you see all the merits and flaws of a given investment. Most of the time you end up neutral, and neutral is certainly evil in the case of investing. Anything neutral should be as much a pass as anything that’s obviously bad. You need to find extremes in investing — places where you have conviction around some truth the rest of the market misses. Without an extreme belief in some investment, you can never build a concentrated, conviction portfolio. You’re better off just indexing. 

Warren Buffett has a mental model he uses of a punch card when investing. Imagine you could only make 20 investments in your lifetime. Is this one of them? 

The same punch card construct applies to the radical moderate in politics. People who live in emotional political extremes allow their passions and the politicians who know how to prey on them dictate their punch card. The radical moderate must pick and choose when to defend truth with extreme action. The radical moderate who orbits around truth but does nothing is useless, and the extremist who orbits around emotional misdirection and does something about it is dangerous, but the radical moderate who orbits around truth and does something is the hope for our future. 

Knowing how to use your punch card depends greatly on a deep exploration of your personal values. If you haven’t thoughtfully defined what you believe in, it’s hard to know when you need to defend truth. The same is true for investing. 

As an investor, I want asymmetric risk/reward with the potential for dynamic upside. I want a dominant business I love and would be proud to own. I want a fair to good price based on a sane DCF. I want something I can own for a long time. When I find all of these things, it’s time to spend a slot on the punch card. These principles are simple and built on fundamental truth. Any long-term investor should want the same even if they have different views on what makes a great business and what is a fair to good price. 

As it pertains to politics, I believe in classical liberalism. I believe in the importance of free speech and free markets as irreplaceable mechanisms for discovering truth. I believe that beyond these freedoms, competition and responsibility are two of the most powerful forces that shape what has made and continues to make America great. I believe in empowering all members of our society with the belief that they can achieve, and the only way to do that is by encouraging competition and responsibility. I believe in building a society around its strongest and giving them the responsibility to bring everyone else up with them. I could go on, but you probably get the picture. 

Like the investment principles above, I view these political beliefs as fundamentally true. I have yet to hear a compelling argument against any of these ideas, and I’ve looked and listened as a radical moderate. There are many examples throughout history and in our present world of societies that have built in opposition to these principles that only strengthen my beliefs. The party that represents and defends these principles may change over time, but my principles shouldn’t, otherwise I’m a tribal extremist masquerading as a radical moderate.