Conservative pundit Ann Coulter likes to tell interviewers, “as far as I’m concerned, I’m a middle-of-the-road moderate and the rest of you are crazy,” a simple joke understating her firebrand style.

Or is it? Intentional or not, the line actually hints at a deeper truth behind one of our most backward assumptions: the virtue of “moderation.”

The mainstream tends to think of conservatism and liberalism as little more than lists of political stances organized by various cultural biases and special interests, with little thought given to the philosophy uniting them. Therefore, the degree of one’s ideology is defined by tallying how many of a side’s positions one shares.

So, for instance, Rudy Giuliani is supposedly a moderate Republican because he favors legal abortion but opposes high taxes, while Joe Lieberman, a down-the-line liberal on everything except terrorism, is considered a moderate Democrat. This, we’re told, is desirable because “moderation” denotes superior objectivity and intellect.

But on closer inspection, neither looks particularly moderate. Giuliani opposed banning partial-birth abortion, putting him to the left of the 84% of Americans who oppose elective abortion after the first trimester (Marist poll, January), while many liberals find his strident rhetoric against Islamic fundamentalism “extreme.” Meanwhile, the left-wing Planned Parenthood, Human Rights Campaign, and La Raza all rank Lieberman between 90-100%, while the right-wing National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America give him zeroes and Fs. So what good is the “moderate” label if the positions comprising one’s moderation are anything but?

The moderation in vogue today is utterly worthless, cheap boilerplate to make political spinelessness and intellectual laziness seem admirable. However, there is a very different form of moderation that good government does require—it just depends what we’re supposed to be moderating in the first place.

Basically, the American political spectrum is about how much we want government to do. Government gets bigger the further left we go and smaller the further right, with the individual’s freedom expanding or contracting with each gradation. The ultimate extremes of each end, totalitarianism and anarchy, are obviously to be avoided…but where exactly in between them should we settle?

Determining the right amount of government was “the great difficulty” of the Founding, as James Madison wrote in Federalist 51—“first enabl[ing] the government to control the governed [then] oblig[ing] it to control itself.” In extensive detail, the other eighty-four Federalist Papers show that virtually every aspect of the resulting Constitution was designed to cultivate a peaceful and prosperous society without oppressing the citizenry—the different powers split across three branches, the unique structure and finite authority of each branch, the stringent segregation between national concerns and local discretion, and a rigorous process to amend any of government’s constraints.

Their efforts left us with a federal government empowered to repel external threats and maintain a basic national infrastructure in which free and peaceable commerce could thrive, but little else—leaving countless questions of crime, business, morality, poverty, illness, education, and culture for each state to answer for itself, in accordance with its residents’ cultural norms and practical judgment. And while state policies were free to vary wildly, they generally embraced the Founders’ ideal of an industrious, morally-upright individualism which was mindful of the God-given unalienable rights proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence.

 That’s the model conservatism seeks to conserve. And though it’s further rightward than the current GOP platform, and utterly unfathomable to today’s liberals, it’s a fundamentally moderate one in the areas that matter—enough government to protect us from man’s capacity for evil, but not enough to suppress our potential for good.

Whatever genuinely bad extremes there may be, they’re bad not because too few people agree, but because they put too much faith on one end of the government-to-individualism scale or the other (like, for instance, the simplistic delusions of Ron Paul-style isolationism as a cure-all to America’s foreign policy woes).

Liberty without chaos, safety without shackles, individualism without isolation, charity without coddling, tolerance without indifference—this is what serious moderation concerns itself with, not poll-tested platforms meant to appease special interests while seeming “reasonable” to the media. If it sounds crazy to call the likes of Coulter “moderate,” that’s only because we’ve lived for so long under an imbalance skewed so heavily toward government, at liberty’s expense.