Towards a New, Radical Political Centre: Part 1

Much has been made recently of the need to fortify something like a “new centre” as a corrective to the unsavory excesses of both right- and left-wing variants of identity politics. However, despite apparent unanmity on this common enterprise amongst prominent public figures who profess an antipathy towards regressive identity politics, there has been virtually nothing specific offered in the way of what this “new centre” might look like — neither in terms of a moral common ground that could unify erstwhile ideological strangers, nor in terms of particular policy implications.

I can of course understand the reluctance to venture specific policy proposals in a public forum. The nature of modern political discourse is such that certain policies are almost invariably perceived to come festooned with ideological baggage, with commitment to one policy (e.g. raising the minimum wage) taken to imply a commitment to a whole host of others (high taxes on the wealthy, a large welfare state, etc). Politics has become a notional marketplace of package deals, and in most cases, there appear to be only two games in town — the left-wing package deal and the right-wing package deal. In such a context, it can be very difficult to disentangle discrete policy from partisan politics. More often than not, what we end up with is people talking past one another due to perceived ideological irreconcilability.

What we’re seeing in these first decades of the 21st century is, I hope, the beginning of the breakdown of the traditional political spectrum, and with it package-deal politics. This breakdown has been catalysed in part by those excesses mentioned above. Once the breakdown is complete and the rubble is cleared away, the potential for new possibilities in mainstream politics is, I believe, enormous. However, I fear that the momentum of this burgeoning “movement”, for lack of a better term, is at risk of being lost if we do not at least begin to approach an answer to the question of what this new politics might look like. If we spend much longer simply rehearsing the failings of radical identity politics, without at least sketching a positive vision for what will supersede the old tribal loyalties, then people are likely to lose interest or fall back into old ideological habits.

The new ground I envision is a politics of what I take to be moral common sense and detached evaluation of institutional alternatives. The present essay is an attempt to push the conversation onto this new ground. I don’t doubt that what I submit in part 2 of this essay — namely, the specific policy implications— will elicit plenty of disagreement. Nevertheless, my primary concern here is not so much to convince the reader of the ultimate correctness of the policies as it is to demonstrate what I take to be the correct approach to framing such a policy discussion. This is simply a first pass.

So why, you might ask, if I emphasise the centrality of “common sense”, do I call the position “radical” centrism? Because I believe that consistent application of moral common sense will in fact yield a radical policy platform vis-à-vis the current mainstream of politics. To quote philosopher Michael Huemer in his book The Problem of Political Authority, although I may endorse some radical views, I strive “to be a reasonable [radical]. I reason on the basis of what seem to me common sense ethical judgements. I do not assume a controversial, grand philosophical theory, an absolutist interpretation of some particular value, or a set of dubious empirical claims. This is to say, although my conclusions are highly controversial, my premises are not”. And this is why I conceive of it as a radical centre. The centre is constituted by common-sense political morality — identifying principles that reconcile and capture the legitimate concerns of both left and right. The radical component is a function of being brave enough to trace the institutional implications of those principles to their logical conclusions, regardless of how they map or fail to map onto old ideological terrain.

This calls to mind an essay by Paul Graham titled “The Two Kinds of Moderate”. Therein, Graham distinguishes between the “intentional moderate” and the “accidental moderate”. It is the latter that aligns with my conception of a radical centre sketched above. According to Graham,

“Intentional moderates are similar to those on the far left and the far right in that their opinions are, in a sense, not their own. The defining quality of an ideologue, whether on the left or the right, is to acquire one’s opinions in bulk. You don’t get to pick and choose. Your opinions about taxation can be predicted from your opinions about same-sex marriage. And although intentional moderates might seem to be the opposite of ideologues, their beliefs (though in their case the word “positions” might be more accurate) are also acquired in bulk. If the median opinion shifts to the right or left, the intentional moderate must shift with it. Otherwise they stop being moderate.

Accidental moderates, on the other hand, not only choose their own answers, but choose their own questions. They may not care at all about questions that the left and right both think are terribly important. So you can only even measure the politics of an accidental moderate from the intersection of the questions they care about and those the left and right care about, and this can sometimes be vanishingly small.”

My primary hope in what follows is at least that some significant consensus can be established regarding what common sense political morality is, and what it commits us to in terms of general social objectives. My secondary hope is that a handful of the policy implications I trace from that foundation will find some traction amongst that same consensus. But I will settle for beginning a conversation that has some positive sense of focus, purpose, and possibility.

A common sense centre

Notwithstanding the general sense that the political landscape has become worryingly polarised in recent years, I persist in my faith that the basic moral concerns that underpin most people’s politics overlap far more than they diverge. The perceived polarisation is partly a function of a phenomenon I call the means-motivation fallacy, which has become exacerbated in the era of social media. The fallacy plays out as follows: Person A identifies as a socialist. They strive to live in a society characterised by peace, dignity and prosperity for all. They believe that the best way to achieve such a society is via institutional means 1. Person B indentifies as a libertarian. They strive to live in a society characterised by peace, dignity and prosperity for all. They believe that the best way to realise such a society is via institutional means 2. Person A firmly believes that institutional means 1 is necessary to bring about peace and prosperity for all. Person B firmly believes that institutional means 2 is necessary to bring about peace and prosperity for all. So entrenched are they in their respective beliefs, so closely do they associate the institutions with the outcomes, that they conflate rejection of the institutional means with rejection of the goal it is intended to bring about. Under such circumstances, Person A unsurprisingly comes to see Person B as at the very least morally suspect, if not morally degenerate, given that their ostensible motivation is to prevent the realisation of a peaceful and prosperous society. Likewise for Person B vis-à-vis person A. The tendency is to conclude that one’s political opponent is badly motivated. This tendency is psychologically preferable insofar as it demands less intellectual effort. It is much easier to dismiss someone on the grounds that you already “know” them to be motivated by defective moral principles, than it is to do so on the basis of elaborate empirical arguments about the relative efficacy of alternative institutions. Political polarisation is therefore an ever-present danger. However, with the advent of social media and its rapid-fire, qausi-anonymous discursive dynamics, this tendency towards polarisation is amplified. It’s now much easier to give instant public airing to one’s knee-jerk judgments about a person’s moral character, and to do so in a way that’s untempered by the ameliorative dynamics of face-to-face interactions.

With a view to pre-empting that tendency, I wish to foreground the considerable moral overlap that prevails amongst nearly all sane people, regardless of ideological proclivity. I will defend a strong presumption in favour of two basic moral principles that characterise much of that overlap. The first is what I will call a principle of equal moral authority. The basic idea I have in mind is simple and intuitively compelling: No person or group of people has the right or moral authority to violently force another peaceful person to do something against his or her will. This idea has appeared in several guises throughout the history of political thought, with thinkers as ideologically varied as John Rawls, Robert Nozick, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau endorsing the principle in one form or another. It has variously been labeled a principle of autonomy, principle of non-aggression, or principle of equal liberty. For present purposes the label is unimportant. The basic moral intuition is clear and compelling. Every person is endowed with a basic right to peacefully pursue their own interests, vision and life-goals free from arbitrary coercion by others. In their daily interactions, virtually every morally sane person honours this principle. And nearly every sane person wants this sphere of autonomy not only for themselves, but for those around them. They recognise that a social environment in which as few people as possible are subjected to arbitrary, violent subjugation by others is the kind of environment in which one would want to live and is more likely to flourish.

The second princple is as follows: we ought to arrange our society in such a way as to ensure that as few people as possible suffer from privation, and that as many people as possible have sufficient access to resources that will allow them to effectively exercise the right mentioned above. The basic idea here is that the first principle, on its own, is (potentially) insufficient to secure the capacity to live a life worth living. It is also motivated by a perfectly reasonable and commendable concern for those who are most vulnerable in our society. One important thing to note here is that this principle differs in one important way from the first. The first is categorical and directly actionable in a way that the second is not. The second is aspirational. It is about endeavouring to realise a particular social outcome. Put another way, the first is a micro-principle; the second a macro-principle. This will be an important difference when it comes to policy implications, more on which below.

I want to take a moment here before I proceed. I believe that both of the aforementioned principles can be (and often have been) pathologised. In the case of the first principle, it can be bastardised into a form of ethical egoism, that boils down essentially to the following attitude: leave me alone to do whatever I want to do, and to hell with everyone else. Though as a logical matter, that attitude is consistent with the first principle, it is completely at odds with it in spirit. The motivation to the principle is a recognition of the equal moral authority of every person — not to be confused with the implausible claim that everyone is equal in their capacities. No person is born with greater intrinsic worth than any other human being. It is a recognition, fundamentally, of human potential, and the near-sacrosanct protection that it merits. The right to a space of autonomy free from arbitrary abuse is a recognition that each person deserves to be afforded at minimum the dignity of self-realisation. The attitude of what I’ll call egoistic individualism is (mercifully) a vast minority view. Nevertheless, and for reasons having to do with the polarisation dynamics mentioned above, often the bastardised idea is unfairly attributed to reasonable individualists by ideological opponents as a means to dismissing them out of hand as anti-social cranks.

In the case of the second principle, that too can be pathologised into a form of stultifying paternalism whereby the status of victimhood and marginalisation becomes valorised. On this view, the very condition of relative privation is seen to endow those who endure it with a kind of moral superiority. This, again, actually runs counter to the original moral motivation to the principle. The whole point of agitating on behalf of the marginalised and downtrodden is to ensure as far as possible that they can lift themselves out of that condition as quickly and sustainably as possible, and effectively pursue their own vision of the good life, on their own terms, and on their own merits. The principle degenerates when it is construed as requiring a reversal of marginalisation and privation, such that the erstwhile privileged are made to suffer or exchange places with the currently oppressed, or made to defer to them as their moral superiors, as a form of historical retribution.

I take the aforementioned two principles, in their proper renderings, to be moral commitments that most sane people would readily endorse. Most sane people wish to live in a society where everyone is granted the maximum personal autonomy possible to peacefully pursue their own goals and live out their own values, and at the same time live in a society where privation (and the possibility of falling into it) is minimised. I realise of course that these principles admit of some nuance, and certainly some tricky questions could be posed such as how exactly the terms in each principle should be defined (what constitutes privation? How exactly should we define “force”?) Despite the potential for philosophical quibbling on these points, I nevertheless maintain that in the vast majority of ordinary circumstances, people will understand the import and appropriate domain of application of these principles (especially in the case of the first; less so in the case of the second, which will bring us to the policy implictions developed in part 2) — certainly to a sufficient degree of precision to accommodate effective legal and political arbitration. And so I believe the above working definitions constitute a reasonable moral common ground which those otherwise predisposed either to the left or the right can gladly rally around. This constitutes the pre-political, moral “centre”.

Moral Non-starters

One might notice an idea that is conspicuously absent from my moral centre — namely, material equality, or what I will call for present purposes simply “egalitarianism”. And with good reason. For too long material equality has been conflated with the alleviation of poverty. The notion of egalitarianism as a baseline of justice, as a kind of default position from which a more elaborated conception of justice must proceed, has a long intellectual ancestry. Its most prominent manifestation in the 20th century came in the form of John Rawls’ Theory of Justice. I don’t want to get too bogged down in the vast philosophical literature inspired by Rawls’ tome, though there are plenty of devastating critiques of Rawls’ egalitarianism already out there (I strongly recommend Michael Huemer’s treatment in the same book referenced above as one excellent example; the classical critique of course comes in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia — and much of that critique’s force has survived the fevered philosophical debate that has taken place since). Those critiques tend to centre on various technical problems with Rawls’ cerebral theories. However, I think such debates can largely be bypassed if we simply turn to the persistent motivation and attendant misconceptions that ultimately drive egalitarianism. Fundamentally, egalitarianism becomes synonymous with justice if one takes a zero-sum view of an economy. If one believes that one person’s getting ahead necessarily entails another person’s being deprived, then it follows quite naturally that the only way to ensure justice is to constantly strive to restore and maintain material equality. On this view, any inequality is prima facie evidence that some person or group of people has been unjustly deprived or immiserated by the actions of another who has become relatively successful.

The problems with this view are manifold. But before I get to that, it’s worth noting why this perspective has some intuitive appeal. Firstly, there are indeed instances where inequality is the result of a zero-sum (or even negative-sum) game — namely, in the cases of theft, forced transfers, and conquest. In those scenarios, one group of people is made directly worse off in order that another group can gain access to resources. In those scenarios, of course, justice demands a return at least to the status quo ante, or more likely, demands additional compensations to the victims over and above mere restoration of the status quo ante (that has policy implications in terms of justifiable reparations for past cases of conquest, oppression and slavery — wherever they can be demonstrated to a reasonable legal standard). That might not be a return to equality per se, but as an approximation, one could use that kind of language. Secondly, I believe that part of the intuitive pull of egalitarianism is that it gains a kind of parasitic plausibility from the first principle sketched above — namely, the principle of equal autonomy. All morally sane people recognise the equal inherent dignity of all people, regardless of race or sex or other accidents of birth. But the egalitarian is liable to conflate that recognition with a demand that all must fare equally as they proceed through life. Otherwise, the thinking goes, their dignity will necessarily have been violated.

These intuitions are of course understandable to some degree, but they end up in fallacy under a thoroughgoing egalitarianism. The overriding problem is that egalitarians are wont to see the entirety of contemporary society and economy as a zero- or even negative-sum game. The problem is, of course, that in most interactions under appropriate institutional arrangements, this is certainly not the case. I will explain precisely why in part 2 of this essay when I move onto considering the main policy and institutional implications.

Conclusion

The intention of the above is not to satisfy all the moral intuitions of those on the left or the right of the traditional political spectrum. I have been intentionally minimalistic in the principles I’ve adduced as forming the basis of the new centre. Nevertheless, I believe these principles to be simple without being simplistic. They capture the most fundamental moral concerns of both the left and the right, broadly speaking. My hope is that, when we elaborate on the policy implications of these commitments in Part 2, both those on the left and the right will find that they actually address far more of their attendant moral concerns than was first apparent.

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