LOS ANGELES, November 29, 2013 — According to an AP-GfK poll conducted last month, most Americans don’t trust each other. Only a third are inclined to put their faith in fellow Americans. We do not assume the best in each other anymore, and this is evidenced even and especially in the workings of our government.
This reflects the disintegration of the middle in American politics, the predominance of ideology and the absence of a truly centrist way of thinking.
In an environment where everybody assumes everyone else is wrong about everything, nothing gets done. This is the way conservatives feel about liberals, and vice-versa. It is the vanity of ideology, the disregard of practicality. Yet the thinkers that both sides trace their intellectual heritage to were much more balanced in their viewpoints than are their modern acolytes.
A famous economist wrote that the interests of large corporations are almost always opposed to those of the public, saying, “The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution … It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.”
To some conservatives this might sound like the anti-capitalist rhetoric of a modern-liberal. But this was the sentiment of Adam Smith (1723-1790), father of classical economics, the fundamental figure in the history of American free-market philosophy.
Another economist wrote that taxes should never be raised in a weak economy. That’s a point of view some progressives might expect to hear from conservatives who don’t want to pay for the social safety net or who don’t want to see the rich bothered for another penny. But it was the conclusion of John Maynard Keynes (1843-1946), the intellectual ancestor of today’s progressive economists.
There are many small ironies like those to be found in a thorough exploration of the thinkers who have shaped modern liberalism and conservatism. Karl Marx (1818-1883), for instance, was opposed to international elites steering the nations towards one world governance just as modern conservatives are — though they identify this trend towards international governance with Marx’s thinking. Art Laffer, current conservative economist who helped inspire supply side economics, opposed cutting social security and unemployment benefits during weak economic times, a constant theme among today’s liberals.
What this reveals to us is that history, hence reality, is more nuanced and complicated than the simplistic philosophies we identify with on the left and the right. That is because our philosophies are not philosophy at all, but rather ideologies, and ideology by nature has little to do with the pursuit of truth. It leads neither to a clear headed appreciation of history, nor to a hard-nosed understanding of the problems of the present.
Our founding fathers felt the same way about ideology, which John Adams described as “the science of idiots.” This is why George Washington did not believe in political parties. If you define yourself as a liberal and are serious about always being liberal, then you are certain to be wrong whenever the truth is conservative, and vice-versa. If you are chiefly concerned about the difference between right and left, you are likely to miss the differences between right and wrong.
Let us embrace therefore the ideology of non-ideology which, if it needs a label, we might call centrism.
Centrism so defined is not the practice of consistently splitting the difference between left and right. But if liberalism and conservatism as political attitudes represent the forces of change and consistency in the forces of society and government, then centrism simply acknowledges that there is a proper balance between both, and that truth is in that balance.
In this sense, Adam Smith and the founding fathers were neither liberal nor conservative. They were centrist, and more concerned with objective metrics of progress then they were in ideology.
To have a centrist outlook is to frame issues in this way, seeking the balance, and not measuring political progress according to how much things are either changed, made or kept as they were. This frees us to have a political discourse in America predicated on determining what is morally correct in our politics rather than on what satisfies the prejudices of one side or the other.
Now we might correctly argue that the two sides do speak a great deal about morality and what is and is not moral in politics and society. But our conception of the moral is tethered to the assumptions of our ideologies when it ought to be the other way around.
Liberals often assume that a redistributionist government is a reflection of a generous society, and seek after ways to make government more powerful in its ability to redistribute. But if the point of generosity is to enable people to have more, and by incentivizing dependency and discouraging production we ensure that people have less, then is a larger more aggressive government compatible with generosity?
Conservatives take the view that smaller governments lead to freedom, and strive to make government smaller so that people can be free. Freedom is a moral good, inasmuch as we must find happiness in our own ways. But if a smaller government leaves us vulnerable to exploitation, poverty, crime and unhealthiness, does it make us free? Or might we be freer with a larger state with the power to secure that freedom?
I am not taking a side here, but political argument should be waged on firmer ground, where the imperative of truth exceeds that of ideology.
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