Extremes and the centre

I’m fascinated by the ideological extremes, the far left and the far right, and also in a different way, by the centre. For several years I’ve been on a long slow journey to find the purest, most “steel-manned” version of each.

I don’t really like the attempt to wrench all of ideology into a one-dimensional spectrum. “Centre” doesn’t really fit; it’s a distinct position, not an averaging or compromising of two extremes. At the very least it’s probably better to think of the three positions I’ve mentioned on a two dimensional plane, as the points on a V, or the ends of a capital T.

In a narrow sense, I think we’d say that the centre is what works. Now, if it loses elections, it’s not working all that well, even if its theories are great. But if we want our politics to be effective and lasting, we need to keep an eye to the centre. I think of the centre as being more or less libertarian: the night watchman state, where the market solves the problems and deals with differences. It’s ideally the economists’ consensus. There’s room for more or less government involvement in the economy, but some ways of getting involved are much better than others, and in all cases the government’s involvement aims directly or indirectly at preserving or improving the economy.

The far left wants the government ruling the economy, making all people more or less equal, equal in money and equal in status and equal in opportunities. Too much of an effort in this direction is bad for the growth and competitive advantage of a given economy, but the far left won’t care as much about that, since the economy isn’t the goal in itself, but is secondary to the society of people.

I personally don’t think that everyone needs to have exactly the same amount of money, but you don’t have to believe that to be part of the far left. I do love the idea of making poverty a thing of the past, so that everyone has a right to subsistence level financial independence, no matter who they are or what they do, and also of making sure that people shouldn’t be able to go beyond some level of wealth easily; if you accumulate enough wealth that you and your family can live comfortably without ever needing to work again, you really don’t need any more wealth. I also love the idea of saying that the economy isn’t the point, but is always subservient to the needs of the people of whom the economy is composed.

And yet a centrist will say, with some justice, that if you care about the fair distribution of the rewards of the economy, you do need to have a working economy, and the better it works the more (and better) the goods and services are that can be shared. So the left cannot reject or forget what the centre proclaims.

And then it can be hard to say quite what the best quintessence of the far right would be, even though this is a problem I’ve been working at for some time. It’s hard to see past all the garbage that really is out there. I’ll take a stab and say that it’s about the prioritizing of the cultivation of civic virtue, and in particular of martial virtue. I’m by no means averse to those things either. A leftist will interject that if some parts of the population are stuck, eg, in poverty, then we will miss some opportunities for virtue to develop in those places, that irrational bigotry of the sort found on the right today will have the same negative outcome, and that needless inequality will lead to divisions in a population where ideally we should see unity. The best version of the right will take all these objections into account and will thus learn the best lessons from the left.

In this way, I feel, it is possible and even sensible and fair-minded to be interested in the best versions of the political extremes and the political centre, even though at first blush it can only seem absurd.

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