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Radical Centrism vs. Milquetoast Centrism

The Essence of Conservatism and of Progressivism

The essence of conservatism is its recognition of the importance of stability, security, and social order. It views revolution and insurrection as bad because these things disrupt social order. During revolutions, people die; and human lives are irreplaceable. The insecurity and instability of revolution disturbs the peace, causes anxiety, and brings suffering and death to many people. Thus, conservatives have very strict criteria for justifying revolution, and they hold that democratic reform is usually preferable to revolution. In a monarchical despotism, revolution may be the only option, but in a democratic society we must consider revolution as a last resort. Conservatism also emphasizes the imperfectability of human nature. Humans are fallible and corruptible. Therefore, we need checks and balances on power. No one individual or faction should ever be given too much unchecked power. Furthermore, conservatism recognizes that existing institutions are the result of social evolution. They reflect the wisdom of our ancestors and, therefore, may contain purposes and functions that are quite needed but not readily apparent to us. We must tread lightly when overhauling existing institutions. Before we engage in any major reform, we must seriously examine what we are overhauling—we must try to determine what the purpose is and what the consequences of overturning it will be. Sometimes it is best to be cautious about overturning existing institutions too quickly, since they may actually serve a necessary function that we are simply unaware of.

The essence of progressivism is the recognition of socioeconomic injustices and the desire to change them. Progressives desire more egalitarian (equalitarian) arrangements because they believe that such arrangements will lead to a happier and more prosperous society. They believe that all people ought to be guaranteed a certain minimum standard of living, so long as this does not deprive others of this same standard. Often, progressives have favored revolution as a means of bringing about these desired social changes. Progressivism recognizes that many human vices stem from social and economic conditions. If you are raised in a society where greed is rewarded and altruism is shunned, then you will be inclined towards vice rather than virtue. If you are so poor that theft has become a mean of survival, then being a law-abiding citizen is not a reasonable path for you. If you are so destitute that you turn to drugs and alcohol as a means of escaping the harsh realities of life, or if you are so oppressed that you turn to drugs and alcohol, then vice is not your fault as much as the fault of the society into which you were born. Thus, social and economic reform is a necessary prerequisite for making better and more virtuous citizens. Progressives also recognize that certain institutions were created in order to advance the cause of certain privileged groups, and some institutions even emerged as a result of ignorance and prejudice. The institution of slavery is such an institution. Such unjust institutions really need to be overturned immediately. (Note that I am using the term “progressive” in a general and loose sense, rather than referring to American Progressivism, which is actually a conservative form of progressivism.)

These ideas are not totally in conflict with one another. Conservatism and progressivism are merely orientations or dispositions, rather than ideologies proper. Extremist conservatives, like Plato, would like to arrest change altogether or, like Rushdoony, would like to turn back the clock and undo the progress that has already been made. Extremist progressives, like the insurrectionary anarchists, would like to destroy the existing order altogether in order to rebuild from scratch or, like Marx, would like to take over the reins of power in order to totally alter all social institutions. But not all people are extremists. Some people are more moderate. And there is room for synthesis. Conservatism does not have to reject change and reform altogether and progressivism does not have to reject the idea of implementing changes through reform rather than revolution. Thus, there are progressive conservatives and conservative progressives. These individuals are what you would call centrists.

A centrist is basically someone that advocates social change but does not advocate revolution or insurrectionary violence. A centrist is someone that opposes injustice and seeks social change through democratic reform. A centrist is someone that advocates non-violent civil disobedience and protest rather than insurrection and vandalism as a means of achieving social change. Centrists see electoral politics, civil disobedience, and a variety of other non-insurrectionary tactics as the most appropriate means of achieving social change within the context of a democratic society. Centrism recognizes the valid insights of both conservatism (the right) and progressivism (the left), synthesizing the two views and thereby positioning itself in the middle of the political spectrum rather than at either extreme.

The Convergent Evolution of Ideologies

In the 20th Century, we witnessed a strange convergence of competing ideologies. Various political ideologies began to converge around a certain vision of liberal democracy and social welfare. This vision was not usually put in the forefront of public discussion—the divisive differences were vocally debated, but the core agreements from all sides were never mentioned. A new socioeconomic model had emerged, but nobody really took notice or bothered to recognize that the various political factions were mostly in agreement on certain essential points. Intellectuals on all sides had concluded: (1) that we needed a robust market system with free trade but not laissez-faire, (2) that representative democracy is the only viable model for a free society, (3) that a social safety net is a necessary component of a free society, (4) that some degree of redistribution of wealth is both desirable and necessary, and (5) that progress and change is necessary and desirable and ought not to be arrested but that the preservation of social order and existing institutions during transition is of utmost importance. Essentially, all of the world’s intellectuals reached a consensus in advocating liberal democracy with a social safety net. The “welfare state” idea wasn’t left or right: it was centrist, moderate—progressivism hinged with a bit of conservatism.

Society As Guarantor of Basic Welfare: Social Insurance & the Social Safety Net

The welfare state idea is often associated with social democracy and “socialism,” but the reality is that the welfare state idea finds its roots (though not its full expression) in classical republicanism, in the works of individuals like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. Later, the welfare state was pushed by people like Otto von Bismarck as a counter-socialist program. Socialism advocated government-ownership of industry and a centrally planned economy. The worsening condition of the working class under industrial capitalism was pushing the masses towards rebellion. The working populace was jumping on board with the ideas of socialist revolutionaries. Bismarck created the first welfare state as a means of preventing the socialist revolution from coming. Marx himself opposed social welfare programs because he thought that they would prevent the impoverishment of the workers upon which the socialist revolution was predicated. But more recently, socialists like Anthony Crosland ended up embracing the welfare state idea as an anti-capitalist measure, as a bit of a compromise in a left-leaning direction. The welfare state was neither a left-wing or a right-wing idea, but rather a compromise—a pragmatic and realistic response to real problems. There was a dialectic between the right (conservatives) and the left (socialists) and a consensus emerged: society needed to guarantee a minimum standard of living to all. The welfare state was not the product of either side as much as a consensus reached by both sides.

Liberal democracy and the open society had fostered liberal dialogue. Contentious debate and political struggle in the realm of electoral politics and congressional/parliamentary deliberation led to the emergence of a “radical centrist” compromise. After discussion and deliberation, a new idea emerged. The welfare state idea emerged as a new concept, but a concept that transcended the dialectic and really was better than either the thesis (conservatism) or antithesis (socialism). The key proponents of both capitalism and socialism began to advocate this new synthesis as their ideal, their vision of utopia. The end result was that various leading intellectuals from all sides ended up spreading the new consensus. John Rawls, the most prominent new liberal intellectual, F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, the leading free-market libertarian thinkers, Winston Churchill, the leader of the Conservative Party, and Anthony Crosland and Anthony Giddens, the leading social democratic theorists, all converged on the consensus that a welfare state based on universal social insurance is a necessary component of any free and open society. This means that a free society must have a social safety net to provide a social minimum to all, and this would include cash transfers to the poor and a guarantee of access to healthcare for those who cannot afford it.

"The assurance of a certain minimum income for everyone, or a sort of floor below which nobody need fall even when he is unable to provide for himself, appears not only to be a wholly legitimate protection against a risk common to all, but a necessary part of the Great Society in which the individual no longer has specific claims on the members of the particular small group into which he was born."
—F. A. Hayek (Law, Legislation, & Liberty, volume 3)

“There is no reason why in a society which has reached the general level of wealth which ours has attained the first kind of security [security against severe physical privation, the certainty of a given minimum of sustenance for all] should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom….

“Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance—where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks—the case for the state’s helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance in providing for those common hazards of life against which few can make adequate provision.”
—F. A. Hayek (The Road to Serfdom)

“The Welfare State or paternalist tradition: the rejection of the laissez-faire doctrine that the state has no obligation to its citizens (save for the protection of property), and indeed a positive obligation to remain inactive: and the affirmation of the opposite view, that the state must accept responsibility for preventing poverty and distress, and for providing at least a subsistence minimum of aid to such citizens as need it.”
—Anthony Crosland (“The Future of Socialism”)

“It can be argued that private charity is insufficient… I am distressed by the sight of poverty; I am benefitted by its alleviation….
“Suppose one accepts, as I do, this line of reasoning as justifying governmental action to alleviate poverty; to set, as it were, a floor under the standard of life of every person in the community. There remains the questions, how much and how….
“The arrangement that recommends itself on purely mechanical grounds is a negative income tax [a type of minimum income guarantee].”
—Milton Friedman, (Capitalism and Freedom)

“A more radical reform would, first, end both Medicare and Medicaid, at least for new entrants, and replace them by providing every family in the United States with catastrophic insurance (i.e., a major medical policy with a high deductible). Second, it would end tax exemption of employer-provided medical care. And, third, it would remove the restrictive regulations that are now imposed on medical insurance—hard to justify with universal catastrophic insurance.

“This reform would solve the problem of the currently medically uninsured, eliminate most of the bureaucratic structure, free medical practitioners from an increasingly heavy burden of paperwork and regulation, and lead many employers and employees to convert employer-provided medical care into a higher cash wage. The taxpayer would save money because total government costs would plummet. The family would be relieved of one of its major concerns—the possibility of being impoverished by a major medical catastrophe—and most could readily finance the remaining medical costs.”—Milton Friedman (How to Cure Health Care)

Subsidiarity, the Third Sector, and Social Welfare

The proponents of this “welfare state,” from William Beveridge to John Rawls, all rejected the label. As Anthony Giddens observed, some of the most robust “welfare states” are really not properly welfare states but rather welfare societies.

“The system Bismarck created in Germany is usually taken as the classic form of the welfare state. Yet the welfare state in Germany has always had a complex network of third sector groups and associations that the authorities have depended on for putting welfare policies in practice. The aim is to help these to attain their social objectives. In areas such as childcare, third sector groups have almost a monopoly on provision. The non-profit sector in Germany expanded rather than shrank as the welfare state grew. Welfare states vary in the degree to which they incorporate or rely upon the third sector. In Holland, for instance, non-profit organizations are the main delivery system for social services, while in Sweden hardly any are used. In Belgium and Austria, as in Germany, about half the social services are provided by non-profit groups.

“The Dutch political scientist Kees van Kersbergen argues that ‘one of the major insights of the contemporary debate [about the welfare state] is that to equate social democracy and the welfare state may have been a mistake.’ He examines in detail the influence of Christian democracy upon the development of Continental welfare systems and the social market. The Christian democratic parties descend from the Catholic parties that were important between the wars in Germany, Holland, Austria, and to a lesser degree France and Italy. The Catholic unionists saw socialism as the enemy and sought to outflank it on its own ground by stressing codetermination and class reconciliation. Ronald Reagan’s view, expressed in 1981, that ‘we have let government take away those things that were once ours to do voluntarily’ finds a much earlier echo in Europe in the Catholic tradition. Church, family and friends are the main sources of social solidarity. The state should step in only when those institutions don’t fully live up to their obligations....

“The theme that the ‘welfare state’ should be replaced by the ‘welfare society’ has become a conventional one in the recent literature on welfare issues. Where third sector agencies are not already well represented, they should play a greater part in providing welfare services.”

—Anthony Giddens (The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy, Ch. 4)

The Germanic social market economy was profoundly influenced by Catholic social teachings, a key component of which is subsidiarity. “Subsidiarity is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.”(Wikipedia) Subsidiarity is etymologically derived from the Latin term subsidium, which literally means “to sit behind” and referred to relief, help, and assistance offered by larger military groups that would “sit back” and only intervene if the troops sent in needed assistance—you don’t send in the cavalry when the local authorities have everything under control! Alternatively, the term signifies that the agency in charge of providing for any need ought to be “seated down” as close to the area of need as possible. The principle of subsidiarity holds that the legitimacy of more centralized institutions is predicated on the assistance that they provide to lower levels of organization and their subservience to lower levels of governance and organization.

The implication of the principle of subsidiarity means that the so-called "welfare state" really is just a backup. It ought to first and foremost assist private charities and local communities in ensuring social welfare and eliminating poverty. The state should only intervene when local communities fail to eliminate poverty and ensure social welfare. Although the term subsidiarity is a more recent invention, the principle was present in classical republican thought:

Jefferson also notes that the wards—the most local level of governance, which are to be directly democratic—ought to be responsible for “the care of their own poor.” (Cf. Jefferson, To Samuel Kercheval, 1816) Then, with apparent approval, Jefferson remarks on the role that the parish, as a civil institution, held in colonial Virginia, noting how public revenue was used for welfare purposes:

“The poor, unable to support themselves, are maintained by an assessment on the titheable persons in their parish. This assessment is levied and administered by twelve persons in each parish, called vestrymen, originally chosen by the housekeepers of each parish, but afterwards filling vacancies in their own body by their own choice. These are usually the most discreet farmers, so distributed through their parish, that every part of it may be under the immediate eye of some one of them. They are well acquainted with the details and economy of private life, and they find sufficient inducement to execute their charge well, in their philanthropy, in the approbation of their neighbors, and the distinction which that gives them. The poor who have neither property, friends, nor strength to labour, are boarded in the houses of good farmers, to whom a stipulated sum is annually paid. To those who are able to help themselves a little, or have friends from whom they derive some succours, inadequate however to their full maintenance, supplementary aids are given, which enable them to live comfortably in their own houses, or in the houses of their friends. Vagabonds, without visible property or vocation, are placed in workhouses, where they are well cloathed, fed, lodged, and made to labour. Nearly the same method of providing for the poor prevails through all our States….”—Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
[in Jefferson: Autobiography, Notes on the State of Virginia, Public and Private Papers, Addresses, Letters]

We see here a decentralized take on social democracy. Thomas Jefferson, along with John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, was also a supporter of an early version of single-payer healthcare and of socialized medicine. In fact, in 1798, the Founding Fathers passed legislation that (1) established a mandatory payroll tax on privately employed sailors, which was to fund health insurance for those sailors, and (2) established government-owned hospitals at port cities. (Cf. Rick Ungar, Congress Passes Socialized Medicine and Mandates Health Insurance - In 1798 and Thomas Jefferson Also Supported Government Run Health Care)
(Excerpt from my article on Thomas Jefferson's Political & Economic Vision)

Room For Disagreement

The convergent evolution of ideologies led to the emergence of an "overlapping consensus" among intellectuals. While the thinkers of various intellectual traditions had very different ideological worldviews and moral frameworks, they were all human beings with certain shared experiences and shared values, and this overlap was sufficient to lead to an overlapping consensus on the idea of what the "basic structure" of a just society would entail. Hayek and Friedman (the conservative libertarians) agreed with Rawls and Keynes (the liberals), Crosland (the socialist), and Giddens (the social democrat) when it came to the question of the basic structure of society. Intellectuals from all sides came to agree that the basic structure of society ought to (1) have a republican or representative democratic system, (2) allow for reform through democratic processes so that violent revolution is rendered unnecessary, (3) guarantee a certain social minimum to all—such that everyone has access to food, shelter, and healthcare and no one experiences poverty or need—, and (4) recognize that laissez-faire is not sufficient and that some social welfare measures on the part of the state as well as some degree of redistribution is necessary. Whether the social welfare measures ought to be minimal (Hayek, Friedman) or maximal (Crosland) was not agreed upon. Whether the redistribution should be moderately egalitarian (Hayek, Friedman) or extremely egalitarian (Crosland, Rawls) was also hotly debated. Nevertheless, there was an agreement about the basic structure of society and what it ought to look like.

Types of Centrism: Radical Centrism vs. Milquetoast Centrism

There are various types of centrists. There are people who are center-left and people who are center-right. Then there are milquetoast centrists and radical centrists. On the center right you have radical centrists like Noel Skelton, Hilaire Belloc, and G. K. Chesterton, but you also have milquetoast centrists like Norman Mailer and Larry Hogan. On the center left, you have radical centrists like Anthony Crosland, Anthony Giddens, John Rawls, and Bernie Sanders, but you also have milquetoast centrists like Charles Peters, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. What sets the radical centrist apart from the milquetoast centrist is that the radical centrist is not afraid to criticize the flawed system we have inherited—they are not afraid to criticize capitalism and the so-called "democracy" that we have inherited from prior generations, and they will criticize it precisely because it departs from the basic structure that the just society must have. The milquetoast centrist, while agreeing with the radical centrist on the ideal of the basic structure, is inclined to pretend that the basic structure in place is already the same as the basic structure demanded by justice when it clearly is not!

The milquetoast centrist will call for moderate reforms, but no reforms that change the basic structure of the socioeconomic and political system. The milquetoast centrist, then, is often a defender of the status quo in practice. The radical centrist, on the other hand, calls for radical reforms that go so far as to change the basic structure of the socioeconomic and political system. The radical centrist will push for moving towards ranked-choice voting, star voting, and participatory democracy. The radical centrist will push to implement universal healthcare and a minimum (or basic) income guarantee. The milquetoast centrist will reject such radical changes. To be clear—when I advocate centrism, I am advocating radical centrism!

Progressive Conservatism and Conservative Progressivism

I will not outline the ideas of progressive conservatism in too much detail, but I will point you in the direction of progressive conservative thinkers to which you can turn for more information. The greatest of progressive conservative thinkers are Noel Skelton, who championed the idea of "property-owning democracy," and Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton, who championed "distributism." There are also individuals like Friedman and Hayek, who are essentially progressive conservatives of sorts, but with a strong libertarian bent. You also have the "left-conservatism" of Norman Mailer, which is highly problematic in many ways but does fit into this category.

The greatest thinkers among the conservative progressives are Anthony Crosland and Anthony Giddens, leading intellectuals of modern social democratic theory, and Charles Peters, the author of the left-neoliberal's manifesto. A primary difference between the social democratic conservative progressive and the left-neoliberal conservative progressive is that the former wants universal social insurance schemes whereas the latter opposes such measures and prefers means-tested welfare—the former is more radical and the latter less so.

Property-Owning Democracy: Republican Distributism

Radical centrists on both sides have advocated property-owning democracy as an alternative to the false capitalism/socialism dichotomy. This idea was central both to the "constructive conservatism" of Noel Skelton and to the "political liberalism" of John Rawls. The idea of property-owning democracy is basically a combination of republicanism and distributism. A republican system of government is a representative democracy. A distributist economy is one in which productive property is widely distributed. Capitalism has ownership concentrated into the hands of the few, while socialism has ownership concentrated into the hands of the state; both systems are opposed to widespread private ownership. Distributism is, put simply, an ownership economy. Property-owning democracy simply advocates both widespread distribution of ownership and representative democracy.

The term "property-owning democracy" is a relatively recent invention, but the concept was already present in classical republican thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Jefferson and Paine both held that the widespread distribution of ownership was necessary to maintain a democratic society. If a few individuals own most of the land and resources and the majority of people are deprived of ownership, then a society cannot be truly democratic. Wealth is power and the wealthy will use their power to influence the political arena. If some people are rich enough that they can buy politicians, then no semblance of true democracy is possible. Thus, republicanism requires widespread distribution of ownership. Politically, democracy does not work in a society with extreme inequality.

Furthermore, as proponents of liberal democracy, radical centrists have always been advocates of the market system. One of the greatest arguments for the market system is that it is democratic. There is a certain "democracy of the market" that allows one to vote with their dollars. If you don't like this business, you are free to support their competition. However, there are several factors that prevent any sort of market democracy in the real world. In order to be allowed to vote with your dollars, there must be sufficient alternative options. If one company has a monopoly, then the democracy of the marketplace falls apart. This makes a free-market case for anti-trust laws. Additionally, Abba Lerner notes that the democracy of the market implies that every dollar is a vote. The market can only be democratic, then, if the votes are relatively evenly distributed throughout the economy. If one individual has enough votes to manipulate the market while another individual has so few votes as to be unable to make any impact whatsoever, the democracy of the market is dead. This means that truly libertarian markets require rules and regulations that lead to something approximately like pure competition with an egalitarian distribution of wealth. Of course, we live in an imperfect world, so pure competition and pure equality is impossible, but we can approximate such things. The closer we are to pure competition, the better. Widespread distribution of wealth with mild inequality is far better than all land and capital being concentrated into the hands of a few elite individuals while the rest are left subservient to the rentier class.

Dialectical Libertarianism

Dialectical libertarianism is kind of a more centrist stance among certain libertarians. A dialectical libertarian insists that we must not look exclusively at whether or not an action or policy is formally libertarian. Instead, we must examine every action and policy and the role it plays within the framework of the existing system. Imposing a new law is always formally anti-liberty, but imposing a new law that restricts abuses of special privileges granted by previous laws can by functionally libertarian. Suppose that the government grants a certain company a monopoly on some commodity. However, the company starts charging monopoly prices, so government decides to impose a price control. The primary intervention of establishing the monopoly is anti-libertarian, while the secondary intervention of regulating the monopoly in order to make prices be more similar to what we might expect in a free market is actually functionally libertarian.

As a dialectical libertarian, one doesn't care whether an act or policy is formally libertarian. One only cares if it has an emancipatory effect. Given the history of government-backed cisheteropatriarchal white supremacy in our country, anti-discrimination law is libertarian in the context of this society, whereas the "freedom" to discriminate is fascist. Given the structural problems that create poverty, homelessness, and lack of access to healthcare within our society, social welfare programs that guarantee access to food, shelter, and healthcare are functionally libertarian.

Conclusion: A Call to Radical Centrism

As radical centrists, we not only recognize the key components of the basic structure of the Great Society; we also recognize that the society in which we live is far from having such a basic structure. Yes, we do have democracy and some semblance of a welfare state and redistribution, but the democracy needs serious reform in a participatory direction and the economy needs serious reform as well. As radical centrists, we demand not just the amelioration of the human condition under the existing political and economic system, but the wholesale elimination of poverty and domination. We demand that all people be guaranteed access to food, shelter, education, and healthcare. We demand that all people have access to clean air, water, and an environment that is not devastated by ecological catastrophe. We are centrists, but we are radical centrists. The demands that we are making are quite radical!

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