Do centrists have an -ism to back them up?

by havoc

In the past I complained about “libertarianism” and “socialism” melodrama in US politics.

There’s a broken pattern of thought, where people speak as if the only two economic ideologies are “government good, everyone must have equal everything” or “government bad, night watchman state.”  Moderates and centrists are seen as compromising — mixing the two extreme perspectives, and therefore unprincipled. This leads to a lot of slippery slope arguments: “if we go from a 36% to 37% tax rate, it must be because we think socialism is good! we’ll keep going all the way to 95%! run for your lives!”

Do we have to choose between the extremes, and an unprincipled “split the difference”? The words “centrism” and “moderation” imply compromise, rather than higher purpose.

But, there’s at least one principled ideological position that happens to be between the extremes. David Leonhardt’s article today brings it up.

The goal is a free market, but with limits on personal catastrophe.  Encourage tightrope walking by putting a net under the rope. The government goes one or two levels up Maslow’s hierarchy and then stops.

As Leonhardt puts it,

Guaranteeing people a decent retirement and decent health care does more than smooth out the rough edges of capitalism. Those guarantees give people the freedom to take risks. If you know that professional failure won’t leave you penniless and won’t prevent your child from receiving needed medical care, you can leave the comfort of a large corporation and take a chance on your own idea. You can take a shot at becoming the next great American entrepreneur.

In addition to encouraging entrepreneurial activity, a solid safety net prevents extreme economic inequality. As many have pointed out, the United States over the last decades has become less and less a middle class nation. There’s a huge gap opening up between the educated knowledge-workers doing well, and everyone else. This leads to crime, riots, gated compounds, political polarization, and all kinds of other badness. While it’s hard to imagine in the United States, there sure are a lot of historical examples where unchecked inequality led to government overthrow and the rise of wingnut dictators.

A centrist, safety-net approach has its own bright line; it isn’t just a hilltop with a slippery slope down to socialism or libertarianism on either side.

The line is: provide a way for anyone who makes an effort to meet their basic needs, even if they have bad luck. But don’t provide more than that. Try to offer everyone the opportunity to succeed, by providing a safety net, public education, and clear, predictable rule of law. But there’s no guarantee of success, it’s up to you and the free market. In this worldview, making it hard to fire underperformers is bad (free market), but the unemployed would have basic food, shelter, and health care while looking for their next job (safety net).

The goal is a “best of both worlds” scenario, a relatively stable society without extreme destitution and misery, and an efficient, productive economy where people are free to do what makes them happy.

This ideology better matches actual United States policies than either of the utopian, purist ideologies.

As far as I know, this pragmatic ideology doesn’t have a name that makes it stand alone. At least not a popularly-known name in the US. The only way to discuss it is to make it sound like a compromise, defining it relative to two extremes.

Isn’t it easier to rally around ideas when they have a good name attached?

My Twitter account is @havocp.
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