A Truly American Centrism

Before this week continues into the bloody mess that is the Healthcare.gov website, and the PR fiasco Obamacare is becoming for liberals and Democrats, I wanted to examine something far more promising and hopeful for America: that of the growing, silent middle.

Last week, a study from Esquire and NBC News identified a “New American Center” made up of disaffected Americans. NBC headlined their blog post with “Why our nation isn’t as divided as we think” and argued that our country, outside of the most vocal (and annoying) folks on both extremes, really isn’t that polarized. However, both Ramesh Ponnuru and Josh Feldman took issue with the study, noting that there weren’t many non-centrist categories to be in, and that the vast majority of the center was (in Ponnuru’s words) “irreligious and white.” Huh. Guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I fell in the exact middle when I took the online quiz.

Despite these flaws in the Esquire/NBC “study,” I still think there is an American center, I’m just not sure if it’s new. But there is a new and growing field in the realm of political philosophy that is American centrism, and always has been, it’s only been given a name recently. That field is market democracy, launched and identified by Harvard political philosopher John Tomasi, and explained at length in his fantastic book Free Market Fairness.

What is market democracy? Tomasi calls it a “research program,” which sounds clunky but apparently is perfectly apt, as classical liberalism is also sort of a “research program.” But more specifically, market democracy is:

a deliberative form of liberalism that is sensitive to the moral insights of libertarianism. Market democracy combines the four ideas I just mentioned: (1) capitalistic economic freedoms as vital aspects of liberty, (2) society as a spontaneous order, (3) just and legitimate political institutions as acceptable to all who make their lives among them, (4) social justice as the ultimate standard of political evaluation. Here is a simple way to begin thinking about this view: market democracy affirms capitalistic economic liberties as first-order requirements of social justice.

In the above quote, when Tomasi says “liberalism,” he is not just speaking about classical liberalism, but all liberalism. Tomasi divides the liberal camp into two shores on the sides of an ocean: on one side, the libertarians and classical liberals; on the other, the “high liberals” like Rawls and your average lefty who think that economic liberties are not that important and the free market is not the greatest thing in the world.

Tomasi operates from an essentially Rawlsian viewpoint, and indeed his entire book is about taking on the Rawlsian enterprise and forming a hybrid between it and classical liberalism and libertarianism. He takes the Rawlsian framework seriously, but notes that if you do so, then you must also take economic liberties seriously. Although “high liberals” who follow Rawls almost always single out economic liberties to be ignored, marginalized, or otherwise downgraded in importance, Tomasi makes the case that if you follow the rule that governments are about treating democratic citizens with dignity, then you must also give them the dignity of owning a business and earning profits. Thus, anyone who follows in the steps of Rawls–which is most academic liberals, though I think it’s a vanishingly small number of “liberals” and progressives you meet on campus or on the street or on the Internet–must also be a strong proponent of economic liberties and the free market if they want to be consistent.

One of the great aspects of market democracy, in my mind, is it’s focus not just to a social justice that takes free markets and economic liberties seriously, but also the concept of “responsible self-authorship.” Tomasi describes it thusly:

This, I believe, is not just deeply powerful and inspirational, but is actually very acutely American. Even in 21st century America, with welfare queens and people constantly demanding more welfare, most folks believe that people have their own lives to own and run, and seek to do the same for themselves. Those who agitate the loudest for more wealth redistribution are largely on the far left, and only get so much attention thanks to a frankly pathetic news system which paints a picture of poverty being far larger than it is.

Because it is a research program and not a blueprint for government or even public policy, market democracy allows a lot of room for variation and nuance. Tomasi himself outlines three concepts in his book that fall within the market democratic paradigm: democratic laissez-faire (a very minarchist government that provides minimalist safety net features), democratic limited government (a slightly larger government that resembles suggestions by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman), and “Free Market Fairness” itself, though it is a tad more abstract than the other two. What’s interesting to note is that Tomasi is not hostile to some welfare, though it is far more limited. Instead, Tomasi notes how free market capitalism has made especially the worst off in society far better than even the best off in non-capitalist societies, and (rightly) trusts in that ability to do much of the heavy lifting on poverty reduction. However, he still notes with praise for government actions to take care of the most indigent amongst us, and joins company with such luminaries as Friedrich Hayek. The concept of a guaranteed minimum income or a universal basic income do get mentioned in this book with some positive tones.

This is what I think American centrism truly is: respect for each other as individuals leading our own lives, while accepting some help for the truly, truly needy, with those falling in that category being those who are so needy they can’t even run their own lives. Although most right-libertarians would attack market democracy on the basis that it is a contradiction, when viewed through this lens, it most certainly isn’t.

The first (major) party that truly latches onto market democracy—free market individualism combined with a concern for social justice defined as responsible self-authorship—will dominate the American center and be able to take solid control of the political process. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, if you like gridlock) neither party is anywhere close to embracing this.

The Democrats and the left are most certainly not interested in treating Americans as responsible self-authors. They seek to infantilize and coddle Americans every step of the way, by paying for their insurance and dictating what they can eat, drink, wear, drive, and so on. And although masked by a veneer of progressivism and social justice concerns, the left is really just crony capitalism in disguise—robbing the poor to feed the rich. Everywhere the left is trying to administer our lives, from Obamacare fiasco to the overreaching EPA, while simultaneously giving fat loans to political allies and cronies in big business and writing more and more regulations to protect their friends from market competition that might actually force them to reduce their prices.

Regrettably, the right isn’t much better. There is, out there, a sensible center-right movement. A great representative of this is the R Street Institute (disclosure: I have blogged for R Street in the past). Unfortunately, as this brilliant webcomic shows, almost the entire right-half has been taken over by the far right. These are folks who are trying to push their own socio-cultural views on everyone else in America, and in the process ignore two things that are absolutely essential for a modern, democratic state to thrive: cultural liberalism and liberal neutrality.

By cultural liberalism, I broadly mean the freedom to march to the beat of a different drummer. Liberal neutrality is the government part of this, that the state should not promote any conception of what “the good” is. Considering the vast variety of opinions, backgrounds, viewpoints, and so on and so forth that exist in an active democratic society, not taking these two points as a given and a foundation for all public policy is suicide. When you have different groups trying to impose their views on each other, you’re not going to have any peace. Better to just have a truce and let people go their own way. Otherwise you’ll get what we have now.

And, on both sides, we have a great deal of just plain tribalism. That doesn’t help anybody.

I have noticed that centrism, in America, typically is described as a sort of movement that is led by Thomas Friedman and would be willing and able to elect Mike Bloomberg president. That sort of technocratic lefty-lite centrism doesn’t really exist beyond the DC-Boston corridor. Instead, I think it’s much closer to the idea of market democracy.

The interesting bit is that market democracy is not too far off from libertarianism, at least not a moderate rendition of it. I think market democracy can be libertarianism 3.0, and indeed must be if we’re going to get liberty pushed forward in this country. The anarcho-capitalist path of just abolishing government is a political dead end. And while I am attracted to Objectivist thought, regrettably the way that Rand phrased her philosophy has made it an instant turn-off for all but a small contingent of Americans. It seems to me that the only long-term, viable path for libertarianism is market democracy. And while it’s not exactly the same thing, there is already a burgeoning movement called “bleeding heart libertarianism” which combines free market individualism with social justice concerns.

In summary, there is a distinctly American centrism out there, and that centrism is market democracy, combining free market individualism with social justice. The idea of “responsible self-authorship” makes a lot of sense and should be the basis for politics. And I really, really wish one of these parties would come to it’s freaking senses and embrace it before things get worse. Though I won’t hold my breath.