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Thom Stark on Centrism   2 comments

In our continuing conversation, Thom Stark and I are discussing what radical centrism means and our view of politics and Plato’s Republic. See last week’s installment here.

My ending volley was: So which type of centricism are we talking about here?

Thom StarkLet’s start with my objection to The Republic. It isn’t its elitism to which I object as much as it is its advocacy of repression as a routine tool to stifle dissent and individuality. In that, it’s much more like the Soviet model of Marxism than Marxism, pura. (I doubt most people have read The Communist Manifesto, or that they know enough about the history of the Soviet Union to understand how far that top-down system of government by an elite political class was from the “spontaneous revolution of the proletariat” that Marx and Engels envisioned.) The elitist notion that philosophers, of all people, are inherently wise enough to rule benevolently is, for me, belied by the very system that Plato proposes: one predicated on ruthless suppression of dissent, the death penalty for non-conformism, a rigid caste system, and a ubiquitous secret police force spying on every citizen.

Yech.

I’m less of an idealist than I am a pragmatist, but I’m also very much a student of history. It seems clear to me that any system of government that relies on repression and fear to maintain itself in power is doomed in any but the short term, because all such systems are essentially designed to foment dissatisfaction and unrest – not to mention corruption, careerism, and intrigue among the elites.

When I say I believe elected politicians have a duty to protect the rights of the minority, I mean “against the tyranny of the majority.” You’re concerned about minority groups ganging up to impose their will on those who are not members of their coalition. I’m not, because, once such coalitions achieve sufficient voting power to advantage themselves against the remainder of the population, the principle of protecting minority rights should kick in to even the playing field.

Mind you, I’m not talking about a legal duty here. Rather I mean there’s a moral obligation on the part of elected officials to ensure that the laws they make deal fairly with everyone, rather than favoring the powerful and entrenched interests. As an example, the USA began as a slaveholding nation. The law favored the interests of slaveholders over those of their chattels. That changed after the Civil War, not for economic or political reasons, but for moral ones. Holding that all men were created equal and simultaneously blessing the ownership of a significant number of men and women by others was always the very rankest kind of hypocrisy. One or the other precept had to go – and I, for one, am glad it was the former that triumphed.

As for calling myself a “radical centrist”, that’s actually a bit of snark on my part. As I define the terms, a centrist is one who believes that the political solutions that benefit the greatest number of one’s fellow citizens usually emanate from the center of the debate, rather than from its fringes. Meanwhile, a radical centrist is one who’s convinced that public discourse would benefit enormously if the loudest, most hysterical voices on both extremes were lined up against a wall and shot.

Note: I don’t in any way advocate or approve of the use of summary execution to stifle dissent. It’s just my way of calling attention to the fact that the public debate in this country has devolved into a pointless, partisan shouting match – and only the biggest mouths benefit from that.

Bill Clinton is, in fact, a political centrist. Otherwise, for instance, he would never have signed the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. I thought it was a mistake for him to do so at the time, and the events of 2008 proved I was correct about that – which only goes to show that we centrists aren’t some lock-step monolith. There’s as much room for disagreement between us as there is between the extremes. We’d just rather focus on solving common problems than on waving our arms and shouting.

To me, the purpose of government, economically speaking, is to do the things private investment will not do – mostly because they are not immediately profitable enough to attract investment on their own. The interstate highway system is a classic example. It radically changed American life for the better, but it could never have been constructed by private capital. The military is another. Without it, Philip K. Dick’s The Man In the High Castle would have been history, not fiction. But the financial barons would never have spent their money to raise, train, equip, and supply a global, four-year military effort to defeat hegemonic totalitarianism. It took a powerful central government to do that.

Lela Markham Davidson Ditch CorrectedI think it’s the job of the government – of all three branches of our particular government – to protect human rights. That’s another task that’s simply beyond the purview of capitalism to accomplish. There’s no profit to be made (no short-term profit, at least) in combating slavery, protecting speech, or ensuring religious liberty, so the monied class won’t do any of those things. There are roads to be maintained, crime to be suppressed, traffic to be managed, and so on, and none of those things is best done by private interests. I think making potholes, parking, and policing the province of government is the least undesireable solution to those needs.

My reply next week!

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