Intellectual Hipsters: Centrists

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I would like to once again return to the subject of the intellectual hipster–someone who adopts an idea without giving it much thought for the purpose of conveying or demonstrating an intellectual impulse that is, in reality, foreign to them. In the past, we have looked at libertarians, sceptics, and lovers of Nietzsche. Today I wish to turn to the self-proclaimed centrists, those who purport not to agree with either side in political disputes, with the implication that their moderation indicates higher wisdom than their partisan counterparts.

There are two variants on this centrism that I wish to identify:

  1. Pundit Centrism: whatever the dispute in politics, all parties involved are equally to blame.
  2. True Political Centrism: the just society always amounts to a triangulation of whatever two positions are on offer.

I submit to the reader that both of these forms of centrism represent the capitulation of principles and reasoning in their entirety, a bold claim, and one which I must justify.

Pundit Centrism:

Pundit centrism is very common in political writing. Many commentators, seeking not to be seen by their readers as biased or perhaps thinking that their impartiality really is a sign of some sort of more balanced or more fair-minded perspective, will argue always that whatever the faults of one political organisation, the same faults are reflected equally by its opponent. For instance, it is often widely bandied about the American political parties lie and mislead equally. In practise this is just false. The democrats have a tendency to exaggerate information which does, to its credit, have some basis in reality, while the republicans have a tendency to just fabricate entire policy planks, as Paul Ryan did with his budget. Not only will centrist pundits deny that falsehoods are not reciprocal, they will embrace them–Paul Ryan was declared by numerous pundits to be a serious, honest conservative with a real proposal that should be taken as seriously as say, Obama’s proposed jobs bill. This kind of centrism is self-deluding; it paints a picture of the world that amounts to nothing more than mirage. The people who subscribe to it are not more fair-minded and they are not even less biased. By reporting as true or as reasonable positions that are neither and by labeling as “just as bad” things that are not remotely similar, pundit centrists disinform their readers as well as themselves, biasing them in favour of a non-existent political realm.

True Political Centrists:

True political centrists are true believers–they actually do think that there is an in between position that is superior, and they advocate it. Many of these centrists desire a third party in the United States between the democrats and republicans, or just cannot understand why the two parties will not compromise and just get things done. In Britain, Tony Blair advocated a “third way” along these lines.

It’s a perspective that sounds very attractive to a political initiate who has done very little real thinking about statecraft, but one that is deeply flawed. Consider for instance the issue of the welfare state.

The left argues that the welfare state is good, either because it produces equality (egalitarianism), because it improves the welfare of the worst off (prioritarianism), because it ensures everyone enjoys a minimum standard of living (sufficientarianism), or because it is economically efficient (left utilitarianism).

The right argues that the welfare state is bad either because people have a right to what they earn (libertarianism) or because it produces economic inefficiency (right utilitarianism).

What does the centrist argue? That the welfare state is kinda sorta good but also kinda sorta bad? That the welfare state has both good and bad aspects? It is not as if both sides in the dispute do not recognise that the welfare state has good and bad aspects. Most of the left acknowledges that, if taken to an extreme, the welfare state could debilitate incentive. Most of the right acknowledges that, with no redistribution at all, very high inequality would result in riots or revolutions. What the left and right are saying is that, on balance, the welfare should be stronger or weaker, respectively, than it is now, to achieve the optimal political scenario, justifying those views on evidence and normative political theory.

So what does the centrist have to say? The centrist has no guiding principle. The centrist does not want an egalitarian, prioritarian, sufficientarian, left or right utilitarian, or libertarian society. The centrist does not know what the centrist wants, the centrist just thinks that the conflict is silly and that the two sides should just “get along”. What the centrist really proposes is that both sides abandon their principles and settle for whatever they can get, because the centrist does not really care about the issue or about the debate in the first place. The centrist doesn’t think any of it really matters, that it’s all really just a trivial disagreement, and that getting along is more important than creating an ethical or just society. Centrism stands for indecision, apathy, and conflict avoidance. It is more a personality disorder than it is a political position.

Yet for all that, centrists will continue to proclaim their enlightened reasonableness, and assert that those of us daft enough to take up principles or positions on political issues are too aggressive, too assertive, too decisive. Because at heart, the centrist does not differ all that much from the sceptic–the centrist is never morally or ethically confident, never able to take on board a moral principle beyond the pacifism of wanting to bring peace to those in argument. The centrist is at heart a people-pleaser, someone who wants to do whatever brings an end to the tension brought on by the debate and the fight. What is right or wrong is of no concern, principles do not matter, only ending the fight matters.

What the centrist misses is that the intellectual debate is necessary and important. It matters a great deal whether the just society is egalitarian or libertarian or what have you. That has immense implications for how we should live, how we should treat each other, for all facets of life.  To say that we do not need to do serious thinking, serious reasoning, to reach conclusions in that discussion, that we can just triangulate whatever positions are out there, amounts to an anti-reason, anti-intellectual position. It is a cheap, unprincipled, valueless position. It skips all the important steps in philosophy, all the premises and arguments, and just assumes that everyone is equally right and equally wrong, and that if we throw all of the positions together and average them, we’ll get something acceptable.  Philosophy does not work like that. Politics does not work like that. It is disrespectful to the field, to statecraft itself, that people think in this way. It trivialises and simplifies what is not trivial, what cannot be simplified.

No just or good state can be created out of mindless averaging of complex theories of what is just or good. These centrists, these hipsters, must come to understand that statecraft is not a subject for neophytes, it is not one at which you can cheat your way through. Positions must be thought over and well-considered, because should you succeed in implementing an ill-considered theory or policy, real people in the real world are injured by it. It is irresponsible to do anything less.