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Why I Am a Centrist

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times, a correspondent and editor for the Economist and a senior editor at the Atlantic. He previously served as an official in the British finance ministry and the Government Economic Service.
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Is it all over for centrism -- a failed and discredited doctrine? Some people seem to think so. They're mostly wrong, but I'm a centrist, so I'll try to meet them halfway.

Noah Smith recently reviewed some of the claims that centrism is busted. Straight away, it's obvious that commentators mean different things by the term. Some, to my surprise, see it as kind of intellectual conspiracy; or conflate it with support for hardline fiscal conservatism and laissez-faire economics. For now, though, let's not be detained by definitional issues, and just say centrists stand somewhere in the wide middle between self-identifying progressives and committed conservatives.

Commentators wishing to bury centrism seem to be making three claims. First, opinion among economists has shifted left. Second, the center is fading as a political force. Third, no self-respecting political thinker can any longer be a centrist. Let’s take these in turn.

It's true that academic economists lean left these days, and I agree with Smith that, on average, they lean a bit further to left than they used to. Luminaries such as Larry Summers, a long-time exemplar of sophisticated centrist thinking, are voicing more progressive themes. The academic consensus that trade liberalization is good is a lot more hedged than it used to be; the balance of opinion has moved toward supporting higher minimum wages.

A shuffling of feet is also apparent at repositories of respectable opinion such as the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. IMF officials, taking a moment from imposing crippling austerity on Greece, have been making the case for fiscal stimulus and suggesting that "living with high [public] debt merits consideration." Capital controls used to be bad; now, sometimes, they aren't. The OECD, as I mentioned the other day, has been tipping its hat to Thomas Piketty.

Even so, this shift is easily exaggerated. Some of the change is more style than substance. And the idea that intellectual support for laissez-faire economics has collapsed since the crash, or since the heyday of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, suggests that it used to be strong:  In terms of head-count, it never was. In 1981, 364 economists wrote a letter to the Times of London saying that Thatcherism would lead the country to ruin. Not that Thatcher, by the way, believed in laissez-faire economics. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

That said, the crash and its aftermath do present new challenges. They ought to unsettle old thinking. So should persistently slow growth in middle incomes and rising inequality. But the need for a rethink certainly doesn’t demand wholesale conversion to the progressive agenda -- and wholesale conversion is not what's happening. The economic center is moving, a bit, but not far enough for me to see Summers as Treasury Secretary in an Elizabeth Warren administration.

Which brings us to the second question: Is centrism over as a political force? It's a commonplace that American politics is increasingly polarized, so in this sense the answer might be yes: There are precious few centrists among the politically engaged. But the wider electorate still has plenty of them, and successful candidates for office still need to bow to that fact.

Progressives announcing the death of centrism may note that Hillary Clinton is tacking to the left. (Yes, Hillary Clinton: It's a brave new world, comrades.) Let's see which way she tacks if and when she's anointed the Democratic nominee. I'm expecting something along the lines of, "The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states. I've got news for them. This is the United States. [Wild applause.]"

U.S. progressives don't just want to improve the country; they want to transform it. So do American conservatives. That's the conversation true believers want to have with their respective candidates. Most of the electorate, though, is wary of politicians bearing transformation. Many of them are still cautious centrists -- and, in the end, they tend to get their way.

Turning to the third claim, electoral realities notwithstanding, can any self-respecting political thinker any longer be a centrist? I'd say so. For me, the question is how any self-respecting political thinker can be anything else. Two aspects of the centrist temperament seem indispensable in any intelligent discussion of public policy.

One is a willingness to examine trade-offs. True believers of right and left organize their ideas around the hope that there aren't any. For progressives, "fairness" trumps everything; for conservatives, "freedom." Balancing either against anything else is a moral violation -- but, as luck would have it, the need never arises. If you're a progressive, you can raise tax rates without discouraging effort, and mandate higher wages without reducing the demand for labor. If you're a conservative, you can cut taxes without harming essential public services, and roll back regulation without putting anybody at risk.

If centrists didn’t always try to be polite, I'd call this aversion to trade-offs infantile.

The other characteristically centrist trait is a minimally consistent notion of the individual's relation to the state. Progressives recognize that any government may try to advance its power and prerogatives by infringing civil liberties, and urge constant vigilance in that domain; yet they trust the state to respect economic freedoms as though, in that area, such pressures never arise. Conservatives are committed with equal passion to the opposite misconception.  

If centrists didn't always try to be polite, I'd call this glaring logical incoherence dumb.

Centrism isn't necessarily good, any more than fundamentalism is necessarily bad. It comes in many forms -- pointless and productive, lazy and energetic, timid and brave. I'll grant its critics this much: Centrism rarely inspires. On the other hand, the fact that it's neither childish nor stupid gives it a certain edge. I expect it to survive a while longer.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net