The Political Centrist

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Today almost half of all Americans decline to define themselves as either "liberal" or "conservative." In fact, modern liberalism and conservatism seem hopelessly fragmented ideologies. Liberals claim to believe in individual freedom yet advocate a more collectivistic approach to government and an increasingly paternalistic role for the state. Conservatives are hopelessly divided between two incompatible ideals—the highly individualistic, limited-state philosophy of classical liberalism and an older, more collectivistic tradition of cultural conservatism that holds government responsible for shaping social morality. As a result, modern liberals are economic collectivists and moral individualists, while conservatives are economic individualists and moral collectivists.

Centrists reject each of these fragmented and polarized approaches to politics. We believe that government has a role to play in structuring social and economic opportunities and in reinforcing basic moral norms, yet we are deeply troubled by ever-expanding government. We reject libertarianism, left-liberalism, and the various schools of conservatism as a model for government.

Part I of The Political Centrist briefly traces the trajectory of the liberal and conservative traditions. It argues that modern liberalism is an unprincipled fusion of classical liberal and socialist ideals while modern conservatism is an untenable hybrid of economic liberalism and social conservatism. Part II offers a centrist approach to many of the most contentious contemporary political and social issues. Those include:

— abortion

— affirmative action

— the death penalty

— gay marriage

— illegal immigration

— judicial activism

— the relationship of religion and politics

— the role of government in the economy

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780826516688
  • Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
  • Publication date: 12/15/2009
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 7.20 (w) x 10.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

John Lawrence Hill is Professor of Law and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, Indiana University at Indianapolis.

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The Political Centrist

By John Lawrence Hill

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2009 Vanderbilt University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8265-1668-8

Chapter One

The Liberal's Paradox

ADAM SMITH MAY HAVE been the first to use the term "liberal" in the modern political sense in his Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. Yet it was not until the 1820s in Britain and the United States that the term "liberal" became part of our linguistic currency as a political expression. There were no "liberals" during the American Revolution, for example, though many of the founding fathers-Jefferson is a good example-adhered to a form of republicanism brigaded with classical liberal principles.

Liberalism has taken three distinct forms historically, though it is the second of these that is usually associated with liberalism today. In its first phase, the classical liberal era ran from the late seventeenth century until some time around the end of the nineteenth century in the United States. The first true defense of classical liberalism was John Locke's Second Treatise of Government, published anonymously in 1690. Classical liberal ideas germinated throughout the eighteenth century and became the dominant approach to U.S. politics by the early to mid-nineteenth century. Classic liberalism's day in the sun was short-lived, however. By around 1900, the older, limited-government philosophy began to give way to the more egalitarian and interventionist ideals of the progressive liberal. Second-stage progressive liberalism became the dominant liberal ideology with FDR and the New Deal in the 1930s. Since then, "liberalism" has usually meant this form of left liberalism.

The third and most radical strain of liberalism, libertarianism, is of even more recent vintage. According to one account, Leonard Read coined the term "libertarian" in the 1950s when libertarians could no longer bear to use the word "liberal" to describe their own philosophy. Libertarians often align themselves with the older classical liberalism, yet in some ways libertarianism is a much more radical philosophy. One example, as we'll see later, is that most eighteenth- and nineteenth-century classical liberals never doubted the government's role in preserving the morality of society-for example, passing laws prohibiting prostitution, adultery, homosexuality, drug and alcohol use, or other aspects of personal behavior. Libertarians do not believe government should have this power. Like progressive liberals, libertarians want government to stay out of the bedroom. And with classical liberals, they want government to stay out of the boardroom. Libertarianism is thus the most radically consistent form of antiregulatory liberalism. It is often (strangely) considered a form of conservative thought today, largely because libertarians share many conservatives' free-market principles. We examine libertarianism at greater length in Chapter 3, where I argue that it is anything but a conservative philosophy in most senses of the word.

Defenders of each of the three branches of liberalism disagree about a great many things, but at the most general level they agree on two important points. First, all liberals seem to agree that the central political value of a liberal system ought to be liberty, though they disagree about how to define it. Second, all liberals agree in principle that the protection of freedom always requires some restraint, though they disagree about who needs restraining. All agree at a minimum that the limit of each person's freedom is the point at which it interferes with someone else's freedom. As the old expression goes, your freedom to swing your arm ends where my nose begins. It is primarily government's job to enforce this zone of restraint-by preventing you from taking my property or harming me physically or otherwise limiting my freedom, and by preventing me from doing the same to you. Most liberals will agree, then, that the government's function in restraining liberty-and this is crucial-is done, at least in part, in the name of liberty.

Herein lies the root of the paradox of liberalism: restraint is justified in terms of freedom. Adjust the definition of freedom accordingly, and you can justify any form or level of restraint. V. I. Lenin understood this perfectly. At the height of the Russian Revolution he declared, "It is true that liberty is precious-so precious that it must be rationed."

Recently New York City passed a ban on the use of trans fats in restaurants. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who signed the bill into law, is something of a health fanatic. Bloomberg insisted that "nobody wants to take away your french fries and hamburgers-I love these things, too. But if you can make them with something less damaging to your health, we should do that." Another proponent of the bill was more candid. "Often people don't make wise food choices even when given the option. So we have to make choices for them. It's a positive move."

This is just one example of the paradox of liberalism: the freedom of the individual to eat what he or she wants is restrained-in the name of the freedom of the individual. To those who may occasionally be willing to trade the health benefits of a non-trans-fat product for better taste, the liberal responds that trans fats are unhealthful. Eat too many of them and you may not live as long as you otherwise would. A shortened life span means that there is less time to make other choices and to enjoy your freedom in other ways. And while you live you may be less healthy than you could be, which will also limit your range of other choices. So, the logic goes, we restrain your freedom now in order to promote your long-term freedom to make those choices that you wouldn't have had a chance to make had you died prematurely. Of course, some of those other choices down the line may be limited for similar reasons, but that's another matter. Notice that we have made a crucial leap from the classical liberal approach to freedom: your freedom is limited not to preserve my freedom, but to preserve yours-the quintessential example of modern paternalism.

Whether you agree or disagree with these kinds of measures is not immediately my point. But when freedom becomes a commodity to be regulated and even maximized by the state, almost any form and level of restraint can be justified to that end. And that poses a paradox for thoughtful liberals.

We can think about the liberal's paradox in another way. The idea of a "right" means something different today than it did for the old classical liberals. When classical liberals used the term "right," they meant mainly freedom from government. To have a right to free speech or to the privacy of your home or to religious freedom meant that the government could not limit your freedom to speak or to live as you wish in your home or to practice your religion (or not) as you see fit. Rights were mainly rights against government interference. But, of course, even then, the idea of a right had to mean something more than this. When another person attempts to take your property or harm you, the classical liberal would agree that you have a right against this kind of personal invasion as well. So, even for the classical liberal, rights sometimes mean not just freedom from government, but freedom from everybody to do what it is you have a right to do. When the government recognizes your right to be free from government interference, it restrains itself. It does nothing. This is the idea of limited government. But when the government protects your right from a third party's interference, it must do something-it must intervene. So sometimes rights require that government do nothing, and sometimes they require that the government act.

This ambiguity gives rise to the modern confusion about rights. To put it a bit too bluntly, modern liberals tend to think about rights increasingly in the latter sense-to have a right is to have some freedom that the government will protect against every kind of infringement by third parties. We have a right to do our jobs free from the sexual harassment of our bosses and co-workers. We have a right not to be affected by secondhand smoke. Children have rights not to be physically disciplined by their teachers and, in some circumstances, even by their parents. The disabled have a right to access public buildings on the same terms as everybody else. We have rights to a minimum wage, to Social Security, and, perhaps before long, to some form of socialized health care.

Philosophers and lawyers sometimes draw a technical distinction between rights and privileges-those things we're left free to do and those things the government helps us do-but the truth is that, in many ways, this distinction has been blurred in our everyday way of thinking about things. Since every right must be protected by government, the distinction between rights and privileges has broken down. When the government prevents someone from taking your property (by sending the police) and when it intervenes to prevent you from being sexually harassed by your boss (by sending the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to intervene), the only difference is the character of the activity that is being protected-keeping your property or working in an environment free of sexual harassment.

What this means is that the greater the number or scope of our rights, the more government we will need to protect them. This sounds counterintuitive, of course. We tend to think of rights and government as existing in tension with one another, as if more rights means less government. But this is the paradox. The greater my rights to be free from the things that you do, the more government that is necessary to protect me from you. If I have a right to be free from secondhand smoke wherever I go, the more laws that will be necessary to protect me-in bars and restaurants, in the workplace, et cetera. If I have a right to such social benefits as basic housing, health care, and a meaningful and remunerative job, more government will be necessary to achieve these things. At the extreme, there is no contradiction in the idea of totalitarian liberalism-a political state of affairs in which the state regulates most or all of our everyday activities in the name of maximizing our freedom. Tocqueville called this "soft despotism" in the nineteenth century, while H. G. Wells defended a similar idea in the 1930s, calling it (apparently without any sense of irony) "liberal fascism."

The point here is not that government should never seek to do some of these things. We centrists believe that we live in a complex society and that some level of government regulation in some of these areas is sometimes beneficial, if not inevitable. But there is a self-defeating quality to the modern rhetoric of freedom and rights. Paradoxically, a society with fewer rights in the modern sense may sometimes be a freer one. This explains why modern libertarians, who are the staunchest enemies of expanding government, have a very limited repertoire of rights. It is the modern progressive liberal, who believes that there are rights to a great many things-from a smoke-free environment to national health insurance-who requires a much more expansive, interventionist government.

Liberalism, in other words, requires a kind of balancing act between the realm of positive rights, where government intervention is necessary, and the realm of negative rights, where we must be content to let the chips fall where they may without government intervention. Go too far in one direction, regulating human conduct at every turn, and freedom is reduced. Go too far in the other direction, of course-eliminating government altogether, as advocates of minimal government seek to do-and you wind up reducing freedom from the other side by disabling government from protecting essential positive rights. We may disagree about where exactly to draw the line between the two spheres, but all liberals agree that protecting freedom requires finding the right balance between them.

So why are modern liberals less willing than classical liberals to let the chips fall where they may? Why do they believe that freedom requires more, not less, government (except in areas of intimate relationships and in matters of self-expression)? The simple answer is that modern liberals have reinterpreted the essential mission of liberalism, and they have largely redefined what freedom means. In order to understand exactly how freedom has been redefined (for many of us now more or less accept some version of the newer definition), we must "commit political philosophy," as George Will once put it-and a little history, too. We begin with the year 1937.

Two Visions of Liberalism

If we had to choose the year classical liberalism died and was buried as the dominant form of liberalism in the United States, we couldn't do better than 1937. In a deeper sense, the writing had been on the wall for several decades, but in 1937 even the last bastion of classical liberal conservatism, the Supreme Court, gave up the ghost and embraced a new model of government. For three decades, from around 1900 to 1937, American constitutional politics were divided between a Supreme Court dominated by older classical liberals, on one hand, and state and federal legislators who increasingly pushed for various progressive reforms, including maximum hour, minimum wage, and occupational safety laws, on the other. The more conservative justices tried to hold back the tide of the new legislation by interpreting various clauses of the Constitution in a way that was consistent with the tenets of classical liberalism. Key to the worldview of these conservative justices was the idea that many of the laws favored by progressives violated the freedom of contract between the worker and the employer. By setting limits on the number of hours a week a worker could work, or the minimum wage for which he could work, the state was limiting the freedom of both parties to reach a bargain that was acceptable to each. Where the conservatives wanted to let more of the chips fall where they may in these matters, the new liberals wanted more government and an expanded array of individual entitlements.

After the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed, voters elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. Determined to beat the Depression, FDR and Congress passed a series of programs that fought unemployment and that attempted to stabilize prices and wages. Many of these programs had the whiff of socialism to conservatives, who opposed them because of the way they interfered with contract and property rights, but to most of their supporters these programs represented the new liberalism, a liberalism that sought to extend meaningful economic opportunities to all. For these programs to pass constitutional scrutiny, two changes were necessary: the Court had to recognize a more expansive role for the federal government, and it had to relax its rigorous classical liberal conception of property and contract rights.

The conflict between the progressive FDR and the conservative Supreme Court came to a head in 1937. In two important cases in 1935 and 1936, the Supreme Court had struck down two of Roosevelt's most important programs, claiming that they were beyond the reach of federal power under the Constitution. In each of these cases, the vote was close-five to four and six to three. Roosevelt resolved to shake up the Court after these two defeats. Under cover of the rationale that six of the justices were over seventy and needed extra assistance, he proposed to add six new justices-all avid supporters of his programs-to the Supreme Court, creating a total of fifteen (rather than the long-standing nine) justices. This would ensure that he had a solid majority to uphold his programs.

Justice Owen Roberts had frequently been the fifth vote to strike down Roosevelt's programs, and he had voted to do the same during the Court's conference on an important case, West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish. But as the momentum built for Roosevelt's "court-packing plan," as it came to be known, Roberts changed his vote, siding with the administration in this and later cases. Roberts's last-minute change of heart in this constitutional game of chicken between the president and the Court effectively defused the court-packing plan and became known as "the switch in time that saved nine"-the nine-justice system. Since then the dominant vision of liberalism, on and off the Court, has been this newer version, which views government, and particularly the federal government, as essential to achieving freedom.


Excerpted from The Political Centrist by John Lawrence Hill Copyright © 2009 by Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: The Center Holds....................1
Chapter 1: The Liberal's Paradox....................11
Chapter 2: The Conservative's Dilemma....................29
Chapter 3: What "Liberalism" and "Conservatism" Mean Today....................48
Chapter 4: Why the Big "Isms" Fail....................64
Chapter 5: Politics and the Big Questions: On God, Morality, and the Human Condition....................81
Chapter 6: Between the Night Watchman and the Leviathan: The Centrist's Conception of Government....................95
Chapter 7: Centrist Constitutionalism: Democracy and the Role of the Judge....................111
Chapter 8: From Gay Rights to Drug Legalization: The Tension between Individual Freedom and Social Morality....................130
Chapter 9: A Centrist Approach to Abortion....................146
Chapter 10: Race, Gender, and Reasonable Equality of Opportunity....................161
Chapter 11: Crime and Punishment....................176
Chapter 12: The Debate over Illegal Immigration....................196
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