Sunday, September 18, 2022

First Principles

 Andrew Coyne tries to make the case for centrism:

Justin Trudeau and Pierre Poilievre are far from twins, or (so far as I know) space aliens. Yet they, and the parties they lead, present the voter with much the same predicament: a choice limited to two wholly unappetizing options. Both parties, it is widely acknowledged, have strayed far from their traditions, to the point that each has become unrecognizable to large numbers of long-time party members.

Each, in its own way, has lost contact with the vital centre of Canadian politics. Rather than practical approaches to questions important to the average voter, each offers a mix of doctrinaire policy and irrelevant hobbyhorse issues. Which may explain why, for the first time in Canadian history, neither party can attract the support of more than a third of the voters.

Yet the one thing that can never be suggested is that this situation should not continue: that it is anomalous in any political community that the middle ground should be deserted soil, unrepresented and uncontested; and that, so long as the two main parties continue to court the fringes, the broader public interest will remain ignored.

In the end, centrism is hard to attain -- because the centre keeps shifting:

It is true that elections are decided by the median voter – as a matter of arithmetic. But the median is not some fixed meridian. It moves, in response to the push and pull of political debate. The party that tosses aside everything it ever believed in pursuit of the middle may find the middle simply recedes before it. Success in politics, rather, goes to the party or the candidate who moves the middle to them – sometimes by redefining what “the middle” means.

Which is to say: A party need not aim for the middle, and yet still end up there. Centrism ought in this sense to be considered much like the other “isms” – conservatism, liberalism etc. – not as something to be pursued in its own right, but as the indirect result of a number of more fundamental choices.

It's deadly to decide that you're a Conservative or a Liberal before deciding what you believe:

It is striking how many people decide first that they are a conservative, or a liberal, or what not – or, worse, a Conservative or Liberal – and only then decide what they believe. Their reaction, on encountering an issue for the first time, is therefore to consult their chosen belief system, as if it were an all-explanatory guide, and not a mere tendency.

Surely the reverse makes more sense: figure out what you think about things first, then see which ism most closely resembles the result. Start from first principles. How absolute are individual rights, and in what circumstances might these be overridden? Is everyone equal? Should they be? In what ways, and in what ways not? How far would I go to make them more equal, and by what means? And so on.

A serious effort to think these through might well find that none of the isms fully answers these questions, on its own; each gives a part of the answer. In which case the wiser approach might well consist in taking from each what it has to offer, striking a balance between them. That begins to look like centrism.

Centrism, then, need not and should not imply an aversion to ideology. Ideology is simply the set of principles by which we make sense of the world. Centrism is the realization that a useful ideology is not necessarily contained within the limits of the conventional isms – in fact, probably isn’t.

The "centre" is where your first principles are -- not what a political party says it is. These days, few of us give a lot of thought to first principles.

Image: AZ Quotes

1 comment:

e.a.f. said...

Good article. Gives people something to think about.