Stuck in the Middle with You

31 December 2011

There's a lot of talk these days about the political center, especially on the part of pundits who express concern about the lack of a centrist Presidential candidate amongst the Republicans. Rarely if ever does this talk explain what is meant by the references to the center, let alone why, really, one should want someone or something to be there.

In fact, people aren't talking about the same thing when they use this term.

For some people, the center means a center of mass of some sort. To the extent that one could average the political opinions of the voters or of the adult citizenry or perhaps of the adult population, the center would be this average. There's some real problems in locating this center. Some things resist averaging of any sort. And, because its determination has become significant in influencing opinion, people are all too quick to confuse the results of some collective decision-making process with a quantification of opinion; one sees this phenomenon in how election results are interpretted, and pollsters often design polls to advance the views that they want to promote.

For some people, the center is more tightly defined as a region in which the people whom they do not despise could reach agreement. It's still something of an averaging, but now the averaging excludes the opinions of the far left or of the far right or of both; and if these people acknowledge political opinions that are neither left-wing nor right-wing, the center will exclude those who are far out in any other direction. Of course, different people will regard different sets of opinions as far (which really means disagreeable to the persons in question); there is no common agreement amongst them as to where the center is located.

People such as I want to define the center in terms of the conceptual possibilities. For example, one might ask whether the state should redistribute wealth from rich to poor or from poor to rich. The center would seem to be to favor neither redistribution, either opposing both or being indifferent to either. Now, I say seem advisedly, because the mid-points are determined by the taxonomy. If the center is to be naturally defined, then, the taxonomy must be a natural taxonomy. And reasonable people might use different taxonomies. But what would surely make a taxonomy inappropriate would be for it to make it difficult or impossible to discuss something that otherwise could be discussed — for example, state redistribution from poor to rich (which is a very real phenomenon) or no state redistribution.

Not only do we see most people failing to be clear which of these notions of a center they are using; we see evident confusion — sometimes deliberate confusion — of their properties. The right- or left-wings of different jurisdictions will be implicitly defined based on local culture, but then lumped-together across jurisdictions as if ideologically equivalent. The center of mass for some culture (especially that of the writer) will be treated as if it is moderation. Whatever view the speaker favors is asserted to be the unbiased perspective and whatever policy the pontificator wants is called the balanced approach.

In most cases, whether some approach to policy falls in any one of these aforementioned centers is utterly irrelevant to whether it is a particularly good policy. The policies of the center of mass might be the best policies that one can get in the face of democracy or of a populace inclined to civil war, but they'll only be good on the assumption that there is a symmetry of insanities within the population. The policies of those whom one tolerates are only good on the assumption that one is genuinely wise in whom one excludes (which assumption begs the question). And there is no reason to see good policy in the conceptual center; nothing says that swallowing half as much arsenic as one might is better than swallowing none at all; all of the good policies with respect to some things are at or near extremes.

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