I have generally described myself as a "centrist," a word which in today's political context means something like "moderate," a word which in today's political context means absolutely nothing, according to Francis W. Porretto:

"Moderation," shorn of all context, is not only value-free but semantically empty as well. The same could be said for its linguistic opposite, "extremism."

Name a political subject; that is, name a condition, process, or hazard that might conceivably be improved by State action. Conceive of a position on that subject. How does one judge it to be moderate or immoderate? By where it fits into the range of possible positions on the subject? Or by where it stands in opinion polls? Or by how dramatic its results are likely to be?

Were I completely given over to cynicism, I would be inclined to say that, on this particular scale, the "moderate" position is the one that is least likely to work: its results will be the most dramatic (or most ignominious) failure.

Most issues are, to greater or lesser extent, binary: any intermediate positions are derived from the desire to create exceptions to a rule. The "moderate" position on abortion, for instance, might be something like "It's legal, but only under very specific conditions." Flat tax? "Well, two brackets, and we'll retain the deduction for home-mortgage interest." You get the idea. The conventional wisdom on compromise is that each side gets what it wants; what remains unspoken is that each side also gets what it doesn't want.

So if a "moderate," or a "centrist," is someone who instinctively looks for those intermediate positions, what kind of political philosophy, beyond mere expediency, does he have? When I wrote about this last fall, I quoted Chris Lawrence thusly:

There are only two types of true moderate: people who don't care about politics, and centrist politicians (and this latter class of people generally care less about politics than they care about keeping their jobs — I defy you to explain the behavior of Arlen Specter or Olympia Snowe otherwise). Bloggers and New York Times columnists aren't. Anyone who cares enough about politics enough to post several essays a day explicating his or her worldview is not a moderate, and neither is anyone who's taking time away from his academic career to publish two incoherent essays a week in America's flagship newspaper.

So what do we do with these words, if they don't mean anything? Why, we use them to mean what we choose them to mean, neither more nor less. (O Politics, what a wonderland thou art.) Someone who's reviewed my stated positions over the past eight and half years might suspect something of a rightward drift. I'm not so sure. Something like, say, the privatization of Social Security is by any reasonable definition a libertarian stance. But my recommendation for a partial privatization back in 1998 — yeah, partial, but I'm supposed to be a "moderate," remember? — is considered "conservative" these days, because (1) George W. Bush supports this sort of thing and (2) those damn Republicans have been trying to undo the New Deal for more than half a century, haven't they?

As FWP says, "See what sort of trouble labels can get you into?"

I think the trouble stems from the fact that we're conditioned to think that issues are either "liberal" or "conservative," when in fact issues are either "do something" or "do nothing." Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a wiser man than most of his Capitol colleagues, once came up with the term "benign neglect," which neatly encapsulates the "do nothing" approach and which infuriated liberals, who perforce insist that something should be done. Doing nothing, of course, doesn't really mean doing nothing; it means that We The People, in traditional Tenth Amendment style, will deal with this matter ourselves, rather than have Washington issue decrees of perhaps dubious Constitutionality.

This is precisely how Kim du Toit can characterize himself as "more 'moderate' than most": he knows that both left and right, as currently defined, have issues on which they insist that the government do something, and other issues on which they prefer the government do nothing. It's more accurate than "centrist," anyway, which suggests a more wishy-washy outlook — something like mine.

The Vent

  8 December 2004

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 Copyright © 2004 by Charles G. Hill