Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Centrist Policy Means Distinguishing the Good, the Bad, and the Tolerated

As I argued in “What I Think Principled Centrism Means,” a centrist wants to promote what is best for society, tolerate what is good enough, and prevent what is harmful. This means that to define a centrist policy about anything, we need a category of social practice between the preferred and the prohibited. The natural thing to call this category is “tolerated.”

For example, historically and cross-culturally, marriage is the preferred institution in which to raise children, and incestuous unions are a prohibited way. What centrists need to be able to say is that marriage is preferred for raising children, and some other ways – my nominees would be single parenthood and same-sex unions -- are tolerated, acceptable, good enough. This is true of any social policy. The best way is still better, and social policy should provide incentives to promote the best way. But those who fall in the middle category, the good enough way, should not be penalized beyond the natural inefficiencies of doing something in a less than optimal way.

For liberal egalitarians having any kind of second class status is unacceptable.
For conservative perfectionists permitting any but the preferred way is to connive at social breakdown.

The primary political and philosophical problem of centrism is legitimizing the distinctions among the good, the bad, and the good enough.


Anonymous said...

I would suggest that, in your example, liberal egalitarians reject second-class status for the tolerated groups (same-sex or single parent) because they do not find the distinction that you make tenable in this case. That is, the liberal egalitarians are not merely being egalitarian After all, they don't approve of equal recognition of polygamy, polyandry, underage marriage, etc. (at least, not yet). Instead, they do not accept traditional marriage as the preferred alternative because they believe that the alternatives (traditional, same-sex, single parent) are matters of moral indifference.

I would also suggest that the description of conservatism that you use only applies to a certain rather narrow group of American conservatives. Burke, the godfather of modern conservatism, and those who subscribe to his skeptical brand of politics could not be accurately described as 'perfectionists' and would more adequately fit under your category of 'centrists'. Although, centrists, as you understand them, are probably still a bit too sanguine about the capabilities of human beings to reform themselves for the average Burkian.

Finally, there is some difference between what is 'good enough' and what is 'tolerated' (the middle category for the centrist). Most folks are satisfied with something if it is good enough. (My car is good enough. I wouldn't mind having a better one, but it's not something that I lose any sleep over.) On the other hand, toleration is an attitude that we take towards things of which we disapprove, but not vehemently enough to act on in some way, i.e. to prohibit. (He is tolerant of his brother's admiration of Amy Gutmann, although he certainly does not approve of it.)

Gruntled said...

I think there is an intermediate moment in liberal thinking, when a previously "not good enough" option is judged to be tolerable. Then, the logic of egalitarianism kicks in, and liberals find it uncomfortable to merely tolerate what they now judge to be acceptable. Divorce, or unwed parenting, used to be like that, even for liberals. Polygamy is, I think, in that category now. It is only a matter of time, though, before liberal arguments for decriminalizing polygamy turn into a claim that it is just as good as monogamy, because "who is to say that it is not?"

ancho and lefty said...

Why don't you use an example other than marriage and family so that I might see how principled centrism plays out in other contexts. Let's say, environmental policy, labor laws, immigration- anything, you pick- just for the sake of argument.

Gruntled said...

Well, I have been sticking to what I know better, but, ok, I will take a flyer.

Just now, the right is anti-immigrant, and the left insists, in a woolly-headed way, on not distinguishing between legal and illegal immigration. Were it not for the fecklessness of employers, we could already be serious about illegal immigration. I think a centrist immigration policy would be to encourage legal immigration, and crack down hard on illegal immigration. I would particularly encourage legal immigration of women, as the sex imbalance in immigrant communities contributes to more brutal lives for men, and thus to drinking, drugs, and crime.

That's just off the top of my head.

Anonymous said...

How would this viewpoint be different from a conservative position.

Gruntled said...

Conservatives are leading the movement to restrict all immigration, legal and illegal, especially from Mexico. Check out the work of former Colorado governor Lamm, or Samuel Huntington.

SPorcupine said...

How about: centrists responding to immigrants with different views on gender? We don't say everything goes: If husbands beat their wives in our towns, we expect the police to intervene and the shelters to be ready. But we do say (unlike the French) that our schools can function if their daughters cover their heads and their legs even in gym: we can and will make it work. If the mothers won't swim when men are present, we're willing to work out several hours a week when they can meet their own standards of modesty and still enjoy a community pool. And if we hear about someone harassing women who wear hijab, we get busy figuring out how to make that change, because we treasure our shared community, including the company of people with whom we disagree.

Gruntled said...

Sporcupine is very sensible. We should get together :)

Doc Merlin said...

I don't know of ANY conservative candidate that wants to restrict legal immigration. The conservatives generally want to restrict illegal immigration and the liberals want to give them residency. Bush falls in between the two camps, he wants to give them temporary worker visas.

danny said...

Do hippies/liberals think that all views/opinions have the same weight? Either they think they do, therefore aren't very well thought out, or they are hypocrites.

Not everybody is right and they know it! Otherwise these liberals will be throwing a fit about Holocaust denial being a crime in the EU. They aren't, and it should be! So please cut the crap about respecting my right to believe what I believe, or that they don't agree with what the Klan believe, but believe that the Klan has a right to believe what they believe.

And PUH-lease don't gimme the depak chopra crap that everyone is doing the best they can with what they got argument. It's just not true, you know it and I know it. At the very least, I'm not doing the best I can with what I got, and from my observations, neither is Dick Cheny or my neighbor.

The reason I call myself Christian and yet have so little patience and love for 'liberals' is because I'm very imperfect, and much less loving and kind as I ought to be. I simply find very little patience for word play is because after numerous engagements with 'liberals' In my experience, the significant majority are biased against alleged and self proclaimed 'Christians' and basically anyone else that has a non-liberal opinion. By and large my liberal compatriots lack a true desire to seek real moral objective truth, and remain open minded to new ides. Rather they choose to spend their efforts with word play and relativism, so that they can continue justifying their present course of action. It's downright tiresome sometimes, but beyond that, sorrowful, to see that an otherwise sound mind is unwilling to honestly debate and seek moral objective truth, but rather continue to amuse itself with its own flame of intelligent, bright though it maybe, but a candle, compared to the midday sun.

Diane Mc said...

I see a huge difference between divorce/single parent families and same sex marriages. There is ample evidence that children do better in families with two married parents who stay together. There is even evidence that children do better with two previously married parents than never married single parents.

There is no evidence that children raised by same sex couples do badly. In fact there is one study suggesting children of lesbian couples are better off. That study may not have controlled for enough other factors, but it at least suggests that families with same sex parents are not going to harm children.

I would argue further that the evidence for the benefits of marriage to children is a reason to allow same sex marriage.

Gruntled said...

The research on how the children of same-sex unions turn out is very slight, and most of it has been about whether they themselves are more likely to be homosexual. They aren't; I don't think this is a very important question anyway.

As I argued above, I think same-sex unions as a social practice are good enough.

I do think that men and women, as a group, are different and complementary. Any particular couple, including same-sex couples, will vary in how much they embody the general tendencies of each sex. But I think that children, as a group, benefit from both kinds of complementary qualities which are normally found in the different sexes. In that respect I would expect the children of same-sex unions, as a group, would be at a disadvantage. Same-sex unions are good enough, but they are not identical with traditional marriage.