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Towards an Enlightened Centrism
Who to read, and why
Sometimes people ask which political writers and thinkers I like to read, and they usually end up surprised when I name a lot of centrists and leftists.
Apparently, most people prefer authors who tell them what they want to hear, even while paying lip service to the idea that a healthy intellectual diet involves exposure to a wide range of individuals with different political views. But I don’t believe in simply seeking out ideological diversity for the sake of diversity. I think there are entire movements, bodies of research, and ways of thought that add nothing to human knowledge and are better to avoid. If my favorite writers don’t share a common ideological orientation, exactly what separates them from other authors that I choose to spend less time reading and engaging with?
After giving the topic some thought, I’ve found that the writers I think are most insightful tend to have certain traits that are worth spelling out. My thinking here was heavily influenced by covid-19. It was important to get policy in this area right, so I spent a lot of time looking into various issues surrounding how to respond to the pandemic. I came away convinced that for any honest and intelligent person who approached the data with an open mind and reasonable priors, it was clear that we needed to speed up vaccination development and distribution to the greatest extent possible, and that non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), like mask mandates, school closures, and shutdowns, did more harm than good.
Covid came out of the blue. This meant we could observe its political effects as a kind of natural experiment, since pandemic policy wasn’t yet polarized, and watch how each side dealt with and processed evidence in real time. When you present them with a novel issue that doesn’t infringe on already sacred values, which side is really the “party of science”? As it turns out, neither! The left masked children for years, while the right killed off its old people by indulging and in some cases encouraging their skepticism over vaccines. Good to know.
That being said, I noticed that there was a group of writers who came to the correct position throughout the pandemic, and they crossed the right-left divide. In February of last year, Ezra Klein interviewed Alex Tabarrok on the failures of the FDA, and they basically agreed on everything. I noticed that many of the liberals skeptical of NPIs after vaccines became available were the same ones I found to be reasonable on other issues, like the influence of teachers unions. And the conservatives or more right-leaning intellectuals tended to also be the most sensible thinkers on their own side.
Yet I’ve seen strikingly little analysis of what these individuals do have in common, if it wasn’t a conventional political ideology or orientation.
I would propose that we call them “Enlightened Centrists” (EC). In politics, we usually think of a centrist as someone who is a moderate on most issues, like say Joe Manchin. That’s not the way I use the term here. In this context, a centrist is simply someone who has a constellation of views that don’t completely line up with either the right or the left. This centrism is “enlightened” based on certain traits, listed below, that such individuals share that I think make for sound political and social analysis.
If you’re going to understand important issues, it is Enlightened Centrists you should seek out. Throughout the process of explaining what the term means, I’m going to criticize non-EC ways of thought. I’ll refrain from criticizing specific individuals whose writings are offensive to the EC sensibility, since I’m not a young hip-hopper out to start beefs, but if you read widely you’ll recognize the traits and tendencies that I take issue with. In addition to being distracting, I think that attacking individuals would be unhelpful in trying to get them to change their ways. Enlightenment is a gift I would like to share with others. At the end of this essay, however, I will put together a list of individuals who I think are in fact Enlightened Centrists, or close enough, and therefore worth reading.
EC is not, and will not become, a political movement. Nor is it simply a cognitive style. Some degree of rationalism is necessary but not sufficient for being an Enlightened Centrist. Rationalists are known to think in probabilities, take cost-benefit analysis seriously, have reasonable priors and weigh them against new information in measured ways, and be low in tribal instincts. The same is true for Enlightened Centrists, but one can think of the term as referring to how rationalist thought tends to manifest itself in how one approaches political and social issues.
To make things clearer, one can classify intellectuals or movements on three different levels. At the most abstract, Level 1, one can talk about epistemology, or how they go about acquiring and developing knowledge about the world. At Level 3, the most tangible, one can categorize individuals by their opinions on specific issues like the corporate tax rate and gay marriage. This is the default way of thinking about politics, when we divide people into right and left.
Enlightened Centrism exists at an intermediate level (2), referring to habits and beliefs that are more tangible than whether or not one is a Bayesian, while also referring to those that are more abstract than which political party one identifies with.
The following Table aims to be helpful here.
Enlightened Centrist Traits
Enlightened centrists can differ radically in their values and opinions on difficult empirical questions, which help determine where they end up at Level 3. Still, they at least have some of the following eight traits or beliefs in common.
No all-encompassing theories about political opponents
I’m highly suspicious of theories that tell you what liberalism or conservatism is really about. Usually, these are self-flattering narratives that have some kind of plausibility, but radically simplify reality to the point of being unhelpful. This may seem hypocritical coming from someone who has written articles like “Conservatism as an Oppositional Culture,” and “Liberals Read, Conservatives Watch TV.” But note that when I write about differences between conservatives and liberals, I narrow my focus to the dominant cultures among the two great American tribes. I don’t present theories that try to connect modern liberalism to Protestantism or Bolshevism or gnosticism, nor try to argue that there is an unbroken ideological line or essence from the distant past that helps us understand our current politics. I’m not a fan of theories like “conservatives always lose” or “liberals are defined by seeking power.” Even if you can reasonably put forward certain claims about the right and left, as long as you narrow your focus to, say, members of congress, voters, or institutions, trying to explain either side in toto probably isn’t a worthwhile exercise. Enlightened Centrists seek to make some generalizations about politics without falling into the trap of grand theorizing. I consider “Liberals Read, Conservatives Watch TV” as representing pretty much the most ambitious kind of theorizing one should attempt in this area. Any idea that tries to have even broader explanatory power is unlikely to present a useful model of politics.
The news isn’t what’s the most important thing in the world
Right now, political pundits are obsessed with gender theory and cross-dressing. I am not a big fan of either of these things, and will grant that LGBT is maybe one of the top 15 or 20 issues facing the country. Yet there are certain kinds of pundits who convince themselves that whatever people happen to be talking about in the moment is actually the most important thing in the world. After 9/11, we experienced nearly a decade during which terrorism was considered a major issue in American politics. Conservatives talked about the struggle against Islamic extremism being our generation’s World War II, our freedom being on the line, etc. This was all very stupid, and reasonable people said so at the time. In the end, the reaction to terrorism took away more of our freedoms than the threat itself ever could. On the left, they are inclined to overrate school shootings, climate change, police racism against blacks, and racism and sexism more generally.
It’s not that none of these things matter. It’s that there isn’t that strong of a correlation between what is interesting and what is important, which is why an obsession with the “current thing” is a bad sign. I’m probably too into the current thing, but I’m self-aware about mostly just enjoying the spectacle. Trans is simply funny, it doesn’t represent the pinnacle of Western Civilization nor its downfall.
Nuclear regulation, the FDA approval process, the intricacies of civil rights law, whether and how market forces are introduced into the healthcare system, etc., are more important than whether there is drag story time at the local library, which gets a lot more attention. Even if you care mostly about culture, public libraries still shouldn’t be anywhere near the top of your priority list! ECs often care a lot about some pet issues that nobody is paying attention to and that don’t have a lot of salience in the larger political culture. In contrast, they are often willing to compromise on positions that other people hold as fundamental.
This is one of the main differences between ECs and IDW types, although there is overlap between the two groups. The IDW is (was?) to a large extent defined by its focus on culture war issues, and in some ways hostility to mainstream institutions. Again, ECs don’t care that much about drag queens, and many defend establishment institutions as better than the alternatives. Some IDW types therefore became anti-vaxx, while no EC ever would.
Non-zero sum thinking
People like sports because they’re zero-sum contests with clear winners and losers. Politics is the same — this is why there is a much larger audience for news coverage in election years. A lot of people take zero-sum thinking and transfer it to the policy arena. On the left, this often takes the form of identity politics or socialism. Rather than care that the global poor are doing better, they will focus on how well the poor are doing relative to the rich. The right-wing version of this is nationalism. Trade isn’t about making the country better off, it’s making sure other nations don’t get ahead of you.
Very often, non-zero sum thinking ends up hurting even your own side. For example, a lot of conservatives liked Trump in 2016 because he made liberals mad, which they thought was bad for the left, but it only made them crazier and more likely to mobilize in favor of wokeness. Or take the way zero-sum thinking is applied to the relationship with China. Imagine lab leak theory is true. What would be the correct response? To politicians who are most likely to bring up and promote lab leak, it’s “making China pay.” But it’s clear we and the Chinese have a shared interest in working together to prevent future pandemics. A punitive approach is less likely to make that possible. But a sane pandemic policy involving international cooperation is politically very difficult, since voters themselves tend to be zero-sum thinkers.
This leads people to have pretty illogical priorities. A politician who rails against foreign aid, for example, is complaining about a minuscule portion of the federal budget.
Some things in life are zero-sum, like say affirmative action, which takes jobs from some people and gives them to others. But policies like this are the exception, not the rule, at least when one is talking about large aggregates like nations, classes, or races. Stomping out crime would help all races, even if it would lead to society locking up more of a disproportionate share of black men, and this is still true even if many blacks refuse to recognize this because of their own tribal thinking. Public choice theory teaches us that sometimes small concentrated interests can become parasitic on the wider society, which is why it is important to prevent the creation of such interests in the first place and take them on when they do exist.
For the Enlightened Centrist, the rejection of zero-sum thinking is closely tied to an empirically-grounded belief in progress. In the grand scheme of things, what has moved humanity forward is science and technology. The benefits haven’t been shared equally across races, nations, or classes, but there are almost no identifiable groups that are worse off than they were, say, 50 years ago, much less 500. Claims about previous generations having it better are demonstrably false. An EC may or may not want to redistribute wealth or reduce inequalities, but will be less likely to want to support egalitarian policies if the cost of doing so includes hindering the kinds of innovation that have moved humanity forward. Science and economic progress do present novel challenges, but if you don’t keep in mind that the good far outweighs the bad you don’t have the correct perspective.
Some non-ECs will acknowledge material progress, but claim that people today are somehow more miserable or less fulfilled than they have been in the past. I see virtually no evidence of this. We can’t directly measure how happy medieval peasants were, but today, people who live in poor, more traditional societies try to flee to the developed world, with practically no flow in the opposite direction. ECs therefore reject more reactionary kinds of traditionalism, in addition to anti-capitalist thought that denounces material progress, for simply lacking evidence for the claims they make.
Skepticism of certain kinds of philosophy, particularly old philosophy
I doubt that many things I write will be informative about how to deal with societal problems 50 or 100 years in the future. The world will simply be too different. Why, then, would anyone think that it is reasonable to believe that ancient sages have much to tell us about the world today? Enlightened Centrists put more emphasis than other thinkers on empirical knowledge and less on theoretical constructs favored by the kinds of people who become political theorists. To understand the American administrative state, it’s better to read a textbook used by law students today than Aristotle or even Burnham (please don’t get me started on the uselessness of Burnham).
In addition to not being very into old philosophers, ECs tend not to read modern thinkers that are heavy on theory and light on empirical information. Imagine someone trying to figure out how to create an airplane or, to take a canonical example, a pencil, from first principles. Technical advancement has come mostly from people going out in the world, tinkering a bit, and observing the results of experiments. This applies even more strongly to human society, which is for all practical purposes much more complex than any machine. Should you support democracy or some kind of non-democratic system? Capitalism or socialism? To the EC, you put a lot of emphasis on the historical record and less on what sounds like it should work in theory. This is why ECs usually like prediction markets. To the extent this group does appreciate certain philosophers, they are likely to follow the analytic rather than continental school of thought.
To take a concrete example of how this manifests itself in political discourse, ECs usually have a deep skepticism about bioethicists or traditionalists who make up words like “commodification” to hide the fact that they want to ban certain things that are clearly beneficial to humanity. Such individuals need to hide behind jargon because having to talk like other human beings would expose the vacuousness of their reasoning. This is not to say ECs are pure utilitarians, but when they do bring aesthetics or human values into their thinking, they tend to favor dignity in terms of individual liberty, choice, health, success, and man triumphing over nature rather than submitting to it. They reject the naturalistic fallacy. The history of our species is us making the world better through doing a series of things that always seem “unnatural” at the time.
Belief in processes that aggregate information
ECs being skeptical of philosophy does not mean they simply approach the world without any priors, which would be impossible anyway. To the extent that they do accept theoretical constructs, ECs are partial to human institutions and processes that involve the aggregation of information, like markets, and usually free speech and democracy. This is all rooted in Enlightened Centrists having limited confidence in what the human intellect can accomplish, at least in isolation. They reject strong philosophical views of what makes for a good life, at least with any high degree of resolution, simply because we aren’t smart enough to know what that looks like for most people. Enlightened Centrists prefer trying to make people wealthy, giving them options, and letting them figure things out for themselves, even if they sometimes disagree on technocratic issues regarding how to best produce economic growth.
This view is reflected in Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge. I wrote a negative review of the book on the grounds that it was too accommodating to woke, in favor of peer review, and simply boring, but it nonetheless was meant as a kind of manifesto of what I call Enlightened Centrist thought.
Not missing the forest for the trees
A problem I’ve noticed with academics is they are often obsessed with narrow empirical questions and give studies designed to address those questions, or questions that look superficially similar, undue weight in shaping their worldview. See Jonathan Haidt’s Proposition 3 in this essay on the social media hypothesis, which excellently demonstrates that tendency. Enlightened Centrists take what Bryan Caplan calls “Big Facts” seriously. They are kept in mind as new information about the world is brought to light. Some examples of Big Facts that ECs rely on are: the heritability of traits; the paradox of voting; the information problem inherent in central planning; the broken windows fallacy; Trivers’ theory of self-deception; the existence of cognitive biases; comparative advantage; the explanatory power of IQ; the efficient market hypothesis; and the elephant in the brain. New theories or ideas should be met with more skepticism if they contradict or are in tension with Big Facts that have been well established. ECs of different Level 3 ideologies will place more emphasis on certain Big Facts over others, though some, like the idea of historical progress, they all share.
Not missing the forest for the trees isn’t simply a matter of how one approaches empirical questions, but ties into not getting distracted by what’s on the news or concerns about equality, as mentioned above.
Aversion towards conspiracy theories, and even light conspiracy thinking
Amid the covid lockdowns and mandates, some argued that public health was seeking to control and dominate the population. The craziest people have ranted about the Great Reset, but a more moderate version of this sees some kind of will to power as the driving force of liberalism. I don’t think this is right — people can simply be stupid and unable to do cost/benefit analysis correctly. In fact, stupid policy is the norm, and in the US things have been made worse by culture war resentments. It’s sensible policies that need to be explained, not the ones that are counterproductive. The real story about public health is likely much more banal than what conspiracy theorists imagine. Boring risk-averse bureaucrats being boring risk-averse bureaucrats. I’ve always found it amusing that polls suggested that people support things like mask and vaccine mandates, so one can explain covid overreach by simply having a model of the world where government responds to what people want. I think polling might be biased on this issue, but nonetheless it’s enough to demonstrate that there wasn’t widespread resistance to what government did during the worst days of the pandemic. Right now, Republican politicians are distancing themselves from or even attacking Operation Warp Speed, one of the most successful federal projects in a generation, proving that even when public health does the right thing there can be blowback. Perhaps especially when it does the right thing.
In my forthcoming book, I’m going to go into some detail about why a conspiratorial outlook is the wrong way to understand the triumph of woke. This is just one issue, but it reflects how I understand political and social forces more generally. On covid and wokeness, I generally find myself in agreement with conservatives on policy specifics, though usually while having serious problems with how they got there. In the realm of electoral politics, this is not that important and they can be allies.
Even if your enemies hate you and have some master plan for how they want society to work, and they usually don’t, the real world is very complicated, and there are probably going to be a hundred unintended consequences to everything they do. In the end, nobody planned for the world to look the way it does right now.
Theories about the origins of woke and the pandemic response are right-wing versions of conspiratorial thinking, and the closest thing to mainstream left-wing versions are things like systemic racism and the patriarchy. But the mainstream liberal versions of these ideas tend not to be as conspiratorial in nature, in the sense that someone, for example, planned white supremacy. Rather, invisible historical forces conspire to make sure blacks live in worse neighborhoods, have poorer test scores, etc. You can have “racism without racists.” I don’t agree with this stuff and think it’s empirically wrong, but it’s not necessarily inconsistent with Enlightened Centrism. Meanwhile, anti-capitalist types who do things like blame corporate greed for inflation are very far from EC thinking. I was encouraged to see the MSM push back against Elizabeth Warren on this issue. This is another example demonstrating why while right-wing populists and socialists hate the prestige press, ECs often find it more tolerable than its critics.
Who Are the Enlightened Centrists?
To prove to you that they can be of almost any political ideology, below is a list of left, moderate, and right-wing individuals and groups who I think fall into the category of Enlightened Centrists. Each list is in alphabetical order to avoid distracting any reader who might be inclined to try and find patterns in the ordering.
Left: Peter Beinart, Jonathan Chait, Freddie deBoer, Michelle Goldberg, Ezra Klein, Peter Singer, Noah Smith, Matt Yglesias
Center/apolitical: Scott Alexander, Josh Barro, Patrick Collison, Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker, Progress Studies types, Nate Silver, Alec Stapp, Andrew Sullivan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Derek Thompson, Cathy Young
Right: GMU economics department, Tanner Greer, Sam Hammond, Anatoly Karlin, Emil Kirkegaard, Razib Khan, Megan McArdle, Virginia Postrel, Steve Sailer
The criterion for inclusion here is basically “people I enjoy reading.” That’s how I started this project, and from there tried to simply figure out what traits such individuals share.
I may have little in common with many ECs in terms of concrete political opinions. I think if me and Matt Yglesias were in Congress we’d vote on opposite sides of most issues. But he writes one of my two or three favorite Substacks, and I always feel like I benefit from reading him. Meanwhile, it’s not uncommon for me to find a writer whom I agree with on almost everything, while also believing they’re not worth engaging with.
You can probably predict what differences I tend to have with each category of EC. For example, the left-wing ECs I cite above are at their worst when talking about racial issues. At the other end of the spectrum, I really like Steve Sailer, but he’s way too prone to zero-sum thinking, leading to policies on trade and immigration that I don’t think are very sensible. So much so that I almost left him off the list, but he has enough other redeeming qualities to be included. Karlin is another very rare example of a nationalist EC, and perhaps I’m bending my inclusion criteria quite a bit here, but whatever, it’s my list and I’ll do what I want. Not every EC has all 8 traits listed above, but I find that each person above has enough of a mix of them to be worth paying attention to.
While ECs may be right, left, or center, the orientation is not completely uncorrelated with Level 3 ideology. Enlightened centrists often have a libertarian streak, if they’re not fully libertarians. It’s almost impossible to imagine an EC who is a right-wing populist or a communist, for obvious reasons. But I’ve known individuals who’ve supported right-wing populism for big-brained reasons having to do with a commitment to libertarianism or white nationalism, and those people can be worth paying attention to, though populists who actually believe in populism are almost always morons. I could imagine an EC being a communist because he dislikes factory farming and thinks that making humans poor and miserable is the best way to reduce animal suffering, but I doubt any such person exists (animal suffering BTW is something I take seriously enough that it could blow up this entire analysis, but I’ll bracket the topic for now and save it for another day). Most communists and socialists believe their preferred policies would make society wealthier, and I have a hard time seeing how they get there through reason. Freddie deBoer is the only person on the EC list who would call himself a Marxist of any sort, although when I interviewed him he didn’t sound like any other Marxist I was familiar with.
Note that the left-wing and centrist ECs above are much more famous than right-wing ECs. This is in accord with themes I’ve explored before. The left tends to promote its better thinkers, even if we get a lot of Kendis, while the right doesn’t because it’s a movement dominated by rural interests, religious fundamentalists, and those who rely on audiovisual communication rather than the written word to receive and process information, due to some combination of stupidity and intellectual laziness.
A Mode of Thought, But Not a Tribe
In my experience, ECs often manage to find one another on Twitter. That being said, there is little hope of them coalescing into a broader movement. Level 3 is where political coalitions are formed. There are literal creationists who are closer to me politically than most Enlightened Centrists, and I’ll be hoping they triumph in their political struggles on most issues they care about.
That being said, I also hope that within every coalition, whether among conservatives, liberals, or libertarians, that people with more EC tendencies triumph over those with fewer. And I hope movements that are inherently incompatible with EC thought are thoroughly defeated.
I’ll note that while Enlightened Centrists might not have a common position on major hot-button issues like gender transitions for minors or the retirement age for social security, I do think there are some concrete issues that they do agree on that would make them outliers among most intellectuals or even members of the mass public. For example, most of the ECs above — I suspect there are at least two or three exceptions on some of these — are probably in favor of genetic engineering, fewer obstacles to FDA approval for drugs, human challenge trials, and organ markets. If embryo selection rather than LGBT was a defining partisan issue of our time, then ECs might be inclined to become their own tribe, rather than remain scattered across the political spectrum. But they don’t have the ability to redraw political coalitions, and there’s no evidence that any of them want to.
Anyway, the point of this essay is not to start a movement or convince anyone to change their political priorities. Rather, it’s to help the reader on what should be a journey to get beyond Level 3 tribal thinking, and develop well-informed, reasonable models of the way the world works. This includes knowing what kind of thinkers one can benefit from reading, and since time on this earth is precious and short, which ones to avoid.
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