Stuff I find slightly meaningful and close to achievable

From Social-Democracy to Social-Liberalism: Centrism, Progressivism, and Political Compromise

This is a third blog post in a series (first post and second post) about my switch from Social-Democracy to Social-Liberalism.

The first post was about specific things I did not believe, to try and dispel misconceptions about why I chose to identify as “liberal”. I tried to glance over several topics — socialism, private property, democracy, meritocracy.

The second article was about markets and uncertainty: randomness and uncertainty are not always counterproductive, and sometimes improve overall efficiency.

This post is about centrism and political compromise. It explores my political position, as well as two different attitudes towards politics.

Why do centrists exist ?

It is tempting to see centrists as syncretic, chaotic individuals with piecemeal beliefs and inconsistent views. Some of these biases are correct, and I will begin by little journey with evidence that points in this direction.

Centrism as inconsistent nonsense

One of the most striking example of this is France's Emmanuel Macron, who said so much stuff we now have this hilarious tapestry of contradictory takes:

There is much to be debated about Macron, arguably this is him just constantly re-evaluating his position to match the center of the french electorate (which has been slowly drifting to the right — as did he). This will probably be the topic of another blog-post.

Centrism as a grift

One striking example of nonsensical centrism was Andrew Yang’s Campaign back in the 2022 US elections. His slogan was close to Macron’s — short but sweet:

Not right, not left, forward.

This might be appealing to many voters, and I am probably in that crowd — a priori — but I was very aware back then this speech was very much not the best bet in favor of progress oriented policies. I will not talk much about Yang, I do not know him much. The only noticeable thing is he supports Universal Basic Income, which is good.

Centrism as a political reality

The most “centrist” answer to this question — which is the one I like the most — is simply the “pragmatic” one (words that centrists often utter). This can be succinctly summed up in the following sentences:

At any point in time, parties and voters are roughly split into 50% of Right-Wing voters and 50% of Left-Wing voters.

It is probably inefficient and counterproductive to never attempt to bridge the gap between these large parts of the population. No matter what you think of each half, they are there, and they vote. You should factor their existence into your political model.

This disillusioned view is perhaps not convincing for every reader, and it also feels lackluster. It is useful as the “tip of the (metaphorical) iceberg” but I will attempt to dig deeper, so bear with me !

Centrism as a “Secret third thing”

It is widely accepted the concepts of “Left” and “Right” politics were born During the French Revolution. This concept refers to nothing more than the seating arrangements within the “Estates General”.

Quoting the Wikipedia article,

Those who sat on the left generally opposed the “Ancien Régime” and the Bourbon Monarchy and supported the Revolution, the creation of a democratic republic and the secularisation of society.

The left at the time were what we would now call Classical Radicals — a subcategory of Liberalism that would arguably be centrist-coded in 2023 France, ironically.

If we follow the Wikipedia definitions, leftism is vaguely coded as follows:

Left-wing politics describes the range of political ideologies that support and seek to achieve social equality and egalitarianism, often in opposition to social hierarchy as a whole

While Right-Wing politics is broadly typified as follows:

Right-wing politics describes the range of political ideologies that view certain social orders and hierarchies as inevitable, natural, normal, or desirable, typically supporting this position based on natural law, economics, authority, property or tradition.

What “Left” and “Right” mean is often very loose and subject to interpretation. I especially like this vague definition of Left-Wing politics, because it reminds me I used to be more left, and that it sometimes is correct to be.

What is centrism then ?

Do they oppose social equality ? They’re not strongly against it, but they’re not ardent proponents, that much is true.

Do they support social orders and hierarchies ? I don’t think so, they would certainly wonder why completely changing the social order and abolishing most hierarchies is needed though.

Perhaps more confusing, I have seen people left-of-center justifying some kinds of hierarchies more than centrists, and some people right-of-center arguing for more egalitarianism than centrists. This isn’t helpful.

Yet, and I must confess I relate to this, Centrism is often where you end up when you disagree with everyone. Suppose, for the sake of the argument, that you are a left-liberal in today’s France. Hell, go back to the 60’s or 70’s, the point stands. You then ask yourself the unfathomable question:

Whom, in France, is Liberal ?

The short answer is: No one. The right-wing is plagued by Gaullism, a syncretic political tradition whose number one principle is having a “strong state”. You can check the wiki, it’s the top 1 defining characteristic. The left, aside from a 10% Parti Socialiste minority led by Michel Rocard in the eighties, was also Gaullist, or Marxist when it wasn’t. The two ideologies share a number of things, and the Gaullist-Marxist post-war alliance shows they can cooperate on many issues — they sometimes trust each other more than the “liberal” factions from the left and right.

Centrists are hard to classify, but that’s mainly because they’re not exactly homogeneous. It’s a bunch of people without a (political) home. They side with different people at different times, but they never endorse, or often only temporarily.

Centrists are definitely a very diverse bunch, so it makes sense to look at the many faces of centrism.

Centrists are — sometimes — unorthodox Utopians

In light of the above remarks, it strikes me as obvious that most centrists don’t exactly oppose both Left and Right politics, they usually mean to emphasize that the most important metrics do not always align with the Left’s and the Right’s values. Each has their own metric, but a centrist would very often bring up one metric — say “Wage Increases” or “Scientific and Technological Progress” — and argue this metric trumps others, and doesn’t really fall into either the Right or Left box.

A few folks belong to this box, including the fine people at the Work In Progress Magazine or the Institute for Progress. I personally think they're fine people, and, as a recovering scientist and STEM graduate, I must attest that scientific progress is indeed not (always) political and it should probably remain so.

Centrists are — sometimes — die-hard empiricists

The term “pragmatism” has been overused by grifters, so it is unhelpful to use it at the moment, but there is one ideology that many centrists and moderates appreciate, arguably more than the Left and Right, and it is Empiricsm

The definition can be found on the first section of the Wikipedia page:

Empiricism in the philosophy of science emphasizes evidence, especially as discovered in experiments. It is a fundamental part of the scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world rather than resting solely on a priori reasoning, intuition, or revelation.

You’ll hear many buzzwords go around, but those to watch are — in my experience :

These things are not exclusively centrist — hell, I hope every party embraces them. But you’ll mostly hear centrists, center-left and center-right politicians and voters using these words. Very often though, they’re just making stuff up, and aren’t much more evidence-based than the other parties.

This last phenomenon is somewhat connected to Techno-Populism, the notion that the idea of “being competent” and “being evidence-based” are just vibes in themselves, and some parties run on these vibes, without a commitment towards remaining evidence-based after the elections.

About being evidence-based, John Maynard Keynes, in his Bayesian glory, famously said:

When my information changes, I alter my conclusions.
What do you do, sir?

This — I hope — feels correct to almost everyone. Accepting reality and changing your mind based on data is quite good, in my opinion. Some even go as far as saying having strong idealistic views is counterproductive (I briefly wrote about Ideal Theory in my first blog-post).

So centrists sometimes make interesting points. Now why would you think “centrism” sucks ? Let’s look at it.

The case against Centrism ?

Centrism is often plagued with dumb people, and I quite often complain about french centrists on my twitter account. Centrism obviously sucks in that regard, because centrism is just the home of those who have no homes. You have to share this home with people you think are silly. You might have nailed down the art of being centrist and correct — but you are sitting right next to someone who is centrists for mainly incorrect reasons.

This is true for Left-ism and Right-ism though, people getting to the “good” results with incorrect derivations is very common. Let us look at two main criticisms of “centrism”, there are too many to list, this is just the two I hear most often.

Centrism as bad political strategy

One quote that made me more comfortable with political extremism is also from Keynes, and it goes

When the final result is expected to be a compromise, it is often prudent to start from an extreme position.

This strikes me as a fair point. You picture politics are a “big average” of every citizens opinion

$$\mathrm{Politics} = \dfrac{A + B + C + \dots }{N}$$

And therefore, if you aim to push the political consensus to either the right or the left, it makes sense to go further left/right than what you truly believe. It is a basic bargaining strategy.

Two notions help shed light and bring some nuance though: Keynes said “start from an extreme position”. It says nothing about your ability to compromise and shift more or less quickly towards the center.

For the second notion, let me digress on Game Theory a bit.

In one of the most cited papers in empirical game theory, Axelrod lays out the results of a large scale competition between different tactics. The tournament was re-run again a decade later. In both case, the winner was a strategy called “Tit-for-Tat”, which goes:

Tit-for-Tat always starts by cooperating [with the opponent] and when the opponent defects, it thereafter does what the other player did on the previous move. If the opponent cooperates, the program also does next round, and vice-versa.

This is how the first tournament turn out, you can find the full file online as JSON but also in other formats (click these links to download them from my GCS — CSV and Parquet )

Made with Flourish

The IPD (Iterated Prisoner's Dilemna) is obviously too simplistic to accurately model modern politics, but it is interesting that the best performing strategies all share two common components — the first is called “niceness” by the author

A decision rule is “nice” if it will not be the first to defect, or if at least it will not be the first to defect before the last few moves

the second is “forgiveness”, described as follows

Forgiveness of a rule is its propensity to cooperate in the moves after the other player has defected.

In short: assume your adversaries or other “players” / “voters” / “parties” want to cooperate — and if they betray you, forgive them soon enough. Depending on the country, party, and person, this strikes me as a very centrist principle. Macron famously said “there are good ideas on both sides”. Cooperation has some merit.

Heres what the most famous interactive web game on IPDs says about Tit-for-Tat:

The Golden Rule, reciprocal altruism, tit for tat, or... live and let live. That's why “peace” could emerge in the trenches of World War I: when you're forced to play the same game with the same specific people (not just the same generic “enemy”) over and over again — [this strategy] doesn't just win the battle, it wins the war.

By replicating this at the meta-level, across tournaments, the game ends up disclosing this

“Copycat [Tit-for-Tat] inherits the Earth”, crazy stuff ! In the rest of the game, it shows one strategy that is more effective is Copykitten [Tit-for-two-Tats] which is an even more forgiving version of Tit-for-Tat.

As the game highlights, this all ceases to be true when the game becomes zero-sum, but thankfully reality is not zero-sum !

All-in-all I think Keynes’ statement is correct, but parties which strongly remain far from the center and most importantly refuse to cooperate and compromise on their goals — these are most certainly incorrect in my opinion. Every good voter should have a kernel of “extremism” and a kernel of “centrism” within them, channeling the appropriate one when they feel it’s best.

Centrism as “Status Quo” defense

I have so far seen a few people say centrists are those who “want everything to remain as it is”. They contrast this with conservatives which — in these people’s view — want to return to a previous moment in history, a state in which they believe things were better.

There are many reasons why this could be incorrect, but first let me start by assessing this claim about conservatives. I do not like conservatism, at all. At its root (even though I distrust people who over-interpret words), conservatism is about “preserving” things that are, not exactly “returning” to another state of affairs.

Perhaps more confusing, some of the most anti-stagnation, pro-growth, pro-technology, pro-innovation people I know are “Right-Wingers”. They’re not all conservatives, but they (the ones I know) just believe welfare and pro-social policies aren’t very efficient at reaching their goals and are not so important. Those are mostly center-right voters though.

Centrism could be seen, in the view I’m discussing, as either:

Macron was famously elected because he kept hammering down that the country needed to change. He kept talking about “reforms” (to do what ?), and blamed the entirety of the french electorate, here’s an excerpt from the BBC

In his speech, he reiterated his admiration for the Danish “flexicurity” model, which combines a flexible labour market with generous welfare benefits.

“What is possible is linked to a culture, a people marked by their own history. These Lutheran [Danish] people, who have lived through the transformations of recent years, are not exactly Gauls who are resistant to change,” he said.

Macron loves change. He loves change so much he always changes his mind. He loves change a little bit too much perhaps. So do centrists want change, or do they oppose it ?

There is a quote that illustrates what the “centrists do not want change” people might think. It comes from a book called “The Leopard [Il Gattopardo]” written by Italian author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. I will cite the italian quote, then its translation:

“Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga com'è bisogna che tutto cambi.”

“If we want everything to stay as it is, everything has to change.”

— Tancredi

This is a classic trick: make everything shift around, lose people with acrobatics and numerous changes and “reforms”, only to end up in a state that somewhat mirrors the pre-existing conditions.

This is very much not what happens though. Macron’s reforms have noticeable impacts — not necessarily in a good way. Maybe in a more long-termist view we will see a neutral effect, but this remains unlikely.

The US Social-Liberal Globalists, which I support (I am a recurring donator), have clearly stated they believe in fairly radical reforms. They just happen to believe in reforms which are not always “left coded” — through they still side with the Democrats (they even made it official).

My personal take on centrism, and center-left politics, is more charitable. It roughly goes:

Centrism does not preclude you from wanting radical change. You can even believe in socialism and yet be centrist. Centrism acts on the “time axis” — i.e. how quick do you think change should happen.

Centrists are most likely to believe change is good, but that change should be well thought-out. Change should last, and help building even more change — after ensuring previous change was beneficial.

Above all, centrists tend to acknowledge change is confusing, and we should help the people who aren’t “anti-progress” but have their own doubts and misconceptions.

Do not mistake me for someone I’m not though, I still firmly believe in Planck’s Principle. Society changes for the better when the people who are wrong cease to exist.

“Centrism” matters as a transitory state, to secure positive outcomes when the wrong people are still there, when we are not sure who is right and who is wrong, or simply when we want a little bit more evidence before claiming that something is indeed “right”.

Last words

So many things can be said about centrists. I have probably only talked about a third of what I think centrism is about. Centrists are also political pluralists, truth seekers, undecided nobodies, and many more things.

This was only a recollection of things, and as I write these last words I cannot help but feel I have written too much on the topic. I might write a more “interactive” version of this, one that is not constrained by the blog format, to let people play with the different kinds of centrism.

Don’t hesitate to reach me at one of my socials if you want to give me pointers, suggest changes, new topics, or point out typos !