I’m kind of surprised, but it seems that my most controversial political opinion is that the majority don’t live at “the centre”. And, indeed, there is no centre worth occupying. Most people have an intuition that there are people to the left of them, and people to the right of them, so they must be (roughly) “in the middle”.
Furthermore, most people believe that most other people are “in the middle”. And that this is the “sensible” place to be. The most “reasonable” position to stake out. And certainly the place where most of the votes are. I, OTOH, think that “the middle” is an artificial fiction. The equivalent of the old statistics joke that the average human has one breast and one testicle.
I explain this by saying “policy isn’t fungible”. You can have higher taxation and a public hospital. Or lower taxation and no hospital. But it doesn’t make sense to have a bit of extra taxation and half a hospital. Similarly, you can build a large army and go to war for your foreign policy objectives. Or not build a large army and negotiate a peaceful international order. But woe betide you if you try to fight a war on the cheap without investing in the army.
Most of the time, “split the difference” between two opposing proposals doesn’t give you a better, more popular proposal. It gives you an uncomfortable kludge which everyone comes to hate. This is why, for example, I think Obamacare is widely criticised in the US. And why the Liberal Democrats have never had many seats in the UK parliament (nor will they start to have more seats now.) Policies like public-private initiatives were an attempt by centre-left, “third way” parties to make public finance more fungible by finding a half-way place between public finance and private finance. But have instead been revealed as an expensive and inefficient way for the public to finance anything.
Not only are policies from the middle not good policies. They aren’t even popular. Instead, there are a range of policies that people either like or don’t like. We mistakenly call the ones that have a consensus around them, the “centre”. But they aren’t. In America, a welfare state is considered extreme leftism. In Germany, it’s pragmatic conservatism. There is no absolute truth about “where” such a policy rightly sits. There is just the policy itself, and how popular it is at the moment (which is the result of a bunch of historical factors.) Nevertheless, there are continual siren voices calling for politicians to “move back to the centre”. Who say that going “to the extreme” is political suicide.
I, on the other hand, think the opposite. That the centre is the “kill zone”. A place where political parties go to be annihilated. The problem is this : whatever your political persuasion, if you start to move “towards the centre”, you are publicly valorizing your opponent’s position. When you reach the centre, you now struggle to differentiate yourself from the opponent who is seen as the standard-bearer of the values you have just publicly conceded to. No product can succeed in the market if it can’t differentiate itself from the generic / norm / average of all the other products. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you automatically win at an extreme. Clearly not all extremes can win at the same time. And many extremes can and will lose badly. But at least you have a chance of success at the extreme. Whereas you are 100% guaranteed to lose in the centre.
It’s going to be interesting to watch Macron’s “radical centre” government in France. I think he won more with his claim to be radically different than his claim to be at the centre. If his government succeeds it will be because he found a new extreme. Not because he successfully pursued policies that were the average of what everyone else said they wanted.