Saturday, December 10, 2011

Mario Vargas Llosa: A Neo 21stCentrist?

I have just discovered that I feel perhaps a smidgeon smarter when a Nobel Prize winner says things that sound like me.

A little over a month ago, Nobel Prize winning author Mario Vargas Llosa gave a brave and perhaps unexpected speech, especially considering his audience.  He was asked deliver the keynote address at The Freedom Dinner, an event celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, an organization dedicated to spreading free market and classical liberal ideas around the globe.

Most attendees probably expected a celebration of Atlas and the liberty movement it promotes so well.  But while he did that, he did more than just that.

Vargas Llosa served up an insightful and surprising critique of today's capitalism-in-practice, a warning that slammed leading capitalists for excessive greed, for lack of moral conscience, and for damaging the foundations of democratic capitalism itself.  He even went so far as to suggest that the liberty movement should spend more time defending social justice, and find ways to make liberty and social justice work together.  Keep in mind he was addressing an audience, some of whom at least, following Ayn Rand, think greed is a virtue, altruism a vice, and social justice the deceptive rallying cry of the enemy. Some attendees I spoke with went so far as to opine that - not just the welfare state - but even charitable tax deductions should be eliminated.

So for at least some of this crowd, his arguments, I'd think, might be a tough sell.

But I keep thinking, jeez, this guy sounds like me.  Not exactly, not the style, but rather the ideas, especially the parts in bold.  Consider these excerpts:
The crisis striking Western Europe and the United States ... has done the most harm to morality. It has revealed, at its core, an essential lack of ethical values and a egocentric spirit in which the fervor for profit has blinded esteemed executives and business owners, bankers and financiers, to the point to which they act with a complete lack of vision and scruples, to make decisions that hurt their clients and the very system to which they owe their power and fortunes. ...[I]f the origin of the moral decline in the system of free enterprise and open markets that this crisis revealed is not corrected, the damage will keep corrupting it from within, undermining its sources of support and depriving it of that favorable consensus –the trust and solidarity of the majority of citizens– without which no institution can survive in the long run.

The altruistic, philanthropic concept of capitalism of the American forefathers does not correspond to the spectacle that this system has offered the world in recent times...  [C]apitalism develops an appetite for material goods –consumerism– and for accumulating wealth which, within the confines of a respectable and respected legal system, is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, as long as they do not go beyond the law, these are excellent incentives to keep the system functioning since they encourage invention and creation of new products, boost competition and create models and paradigms which the young will... emulate. 

However, there is a certain limit, which is hard to pinpoint, where virtue becomes vice, and the legitimate yearning for success and benefits at work turns to greed, hunger for profits, a passion so exclusive that it blinds whomever it dominates, driving them beyond the limits of decency and law, to act in a way that harms others and the system itself.  Our culture has become tolerant of those who, driven by a wild desire for profit, break the law and, instead of being punished for it, remain immune and are sometimes even rewarded by a state that rescues businesses from financial ruin triggered by their excesses. This is not the capitalist system but rather a profound distortion of what it was and what it still needs to be if we are to avoid moving backwards from civilization to barbarity.

Throughout its history, the free enterprise system has shown an extraordinary capacity to renew and reinvent itself. This is the time to do so again, following the familiar path. First, a radical, constructive self-criticism of the roots of what went wrong. In this case, the complacency and tolerance of those who have overstepped the rules of the game that the law establishes for markets and free competition. These people should be tried and punished for it. Second, an ongoing demand and effort –no holds barred– to return to the system that ethical dimension which is its strongest justification. This means defending the idea that more than just a system of economic rules, capitalism is a culture inspired by values –since it is based on respect for liberty, justice and legality– which have led to progress in human life, in the domain of the material as well as in terms of dignity, compassion, opportunities, respect for others, solidarity and generosity. It has been said, and with some truth, that liberty and justice –the latter particularly in terms of its social dimension– repel each other. Throughout its history, the great accomplishment of the classical liberal doctrine has been to replace this discord with harmony between the categories, since what we call civilization depends on their reconciliation and coexistence.

This is a difficult but not impossible task. What must gear up for it with the knowledge that the system we defend, despite its imperfections, is better than all the ones that have tried to replace it, promising paradise on earth but instead turning the societies that fell under their spell into a living hell. Let us return to political democracy and economic liberty the moral conscience it had in the best moments of its history, when progress and culture reached their greatest heights.

Vargas Llosa's argument is compelling, that capitalism in practice, which historically fostered human rights and social progress, has gone astray, ignored the importance of ethics and public spirit, while leading capitalists have given them selves over to excessive, sometimes criminal greed which threatens to shame and destroy capitalism itself.

Where Vargas Llosa and I overlap in our writing is the recognition that classical 18th - 19th Century liberalism combined concerns, not just for liberty, but for moral conscience, social justice, altruism and humanity, and that capitalism and its leaders have gone off the rails because they have forgotten this.  It is somewhat revolutionary for a defender of liberty and free markets to take this position in 2011.  For at present many on the right, some of whom call themselves classical liberals, esteem only liberty and self-interest as the highest values, and social justice, altruism and conscience set them on edge, as if these were code words for enemy ideologies.

Still, I would encourage Llosa to take his analysis farther than he does. At, I discuss this fundamental problem:  

Long story short, we have ripped the Declaration of Independence in half:  the political right now champions the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the left champions the overall call for social justice and appeal to equality. Llosa is right to point out (as we have here) that liberty and social justice were both abiding concerns of classical 18th -19th C. liberalism.  But the 20th C saw the rise of a right and left that concern themselves with liberty or humanity respectively and sometimes exclusively.  While communism and socialism have shown little respect for liberty, some 20th C. philosophers on the right, like Rand, have turned self-interest into a virtue and demonized altruism.  Both sides (but not Vargas Llosa) have forgotten the classical Aristotelian concept of virtue: moderation, a healthy balance of opposing qualities: liberty and humanity; self-interest and public spirit.  When Vargas Llosa points out that an excess of "virtue becomes vice," he is really quoting Aristotle, and reviving the old notion of virtue as moderation, without which modern politics becomes unbalanced and extremist.

Aristotle's ethics informed Classical Liberalism and informs 21st Centrist and Vargas Llosa, but has been largely lost by both right and left.  Is it any wonder then that some capitalists, raised on immoderate 20th C libertarian thought, have taken greed to criminal excess?  

Vargas Llosa calls on defenders of capitalism to portray it as a culture of values.  That is fine and true, but if it is all talk, and policies, ethics and outcomes don't improve, it amounts to eyewash.  Therefore, to avert the decline and fall of democratic capitalism, he should not stop there.  He should also call upon capitalism's defenders to put the values of liberty and humanity on an equal footing in their hearts and minds, because the failure to do so is at the heart of our present troubles.  Then, they should turn to the nuts and bolts task of creating actual policies that that embody the core values of BOTH liberty and humanity, policies that make that vision of liberty with moral conscience a reality.  Those who do so will claim the center, and help forge a new free market humanitarian consensus.

If the financially unsustainable, perpetual-deficit welfare state is to wind down happily and not end in a nightmare of chaos or tyranny, capitalism's defenders must have good solutions to the humanitarian concerns left high and dry. That is why 21st Centrist strives to incubate new ideas such as supply side tax cuts for clean, renewable energy and pro bono health care reform, in order to solve pressing humanitarian concerns while expanding and defending liberty.  By way of further example, other more well know proposals that combine the concerns of liberty and humanity would be educational choice, or tax free retirement and health savings accounts, among others.  

Now is a unique moment when such ideas can take center stage, and pull democratic capitalism out of the present quagmire of unsustainable debt and unaffordable entitlement programs.  The present humanitarian programs of the left cannot continue.  What will replace them?  Whoever has the best answer, wins.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What is a 21st Centrist?

Well, me for starters...

But it could be you too, if you are fed up with left/right extremism, if you think both liberty and humanity should inform 21st Century governance, not just one or the other.  Generally, we're shooting for something a bit more interesting here than just some blowhard holding opinions ranging from middle of the road to undecided. No, that won't do. Rather let's define a 21st Centrist as anyone who seeks to heal the most basic rift of our time, the left-right divide... largely by crafting new solutions, through balance and understanding, that blend the concerns and core principles of both right and left.

Sounds like a tough job? There is hope. For originally, those concerns were joined. Once, long ago, Liberalism, Libertarianism and Conservatism emerged as offspring of a single grand movement: 19th Century Liberalism, the great consensus opposing the twin tyrannies of monarchy and slavery, and as a result responsible for the founding of most modern constitutional democracies. Proof of the shared roots of left and right is found in shared heroes: our founding fathers, Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill, Abraham Lincoln, the early abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce and Frederick Douglass, and so on. Heroes of both right and left, all.

But 19th C. Liberalism broke apart even as it triumphed, with right and left preferring respectively either the principle of liberty or that of social justice. Many now consider that division immutable, eternal... the lopsided pendulum swings of unbalanced governance so part of our landscape that it is beyond our power to change. But really, this epic donnybrook is only a blip in human history, as liable to mutate, vanish or evolve as anything else. Left and right may fight like cats and dogs now, and we think of them as poles apart, but in fact they are intellectual cousins, mere inches apart in the wider scale of human politics. This rift can and should be healed by balancing and rejoining these two key principles, liberty and social justice, now unbalanced and separated by 20th Century ideologies.

The Centrist Tradition

Centrism is sometimes given a bad name by folks who call themselves centrists, but either are really only interested in gains won through politics, or are undecided, or perhaps have no guiding principles at all.

But principled centrism – grounded in a common sense appreciation of balance, moderation and the middle way – is itself a conservative, compassionate tradition with a long lineage stretching back to the balance of the Tao, to the middle way of Buddha and Aristotle, to the moderation of Confucius, Jesus Christ, the Stoics and more recent conservative philosophers such as Edmund Burke. It is the core strategic principle of sophisticated martial arts such as Tai Chi or Aikido, which emphasize the power of moving from ones center, of instinctually perceiving and controlling the center of any system of flowing forces. It is the principle that allows surfers to surf, to balance and ride upon complex forces much bigger than themselves (with zero government assistance or intervention, I might add).

Lastly, it is the principle behind most successful conflict resolution, where a skilled mediator will help the warring parties work things out through a process rooted in balance, moderation and the quest for a middle way.

A Matter of Principle

That last example comes to mind, because, as a trained mediator, I have had the opportunity to resolved a few conflicts. At some point, in nearly every mediation, at least one of the parties will push back from the table and declare, "No, I'm not budging. It is a matter of principle!" Well, one thing you learn when you mediate conflicts is that everyone has a principle. And often, both parties are right, and their principles are equally valid. Sadly, good, just and right principles can often conflict. But it is not right that one valid principle should necessarily run rough shod over another valid principle. Finding a balanced middle way that preserves both principles is the best outcome, but incredibly tricky, and more of an art than a science.

This is exactly the situation we find ourselves in with left and right in America. Like stubborn parties to a mediation, both sides have their principles, and they are sticking to them, by gum! Yes, both have good, virtuous principles. But each proposes solutions that really only satisfies their own concerns. And both are running out of ideas.

Right now, there is no center to American politics. There is only an increasingly polarized right and left, with a void in between. But that is the way it usually is at the start of any mediation. Mediators know the void is good. It creates a vacuum pressure, drawing the parties in. It creates a space that allows room to maneuver and find new solutions. The void and the current stagnation are a signal that a new consensus is possible, that better solutions may be found by incorporating the concerns and principles of all sides.

On a practical level, that means that right and left will need to agree on NEW solutions that take each other's concerns seriously. But why should they do that? Because whomever advances this first – Libertarians, Conservatives or Liberals – will take control of the center of American political thought, and lead the nation and possibly the world into a new era of consensus. Doing so will also lead to a renaissance of new policy ideas, as wonks stretch their minds to incorporate the other side's point of view. That will mean more grants, more media attention, a broader political base – all good things. So what is the alternative? Stagnation, intellectual bankruptcy, irrelevance.

Where Are The New Ideas?

Actually, the dearth of new ideas on right or left (with a few notable exceptions) is rather shocking. The left peaked in mid-century, with Keynes, FDR's New Deal, the Great Society, and the civil rights and anti-war movements, but seemed exhausted thereafter. During the 1970's and '80's, free market thinkers fueled the Reagan revolution with bold new ideas and approaches at an astonishing clip: these included neo-conservatism, two major schools of economics (monetarist and supply side), school choice, "broken windows" policing strategy, SDI, new strategies of superpower confrontation and engagement, the economic empowerment ideas of Hernando de Soto, the think tank and student journalism movements, and so on. But now, I am hard pressed to name a single new idea of equal stature from right or left in the last fifteen years.

Perhaps the greatest movement in recent years has been the advent of infotainment and the rise of political clowns on both sides: Coulter, Franken, Limbaugh, Moore, Stewart, Maher, Colbert, Jib-Jab, etc. That, it seems to me, is a sure sign of intellectual stagnation and exhaustion... however witty they may be.

So, when you read this blog, expect unexpected new ideas and heretical-but-delicious left-right blender-thinks. For instance, why not use supply side tax cuts to reduce global warming and produce abundant clean energy? Why not provide reliable free health care for the poor, without big government programs or new cost to the taxpayer, by repairing and supercharging the old pro bono system with fair value tax deductions for service? These are the kind of new ideas we need. Ideas that incorporate both liberty AND justice.

For all.

Do you have a 21st Centrist proposal? Let me know through the comments feature, and if it fits, I will post it.

BTW, 21st Centrist is an evolution of my old blog, The Green Energy Tax Cuts Betablog, where you can find information about the application of supply side economics to environmentalism.