Seizing the Center

SANTIAGO – The international press is having a hard time labeling the political positions of Emmanuel Macron, the winner of the first round presidential ballot in France. Some have called him liberal; others, moderate; most finally settled on centrist.

The choice is understandable, but not without problems. It suggests a mere midpoint, as if the ideas of the center were just a combination of right and left. In fact, successful centrist political movements belong to what sociologist Anthony Giddens called the radical center: they are ideologically intense and have distinct ideas of their own.

Macron and other liberals, like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, or the new party Ciudadanos in Spain, are still in the process of defining what they stand for. Here is my take on what a modern liberal and centrist political agenda should include.

Begin with a little political philosophy. The right likes to claim it stands for freedom. But its idea of freedom is what Isaiah Berlin called negative liberty: freedom from government coercion, excessive regulation, or punitive taxes. But, because a child who grew up in poverty, attended subpar schools, and was discriminated against lacks what Berlin called the positive liberty to become an astrophysicist or a Wall Street tycoon, centrists believe that government policy should secure basic opportunities in order to render citizens truly free.

The left, in turn, claims to stand for equality. But what kind of equality? Of income, wealth, happiness, fate? Because it lacks precise answers to this question, the traditional left tends to overreach – allowing government to expand with no limits – or to focus on means instead of ends. For example, leftists insist that university education should be free of charge, instead of focusing on the quality of that education.

Modern centrists, by contrast, advocate a government that is as large as the task of securing positive freedom requires – no more, no less. American political philosopher Elizabeth Anderson calls this the standard of democratic equality. Government should guarantee (and, if necessary, pay for) education that is good enough to deliver the skills that allow citizens to interact as democratic equals. Rigorous math or language classes? Absolutely. Tennis or cooking lessons? Maybe not.

A new liberal center should be pro-market, not pro-business. It should start from the empirical observation that no economy has grown on a sustained basis without relying on markets and free exchange. But, unlike libertarians, centrists do not think markets can cure all ills; on the contrary, in some cases (finance is the most obvious example), unregulated markets can be a source of instability. And, unlike business-friendly conservatives, centrists do not think that market competition arises from thin air: it must be fostered through potent anti-monopoly policies.

The size of government and the nature of markets together amount to one defining issue of our time. Globalization is another. Centrists should stand – in the useful nomenclature of the Financial Times columnist Philip Stephens – for patriotism and against nationalism. The free movement of people, goods, and services across national boundaries enhances efficiency and helps countries attain prosperity. But human beings do not live by material prosperity alone. We prosper spiritually when we feel part of a community, of a shared human enterprise. And today that sense of community is, more often than not, rooted in the nation-state.

The way to square this apparent circle is by noting that we love our motherland not because of a misplaced sense of ethnic or racial superiority, but because it stands for noble and universal values. Macron can proudly call himself a French patriot because France gave the world liberté, égalité,and fraternité. In the recent Dutch election, liberals could argue for respecting the rights of immigrants because respect and tolerance are traditional Dutch values, of which any Dutch patriot can be proud. These are examples of what the philosopher Jürgen Habermas has called constitutional patriotism (others have called it civic patriotism).

This philosophical position has practical implications. As a general principle, liberal centrists are strongly in favor of the international movement of people and goods. But they should be willing to consider limits when national cohesion is at stake. Rather than opposing immigration, they ought to offer an intelligent migration policy.

Another implication is that the politics of the center cannot afford to be bloodless and technocratic. The love for liberal democratic institutions is not spontaneous; it must be nurtured. That is what republican pageantry and compelling political rhetoric are for. Successful political leaders understand this.

Last but certainly not least, liberal centrists should be the anti-populists. Populists are demagogues who promise the unaffordable; they are willing to run deficits and incur debts that our grandchildren will have to repay. Liberals, by contrast, understand that sound macroeconomics is good politics. When Wall Street melted down in 2008-2009, only governments that had their fiscal houses in order could afford stimulus packages that allowed them to retain political support. Chile is an example (full disclosure: I was Chile’s finance minister at the time).

But sound economics is not enough to give liberalism an edge in the fight against populism. Populists pander. They say whatever they think voters want to hear and manipulate their anxieties and fears. By contrast, centrists should treat voters like grownups and tell them the plain truth and nothing but the truth.

Throughout his campaign Macron told the French what some of them probably did not want to hear: that France has lost competitiveness, that its industries no longer lead the globe, and that the French will have to acquire new skills, innovate more, and open their economy more – not less – to the world in order to prosper.

It was not an easy message to deliver. But French citizens understood – and many voted for Macron. Radical policies do not pay; but radical truthfulness does. Centrist politicians of the world, En Marche !

Now watch this video on the challenges facing France’s President-elect Emmanuel Macron: