Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Third Way

Many, if not most, people reading this will already know everything I am going to say. I am writing it, however, for those, however many, who have never heard it. They constitute the majority among the population at large and, more significantly, the majority among the population who think at all about political affairs. I am frustrated by how often I encounter these immovable presuppositions, so I am offering this in a modest effort to change some, maybe just a few, minds.

What has become the conventional wisdom, the common mode of thinking, imagines a political spectrum with the liberals on the one end (the left) and the conservatives on the other (the right). Anyone on either end is usually labeled an extremist, which means you don’t have to listen to them. This is true for both extremes, but it is especially true for the right, hence such terms as “hard right.” As a general rule the left end of the spectrum is more urbane, sophisticated, eloquent and educated. The right wing is often shrill, crass, repetitive, uninformed and transparently stupid. Like all generalizations these are not true characterizations of everyone who fits the label. Just impressions. The people somewhere in the middle to the slight right or left of the center are regarded (regard themselves) as the reasonable and normal majority. They vilify and demonize the extreme right and patronizingly dismiss the extreme left (who are to be admired for their idealism but discounted for their lack of realism). Perhaps you recognize this story.

This traditional dimension from liberal to conservative that I just described is deficient. It neglects to break down the liberal or conservative mindsets along two relevant sub-dimensions, social affairs and fiscal affairs. The following pictures will help illustrate.

Figure 1 below illustrates the traditional political spectrum.

Figure 1 - The Traditional Spectrum – Social and Fiscal
Left-wing liberal
Right wing conservative

Some clear issues divide the traditional left and right on the question of limiting or using the power of the government, the state. For example, the left believes in free speech, is pro-choice, supports  recognizing gay marriage and liberalizing immigration and perhaps decriminalizing drugs. The right vigorously opposes these advocating state power to restrict these choices. But there are other issues that divide them on the basis of whose state-sponsored agenda should be implemented. On the left we have anyone who wants to use the state to achieve a “liberal” social agenda (income redistribution, entitlement programs, socialized health-care, consumer regulation). On the right we have anyone who opposes these programs in the name of fiscal prudence, and maybe some other reasons, but who believes in using the state to achieve other agenda items like a strong defense, wholesome family values, a prominent role for religion and so on. Where do we put someone who opposes both of these agendas on the basis that they involve unwarranted, dangerous and inefficient uses of the state? There is no place for them in this spectrum. 

Figure 1 is a one dimensional spectrum. it combines fiscal and social issues. So it mixes the issues.  In Figure 2 we introduce a distinction between fiscal and social issues

Figure 2 - The Third Way – breaking it down


( Spindrift for socially conservative issues?)
 Right wing conservative
 Left-wing liberal
 Libertarian – Classical Liberal

The traditional spectrum portrayed in Figure 1 now lies across the diagonal of Figure 2 from bottom left (left-wing liberal) to top right (right-wing conservative). The most significant additional information is provided by the third alternative to these two, namely the Libertarian or Classical Liberal in the bottom right cell. This characterizes my own perspective. It puzzles people. When I talk to traditional left-wing liberals they want to put me in the top right and are, therefore, puzzled by my support for gay marriage, decriminalization of drugs and liberalization of immigration. When I talk to right-wing conservatives they want to put me in the bottom left and are therefore puzzled by my support for limiting government spending, deregulation of business, a limited military and freedom of religion. They are confused because they are thinking in terms of a constraining spectrum.

But once understood, the expanded framework is very simple. It is based on the key question of the appropriate role of power, hence of the state. In fact "liberal" as commonly used is a distortion of its original meaning. Originally “liberal” meant someone who believed in individual liberty and supported policies to guarantee it especially limiting government power. It retains much of that meaning in European political discourse. I am not sure what “conservative” means in this context, but the other end of the spectrum is anyone who supports using the state for their social agenda whatever it is, so we can them the a “statist.” So if we were to re-collapse Figure 2 into a one dimensional spectrum we would get the picture depicted in Figure 3

Figure 3 – A better conceptualization
Classical Liberal

This is how I think of it. The statists are dangerous because they either support the use of state power for their agendas and don’t care about freedom (like fascists, Nazis, Soviets, etc.) or else they are na├»ve in thinking they can use the state for noble ends and still preserve individual freedom (like democratic socialists, some anti-poverty activists, most environmentalists, etc.). They tend to underestimate the power for good of the free market and overestimate the power for good of the state. Much of what I and like-minded friends and colleagues are trying to do is to shift the debate to this spectrum.


Guillermo Barba said...

Excellent article.
Probably demonstrating that the free markets are less ustable, more efficient and more egalitarian in equality of opportunity might sell better in the public opinion.

Peter Lewin said...

I agree.

Guillermo Barba said...

Dr. Lewin,
I have been reading your very insightful articles and noticing the very few comments to them. Probably it would be convenient to explore the possibility of joining blogs, like the Cooordination Problem, so that your wisdom and common sense is appreciated by more people.
Just a thought.

Peter Lewin said...


A good thought. You have to be invited to be part of those blogs.

I am currently a guest blogger for
Organizations and Markets.