Why I Am a Centrist

Is it all over for centrism—a failed and discredited doctrine? Some people seem to think so. They’re mostly wrong, but I’m a centrist, so I’ll try to meet them halfway.

Noah Smith recently reviewed some of the claims that centrism is busted. Straight away, it’s obvious that commentators mean different things by the term. Some, to my surprise, see it as kind of intellectual conspiracy; or conflate it with support for hardline fiscal conservatism and laissez-faire economics. For now, though, let’s not be detained by definitional issues, and just say centrists stand somewhere in the wide middle between self-identifying progressives and committed conservatives.

Commentators wishing to bury centrism seem to be making three claims. First, opinion among economists has shifted left. Second, the center is fading as a political force. Third, no self-respecting political thinker can any longer be a centrist. Let’s take these in turn.

It’s true that academic economists lean left these days, and I agree with Smith that, on average, they lean a bit further to left than they used to. Luminaries such as Larry Summers, a long-time exemplar of sophisticated centrist thinking, are voicing more progressive themes. The academic consensus that trade liberalization is good is a lot more hedged than it used to be; the balance of opinion has moved toward supporting higher minimum wages.

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