This article could be entitled many things. It could be “Why the Left and Right Will Never Meet”. It could be “‘No Labels’ Makes No Sense”. But “The Myth of the Middle” makes the most sense.
There is no viable centrist position. It’s not possible. The reason is that the Left and Right come from opposing viewpoints which are fundamentally incompatible.
The Left sees all Rights as positive, that is, our rights are granted to us by the State. We have only the rights the government chooses to grant to us. The Left sees granting rights like the right to health care and same sex-marriage as adding to our liberty. The Right sees our rights as negative, that is they exist outside of any government. We have rights; the government has only the rights we choose to give it. The rights, or rather authority, granted to goverment is conditional and limited. The Right sees that when the government exercises it's "rights" it removes liberty from individuals. These two positions cannot be reconciled to a middle. They are darkness and light.
The other important reason the Left and Right cannot meet in the middle is eloquently discussed by Daniel Klein. The Left sees the government as the overlord of all property and individuals merely as stewards of it. There is no fundamental right to property for the Left. People enjoy property only as permitted by government. For the Right, individual property rights are fundamental to a free, sustainable and functional society. Government may consume only such property as individuals allow it to take.
Even the leftist Paul Krugman recognizes this. In a recent New York Times editorial he said:
One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.
The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.
There’s no middle ground between these views.
Again, these are two completely opposing views that cannot possibly meet in the middle. Either the state owns all things or it doesn’t. Either I have a right to the fruits of my own labor or I don’t.
The right will, for a time, tack left, but only to pull us further to the right. The left has mastered this tactic of seeming to take the center as a way of moving us left. But taking positions left, or right, of where each side wants to be doesn’t necessarily mean their agreeing with other sides premise. It simply means that the current “Overton Window” requires them to move more deliberately and cautiously.
There was a time, in the 19th Century, where all Americans understood what property was and that the source of their rights was Nature and Nature’s God. It was also in the latter half of the 19th Century that the efforts to change this understanding were redoubled. Alas, these efforts were very successful, at least successful enough that even in a recent ad to repeal the 2010 health care bill the producers of the ad refer to rights “given us by our Constitution” as opposed to "given us by God," a statement that the Constitution's own authors would have instantly rejected in horror. How muddied the waters have become!
Our purpose is not to discuss how we got to this point, rather, why we’ll never center in the middle. Jerry Doyle, a “moderate middle” talk show host, likes to claim that 80% of the country is somewhere in the middle and being held hostage by the extremist 10% on each side. This would be true if we were talking about the mixing of compatible ideas. But we’re not.
The most fundamental right that exists in a free society is the right to property. First, begin with the simple concept that I have a right to myself. I have a right to the fruits of my labors, mental or physical. I may freely do with these fruits what I wish: exchange them with others, give them away, or keep them for myself. As long as my efforts do not deny others their fruits, I can do as I wish.
As soon as someone takes from me, either through deceit or force, my rights have been violated. The Constitution allowed, for a time, slavery to exist. This was a deliberate tack left to eventually allow the ship of liberty to sail far enough right to abolish slavery. It took a civil war to finally resolve, but afterward, the fruits of the African slaves' labor would now be their own.
For the left, we are born with a social contract. This social contract states that our fruits are ours unless the State deems them needed to benefit someone else. Hobhouse, a 19th century socialist, wrote:
The ‘right to work’ and the right to a ‘living wage’ are just as valid as the rights of a person or property.
This is Paul Krugman's position, too. It is the position of the modern American left. Of this statement Daniel Klein says:
That statement can make sense only on the view that everything within the polity comes within a contract with the overlord.
In other words, we are not owners of ourselves. We are all wards of the State and do what we do only by its permission.
Either we have the right to ourselves, or we don’t. There is no middle ground. There can be no compromise - for what would that compromise look like?
“Because I’m born into the United States of America the federal government has the right to 30% of my efforts for my entire life.” All discussions that involve the redistribution of wealth center on the ownership of property. Is it mine to give or the governments to take? What’s the middle ground? Logically, there is none.
There will be some that attempt to argue a middle ground position: that we are all obligated to share ourselves. From a moral perspective, that may be true, but from a legal perspective, it's no different than indentured servitude.
The right to property is fundamentally tied to our other natural rights. If I am not my own, then I can have no right to free speech. I can have no right to bear arms. I have no right to the fruit of my labor and am a slave.
A government “granting” of rights doesn’t make them rights, but privileges that can be taken as freely as they’re granted. In the American envisioned by the Founders, our rights exist outside of government, and we give authority to government to do certain useful things while retaining all of our rights.
There is no middle position here. We are wards of the state or stewards of it. We cannot be both.
And a government cannot sit in the middle, either. Understanding that what we have are two competing and fundamentally incompatible worldviews is key to understanding why we will never meet in the middle; there must ultimately be victory for one side or the other.
The next article in this series will discuss how this relates to various legislation and social policy.