A Moderate’s Manifesto
Ideologues get all the love in today’s political environment, but moderates have one key thing on them: workability.
Being a moderate is no less noble than being a progressive or a conservative, but it is more difficult. Every age is fed on ideology; otherwise people would just give up on life. But while there is progressive ideology and conservative ideology (often taking the form of capitalist ideology), there is no moderate ideology, as the moderate generally distrusts ideology.
This puts the moderate at a disadvantage with today’s public. From the public’s perspective, the moderate fails to sufficiently love what is lovable, or hate what is hateful. Ideologues, on the other hand, have plenty of love and hate. With their natural tendency to oversimplify—indeed, most ideologies are identifiable by short, concise slogans that are repeated again and again, often like incantations—ideologues propagate a worldview as much as a series of policies. “Systemic racism” is an ideological slogan, as is “pro-life.” Like most storylines, a worldview comes with good people to love and bad people to hate. Because average people tend to think about politics from the perspective of a worldview, they love and hate accordingly. The moderate’s refusal to follow suit makes him or her suspect.
The moderate likes certain ideas because they appeal to his or her sense of reasonableness. The ideologue, in contrast, is utopian, which appeals to the public’s romantic inclinations. To read an ideologue’s platform is like reading a virtuous novel in which the author describes what people should be like, but never are. This is probably unavoidable, as so much hope and fear is tied up with an ideology. Again, the moderate falls out of step during ideological times. Ideologues launch crusades and make war; moderates drive bargains and make peace. When the public is in the mood for war, the moderate is suspect.
The ideologue’s worldview has the benefit of simplicity, which comes with an air of certainty that inspires public confidence. Moderates tend to respect competing ideas, such that no one idea forms the basis of their worldview; hence, the public suspects moderates of indecision, vacillation, or even evil intention.
Today, the moderate keenly feels his or her disadvantage. The futures of capitalism and individualism are at stake. These are vague words, but they elicit a very definite point of view. Many progressive ideologues hate what these words stand for, while many conservatives love it. Before passing judgment, however, the moderate asks in a soft voice, “What do these words mean?” After all, it is hard to love or hate something that lacks definition. Ideologues long ago decided their allegiance, and when the moderate hesitates, they assume it is just the coward’s innate predisposition to hedge. But they are wrong. The moderate instinctively feels there is great good in these words, but problems as well.
We need a better sense of what these words—capitalism and individualism—mean before deciding what to support. Herein arises the moderate’s political program.
Capitalism for the 21st Century
The first appearance of the word “capitalist” in English comes not in the writings of Adam Smith but in a mid-19th-century novel by William Makepeace Thackeray. It refers to someone who has money and works in finance. Marx spoke of capitalism as a “system” around the same time. Yet it is easier to say what capitalism is not than what it is. Capitalism is more than just profit-making, which has been around for millennia. It is also more than the quest for wealth. All organized societies accumulate wealth. We might say that capitalism creates a division between economic and political activity. People produce and consume goods and services in a private sector, independent of a public sector where laws are made and wars are waged. Yet even this paradigm bears little relation to reality in the United States. A long process of evolution has rendered it meaningless.
The change began early on. In the first half of the 19th century, the American state ceased to be a neutral party in the economy. In the form of government tariffs that protected industry, government help in building the Erie Canal, and government underwriting of railroads, the American state became the promoter of business. Near the turn of the 20thcentury, with the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) and, later, the Sherman Antitrust Act, the state became the regulator of business. Starting in the 1930s with the establishment of the FDIC, which guaranteed bank deposits up to a certain level, the state became the guarantor of business. Today, after a decade of massive government intervention, including company bailouts and a non-profit sector that has grown to more than 10 percent of the economy, the state has become the partner of business.
The state as business partner troubles the moderate. It also troubles the capitalist ideologue, but unlike the moderate, the capitalist ideologue distrusts the state as business promoter, regulator, and guarantor as well. The progressive ideologue, on the other hand, impatiently awaits more partnership—for example, in the form of stakeholder capitalism, where state-determined political goals replace shareholder value as a company’s primary mission.
The moderate carves out a middle position in all this, accepting the state as promoter, regulator, and guarantor, but not as partner. True, different shades of thought are at work here. Some ideologues may reach a conclusion similar to that of the moderate. Yet they generally do so grudgingly, as if they feel guilty for violating some faith. All ideologies come with a body of doctrine, and while the more flexible ideologues recognize doctrine might not apply in all cases, their natural inclination is to deduce from doctrine. Ideological thinking typically extends from the top down, while the moderate mixes experience with observation to build from the ground up. Ideologues and moderates may arrive at similar conclusions, but how they get there makes all the difference in what position is actually arrived at and how things are managed going forward.
Consistent with the state’s guarantor duties, bailing out the airlines during the pandemic made sense to the moderate, as these essential companies operated responsibly until a unique blow hit them. So also did the one-time bailout of small business under the CARES Act that enabled employers to meet payroll. But a moderate might oppose the Federal Reserve’s recent massive intervention into the credit markets, which threatens to create the kind of “zombie” companies that have dogged Japanese economic growth for decades. This borders on state partnering, as the government rallies around certain businesses the way loyal family members circle the wagons when one of them does something stupid. Some companies took on too much debt over the last decade, while investors who bought their low-rated bonds for yield were equally rash. At some point these companies and investors must be allowed to go under; otherwise, the notion of competition becomes meaningless.
The “competition” aspect of capitalism’s definition looms larger for the moderate than its “division between state and economy” aspect. Competition among businesspeople channels capitalism’s vital source of energy—the drive to make money—into tasks that society wants done, and at prices that society will pay. It leads to wealth and excellent service.
The state’s role as regulator ensures competition, which is why the moderate supports it. At the same time, that regulatory duty can also be used to stifle competition and further the state’s partnering activity. The ICC, for example, began by regulating railroad rates and preventing railroad monopolies from abusing customers. By the mid-20thcentury, however, the ICC became the protector (that is, the partner) of the railroads, establishing freight schedules for trucking that prevented this new form of freight handling from threatening the profits of “their” industry. A regulatory agency that had been charged with the suppression of the railroad’s abuses had, over time, partnered with the railroads to protect them. This change in purpose has been repeated in other fields, such as banking and pharmaceuticals, and makes supporting the state’s regulatory duty and opposing its partnership activity a difficult needle to thread. It is why the moderate prefers regulation by law rather than by bureaucratic rule. A judge applying a law is less likely to go native than is a regulator applying an agency rule that is only partial law, especially when that regulator aspires to work some day in the very industry he or she is regulating.
The confusion surrounding what capitalism is has led to state partnering being called a form of capitalism known as “crony capitalism.” Although pejorative, the label misleads people, as they mistakenly view crony capitalism as an anti-competitive variant of capitalism, which it cannot be. Competition is essential to capitalism. When the state partners with a business, it means the game is fixed. There is no competition, and so no capitalism.
Consumers these days keenly feel competition’s absence in price, especially in three areas that come up repeatedly in activist politics: health care, higher education, and housing. In 1973, American families put 50 percent of their discretionary income toward these three services; today they put 75 percent. Lack of competition keeps costs high in these fields, as when health insurance companies are barred from selling products across state lines; or when an alliance between higher education and the state hobbles for-profit college competitors, or suppresses national tests of achievement that might let young people bypass college and enter the world of work directly. The moderate opposes these examples of crony capitalism.
The purported connection between corporations and capitalism is equally maddening. The moderate looks favorably upon corporate America as the producer and distributor of great products at low cost. Yet the corporation is not inherent to capitalism. It grew out of government’s promotion and regulatory activities during the second half of the 19th century. State legislatures decided to safeguard investors through the concept of limited liability, to keep a company’s investors from having to pay out of their personal wealth a business’s debts during bankruptcy. Eliminating that risk made the corporation possible, although some critics at the time thought it an unnecessary government intervention.
For the moderate, defending capitalism does not necessarily mean defending corporate America. On the contrary, the new trend toward state partnering demands protection for small business against corporate America, whom state partnering favors. For fifty years, capitalist ideology flowing out of the influential Chicago School of Economics has criticized anti-trust enforcement as unnecessary, arguing that markets self-correct. In the meantime, new business formation has steadily declined. In 1982, young small businesses made up half of all firms and a fifth of total employment. By 2013, they made up a third of all firms and a tenth of total employment.
The moderate sympathizes with progressives and even radicals who decry excessive corporate power and “corporate welfare”—not because corporations block the path to socialism but because they block the path to entrepreneurship. Even Black Lives Matter leader Hawk Newsome, who recently threatened to “burn down” the American system, complained that the system stifles entrepreneurship in both black and white communities. Small businesses cannot thrive when large corporations allied with government rig the system.
For the moderate, the most troubling aspect of the emerging state-corporation partnership is the threat to democracy. Even Marx fretted over how the independent farmer and small businessman, the “basis of America’s whole political constitution,” were giving way to “giant farms” with employees and large factories with a “mass industrial proletariat.” The trend picked up speed over the next 140 years. Today, more Americans work at large or very large companies (2,500 employees or more) than work at small businesses (100 or fewer employees). Although the Constitution protects free speech, the fusion of corporation and state, along with the rise of the dependent employee, gives anti-democratic forces a way to control speech indirectly. Although the state cannot restrict speech, it can use corporations as proxies to do so, both at work and at home (as when companies scrutinize a worker’s after-hours social media posts). Many politicized corporations have proven to be eager and willing censors.
The moderate strongly supports laws that prevent corporate America from discriminating against viewpoint. When most Americans were independent owners of some kind, such laws were unnecessary. Today, most Americans are dependent employees, and many are even subject to non-compete clauses, such that when fired for a speech violation they must move to a new city to find work. Democracy demands updated free speech protections.
Capitalist ideology defines capitalism as a series of inviolable laws, including the law of supply and demand. Progressive ideology, on the other hand, refuses to believe that anything about capitalism is hard and fast. Modern monetary theory, for example, argues that a sovereign country can safely print all the money it wants, with higher tax rates used to slow inflation whenever necessary, thereby allowing the state to fund any social program.
The moderate takes a middle position in all this, not to split the difference, but out of intellectual conviction.
In the mid-19th century, around the same time Thackeray used the word “capitalist” in his novel and Marx described capitalism as a system, the philosopher-economist John Stuart Mill published his Principles of Political Economy, in which he argued that rigid laws apply to economic production but not to economic distribution. Although nothing arbitrary exists in capitalism’s laws of wealth creation, he wrote, no laws govern how that wealth should be distributed other than the arbitrary laws and customs of society. Rather than straitjacket society, as capitalist ideology does, or destroy the means of wealth creation, as progressive ideology risks, Mills’s moderate position preserves capitalism’s wealth-creating mechanism while allowing that wealth to be spread around to keep social peace.
For this reason the moderate generally opposes the replacement of meritocratic skill with diversity quotas in hiring, as the policy risks hobbling economic production and efficiency, even safety, and therefore wealth creation.
Is the moderate’s opposition to diversity quotas complete and total? No, for the moderate keeps one eye fixed on social peace. Moderates encourage active efforts to diversify in hiring, not because they believe hiring committees are racist so much as lazy, as most people are (including this author). The committees look for new workers in the same places each time because to look in new places takes effort. It is called bureaucratic inertia, and it stems from the natural human impulse toward stability and routine. At the same time, moderates recognize the fanatical nature of progressive ideologues, how they interpret even a nod in the direction of diversity as an admission that the entire system is rotten and needs to be overthrown. Thus, the moderate fights the diversity battle on two fronts: on one front against the lazy, and on the other against the progressive ideologue who sees malevolent intent everywhere, and who acts not out of an astute knowledge of human nature but out of revolutionary wrath.
At the same time, the moderate sympathizes with the progressive ideologue’s wealth redistributionist plans, such as in health care, childcare, and even universal basic income—although not to the point of violating the laws of economic production and risking national bankruptcy. Still, America’s unique culture, which both progressive and conservative ideologues tend to ignore, guides the moderate on how wealth redistribution should proceed.
In the early 19th century, Tocqueville observed how in America only mediocre people entered government service. Almost a century later, James Bryce observed the same thing. Both men concluded that the better paying private sector attracted the brighter people. This lack of talent meant American government would remain incompetent compared to, say, the highly efficient Prussian bureaucracy. Still, while the Americans governed their country poorly, they at least did the work of government themselves, Tocqueville said, praising the country for its democratic spirit.
Little has changed in almost two centuries, especially on the state level or in basic services. The moderate loves America, but he or she also knows America. The country has its weak points, which are sometimes endearing, other times irritating, but which one must put up with, as with a tiresome spouse. Government inefficiency in delivering a service is one of those weak points (think the post office and the departments of motor vehicles).
Moderates see a solid purpose behind wealth redistribution, which puts them closer to progressive ideology, but they also recognize that wealth redistribution that has government actually running a social service often ends badly. This puts them closer to conservative ideology. Herein lies the moderate’s rule of thumb: Wealth redistribution works reasonably well in the United States when it involves cutting a check to people in need—for example, in Social Security, tax credits, or school vouchers—but not when providing a service directly.
A 21st-Century Individual
Confusion surrounds the word “individual” much as it does the word “capitalism.” The word first appears in Cicero’s translation of the Greek word “atom,” thought then to be the universe’s fundamental unit. The atom was “individuum,” or “not divisible.” In ancient philosophy the word refers to the self-mastered person whose reason rules over spirit and desire, making that person unbreakable and indivisible. Seventeen hundred years later, a shift occurs. Hobbes defines the modern individual as society’s fundamental unit, but rather than being self-mastered, the individual is selfish, vain, and naturally asocial, driven by the fear of being murdered. Hence the creation of the Leviathan (or the large state) in response.
Hobbes’s philosophy casts a long shadow over America. The 18th-century American government—in which individuals, working from the ground up, ceded some of their freedom to create a state to protect them—was the world’s first political Leviathan. General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac—which mobilized volunteers and draftees from different states and backgrounds, all of them small and weak individually but enormously powerful when stripped of their individual characteristics and merged into a unit—was the world’s first military Leviathan. The Singer Sewing Machine Company, the first multinational corporation—built out of individuals who put aside their disparate backgrounds to create a larger and more dynamic economic entity—was the world’s first economic Leviathan.
Hobbes’s idea of the individual feeds into Tocqueville’s notion of individualism, but the two ideas are very different, and for the moderate, the latter is sadly irrelevant. Individualism was the belief system of a particular people at a particular time—Tocqueville’s Americans. The archetypical 19th-century American individualist loved his family, enjoyed his small circle of friends, worked hard on his farm or small business, but otherwise wanted to be left alone. He could not endure abstract conversations, nor did he touch on themes too far removed from him. He was interested only in what was directly connected with his house, his horse, or his nearest neighbors. He loved his country, but he was indifferent to questions of agriculture unless he was a farmer, or to questions of industry unless he worked in industry. He showed an interest in the life of the country once every four years, during a presidential election; otherwise, he wasn’t all that interested in politics.
Why does the moderate view this schema as irrelevant? Because today’s archetypical American man more closely resembles the pre-social Hobbesian individual than the American individualist.
He is a man, but is he? What is a man? Gender today is viewed as a social construct, something that emerges only after civil society has been formed, which means a man (or a woman) today more closely approximates a unisex individual, with gender as just an add-on.
He loves his family, but does he have a family? Probably not. Today, roughly half of Americans are single, the highest percentage in history.
He enjoys his circle of friends, but does he have friends? Sixty percent of American millennials confess to being lonely; more than half of all Americans have no one, or at most one person, to talk to about their personal problems.
He thinks about his house, but does he have a house? Maybe, if he’s old. Two-thirds of young adults—the people most likely to protest in the streets—rent.
He works hard on his business, but does he have a business? Most likely not. Most likely he is a dependent employee.
He loves his country; then again, where did he learn to do so? Students are increasingly likely to be taught in school that America was a mistake from the moment the Pilgrims landed.
America has ceased to be the land of individualism. It is now the land of the individual, of the human being with little that is social about him or her. He or she is an “it,” a separate microcosm with “its” own rules and aims in life, a ghost that labors for a defined number of hours and then disappears inexplicably and unrecognized. The more such individuals there are, who are barely known to one another, the more terrible is the solitude of each. Not everyone in America fits this description, of course, and in the coastal, upper-middle class bubbles where traditional families still flourish, and where some people actually run their own businesses, perhaps only a few do. But enough such aloof human beings exist elsewhere to alter our definition of ourselves.
Capitalism and the individual feed on one another, with the American individual becoming more Hobbesian at every turn.
The individual makes capitalism possible. Unlike a traditional economy, where custom dictates how tasks get done, or a command economy, where authoritarian rule dictates, in a capitalist economy the individual who does exactly as he or she sees fit dictates. An individual’s needs, potentially infinite in number, inspire products that businesses sell, with the proceeds used to create still more salable wealth, more “capital,” which gives capitalism its expansive tendency.
Capitalism, in turn, breaks groups up into individuals. For example, capitalism and the traditional family once went hand in hand. But over time, the family began to decay noiselessly, unnoticeably, mysteriously, into a collection of individuals. Instead of paying one spouse a family wage, capitalism pays two individual spouses a smaller, individual wage, to capture more labor at less cost. For parents to make ends meet, capitalism encourages—and now compels—almost every adult individual to join the workforce, such that a quarter of America’s schoolchildren are by themselvesafter the school day ends, before a parent comes home from work.
Capitalism increasingly meets people’s needs as individual consumers rather than as family members, down to the pre-cooked dinners that individuals buy in the frozen section—half of all adult meals are now eaten alone in the United States—and the sex robots that individuals hope to buy to take the place of real lovers. Capitalism services an individual’s psychological needs directly through a caring industry, replacing families and friends who used to do so for free. More than a third of Americans have purchased a therapist’s counseling services, often to discuss everyday life troubles.
Capitalism even attends to the individual’s new and easily offended self-esteem, plunging the individual further into isolation. In corporate America workers increasingly hesitate to speak casually to each other, for fear of being fired for a micro-aggression or verbal harassment. Such a worker—an “it”—is the capitalist’s dream: focused solely on “its” work, and suppressing the most basic human urge to flirt, chat, joke, or banter. Under capitalism’s direction, the Hobbesian individual has evolved from an aggressively desirous person to a worker perfectly accustomed to a monastic routine.
It is no coincidence that political correctness and cancel culture thrive in Anglosphere countries such as the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia. Hobbes’s philosophy and capitalism took deep root in these places, with capitalism pushing the individual inexorably to its politically correct conclusion: instead of every person being every other person’s potential murderer, every person is now every other person’s potential name-caller.
The Moderate Sensibility
The moderate apprehends the new danger. He or she foresees the trajectory of a society based on capitalism and the individual: the Hobbesian war of all against all, which comes not at history’s beginning but at its end. The moderate also knows that nothing major can be done to deflect society’s arc in the near future. It is how we live now, and how we will live. Nothing can restrain this elemental movement. Both the capitalist ideologue and the progressive ideologue, by contrast, live in rosy palaces of unreality.
The capitalist ideologue glosses over capitalism’s destructive social consequences. The lonely individual’s therapist sessions and the pre-cooked dinners are viewed as two more positive contributions to the nation’s GDP. The capitalist ideologue wrongly believes that capitalism will solve whatever ails us, when in fact capitalism is the source of much of the trouble.
The progressive ideologue fails to see how the obsession with individual autonomy, empowerment, and self-esteem plays right into capitalism’s hands, by separating people. Empowered individuals who live out disconnected lives in single households buy more products. Empowered individuals without families or friends get their psychological needs met by business, for a price. Empowered individuals afraid of other empowered individuals at work—afraid of triggering them, for example—attend to business and not to a lot of talk. I often wonder if the so-called capitalists are snickering in their boardrooms. They have installed, for example, a progressive philosophy that keeps men and women from gazing at each other for longer than five seconds on company time. Wearing the moral mantle, they call such behavior “objectifying” a person; meanwhile, they turn the entire human being into an object, called labor, to be hired and tossed out on the streets at will.
The progressive ideologue’s solution to society’s problems fares no better than the capitalist’s. The progressive ideologue wants to scrape away capitalism, which will make us momentarily more equal but permanently poorer. It is like the sick man who scratches himself to experience a curious pleasure mingled with pain, which he later has to pay for with more intense pain.
The moderate understands the realities and contradictions in American life and shapes his or her agenda accordingly. Despite all the problems that capitalism has caused, capitalism must be preserved. The only alternative—a traditional economy or a command economy—will impoverish us. Herein arises the moderate’s political mission.
Moderates know that generic individuals, including many of today’s Americans, want to create and produce. When allowed to do so, they are more or less satisfied with their lives. Society stabilizes. Toward this end, moderates aspire to help people build their small businesses. Yet the state-corporate partnership throws up almost insurmountable barriers. Moderates aspire to help people build nuclear families and raise children. Yet they cannot reverse the downward trend in the marriage rate and sex rate, the growing distrust between the sexes, and the rise of the empowered but lonely individual. To the degree that moderates can move the needle on these issues, they try, but the moderate’s alternative approach is to help people create and produce in private life rather than at work, and not necessarily through a traditional two-parent family.
An example would be to actively help independent individuals raise children as single parents. There is an increasing number of “single mothers by choice” and even “single fathers by choice” who desperately want to fulfill themselves by having children. Conservatives who cherish the two-parent family may criticize the moderate for accepting this new way of life as the norm, but the moderate replies, “Who can stop an avalanche?” With dependent employment often a person’s only work option, and with committed personal relationships harder to find these days, private life as a single person beckons as the last frontier for creation and production. The moderate’s mission is to defend the old institutions while acknowledging and accepting the new situation.
A second example involves Internet access. The Internet helps people create and produce in private life. Whether it is amateur artists who post their images, amateur writers who post their stories, amateur foodies who post their restaurant reviews, amateur gamers who compete and earn rankings in their field of endeavor, millions of Americans spend hours on the Internet—alone—after returning from work, as they try to cobble together a creative life that they find rewarding, both in the activity itself and in the feedback they receive from others. And yet more than 30 percent of Americans still lack broadband Internet access. The moderate supports government efforts to fix this. In a way, doing so fulfills the state’s promoter duty. In the early 19th century, the state subsidized the building of railroads and canals to unleash people’s creative and productive potential at work. Establishing broadband access in every home helps people unleash their creative and productive potential at home.
Compared to the ideologue’s bold vision, the moderate’s ambitions might seem trivial. From the ideologue’s perspective, the moderate may have the ingenuity to make some small change for the better here or there, to rearrange some detail in people’s lives, to abolish some unjust practice, and to insist upon some obvious reform, but that is a far cry from the sweeping change demanded by ideology, especially when the heart of the appalling American mess remains untouched. True, things today are a mess. Yet ideology, which many people love effortlessly and unreservedly, and which flows in speech as smoothly as a finished poem, all too often makes promises that are naive and unreal. These appeal to certain sensitive souls who find pleasure in a kind of remote admiration, and in a happiness that can only be enjoyed from afar. What is needed today is not the ideologue’s dreamy, romantic spirit, but the moderate’s prudent, practical one, working to keep things together and improve the small things in life, not to realize utopia, but because it is the sensible thing to do.
Ronald W. Dworkin is a physician and political scientist. His other work can be found at RonaldWDworkin.com.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe