Centrism is not liberalism even though the declining standards of rhetoric in European politics have lead to many ignoramuses confusing the two. Fundamentally, centrist politics is about problem solving rather than fanaticism, it is about the melding of logic to ethics and of scientific thought processes to a humane approach to society. Great centrists of the 20th century included Lee Kuan Yew, Atatürk, Deng Xiaoping (in spite of a very different party political affiliation), Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Mahathir Mohamad and Nasser – just to name a few.
Libertarianism (which is entirely different from radical Blairite/Clintonite liberalism) by contrast is not so much a political method as is the case with genuine centrism, but instead it is a fundamental philosophy about how the state relates to society and how society relates to individual human beings. At its most unadulterated, libertarianism seeks to limit government to that which is least intrusive in respect of its relations to society. By extrapolation, a strictly libertarian society is one that is skewed towards the individual and away from the collective.
The dangers of an entirely libertarian society are as grave as those of extreme leftism and the far right. This is true because while authoritarianism is the logical conclusion of the extremes of the traditional left and right, anarchy would be the logical conclusion of extreme libertarianism.
Therefore, it would not only be foolish to call oneself an “extreme libertarian” but it would also be counter-intuitive because ideological dogmatism when enforced upon others is itself the antithesis of the “live and let live spirit” that is the major point of attraction to modern, moderate and realistic liberterianism.
For my own part, I do believe that developing countries cannot be economically or even fully (key word) socially libertarian. Lee Kuan Yew’s disciplined bureaucracy and Deng Xiaoping’s centralised state helped to improve the material and consequently the social conditions of their respective societies at a time when a more strictly laissez-faire approach would have resulted in prolonged deadlock rather than rapid progress.
But once a state reaches an advanced stage of economic and infrastructural development, it becomes clear that the only way to sustain progress without instigating an inevitable process of decline is to pivot towards a libertarian ethos. As countries become wealthier, state organs become greedy (as do those in the private sector). Just as absolute power corrupts absolutely, so too does absolute wealth. If absolute poverty is a holistic affliction, absolute wealth nevertheless brings other social problems. This is especially true when rich and powerful governments are given extreme powers which themselves come to only expand over time through a process of persistent abuses of power.
There is however a way out and this way out is libertarianism. Before a state or a fascistic corporate oligarchy gets too powerful, libertarianism must come into play in order to put severe limitations on the role of government in society. This means that beyond providing the people with a solid infrastructure, healthcare, basic national insurance against unemployment and destitution, education and defence, the state should do no more.
It is for this reason that a universal basic income in an age of AI and automation is increasingly attractive. What better way for a state to continue providing basic social security to its people without engaging in any social engineering than to simple give back tax money to the citizenry in the form of a universal basic income? Whilst not all people calling themselves libertarians agree with this, it is certainly something that bears further exploration seeing as the AI and automation revolution is rapidly changing the nature of employment, production and wealth generation.
Implicit in any libertarian style of government is that the state should not engage in the censorship of any peaceful free speech or assembly, the state should not teach any religion or ideology in state funded schools, the state cannot promote any specific ideology through its public bodies and the state should take a hands off approach to what are generally termed victimless crimes. In terms of economics, a metallic monetary standard (ideally gold) ought to be the end goal of any truly libertarian society. Not only does a gold standard bring stability vis-a-vis fiat currencies but it limits the state’s ability to rig the economy against ordinary people through the constant and often devious manipulation of fiat currencies.
It is true that states require centralised discipline to reach an advanced stage of development, but once this is attained it is time for the state to realise that its powers have reached the end of their usefulness and will inevitably lead to abuses if this power grows instead of being peacefully curtailed. Just as a mountain has a peak, when a certain stage of development is reached, it is time for government to contract its powers in order to allow social self-government to take the place of endless social interventions into the lives of ordinary people.
A state with near unlimited powers will not use its might to produce better hospitals, schools and green areas as idealists on the moderate left might hope. History shows that when states become too powerful, they use their power to crush freedom of speech, crush political opposition, rig the monetary system in favour of the super-rich and ultimately engage in the arrests, torture and execution of heroic and peaceful people like Julian Assange.
Therefore, the goals of a centrist libertarianism can serve the aspirations of both the moderate left and right. By strictly limiting government’s role to that which is constructive rather than reactive or destructive, the goals of the sensible left are served: good hospitals, schools, roads, bridges, parks, sensible social security to the genuinely needy etc. Likewise, the economic liberty desired by the centre-right is also unmolested. At the same time, under such a centrist libertarian system, the goals of the authoritarian far left and far right to remake society in their unilateral image are necessarily limited.
The torture of Julian Assange has been a Damascene moment. There is simply no way to assure that necessarily fallible men and women will somehow act in a consistently ethical fashion when handed extreme amounts of power. If state power can be abused – it will be abused. The prolonged torture of Julian Assange is testament to this fact.
Therefore, the only solution is for centrism to guide politics away from extremes (including extreme liberalism of the Tony Blair variety) and for libertarianism to safeguard social peace and freedom against the inevitable abuses that come with giving any one person or cadre of people too much power over the lives of others.