The Myth of the Middle 1

There is no such thing as the political "center."

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.

Fennoman is a guest writer for  Read other articles by Fennoman or other articles on Politics.
Reader Comments

Interesting article…but there seems to be an exception to your premise. It is a paradox that is a hot button issue in politics right now, ABORTION. The rights of an unborn child wrapped inside the rights of a woman. I am 100% right wing(I believe my rights are GOD given), but it seems to me that there must be a middle ground on this issue. I believe a life is a life, and although we cannot know the moment of CONCEPTION, the moment of PERCEPTION is the point of no return(its not like the fetes can become anything other than a HUMAN BEING). However, if a women’s life is put in jeopardy by a pregnancy, surely an exception must be made(a middle ground on rights). Also, we get into murkier waters when it comes to rape or incest. At what point do we go from self-preservation to murder(MURDER being a pre-meditated act to end a life). At this point we are clearly swinging to the left. Who’s right to “myself” takes precedence, and who makes that decision? Heady stuff indeed!

Thought provoking stuff… that’s what I love about SCRAGGED.

February 20, 2011 3:36 AM

A good article, but let me throw in a couple of points.

First, there is a fundamental problem with the phrase "The Right" when applied within the context of American politics. The political labels of "right" and "left" originated in Europe. Roughly speaking, "left" means
"Statism in which all property is assumed to belong to the State" and "right" means "Statism in which all property may nominally belong to a private person or entity, but can be regulated by the State without limit so as to give the State ultimate actual ownership". Both of these notions can be found in the political impulses of both the Republican and Democrat Parties, although they tend to have a much more uniform and vigorous expression in the Democrat Party.

There is no European term for the concept of deliberately limited governmental authority. It would be better if those in the US who believe in political liberty to stick to labels like "constitutionalist" or "originalist" rather than accepting the label of "The Right" which is heavily associated with European fascism.

My second point is that the concept of the political middle is pushed by the Democrat media and it is commonly understood to refer to policies which are nowhere near the political desires of most Americans. A good argument could be made that the whole reason for talking about a political middle is to bully and cajole the Republican Party into supporting the Democrat Party's encroachments on our liberties. Of course, there are people in the Republican Party who are quite supportive of the efforts of the Democrat Party and don't really need an excuse. It would be well if more politicians did not shy away from promoting a sharp ideological distinction. No pale pastels.

February 20, 2011 4:10 PM


your confusion about the politics of abortion might be clarified by recognizing a few things. Your confusion seems to arise from the fact that the American People have consistently supported the legality of abortion in the cases of the life-of-the-mother, rape and incest. The case of the life-of-the-mother seems straight forward enough - one life balanced against another with the life of the mother given precedence since she has relationships which means her death would affect other people, perhaps quite profoundly.

Understanding the support of the public for abortion in the case of rape or incest is not hard if one recognizes that the public is making a moral judgment based not on valuing a right to life, but on valuing the principle of personal responsibility for one's own actions. In the case of rape or incest, the woman was not responsible for getting pregnant and so is to be allowed by society to terminate her pregnancy.

There are activists in the pro-life community who accept the legality of abortion only in the case of a threat to the life of the mother. Those activists are basing their political views on a true respect for life.

Interestingly, a very strong majority of Americans oppose abortion if performed simply because carrying a baby to term would interfere with a woman's education or career. Needless-to-say, media surveys of the latter attitude are quite rare.

Another reason that the abortion debate might be confusing to you is that the promoters of abortion legality have successfully cast the issue in terms of "rights" which makes the definition of when life begins crucial. Since there is no commonly agreed upon definition of when life begins, there is no clarity as to when the child acquires Constitutional protection and so the legal issues remain cloudy.

I'm not sure that trying to apply left/right labels to the abortion debate is helpful.

February 20, 2011 4:43 PM


Thanks for the response to my comments, for the purpose for it was to try to elicit some intelligent debate on the issue of abortion. The myth of the middle seemed the right place to start, since the abortion issue is being couched in the rights debate by the mainstream media. I believe that abortion is a moral issue on the whole, and that our rights stem from there as well.

I believe that the life-of-the-mother takes precedence over the baby(fetes) as well, since both lives my be lost by continuing the pregnancy, and the mothers loss of life would MORE profoundly effect the people in THEIR lives.

The issue of abortion in the case of rape or incest is a much tougher moral judgment, for the woman is not responsible for getting pregnant, but the child(fetes) is not responsible for being brought into existence either. Since the woman’s life is not in danger, it comes back to the moral value on life(or true respect for life). Since a life is a life, I believe this is the point where we begin to cross the line between self-preservation and murder(I know,easy to say as a man). THIS LINE is the murky water point.

As far as abortion on the grounds of convenience, I believe a clear majority of the population believes this is morally wrong, and indeed constitutes murder.

On the media point, they are avoiding the issue like a plague. In the mainstream media, journalism is pretty well dead and gone! Only politicians seem more allergic to the issue.

And finally, although we cannot know the moment of CONCEPTION, the moment of PERCEPTION is the point of no return. At this point we are talking about a LIFE, and we come back to moral values. To take a life is wrong, and I do not believe it is a point of legality.

So you see, I’m not really confused about the issue(other than the MURKY WATER POINT), but am hoping for rational debate about abortion(and I thing we are achieving that here), for this is the only way that the problem will be solved.

February 21, 2011 3:03 AM

Have you read this article on abortion?

February 21, 2011 10:52 AM

ConditionalAdditional: Thank you for your comments. The challenge with these types of discussions is that we always end up in semantic battles rather than philosophical ones. Your point is still well made.

In truth, I'm a libertarian, which makes me neither right, nor left. But in our current discourse, left and right mean more. We have to start somewhere, too. In our current discussions the left and the right have different meanings than they're original ones.

I would recommend everyone read this: and then download and read this:

February 21, 2011 4:06 PM


Thank you…I had not seen this article from Scragged. As usual, a very well thought out piece.
Gives one hope that journalisms is not completely dead(although Scragged is not mainstream).
The mainstream could certainly learn something from them.

February 22, 2011 4:49 PM

Re-Fennoman…I'm a libertarian

Thanks for the refresher…on the whole, I would consider myself a libertarian as well.

Relating to the piece “The Myth of the Middle” I described myself as on the “right”(the government has only the rights we choose to give it, or god given), as I find this very close to libertarianism. Our god given rights are defined by a set of guidelines (commandments), that limit our actions to not negatively effect others rights.
However, god does not intervene whenever we cross the line (including murder), but lets us rely on our morals (or ethics if you will). We are given true freedom (liberty) to act as we please, unlike the freedoms granted us by our earthly masters.

The English language is so diverse and precise (its greatest strength and biggest weakness) that semantics becomes an issue…but really, this is a good thing!

It is truly a pleasure communicating with you.


February 22, 2011 6:16 PM

There is certainly a European term for the belief in a limited role for the state (gov't). Liberalism. That is, the original meaning of liberal (personal liberty) before its meaning in the US got turned around by Roosevelt et al. The European definition is the political term I know of that best defines my position.

I would say that the fascist right that you speak of is much more visible in the US, with a long list of restrictions that the right actively works for: abortion, drugs, marriage, etc. The right in Europe is (generally) less focused on these things and more on fiscal conservatism, nationalism, and (somewhat) liberalism as defined above. The left consists of communists, environmentalists, and socialists.

@Original post:
I'm skeptical that the divide between left and right (as you define them) is as big as you suggest. You seem to suggest that no tax is moral. But surely some taxes are necessary? The alternative is that the gov't not build roads, defend borders, restrict immigration, police its citizens, put out fires, etc? Is this really what your goal?

If not, then you do believe that a certain level of mandatory taxes is right. But this seems to conflict with your basic principle that the fruits of your labors are yours and only yours unless you give them up.

Which is it, some taxes or no taxes? If the answer is some, then you are already on the slippery slope towards a too-large state apparatus. If none, then isn't the result anarchy (or close to it)?

What do you think?

February 23, 2011 5:22 PM

I'd argue some, very limited taxes are a necessary evil. I'm not sure anyone else has ever called themselves a "constitutional libertarian". In that vein, I'm for limited government that serves to preserve the individual liberties of its citizens and does no more. This type of government is good and necessary (at a national level - state and local governments, while following similar principles, are wholly different).

So, of course, some taxes will be required to fund these efforts (courts are not free, nor can they be completely paid for out of the pockets of those who lose their cases).

Is it a slippery slope? Yes. In fact the Founder's repeatedly warned of the slipperiness and steepness of the slope. It's a battle that must be constantly fought - but a battle that will always need to be fought. There will always be individuals who seek power/wealth/whatever regardless of the cost to another. This is why a divided government (separation of powers not just at the federal level, but between the states and federal government, between the state and local governments, etc) is one that will do the least damage and can, with vigilance, be held in check.

February 24, 2011 12:20 AM

Good thoughts but only true with absolutes like ownership. The reason a 'middle' can exist is because social issues is a mixed bag. I can believe in one without believing in others. Good conservatives can disagree on the drug war for instance.

February 24, 2011 1:16 PM
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