WHY MORAL CENTRISM AND WHY NOW?
“The unity of
government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to
you. It is justly so; for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your
real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your
peace abroad, of your safety, of your prosperity, of that very
liberty which you so highly prize.”
As everyone learns in high school, Democracy is not a perfect
form of government; it’s just far better than the alternatives.
Democracy clearly lacks the efficiency of tyrannical and
authoritarian rule, for instance, but in exchange for this
inefficiency we gain freedom, representation and something fairly
new in human history—an inclusive society. And while inclusiveness
in the context of a multicultural citizenry is not without serious
challenges, it is also far better than any known alternatives. It
would doubtless be easier if everyone in America was of one
color, creed, character and conscience, but that is simply not the
world we live in.
The world we live in, and specifically the country Moral
Centrism hopes to change, is the United States of
America. As an American, I am deeply proud of my country and its
history despite—and in some ways because of—its failures and
shortcomings. We are an imperfect nation because we are an
imperfect people and always will be. We do not have to be flawless
to be proud of who we are. But neither do we have to settle for
less than we are capable.
And we are capable of so very much. We are blessed with
resources, land, power, wealth, technology, freedom and an endless
list of riches that would make any humble man blush. Never in
history has one nation wielded such military or economic might. We
have almost inevitably and in a very literal sense become The New
Colossus of Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty, “with
conquering limbs astride from land to land.”
And yet this colossus has stumbled into the 21st
century. We are a nation divided; split 50-50 into red-blue camps,
glaring at each other with outspoken hatred and contempt. Every day
the division grows, bringing with it bitterness, cynicism and rage.
On national television, elected officials accuse one another of
treason, larceny, fraud and whatever other crimes or moral
shortcomings they can even vaguely justify. We all watch in a
voyeuristic trance as the pretty, smiling faces on Fox and CNN
recount the latest absurdities. But in the back of our mind, we’re
all asking the same question:
Does it have to be this way?
answer is a resounding, No! It absolutely does not have to
be this way. Society does not have to be this divided. Political
parties do not have to be this hateful or polarized. Government
does not have to be this inefficient. Things can be so much better so quickly if we just remember why this country exists in the first
place. Why did our Founding Fathers create this republic? What was
it, above all else, they set out to accomplish? The answer is right
there in the preamble to the Constitution:
“We the People of
the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union,
establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the
common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the
Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and
establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Moral Centrism is about this single sentence. It is
about focusing every day on the willful act of defending and
building “a more perfect union.” So how do we get there?
Let’s go back to the beginning: “Democracy is not a perfect
form of government, it’s just far better than the alternatives.”
Sounds reasonable, but let’s imagine that we’re not talking about
democracy. Let’s talk about light bulbs. After all, the light bulb
is not a perfect source of light, it’s just far better than the
alternatives. We have incandescent light bulbs all over our
homes. Maybe we have halogen lights in the office and fluorescents
in the kitchen, but Americans buy millions of light bulbs every
year. They must be the best available solution in these millions of
And yet we all know light bulbs have shortcomings. They use
a lot of electricity. They burn out. They attract moths. The incandescent light bulb, like
democracy, is far from perfect. In fact, more than 97% of all
electricity used to turn on an incandescent light bulb is wasted as
heat—the result of electrical resistance or “friction”.
But better lighting is on the horizon. Light Emitting
Diodes (LEDs) promise efficiencies of 15% or more in the near
future. This means that within a decade, light sources for our
homes could be more than five times more efficient than they are
today. And this means a vast decrease in both wasted energy and
total energy required to light your house.
+ Very Hot
+ And Short-Lived
Not Good Enough
+ Far Cooler
+ And Last Longer
Still Not Good Enough
I doubt anyone is surprised that lighting technology is
improving. That’s just the way capitalism works. Over a
long enough period, creative people will find ways to solve
technological problems. And when they’re done, they’ll move on
to Something Even Better. Lighting will get cheaper, safer and
more efficient. As Americans, we know this just as
surely as we know the sun will rise tomorrow. We have such
faith in ongoing technological progress that it has become almost
“This process of
Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.
It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern
has got to live in”
— Joseph Schumpeter,
But we have no such faith in society or democracy.
These things are not eternally improving. These things are
bogged in conflict and bureaucracy, plagued by partisanship, and
irreparably static and stagnant. Rather than the “creative
destruction” of capitalist innovation, we just get the destruction.
The Founding Fathers did the best that can be done, and so we’re
stuck. Deal with it.
Of course, this is utter nonsense. Just as the process
of creative destruction builds new technologies and obsoletes old,
democracy can and must evolve. Old ideas, from slavery to
keeping women from voting, were pushed aside by new ideas such as
civil rights and universal enfranchisement. These were hard
and painful changes, but they were undeniably the right changes.
Even greater changes are needed today. We can all see
the problems, whether they are declining public trust in government,
the media or other pillars of democratic society; an increasing lack
of transparency in government and large corporations; intractable
conflicts between the secular values of the left and the religious
values of the right; and so on. What we have trouble seeing
are the solutions and as a result we seem to assume there are none.
Now wait, you say. As a “liberal” you might think that
legal secularism and multiculturalism offer us the path to unity
based on a common set of secular ethics (if only those crazy
evangelicals would stop driving their medieval belief systems down
our modern throats). Or as a “conservative” you might think
that traditional Judeo-Christian religious values can re-unite the
country on a foundation of timeless common morality (if only those
lunatic-left atheists and materialist scientists would stop
polluting the airwaves with narcissistic nonsense).
But neither of these viewpoints are solutions; they are
simply incompatible political platforms and worldviews that drive
further division, not unity. Noah Feldman provides a far
better overview of this specific conflict in Divided by God than I could ever hope to, but the conclusion
we reach is the same: a solution requiring total victory over the
enemy (left or right, secular or religious) is not a solution at
all—it is a recipe for perpetual warfare.
Which brings us back to the incandescent light bulb.
purpose of a light bulb is, no surprise, to provide light as
inexpensively and reliably as possible. Anything that detracts
from the production of light, including all the wasted energy lost
as heat, detracts from this purpose. The purpose of
democracy, and especially American democracy as prescribed by our
Constitution, is to “provide a more perfect union” that includes
justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, general welfare and
the blessings of liberty. Anything that detracts from this,
including all the wasted time and energy of partisan or “values”
warfare, detracts from this purpose.
Here is where the analogy breaks down. Lost energy in a
light bulb is annoying and costly, not immoral. But in a
democracy formed to unite people, any and all issues designed
and intended to divide us as a people are not merely wasteful
but immoral. There will always be differences in beliefs, but
when we go searching for wedge issues to unite parties but divide
the nation, we are intentionally destroying the unity sought by our
Founding Fathers—and in doing so we trample on justice, destroy all
sense of domestic tranquility, weaken our common defenses, bleed the
general welfare of any meaning and, most tragically, lose all claim
to the blessings of liberty. These are moral issues.
domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of
revenge, natural to [political] party dissensions, which, in
different ages and countries, has perpetrated the most horrid
enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”
— George Washington,
This may sound like hyperbole, but remember how we came to
Civil War. Our Founding Fathers had no choice but to
compromise on slavery in the Constitution in order to unite our
fledgling nation. They were forced to institutionalize
the seeds of conflict. Every man and woman in the thirteen
colonies must have understood that the slavery question would
eventually need a more final resolution, but who among them could
have imagined the horror of a Civil War that would cost nearly six
hundred thousand lives and almost destroy the country?
Today, we all know that the red-blue, secular-religious,
left-right, environmental-business divide needs to be addressed.
But do we understand what will happen if we fail to do so before
this division becomes permanent? I am not saying we are on the
verge of civil war. I am saying we are already engaged in a
domestic cold war that will have even more dire consequences.
The end of the Civil War brought with in victory for the
North, the end of slavery, and a century of bitter resentment by the
South. But at least the issue was resolved. What we face
today is a choice. We can choose to resolve core conflicts and
build a better democracy built on shared values and goals, and by
analogy reduce the friction and waste in or government and society.
Or we can choose perpetual conflict; to in essence build a worse
light bulb that produces more waste, more friction and less…light.
+ Less Public
+ Low Transparency
+ Costly Government
+ Large Government
+ Intractable Problems
= Wasted Money
Time and Energy
for Priority Issues
= Disunity &
+ More Public Trust
+ High Increasing
+ Efficient Government
+ Small Government
+ Solvable Problems
for Priority Issues
This is a moral choice for the simple reason that America is not an
island unto itself. The time, energy and money wasted on bipartisan
bickering and the politics of vengeance is time, energy and money
that is not spent reducing poverty, eradicating disease,
protecting justice, increasing public welfare or defending liberty.
The issue of unity is therefore a moral issue, and in seeking unity
we must seek our common moral center—the thing which unites us,
binds us together, and gives meaning to the name our nation: the
“In this sense it
is that your union ought to be considered as a main prop of your
liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the
preservation of the other.”
Moral Centrism is nothing more than the focused search for
the ever-more perfect union our Founding Fathers dreamt of more than
200 years ago.