The “Centrist Reform Program”: An Agenda for the 21st Century

The “Centrist Reform Program” is a label for an aggressive reform vision that goes beyond the timid, centrist tinkering of the “Third Way” – the banner under which many 20th century progressives marched.

Like the Third Way, the Centrist Reform Program steers a middle course between a free market capitalist system that favors competitive self-interest, individual wealth accumulation, and market solutions to our social problems, on the one hand, and various forms of socialism that emphasize major institutional changes to undergird the common good and provide for the needs of the middle and working classes.  The centrist reformer respects the dynamism and contributions of an entrepreneurial, free enterprise system that generously rewards merit.  But it also insists on a much stronger social support system. one which ensures that the basic needs of all of our citizens are provided for -- all of the people, all of the time, to borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln.

This approach can legitimately be called “centrism” because it is opposed to the “conservative”, neo-liberal, capitalist ideology, currently under the guiding hand of the Trump administration, that has moved this country far to the radical right.  This shift is reflected in tax cuts for the wealthy and (ultimately) tax increases for the working class, dismantling generations of protective government regulations, nativist anti-immigration policies, and a variety of measures to weaken the “safety net” provided by our welfare programs, while allowing serious national problems to fester (climate change, the opioid crisis, crumbing infrastructure, stagnant real wages, whole regions of deep economic depression and poverty in our country, and more).

It is also a sweeping “reform” agenda that differs from conventional socialist and liberal strategies, because it does not seek to restructure the economic system or impose government regulation that would go beyond what is clearly needed for the common good.  Nor does it envision vast new government-run social welfare programs.  Government’s role should be focused for the most part on setting (and enforcing) the rules, catalyzing and subsidizing solutions, forming public-private partnerships, creating and undergirding self-insurance pools, and playing a back-stop role (like being the “employer of last resort” in times of high unemployment). However, it embraces a far more ambitious objective than the Third Way.  It would ultimately be transformational. 

It’s not possible to detail the full centrist reform program here, but let me provide a brief outline.   The overall goal involves what I call the “Fair Society” model.   There are, in fact, three distinct normative principles that play a vitally important role in our social relationships.   They represent the “goal posts,” so to speak, for achieving a fair society.  These principles are (1) equality with respect to our basic survival needs; (2) equity with respect to “merit”; and (3) reciprocity, or giving back for the benefits we receive from others and society.  As I explain in my 2011 book on The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice, these three fairness principles – equality, equity and reciprocity -- must be bundled together and balanced in order to achieve a stable and relatively harmonious social order.  It could be likened to a three-legged-stool; all three legs are equally important.  Together they form the framework for what could be called a “biosocial contract.”

A biosocial contract must be grounded in a universal “basic needs guarantee” – a form of economic equality with a concrete but limited political agenda.  In contrast with the socialist/liberal focus on income “inequality”, the biosocial contract is focused on insuring that our 14 specific categories of basic needs (see The Fair Society) are fully provided for, by various means.  This represents a clearly defined objective with measurable indicators of success.

Our basic needs must take priority, but it is also important to recognize the many differences in merit among us and to reward (or punish) them accordingly.  It is well documented that the principle of “just deserts” also plays a fundamental role in our social relationships.  Our capitalist system at its best does a good job of providing rewards for merit, but this goal is often distorted or even subverted under the doctrine of “shareholder capitalism.”  The reformist concept of “stakeholder capitalism,” in contrast, imposes the requirement that the interests of all the stakeholders, including society as a whole, must be included in corporate behavior and governance – and in the benefits. 

In addition, there must be reciprocity – an unequivocal commitment on the part of all of us (with some obvious exceptions) to help support the collective survival enterprise.   We must all contribute a fair share toward balancing the scale of benefits and costs, for no society can long exist on a diet of pure altruism (or ever-increasing debt, for that matter).  We must reciprocate for the benefits that we receive from society through such things as our labor, the taxes we pay, and public service.  The free riders among us must be unseated.

Some highlights of the centrist reform platform include a national full-employment policy at a “living wage,” with government (or private sector contractors) as the employer of last resort (an idea that goes back to the Employment Act of 1946), along with a sharply increased minimum wage, upgraded job training programs, a vastly improved public education system, free public higher education, universal access to quality health care and mental health care (with some co-pays and adequate controls, of course), generous paid maternity and sick leave, excellent child care and pre-school programs that are available to all, sweeping infrastructure renovations and improvements, upgraded mass transit systems, beefed up retirement incomes, and more.    

None of these ideas are new, but as a package they would have a transformative result.  Among the many likely benefits, there would be increased worker productivity, lower crime rates (especially murders and other violent crimes), reduced prison populations, a sharp decline in drug addiction, lower rates of common illnesses, reduced infant mortality, increased life expectancy, increased trust in government, and a strongly positive impact on economic growth.  The reason why we can be confident about these results is because we can point to the so-called Nordic countries as models (especially Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden).  

Anu Partanen, in her bestselling and hugely insightful book about The Nordic Theory of Everything, describes in detail how a radically different approach to organizing and funding a social support system in these countries has produced a citizenry that are far less stressed, far healthier, far more independent, far more productive, and generally much happier – not to mention having innovative, dynamic capitalist economies.  The Nordic model works, and it is precisely the reason why the Centrist Reform agenda is the way forward. 


Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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