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Question of the Month
What is the Third Way?
How to negotiate a path between capitalist & socialist excesses? Each answer below receives a book. Apologies to the many entrants not included.
In political philosophy a ‘Third Way’ is usually taken to mean a position that rejects the extreme views to be found at either end of the left/right spectrum. It is commonly seen as occupying a middle ground, rejecting radicalism. Its proponents often say it offers the best of both worlds, whilst detractors see it, unsurprisingly, as the worst of both. Since 1945, the Third Way has tended to be associated with groups nominally on the left, although conservative Harold Macmillan in The Middle Way (1938) advocated a centrist politics that drew upon several ideas, such as nationalisation, that were usually the preserve of the left.
So far so conventional, but this definition relies on the political spectrum being drawn up on a single axis – right (free unfettered market) to left (state control of enterprise). It is possible to draw other axes of political distinctions, primarily authoritarian/libertarian, but also nationalistic/cosmopolitan, secular/religious, or pluralist/monist. To further complicate the matter, some parties have different attitudes between home and foreign affairs, or economic outlook and social outlook. And why should a Third Way be centrist at all?
I believe Third Way proposals should reject the (monist) idea that there is one all-embracing solution to the problems of society, and instead accept value pluralism as its guiding principle. Values are vitally important to people, but they can be contradictory and indeed incommensurable. So society often has to embrace both widescale toleration and oppositional politics in order to flourish. This does suggest that political extremes are best avoided, and that some form of inclusive liberal society is best placed to accommodate as many views as possible. Looking again at some of the pluralist theories that were unfortunately set aside in the earlier days of the socialist movement might be fruitful. The quaintly named Guild Socialism of G.D.H. Cole and others, with its radical extension of democracy into many facets of life, comes to mind, alongside Proudhonist ideas of mutualism and co-operative forms of ownership. So my Third Way would involve a radical extension of democratic control into a largely devolved society.
Steve Foulger, Leyton, London
In the last twenty five years, the ‘Third Way’ has denoted a distinct political ideology that argues in favour of the free-market, entrepreneurship, and against the nationalisation of industries, whilst still endorsing radical policies of social justice. It is commonly seen as a compromise between right-wing neoliberalism and leftist social democracy. However, it seems compromises are fated to be criticised from both sides, and the Third Way is no exception. The right-wing criticises it by claiming that governmental policies designed to create ‘social justice’ lead to excessive bureaucracy and taxes whilst stifling enterprise, causing economic stagnation. Meanwhile, the left often claims the Third Way does not direct the economy sufficiently well, leading to huge disparities of wealth and opportunity between the richest and poorest in society.
Arguably John Rawls offers the closest thing to a theoretical basis for Third Way values. In his influential book A Theory of Justice (1971), he put forward a thought-experiment, the ‘Original Position’. Imagine, he said, that a society’s values were to be decided by rational individuals behind ‘a veil of ignorance’ which would prevent them knowing anything about what their own place in that society would be, even of their own social status, gender, ethnicity, etc. Rawls thought that concern for their future wellbeing would impel them to create a society that was free-market but with a strong sense of social justice. It would therefore outwardly resemble a society modelled upon the Third Way. Social inequalities such as great wealth would be permitted if and only if they also benefited the least well off, through high taxes, or more employment. However, Rawls himself has been criticised both by those arguing that ‘social justice’ leads to unethical impositions by governments upon individuals, and by those who remark upon the potential problems of a society ultimately established upon self-interest, as opposed to shared social and ethical values. Nor has ‘Third Way’ ideology appeared overly successful in practice. Governments who endorsed it (such as the UK Labour Party under Tony Blair) largely failed to avoid economic recession after the credit crunch of 2008. Again, opinion is divided whether this is due to excessive government intervention or to endorsing overly free-market economic policies.
It seems Third Way politics are confused, prone to criticism, and have been largely ineffective. It may be better if their advocates decided to be wholly socially democratic or wholly neoliberal instead of trying to integrate such contrasting political ideologies. At least then they would be criticised from just one side of the political spectrum rather than both.
Jonathan Tipton, Preston, Lancashire
If only we could ditch the left-right-centre-populist ideological splits and focus on a Third Way based on reasonable rethinking and strong ethical, humanistic beliefs.
Let us all first agree that the free market concept cannot be done away with, as it seems to relate to very basic instincts of human nature – self-interest, competitiveness, and creativity. Destroy the free markets and the incentive that sparks human progress is killed. At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that humanity cannot do without some form of state. History proves that unregulated markets lead to vast inequalities in wealth distribution, and this in turn can fuel violent reactions.
A Third Way would recognise that the right balance ought to be maintained between markets, the state and the community. Risk should be appropriately rewarded, since the economy needs to be sustained with creativity and self-sufficiency; but not to the detriment of rewarding hard work. Salaries should be proportionate to the hours worked and responsibilities shouldered, rather than a form of status signalling. A Third Way would also address the severe limits to our present democracy. Perhaps the ship of state can only be steered well by knowledgeable elected representatives, but there should also be alternative ways for citizens to be involved, consulted, and have a say on political decisions. A Third Way would insist that the key to our wealth and happiness lies in measures to truly improve quality of life for all, such as lifelong education, fast transportation, reduction of crime, lower working hours, and time to relax in natural paradises and pursue artistic activities. Such an objective can be reached if the Third Way is based on a philosophy where every human being is treated with equal dignity and respect. Tolerance of a diversity of views should go hand in hand with J.S. Mill’s Harm Principle (people’s freedom should only be limited to prevent them doing harm to others). Human rights should be based on a strong ethical system that also addresses the future problems arising as medical progress keeps overcoming problems of sickness, ageing, mortality, and reproduction. Our future development has to be primarily guided by ecology. The environmental destruction that has been wrought on Earth is the price we have been paying for freedom and technological progress. When it comes to water, energy, food, waste, climate, protection of natural resources, habitat and biodiversity, a Third Way that rises above the present ideological divide is urgently called for.
Ian Rizzo, Zabbar, Malta
A ‘Third Way’ between rapacious capitalism and coercive communism? The answer is Enlightenment humanism. This philosophy celebrates the flourishing of individuals, recognizing that the only thing that can ultimately matter is the feelings of beings capable of feeling.
An important part of human flourishing is finding meaning. Most of us want to do that as freely as possible. This doesn’t mean disconnecting from society. Indeed, being embedded in social structures is part of how we flourish and find meaning. So we want a balance between freedom to do our own thing and the societal ties enabling us to relate to others.
Communism pretty clearly got that balance wrong. Not only was it overly coercive, it also failed to give people the material prosperity needed for real flourishing and enjoyment. A free market economy does do the latter. The past century has seen around a sixfold increase in the real incomes of average people worldwide. It wasn’t thanks to socialism. Moreover, free market economics is not some system dreamed up by ideologues. Rather, it’s the default way people deal with each other in the absence of artificial constraints. It’s normal life. Its inherent logic is win-win – any uncoerced market transaction leaves both parties better off, or else both would not agree to it. Repeated over and over, that’s how life improves. The ‘unfettered capitalism’ that’s implied in the question is a straw-man notion, contradicting other fundamental precepts of human society. Thomas Hobbes gave us the concept of the social contract – the idea (to paraphrase) that we give up our freedom of predation upon others in exchange for protection against predation by others: hence laws against theft, murder, and other harms. The same applies to businesses, likewise subject to laws or regulations restraining predatory or harmful conduct, including environmental destruction.
Again, the bottom line is to create the societal structures most conducive to human flourishing. Experience and rationality point to a society ruled by laws protecting us from harms by others – including capitalists – while otherwise leaving us as free as possible: free to pursue economic advantage, which makes society richer; and free to pursue happiness in our individual ways.
Frank S. Robinson, Albany, NY
According to Louis Kelso and Mortimer Adler in their 1958 book The Capitalist Manifesto, the fundamental point at issue between capitalism and communism is which value is to rule in society. With capitalism it’s justice (‘What is justly gained is justly held’), with communism it is charity (‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need’). In the crunch, capitalism sacrifices charity to justice, communism sacrifices justice to charity.
A mixed economy represents an effort to have the best of both worlds. But despite the ongoing efforts of Western governments, our current version of capitalism has led to what American green entrepreneur Peter Barnes calls “three pathologies: the destruction of nature, the widening of inequality, and the failure to promote happiness despite the pretence of doing so” (Capitalism 3.0: A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons, 2006). So were the communists right?
No. The form of government best suited to a free society is democracy, and capitalism is the only economic system compatible with this form of government, as Kelso and Adler show. The task is to improve capitalism so that the capital is held in ever more hands and the pillaging of nature is minimized. Barnes proposes that the next stage of capitalism can achieve this by adding a third economic sector to the existing private and public sectors. This new ‘trust sector’ makes use of the ancient concept of legal trusts to place the various ‘commons’ of the world – land, sea, air, even culture – in trusts. While the beneficiaries – the citizens – draw income from the trusts (as Alaskans now draw an annual payment of petroleum royalties from the Alaska Permanent Fund), the natural resources in them are protected by the fact that access can be gained only via the trustees, who are bound by law to act only for the long-term benefit of the trust’s beneficiaries.
If we wish to live in a society that’s free and just, it will need to be a capitalist one. The Third Way, then, will need to be the next version of capitalism, the economic system which has created the greatest surge of innovation and wealth ever known. And a wealthy society can afford charity without having to sacrifice justice.
Paul Vitols, North Vancouver, B.C.
The capitalism expounded by Adam Smith leads to unrestricted markets resulting in severe poverty as well as causing devastating changes to the ecosystem including climate change. To be fair to Smith, he believed that unrestricted markets would favour smaller businesses, since they would be more innovative and more nimble to take advantage of opportunities. He didn’t foresee the lengths to which large companies would go to stifle competition. Socialist dictatorships fare no better, as they severely dampen the incentive for people to progress through their own efforts. This results in economic disaster in which the majority of the population suffers hardship or worse, as well doing the ecosystem no favours. However there is a Third Way, outlined by Karl Popper in The Open Society and its Enemies (1945), involving piecemeal social engineering. This started in Bismarck’s Germany, with the welfare state. Ever since, taxes have been used to provide pensions, healthcare, and support for the unemployed. The level of taxation can be optimised to maximize tax revenue whilst not removing incentives. Piecemeal social engineering can continue to be used to avert ecological disaster by the application of environmental economics. The concept of environmental economics began in the 1920s and was based on the concept of externalities, coined in the Nineteenth Century by Jules Dupuit. An ‘externality’ is the result of an economic activity on a third party which is not included in the cost of that activity; for example, when industrial activity leads to air or water pollution, but the industry does not pay for this pollution. Neither purely market-orientated economic systems nor centrally planned economics have historically taken much account of externalities. However, piecemeal social engineering can take account of them by ensuring that the polluter pays either by taxation or by fines. As a result of legislation, gone are the days of smog and smoke from chimneys in the old industrial cities of Britain.
So piecemeal social engineering is the best available model for combating climate change. It can encourage innovations without authoritarianism and without unrestricted growth, which is detrimental to the environment.
Russell Berg, Manchester
Is there a Third Way? Democracy is now under the influence of consumerism. Byung-Chul Han’s concept of non-time – the notion that there are “no longer any dams that regulate, articulate or give rhythm to the flow of time” only demonstrates the incestuous relationship democracy has with capitalism: we merely move from one product to the next in a kind of limbo in which there is no real beginning or end. We channel our citizenship toward consumerism, giving tacit assent to our government to undergo a process of zoning. As Alain Badiou states, “In entire zones of the world (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, etc.) governments are destroyed, wiped out, and the area becomes a looting zone… open to capitalist predators.” He reminds us that “1% of the global population possess 46% of the available resources while 50% of the global population possess nothing.” These statistics have come to represent the paradigm for democracy.
The trouble is there seems to be no solution other than democracy. So for a Third Way, democracy must undergo an evolution in which we address both environmental and human needs. It must replace the effects of hegemony with a globalized citizenship. Jürgen Habermas writes, “politics must globalize too, in order to rein in the economy. It means expanding politics beyond the nation state”. This change will require governments and their citizens to bring a reflective attitude to supplant greed and create a system where the redistribution of wealth and stewardship for nature becomes paramount.
Only through a thoughtful dialogue with citizens can democratic states create a balanced distribution of wealth with its implications for a better world. However, to our consternation, this evolution has proven to be a long and laborious process. Bertrand Russell’s warning should be heeded: “We all have a tendency to think that the world must conform to our prejudices. The opposite view involves some effort of thought, and most people would sooner die than think – in fact they do so.”
Mark Bennett, Newmarket, ON.
The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement is an environmental movement that calls for people to abstain from reproduction to cause the gradual extinction of humanity:
The Third Way: Voluntary Human Extinction
‘To be or not to be’
We live to let the petals fall,
Of all the bitter almonds
Life’s the bitterest of all.
So let the human gently go
Into rivers deep with silvery sleep
Where the world’s dreams flow.
A gradual halt to human birth
Will reinvigorate the broken Earth.
Quality of living over quantity of life
Existential flowering with the existential knife.
Countries, creeds – all cast aside
An end to the great human divide.
Ecology over industry
Economics left to rot
Capital made us lose the plot.
Consumerism lost its shine
As did all things divine
A renaissance of flourishing yet may come
Harmony when man and world are one.
Plastic pollution: there’s a solution
Failed politics: there’s a solution
To war and greed there’s a solution –
A slow extinction revolution.
The Third Way – stop reproducing
The Third Way – ‘live long and die’
The Third Way – bid this pale blue dot
A voluntary goodbye.
Earth will once again give birth
To life that knows the planet’s worth.
Slowly concrete turns to dust,
Slowly cities start to rust,
We’ll leave Earth clean, forests green
Leave the stars to shine alone unseen.
Resource abundance, flowers, trees
An end to corporate dis-ease
Human legacy shall not be
On land, sand, sea or stone
But in the memory of a world
We briefly once called home.
Bianca Laleh, Totnes, Devon
Next Question of the Month
The next question is this: out of the famous thinkers of history, Who Is The Worst Philosopher? Please give and justify your answer in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 14th October 2019. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address. Submission is permission to reproduce your answer.