Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The confusion between right and left

I am generally intrigued by the misuse of language in American politics. In the popular consciousness liberals stand for big government while conservatives stand for limited government. Liberals believe in civil rights and personal liberty but favor high taxes and government services. Conservatives believe in free markets but have a poor record favoring government control of personal liberties. If the word liberal is derived from liberty, why are they the 21st century statists? How did the word "conservative" become associated with liberty and small government?

The following quotes come from a very interesting speech by Roderick T. Long, called Rothbard's "Left and Right": Forty Years Later, given at the Austrian Scholars Conference in 2006.

[T]here developed in Western Europe two great political ideologies … one was liberalism, the party of hope, of radicalism, of liberty, of the Industrial Revolution, of progress, of humanity; the other was conservatism, the party of reaction, the party that longed to restore the hierarchy, statism, theocracy, serfdom, and class exploitation of the Old Order…. Political ideologies were polarized, with liberalism on the extreme "left," and conservatism on the extreme "right," of the ideological spectrum.
Herbert Spencer:
How is it that Liberalism, getting more and more into power, has grown more and more coercive in its legislation? For what, in the popular apprehension and in the apprehension of those who effected them, were the changes made by Liberals in the past? They were abolitions of grievances suffered by the people…. [T]his was the common trait they had which most impressed itself on men's minds…. [T]he welfare of the many came to be conceived ... as the aim of Liberalism. Hence the confusion. The gaining of a popular good, being the external conspicuous trait common to Liberal measures in earlier days (then in each case gained by a relaxation of restraints), it has happened that popular good has come to be sought by Liberals, not as an end to be indirectly gained by relaxations of restraints, but as the end to be directly gained. And seeking to gain it directly, they have used methods intrinsically opposed to those originally used.
In short, Spencer's analysis is that liberals came to conceptualize liberalism in terms of its easily identifiable effects (benefits for the masses) rather than in terms of its essential nature (laissez-faire), and so began to think that any measure aimed at the end of benefits for the masses must count as liberal, whether pursued by the traditional liberal means of laissez-faire or by its opposite, the traditional Tory means of governmental compulsion. In short, liberalism became the pursuit of liberal ends by Tory means.
Libertarians of the present day are accustomed to think of socialism as the polar opposite of the libertarian creed. But this is a grave mistake, responsible for a severe ideological disorientation of libertarians in the present world. As we have seen, conservatism was the polar opposite of liberty; and socialism, while to the "left" of conservatism, was essentially a confused, middle-of-the-road movement. It was, and still is, middle-of-the-road because it tries to achieve liberal ends by the use of conservative means…. Socialism, like liberalism and against conservatism, accepted the industrial system and the liberal goals of freedom, reason, mobility, progress, higher living standards for the masses, and an end to theocracy and war; but it tried to achieve these ends by the use of incompatible, conservative means: statism, central planning, communitarianism, etc.

Originally liberalism was a movement whose goal was the promote the common good. The means of achieving the common good was through liberty, not through state control. Over time liberalism came to mean achieving the common good through state control. This is a confusion of means and ends, of indirect and direct, and ultimately of freedom and tyranny.


  1. I think the misunderstanding is this:

    Statism vs. libertarianism are economic concepts of societal organization. As such they are objective and scientific.

    But left vs. right ideology emerges in the human mind and guides one's political actions and decisions. Whether one leans toward one or the other is mostly rooted in individual emotions. Thus it needs to be analyzed as such.

    Looking at it from that angle, it appears as though left and right can be characterized as follows:

    Extreme left ideas are rooted in the feeling of pity for weakness. As a corollary that means pity for the poor, pity for minorities, pity for the elderly and the disabled, etc. This naturally means that left ideas oppose power and strength in general.

    Extreme right ideas are rooted in admiration of strength. As a corollary this means admiration of military and the glorious nation state. It naturally comes with a general despise and/or outright hatred of weakness.

    Left and right ideas of moderate type can be placed anywhere inbetween those two extremes.

    Now, whether one supports state control of the economy depends on ones premises. If the overall mood is such that the economy should be regulated to curb the actions of the powerful successful industrial tycoons, for the supposed benefit of the weak and poor workers, then a leftist ideology is rather likely to support such policies, while a right wing one would lean toward rejecting it. (It is certainly fair to compare the current mood with this scenario.)

    If, however, the mood is such that the currently powerful and rich have attained their status by state means, and that free markets enable poor people to rise to the ranks of wealthy ones, then a leftist ideology may actually favor less government involvement. (This scenario can be more or less compared to the mindset that generally prevailed during the Age of Enlightenment.)

    My point being, left and right ideologies first and foremost emerge out of emotional considerations. How they stand on specific matters of public policy largely depends on the overall conditions and mood that prevails in public opinion.

  2. I just commented on your blog and then realized that you had commented here. I think we are both getting close to defining the root causes of the two ideologies but we still haven't hit it quite yet. I absolutely agree with your basic conclusion though, that the ideologies are not formed based on a rational assessment of what kind of creature man is, but rather from emotional considerations.

    "Extreme left ideas are rooted in the feeling of pity for weakness. As a corollary that means pity for the poor, pity for minorities, pity for the elderly and the disabled, etc. This naturally means that left ideas oppose power and strength in general."

    I'm not sure what you mean by that last sentence. Progressives in the early 20th century and nowadays gladly use centralized state power to redistribute wealth and trample over any opponent in their way. The one consistent thing in their ideology is, as you said, the pity (or guilt?) for the financially and physically weaker classes of society. That emotion can be traced through their actions since the Enlightenment.

  3. "Progressives in the early 20th century nowadays gladly use centralized state power to redistribute wealth and trample over any opponent in their way." << Yes absolutely, but not because they admire strength and power per se, but ultimately because they felt pity for those who would be the recipients of the redistribution and because they (falsely) thought that state power would be the most appropriate means to help them.

  4. I see what you mean. It's basically a rationalization. "True, power is bad but it's ok when we have it because we are anti-power." Hmm...

  5. Exactly. When I point out the roots of left vs. right I am thinking of the ULTIMATE motivations of action, not the intermediate ones.