Thursday, December 2, 2010

An Ideological Primer (Pt. I)

From time to time one hears people refer to the political left and the political right. Sometimes these terms are confusing for readers not familiar with them, especially since they can mean different things in different contexts. Perhaps it would be helpful to offer a brief explanation of what is usually meant by them in our political discourse.

The most common political use of left and right is a reference to differing views of how much economic freedom individuals should be allowed to have in the state. Generally, the right tends to value free markets, property rights, and a concomitant small government with minimal interference in, and regulation of, the marketplace. The left, on the other hand, prefers an expansive, activist government, regulated markets, and reduced property rights. Another way to put this is that the right is generally more protective of individual freedom and the left is more concerned with using government to enhance the collective good of society.

These positions reside along a spectrum of opinion that ranges from no government control (true anarchism) on the right to complete government control (totalitarianism) on the left. The further to the left one goes the less individual freedom one finds. The further to the right one travels the more freedom the individual enjoys.

The ideological spectrum might look like this:

                             The Left                                                The Right

          Totalitarianism          Socialism          Liberalism           Conservatism         Libertarianism        Anarchism
(Communism &  Fascism)

Some will object to placing fascism on the left because it's usually considered an ideology of the right, but this is, in my opinion, an error. Fascism is a totalitarian system and as such entails massive government control and limited individual freedom. It's a form of socialism, which is why the Nazis, who were fascists, called their party the National Socialist Party.

Anarchists are often considered leftists, but this, too, is a partial error. Genuine anarchists want to do away with government altogether. This aspiration is not compatible with leftist ideology. One reason for the confusion, perhaps, is that many on the totalitarian left use anarchy as a means of achieving their goal of eliminating individual freedom. Indeed, totalitarians often masquerades as the party of freedom while they're competing for power, but once they acquire it freedom is always the first thing to disappear.

Another confusion stems from the fact that what is called conservative today - the emphasis on personal liberty - was called liberal in the 19th century. Thus classical liberalism is pretty much contiguous with modern conservatism. Today's Democrat party which is mostly comprised of liberals and socialists would have been considered very radical in the 19th century.

Of course, this applies mostly to economic ideology. If we wish to explain the difference between left and right on social issues like immigration, abortion, gay marriage, and gun control the picture becomes somewhat less clear. We'll try to explain those differences tomorrow.