Monday, April 25, 2005

The Left/Right Divide

There's an interesting discussion over at NZ Political Comments on the essential difference between left- and right-wing politics -- and whether it's even a meaningful distinction. I'm sympathetic to the 2-dimensional "Political Compass" analysis which takes left-right as a purely economic axis, paired with a social libertarian/authoritarian axis. But while that may be the best classificatory system, it doesn't really describe the rival ideologies at all.

The usual story goes that the Left values equality whereas the Right values freedom. But that doesn't quite ring true for me. I consider myself left-wing, but what little concern I have for equality is purely instrumental. And conservatives don't seem at all averse to restricting others' freedom. So here's the comment I left at NZPC:
I see the left-right division in terms of differing conceptions of freedom. Those on the right have a thin or 'formal' conception of freedom as the absence of external constraints. Hence the lower taxes. Those of us on the Left, by contrast, value something rather more substantive: the ability to achieve one's goals in life. "Freedom as capability", you might say. Hence the higher taxes, to pay for public goods and welfare that supports people in pursuing their conception of the good life, whatever it may be.

Do you think that captures the core ideological difference between the two camps?


  1. Thats an enlightened approach Richard!
    One feels however that whatever anyone claims as the essential left or right, others will persist in claiming their own version to suit their arguement of the moment. The right painting the left in such a way it can be attacked and vice versa.
    The core division of left and right seems more to be defined by each person at a time when a topic/concern has switched their emotional allegiance .. a lesser intellectual allegiance only following after.

  2. Interestingly I consider myself a centrist (and come out as such in the surveys.. authoritarian centrist) but (possibly like you) see any sort of freedom as merely instrumental in utilitarianism.
    The thing is that in achieving utilitarian principles I think that capitalism and many of the right's policies are pretty effective, while many of the so called left's policies may be inferior.
    Does that mean the axis are wrong Im confused about my own position or that the bulk of society is confused?

    anyway besides my own confusion of where I sit, your analysis is quite a good one.. better than the alternative you noted.

  3. Quote ..'Does that mean the axis are wrong" An answer .. they are just a definition that is acceptable to many. When I tried the 'test' I kept thinking .. " yes, but not if you mean this in such and such a way, or-- no, but under certain conditions," or etc..
    I came out as being to the 'left', but that was because there was no place for me to answer otherwise.
    That's the general problem for me with left/right thinking.
    It tends to lead to no other possibilities being in peoples minds.
    I personally think it is possible to have the best of both worlds. The 'rightest' freedom, enterprise and reward, and the 'leftist' fair play.
    But how would you ever bring a completely new approach into play when everyone assumes there can only be (ruthless) capitalist individualism or a state controlled and tamed version of the same?

  4. David! join me in a new political party of sensibleness!


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