Friday, 18 July 2014

On Left & Right Politics

I was interested to hear a man giving feedback on my Philosophical Muser Blog recently - he said "It’s probably fair to comment that I find myself a good degree further to the left than you". This is interesting because, although this Blog expresses strong libertarian sentiments, in actual fact, when it comes to issues on which one can lean to the left or the right, there are as many of them on which I lean to the left as there are the right.

Before I tell you about me, let me first talk about the rest of the UK. As far as the UK goes, the political landscape is roughly this: the average UK citizen is ideologically to the left of the average politician in some areas, and to the right on others. Most UK citizens are more to the right than the establishment on things like immigration, welfare, foreign aid, green and global climate issues, capital punishment and homosexual unions (albeit only very slightly on the last one). But most UK citizens are more to the left than the establishment on things like free market economics and State-run schools, hospitals, banks, and so forth. By ‘average citizen’ I mean if you picked a person out at random he or she has a higher probability of being to the left of the establishment on, say, free enterprise and the merits of privatisation, and to the right of the establishment on, say, green issues and the benefits of immigration, than the other way round.

My position is this. I'm to the left on all the things on which I think it's good to be on the left - immigration, foreign aid, homosexuality, assisted suicide, home office issues, and challenges to orthodoxy - as well a being a champion of free speech and equality of opportunity. And I'm on the right on all the things on which I think it's good to be on the right - namely economic issues to do with individual libertarianism and the free market, and green and global climate issues – as well as wishing for a tough attitude towards deporting or incarcerating hate preachers and religious extremists who don’t respect British values. For the record, I tend to bathe in the milk of centrality when it comes to health and education - teetering somewhere between championing increased market forces, and comfortably accepting the merits of retaining central funding until things can more easily change.

If we leave aside the green and global climate issues, which involve a lot more commentary that we needn't go into right now (but will at a later date), you'll see that the winning left battles outnumber the winning right battles - both in the views I hold, and also in what the average citizen holds - even to the point that in many of those cases (in particular, immigration, foreign aid, same-sex marriage, abortion, and assisted suicide) it can be positively unfashionable and reputation-hindering to take a right-wing position nowadays, despite people's overall preferences to which I just alluded. Let me separate into groups the issues on which I'm on the left and the right, and in brackets I'll put where the average citizen disagrees with me.

Immigration (disagrees)
Same-sex marriage
Foreign aid (disagrees)
Assisted dying
Home office issues

Individual libertarianism (disagrees)
The free market (disagrees)
Green and global climate issues

(State run health and schools deliberately omitted)

Note what's going on here. The left issues on which the average citizen and I agree are issues that do not have quite so much electoral importance, so they are not big on politicians' agendas. For example, it's rare to find anyone who doesn't like the idea of a State-run home office. And while they crop up sometimes, issues surrounding same-sex marriage and assisted suicide are pretty unanimously supported once religious extremism is out of the picture, to the extent that there will be pretty trenchant criticism levelled against those who do not support both. Given that the average citizen is quite far to the right on immigration and foreign aid (hence their disagreement with me) politicians feel compelled to pander to this by trying to appear tough on immigration and giving far too little of our money to foreigners who need it far more desperately than we do.

On right issues, while most UK citizens are more to the right than the establishment on green and global climate issues, it's not by as much as you might expect – which means that politicians have to act a bit more green-conscious than they actually are (there are three other advantages to this. Firstly, being green-conscious gives the impression of being a caring, mother-nature loving-type party, and it stays slightly more electable in the teeth of Green party opposition. Secondly, it gives them licence to get more money out of the electorate through green taxes. And lastly, by appearing green-conscious they guard against losing more votes to the Green party).

As I said, the most fashionable positions have been adopted by mainstream politicians - they are fervently left-leaning on same-sex marriage, abortion, euthanasia, and state run health and schools, and home office issues, whilst being demagogic on issues like welfare, immigration and green and global climate issues. Foreign aid is a bit different, because to be genuinely left wing on helping the needy involves passionately standing up for the people who actually are the neediest in the world, which are people in the developing world, not in the UK. Whereas when it comes to helping the needy, most people's continual primary preoccupations are centred on people in this country, which although not ignoble, exposes them as being not genuine economic left wingers, but purveyors of ethnocentric demagoguery.

Economics is different
What we see, then, with the above are many issues that play bit-part roles in the long-running political drama that endures from election to election. The big exception, and the one not yet covered, is economics, in the shape of individual libertarianism and the free market. It is economics that forms the main basis of the divide in politics, and it is usually the state of the economy that has the biggest bearing on the general election. If economics is the central plot in our political dramas, it is understandable why when it comes to choosing sides there is still such a polarity, despite the economic war being won by the right long ago. It is also understandable why, despite my being left wing on most individual component issues, the commentator on my Blog mistook me for being a generalised right-winger.

My big issue with the economic left is roughly as follows - it is the misrepresentation that needs correcting. It is amusing to see how often leftists insist that capitalism causes huge inequality, poverty and ecological destruction (they are the three big supposed indictments against capitalism). It's amusing not because it's a touch-and-go issue that swings both ways, but because it is the complete opposite of the truth. What causes inequality, poverty and ecological destruction in terms of the economic argument are situations that produce impediments to free market trading, namely governments running dictatorships or meddling in areas that they just don't understand. Governments meddling in the supply and demand system of free trade are like alchemists trying to meddle in a chemistry lab - they so often don't understand the business in which they are interfering, and they have only erroneous assumptions to bring to the table.

The actual situation is that as long as the fundamental anti-monopoly regulations are imposed on an otherwise pretty much laissez-faire free market you are all but guaranteed (through price theory) to facilitate the most rational, incentive-driven allocation of resources possible, as well as minimising global inequality, lifting masses of people out of poverty, and maximising the successful co-existence of humankind and the natural world.

With other issues, if you depart from known facts and produce counterfactual rhetoric that distorts the truth and ignores logic you end up (rightly) looking like a pillock and being the recipient of deserved ridicule. Despite the right winning the arguments long ago, it is not only seemingly still credible in some quarters to be on the left, it is often positively admired and encouraged. Many leftists have absorbed an anti-capitalist sentimentalism whereby the free market is seen to be a bogey in the face of fair redistribution of wealth and attainment of opportunity.

As we’ve seen in areas like immigration, same-sex marriage, foreign aid and euthanasia, the left has much merit, and has won many battles. But economics isn't one of them. Yet despite this, the present day culture has many people arguing from the left in ways that beggar belief. I'm a free market, right-leaning libertarian on economics, but it would seem from the opposition one sees that out of all the individual considerations one's economic ethos is the biggest definer of one's perception of others. It's curious that if you're right wing on issues like immigration, foreign aid, homosexuality and euthanasia you're often seen as illiberal, uncaring and prejudiced, and certainly in the minority in the UK. Yet those who champion libertarian principles pretty much feel that way about those on economic left but somehow they've got away with it being more fashionable. 

If the left has clearly lost the economic battle, what else is behind their mistaken ideology? I have an idea - their mistake in erroneously defending leftist economics is that so many of the other left and right issues have been (rightly in my view) won by the left so they assume the same must be true of the economics. In other words, because the left has won the battle in immigration, foreign aid, homosexuality, euthanasia, and (by mutual consensus more that watertight economics) entitlement to State-funded welfare, banking security, a health service, education, social services, subsidised travel, road maintenance, an old age pension, legal justice, a police force and the armed services, it gives some people the false impression that it has won all the battles, including those of economics and green issues. In fact, I'd wager that a lot of people don't even know to draw a distinction between the many different ways of leaning to the left or the right - I'll bet if you asked most people about their left/right leanings they would assume that if you're left wing on the first issue that springs to mind then you must be left wing on all issues.

It's important to see that I'm not unmindful or unappreciative of the kind of socialist mentality the left is endorsing - in fact, in terms of ethical values there is much to endorse. But despite those ethical values, the big problem that undermines the economic left is that in a great many parts it contradicts facts. The challenge therefore, is to find a way to incorporate the qualities of a kind of socialist-individualist-libertarian triumvirate at the personal level with the qualities of the free market and its concomitant mechanism for price theory to efficiently balance supply and demand.

* Photo courtesy of