To the Left to the Right

courtesy of Dunechaser (Flickr)

Intellectually rigorous

Perhaps it’s my own paranoia, but I’ve always felt as if those on the righter side of things tend to view those on the left as lacking in intellectual rigour, as somewhat naïve and immature; perhaps even a little irrational. This is particularly evident from even a cursory look at conservative media, most markedly in American media, and amplified in the comments. As I’ve found myself hardening in my leftist attitudes the older I get, I find this personally offensive, particularly in the light of intellectual failings on the right. I also find this offensive on behalf of respected leftist thinkers such as Noam Chomsky, John Maynard Keynes and in particular, Karl Marx. I defy anyone to read Das Kapital and fault its intellectual credentials.

It strikes me that the thinking on the right is characterised by a fixation on quantifiable properties and self-preservation. Those on the right pride themselves on dealing with numbers, facts and figures, not allowing emotion to dictate decisions. They pride themselves on rationalism and a dedication to individual liberty. However, the broad positions of the right are riddled with inconsistencies.

The first is the attitude to liberty. They have taken to heart J.S. Mill‘s definition of liberty as being free to do what you want without impinging on the liberty of others, but not followed through. There seems to be an undue priority placed on negative freedom, with positive freedom paid little attention. First conceived by Isaiah Berlin, simply put, negative freedom is the freedom ‘from’ something, and positive freedom the freedom ‘to’ something.

A somewhat simplistic example is the attitude to tax that is prevalent on the conservative side. Tax is seen as a limit to freedom in that it limits the spending power of the taxpayer for the sake of someone else. This is, correctly, seen as a restriction of negative freedom. What it ignores is the other side of the coin: tax that is used to provide public services such as the NHS greatly increases positive freedom for those who can’t afford healthcare themselves. Those who evade tax are impinging on the positive freedom of others by increasing their sphere of negative liberty. They have violated the guiding principle of liberty.

The problem is that negative freedom is much more easily measurable than positive freedom, and self-preservation is more directly observable, particularly when it comes to matters of finance (the great dipstick of western society), and as such receives far more attention from those on the right, who consider themselves to be ‘rational’ and like dealing with cold, hard facts.

As a science enthusiast, I sympathise with the effort to deal only with easily definable, quantifiable properties. However, the world is not just cold and hard, it is also warm and soft; and this is particularly true of human beings.

The second major failing of right wing thinking is the reliance on markets and laissez faire. Both the free market and the non-interventionist state rely on the Enlightenment principle that every person is rational. Without being mean (but perhaps being a little elitist), this is simply not the case. To use a British summertime example: walk along Brighton beach today and you will likely see a hundred sunbathing, sunburnt bodies. Ask any good game theorist, sunbathing to the point of burning is not a rational act. Whether irrational acts make irrational people is a question for another day, but it demonstrates that at least some of the time, people are not acting rationally.

Courtesy David Hawgood


In Adam Smith‘s initial conception of the free market, he posited that each individual, in rationally seeking self-preservation, would seek that which is good for his neighbours (figuratively speaking) as what is good for mankind is good for him. Patently selfish acts by arms-dealing businessmen and tax evading Lords plainly falsify the universality of this premise. The foundations of right wing thinking are inherently flawed.

Fundamentally, the difference between the left and right is an issue of freedom. The two sides agree on the primacy of individual freedom, but differ on which is more important: positive or negative. It is my feeling that the attitude of the left is more thought through, while the right is myopic and short termist in its focus on negative freedom. The right assumes an equal footing for all – the foundation of the “if you’re not rich you haven’t worked hard enough” attitude, whilst the left strives to create an equal footing for all. Where the right often wins out is that the results of their policies are more immediately and directly observable. This doesn’t however, make them any more worthwhile.

Perhaps in a godless world the right are right. Perhaps we should just be looking out for ourselves in the short term. To me, there’s something inhumane about that.

The problem with life is…you can’t count freedom.



About Nick

I love music, vinyl, tube equipment, guitars. I love books, politics, science and philosophy. I'm cautiously in love with the internet.
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