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Political “Left” and “Right” Properly Defined

I’m often asked versions of the following: Given that the political right is so corrupted by conservatives who seek to limit liberty in countless ways, wouldn’t it be better to abandon the language of “left” vs. “right” and adopt new terminology?

My answer is that, because the terms “left” and “right” are already widely used to denote the basic political alternative, and because that alternative is in fact binary, the best approach for advocates of freedom is not to reject the prevalent terminology but to clarify it—by defining the relevant terms.

The problem with conventional approaches to the left-right political spectrum is that they either fail to define the alternatives in question, or proceed to define them in terms of non-essentials.

One common approach, for instance, fails to specify the precise nature of either side, yet proceeds to place communism, socialism, and modern “liberalism” on (or toward) the left—and fascism, conservatism, and capitalism on (or toward) the right.

This makes no sense, at least in terms of the right. Capitalism—the social system of individual rights, property rights, and personal liberty—has nothing in common with conservatism or fascism. Take them in turn.

Conservatism is not for individual rights or personal liberty; rather, it is for religious values (euphemistically called “traditional values” or “family values”) and a government that enforces them. Although conservatism calls for some economic liberties, it simultaneously demands various violations of individual rights in order to support certain aspects of the welfare state (e.g., Social Security and government-run schools), in order to shackle or control “greedy” businessmen (e.g., Sarbanes-Oxley and anti-immigration laws), and in order to forbid certain “immoral” acts or relationships (e.g., drug use and gay marriage). Thus, conservatism is utterly at odds with capitalism.

And fascism, far from having anything in common with capitalism, is essentially the same atrocity as communism and socialism—the only difference being that whereas communism and socialism openly call for state ownership of all property, fascism holds that some property may be “private”—so long as government can dictate how such property may be used. Sure, you own the factory, but here’s what you may and may not produce in it; here’s the minimum wage you must pay employees; here’s the kind of accounting system you must use; here are the specifications your machinery must meet; and so on. (Thomas Sowell makes some good observations about the nature of fascism.)

Another ill-conceived approach to the left-right political spectrum is the attempt by some to define the political alternatives by reference to the size or percentage of government. In this view, the far left consists of full-sized or 100 percent government; the far right consists of zero government or anarchy; and the middle area subsumes the various other possible sizes of government, from “big” to “medium” to “small” to “minimal.” But this too is hopeless.

The size of government is not the essential issue in politics. A large military may be necessary to defend citizens from foreign aggressors, especially if there are many potential aggressors—say, multiple communist or Islamist regimes—who might combine forces against a free country. Likewise, a large court system might be necessary to deal with the countless contracts involved in a large free market and with the various disputes that can arise therein.

A small government, by contrast, can violate rights in myriad ways—if its proper purpose is not established and maintained. Observe that governments in the antebellum South were relatively small, yet their laws permitted and enforced the enslavement of men, women, and children. Likewise, the U.S. government was quite small during the 1890s—even though the Sherman Antitrust Act had passed and was violating businessmen’s rights to liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.

The essential issue in politics is not the size but the function of government; it’s not whether government is big or small but whether it protects or violates rights. (Ari Armstrong addresses this issue with excerpts from Ludwig von Mises.)

The proper purpose of government is to protect individual rights by banning the use of physical force from social relationships and by using force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. A properly conceived political spectrum must reflect this fact. Whatever terms are used to identify the positions of political ideologies or systems must be defined with regard to the fundamental political alternative: force vs. freedom—or, more specifically, rights-protecting vs. rights-violating institutions.

Because the term “left” is already widely used to denote social systems and ideologies of force (e.g., socialism, communism, “progressivism”), and the term “right” is substantially used to denote social systems and ideologies of freedom (e.g., capitalism, classical liberalism, constitutional republicanism), the best approach for advocates of freedom is not to develop new terminology for the political spectrum, but to define the existing terminology with respect to political essentials—and to claim the extreme right end of the spectrum as rightfully and exclusively ours.

A notable advantage of embracing the political right as our own is that the term “right” happens to integrate seamlessly with the philosophical and conceptual hierarchy that supports freedom. This is a historic accident, but a welcome one. Although “left” and “right” originally referred to seating arrangements of 18th-century legislators in France—arrangements unrelated to anything in contemporary American politics—the term “right” conceptually relates to fundamental moral truths on which freedom depends.

Capitalism—the social system of the political right—is the system of individual rights. It is the system that respects and protects individual rights—by banning physical force from social relationships—and thus enables people to live their lives, to act on their judgment, to keep and use their property, and to pursue personal happiness. This observation grounds the political right in the proper goal of politics: the protection of rights.

Related, and still more fundamental, capitalism is morally right. By protecting individual rights, capitalism legalizes rational egoism: It enables people to act on the truth that each individual is morally an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others, and that each individual should act to sustain and further his own life and happiness by means of his own rational judgment. This observation deepens the significance of the term “right” and anchors it in the only code of morality that is demonstrably true.

In short, seen in this light, the right morality gives rise to the principle of individual rights, which gives rise to the need of a political system that protects rights, which system is properly placed on the political right—in opposition to all systems that in any way violate rights.

Observe the clarity gained by this conception of the political spectrum. The far left comprises the pure forms of all the rights-violating social systems: communism, socialism, fascism, Islamism, theocracy, democracy (i.e., rule by the majority), and anarchism (i.e., rule by gangs). The far right comprises the pure forms of rights-respecting social systems: laissez-faire capitalism, classical liberalism, constitutional republicanism—all of which require essentially the same thing: a government that protects and does not violate rights. The middle area consists of all the compromised, mixed, mongrel systems advocated by modern “liberals,” conservatives, unprincipled Tea Partiers (as opposed to the good ones), and all those who want government to protect some rights while violating other rights—whether by forcing people to fund other people’s health care, education, retirement, or the like—or by forcing people to comply with religious or traditional mores regarding sex, marriage, drugs, or what have you.

Importantly, on this essentialized conception of the political spectrum, the right does not entail degrees; only the left does. This is because degrees of force are degrees of force; violations of rights are violations of rights. Freedom and rights are absolutes: Either people are free to act on their judgment, to keep and use their property, to pursue their happiness—or they are not free; they are to some extent coerced. Either government protects and does not violate rights—or it violates rights to some extent.

If people are not fully free to run their businesses and voluntarily contract with others as they see fit, to engage in voluntary adult romantic relationships, to engage in their own preferred recreational activities, to purchase or forgo health insurance as they deem best, and so forth, then they are not free; they are victims of coercion.

We who advocate freedom—whether we call ourselves Objectivists or laissez-faire capitalists or classical liberals or Tea Partiers or whatever—should claim the political right as our own. And we should let conservatives who advocate any kind or degree of rights violations know that their proper place on the political spectrum is somewhere in the mushy, unprincipled middle with their modern “liberal” brethren. Perhaps such notice and company will cause them to think about what’s right.

The political right properly belongs to those who uphold the principle of rights—not merely in theory, but also in practice.

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Craig Biddle

Craig Biddle is the editor of The Objective Standard and the author of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It, a highly concretized, systematic introduction to Ayn Rand’s ethics. His forthcoming book, Thinking in Principles: The Science of Selfishness, is about how most effectively to use one’s mind in the service of one’s life, liberty, and happiness. In addition to writing, he lectures and teaches seminars on ethical and epistemological issues from an Objectivist perspective. Mr. Biddle has lectured and taught seminars at universities across the country, including Stanford, Duke, Tufts, UVA, UCLA, and NYU. His website is www.CraigBiddle.com.


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  • PigManFan

    Anarchists typically presume three fallacies: 1) a “free market” in force can exist, 2) objectively true moral laws cannot exist, and 3) a government must tax. A market cannot be made free from initiatory force if there are multiple competing equal police forces each with different laws. And if an objectively true moral law were recognized to exist, then the enforcement of a competing contradictory law would be evil by definition. Finally, a rights-respecting government would be easily supported by voluntary contributions amounting to a tiny fraction of the current government’s budget.