No question about it: We the People of the United States are now sharply
divided into two hostile political factions, variously labeled as “liberal
vs. conservative,” “left vs. right,” and (my preferred designation),
“progressive vs. regressive.” Let a stranger utter just a couple of
sentences of political opinion, and you will usually have a pretty good idea
with which faction he identifies himself.
(There is a third part of our population, perhaps the largest:
a-political. When asked the question, “what do you think of the
political ignorance and apathy of the American public,” they will likely
reply “I don’t know and I don’t care.”)
The ongoing political debate in our country exemplifies one of the most
remarkable paradoxes of language: namely, that while we routinely use
abstract words without difficulty and are well understood when we do – such
abstract words as “love,” “beauty,” “justice,” “freedom” – we find it very
difficult to define them, when challenged to do so.
This paradox is well known to philosophers. For example, Plato wrote at
length about all the above concepts, and often came to no firm conclusion.
In fact his best known work, “The Republic,” is a book-length attempt to
In this essay, I will attempt the difficult task of defining “The Right” and
“The Left” (and its synonyms) – concepts which are employed in public
discourse with little apparent difficulty. In this brief space, I can only
offer a grossly over-simplified analysis and some unqualified
generalizations – a first approximation. For when we scrupulously examine
the polar political concepts of “Right” and “Left” as they are used today,
we encounter a great deal of vagueness, ambiguity, and even contradiction.
Thus, after I have set down my ten brief and simplified distinguishing
elements of “liberalism” and (so-called) “conservatism,” it is necessary
that I offer five qualifications.
That task that I’ve begun here can not be accomplished in the space of a
brief essay. It requires a book – and in fact that book is in progress.
Subsequent essays in this space will be drawn from that book,
of a Progressive, as work progresses.
One final note, before we proceed: In this analysis, I will use the
contrasting terms, “Right vs. Left” and “progressive vs. regressive.”
However, I will avoid the terms “conservative” and “liberal.” As I have
argued elsewhere (here and
here), the word “conservative,” in its
traditional sense, simply does not correctly apply to the contemporary
policies of The Right. As for “liberal,” that word has been so abused by
decades of assault from the right, that it no longer serves to communicate
its original meaning.
I propose the following ten pairs of distinguishing
characteristics of “The Right” and “The Left.”
1. Is society a collection of private individuals or is it a community?
The Right: Society is an aggregate of
self-interested individuals. Associations within the society are personal
and voluntary. Social progress issues from private, self-interested
behavior. Strictly speaking: “there is no such thing as society – there
are individuals and there are families.” (Margaret Thatcher). “Good for
each, good for all; bad for each, bad for all.”
The Left: Society is a community: “a cooperative venture for mutual
advantage [which] makes possible a better life for all than any would have
if each were to live solely by his own efforts.” (John Rawls, A Theory
of Justice, p. 4) Common goods are achieved through individual
constraint and sacrifice. “Good for
Each, Bad for all; Bad for each, good for all.”
2. Cui Bono? Who are the beneficiaries of the policies?
The Right: A “Master Morality” (the term is from
Nietzsche). Policies and rules are designed to benefit the wealthy and
powerful few who own and control national wealth at the expense of the
masses who produce the wealth. For example,: George W. Bush’s 2006 Budget
Proposal and his tax “reforms.”
The Left: A Social-Democratic Morality. Policies and rules are
designed to result in the greatest good for the greatest number in a
regime of “equal justice under law.” Examples: FDR’s “New Deal” and LBJ’s
3. What is the function of government?
The function of government is to protect
the fundamental rights of life, liberty and property – nothing more.
“Government is not the Solution.” (Ronald Reagan, 1981). “Government is
the most dangerous institution known to man.” (John Hospers). “Who is best
qualified to spend your money? You, or the government?” (George W. Bush).
The Left: Government “of, by, and for the people” is a legitimate
surrogate of the people’s interests and a protector of the people’s
rights. “To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men,
deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
(Declaration of Independence, 1776). Citizens must constantly be on guard
against abuses of office. However, the answer to bad government is better
government, not the abolition of government.
4. What are the justifications for taxation?
The Right (i.e., the Libertarian faction): Taxes
for any purpose other than the protection of individual rights to life,
liberty and property, are a theft of personal property. (But for the
religious right, tax revenue may also expended to compel private
The Left: Taxes are legitimate dues that we pay for civilized
society. (Oliver Wendell. Holmes). Taxes can be legitimately levied to
support such community goods as education, the arts, national parks, basic
research, and physical infrastructure. In general, to “establish Justice,
insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the
general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our
Posterity.” (Preamble, Constitution of the United States).
5. What is the function of free markets in society?
The Right: Social problems can best be solved through the
unconstrained action of free markets. Private initiative and privatization
of property produces results superior to government action. (Maslow’s
Rule: To a carpenter, all problems can be solved with a hammer. Corollary:
To the right, all problems can be solved by the free market).
The Left: Privatization and free markets, while valuable
ingredients of society, must not be absolutes. They must be regulated for
the common good by agencies of popular government. Unregulated free
markets are self-eliminating, for their natural tendency is toward
monopolies and the end of competition. Thus the necessity of anti-trust
6. Is wealth generated in society from the top down (“trickle down”) or
from the bottom-up (“percolate up”)?
“Trickle-down.” Prosperity results from
investment by the wealthy. “The rising tide lifts all boats.” “I never was
given a job by a poor man.” (Sen. Phil Gramm).
The Left: Wealth “percolates up” from the labor and innovation of an educated work-force.
7. What is the role of language in society and politics?
The Right: Language is a political weapon, to be
“shaped” to the advantage of the ruling elites. "Newspeak" in George
Orwell's 1984 shows the way. (See
"Newspeak Lives!" and
"The Language Trap.")
The Left: Language is the primary (“keystone”) social institution.
The distortion of language leads to social disorder, public alienation
from politics, and economic inefficiency. In other words, the left takes
an authentically “conservative” view of language.
8. How are human conduct and society morally evaluated?
The Right: Simple, dualistic view of human nature,
morality, society and social problems. (“You are either with us or against
us.” G. W. Bush).
The Left: Complex view of human nature, morality, society and
social problems. Rules and principles often conflict and must be “bent” to
accommodate circumstances. (The Religious Right derides this as “situation
ethics” and “moral relativism”).
9. Political methodology.
The Right: Dogmatic approach to policy. “Top down:”
unyielding principles applied to particular circumstances. “Unconfused by
The Left: Pragmatic and empirical. “Reality based:” i.e., willing
to be “instructed” by the real world. Principles adapted in the face of
newly discovered facts and newly invented technology. Policies tried, and
if they fail, are revised or even abandoned.
10. Moral perspective:
Egocentric point of view. Society viewed
and evaluated through “the mind’s I.” The interests of the individual are
The Left: Moral Point of View. Society viewed and evaluated from
the perspective of the “ideal observer” of the society as a whole, without
advantage accorded any individual unless that advantage works to the
benefit of all. (Equal opportunity, blind justice).
From these elements arise the contrasting policies of The Right and The
Left, regarding such issues as the minimum wage, Social Security, worker
protection, legal liability (torts), and environmental protection.
1. Political opinion is in fact distributed along a continuum – a “spectrum”
– thus between the extreme Right and Left are the “centrists” and
“moderates.” Because the above list suggests a polar dichotomy of political
opinion, it is a distortion.
2. Accordingly, these elements are not “defining characteristics,” rather
they are “symptoms.” (“Defining characteristics” are attributes that
something must have for a word to correctly apply to it. For example,
“unmarried,” “adult” and “male” are defining characteristics of the word
“bachelor.”) Because these “elements” are not defining, a “progressive” or a
“regressive” individual may exhibit many but not all of the traits
attributed above to The Right and The Left. To cite a medical analogy, these
traits are like “symptoms” that comprise a “syndrome.” Not all symptoms need
be present to confirm a diagnosis.
3. To further complicate matters, there are strong disagreements among the
factions that comprise “The Right” and “The Left” – within each “family,” so
to speak. For example, the libertarian right opposes all legal restrictions
on personal conduct (e.g., drug laws, sodomy laws, obscenity restrictions,
banning abortion, etc.). The religious right, on the other hand, advocates
the criminalization of “sin”.
4. These traits are not necessarily exclusive. A political position might
“mix” both “right” and “left” traits, and do so consistently. Surely The
Right affirms, for example, that workers produce wealth (“percolate up”),
and The Left acknowledges the necessity of private investment in a thriving
economy (“trickle-down”). (Only the radical left, e.g., the communists,
would deny the necessity of private investment). The distinction is in the
relative importance The Right and The Left assign, respectively, to private
investment and to labor.
5. Finally, because this list has been drawn from a progressive point of
view, regressives would surely object to several of “The Right” elements,
listed above. Most notably, they would strongly object to the
characterization of “The Right” as a “master morality.” Most regressives
sincerely believe, or at the very least emphatically affirm in their public
pronouncements, that their policies (notably “trickle down” and minimalist
government) bring about “the greater good for the greatest number” of
citizens. I will argue that this assertion is a delusion at best, and a
fraud at worst. Examine each policy of The Right and ask, “Cui Bono?”
– who benefits? – and the answer will almost invariably be “the
privileged few.” An apparent exception would be The Right’s support
for the agenda of the religious right – opposition to gay rights,
advocacy of obscenity laws, the banning of abortion, etc. – but even
these policies are also devised to benefit the oligarchy of wealth
and privilege, for they are adopted to secure the enlistment of the
essential “foot soldiers” of the Right, the evangelical Christians,
whose votes are an essential ingredient of the political power of
The list is offered to progressives as an inventory of “targets” – of
doctrines of the Right to be criticized, and of The Left to be defended. But
to be of much use, these elements must be elaborated and examined – which is
why I am writing my book.
As you read this list of “elements” and the qualifications which follow, you
may think of some refinements and additions. By all means, share them with
me with an e-mail to this address:
This is, after all, a work in progress.