by Sydney Williams
It is in how best to achieve the common goal of lifting the security and well being of all Americans in the most equitable way possible, while preserving the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and embedded in our Constitution, which differentiates the Left from the Right. At their essence, those differences are elemental and clear. The Left wants to use government to give things to people; the Right wants to use government to make it easier for people to fend for themselves. The old Chinese adage about a man and a fish applies.
While you wouldn’t know it from the media and despite the polarization in Washington, the political spectrum in America is less of a barbell and more of a bell curve – a continuum; though we all know that those lumped at opposite ends have recently taken on additional weight.
Nevertheless, to argue that only one party is interested in the poor and that the other is only interested in tax cuts for the rich detracts from the fundamental differences between the Left and the Right. Mainstream media, which are largely leftist in their opinions, help perpetuate Democrats’ propaganda that it is the ends not the means that separates the two political parties. If one’s news is limited to sound-bites and political ads, one will find themselves ignorantly drowned in a miasma of disinformation.
The terms “liberal” and “conservative” are misleading; other than to note that the Left tends to be “liberal” with other people’s money, while the Right tends to be “conservative” about values and rules of behavior. But the Right is liberal in the sense they are activists – they want to see individuals become more involved in their own affairs – less dependent on government, if you will; while the Left is conservative in that they would subsume the rights of the individual to the demands of the State and, in the case of public employees, to the dictates of the unions that represent them. Leftists are the one’s holding the hashtag, “Je suis Charlie,” while the Rightists are the ones permitting Ayaan Hirsi Ali to speak at Brandeis. The Right, in this case, is liberal; the Left reflects empathy for a cause that, unfortunately, will probably prove as ephemeral and do as much good as did the hashtag “Bring back our Girls” last spring.
The labels “Democrat” and “Republican,” have become cartoonish. They are definitionally imprecise and carry with them the baggage of mangled interpretations. Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz have about as much in common with one another as do Elizabeth Warren and Joe Manchin. Like a plurality of American voters, I am registered as Unaffiliated.
It is not that the Right does not believe in government; they do. They recognize that government is critical to the needy, the sick and the aged. They know that without government anarchy would prevail. They understand that a primary role of government is to keep its citizens safe; so they believe in a strong military, but subordinate to a civilian President. They believe in the separation of powers and the rule of law: laws written by legislators, implemented by the executive and adjudicated by courts. They believe in reasonable taxation and regulation, but what they hold most dear are the rights provided in the Bill of Rights. As readers of history, they worry about governments – particularly the executive branch – growing too powerful. They are concerned about the cronyism that is a natural outgrowth of business leaders and legislators. And they fret about activist judges who bend the Constitution to fit “modern times.”
The Left takes a more benign view toward government. (Who can forget “The Life of Julia?”) They are more Rousseauian and less Burkean than those on the Right. They emphasize the good government does; they claim government to be an impartial mediator in equalizing opportunities and outcomes. They see corruption more a consequence of a greedy private sector rather than a result of elected legislators trying to feather their nests. Too often, the Left fails to distinguish between legitimate compassion, which is often satisfied with private funds, and the imperiousness of government benevolence expressed as a re-play of the “White Man’s Burden.” Where the Right views government with agnosticism, the Left takes it on faith.
As stated at the start of this essay, most Americans’ politics fall near the midpoint of the spectrum, not on the fringes. Most of us are not extremists in our positions. We want the best education for our children. We want to be secure in our homes. We want our food, water and drugs to be safe; we want factories to adhere to safe practices. We take for granted so much that government does – the roads we drive on, the bridges we cross, the safety of planes, subways and trains we ride. But none of us think as much as we should about the costs. We all – but the Left more than the Right – tend to look upon government as a benevolent uncle who will be there when needed. The Left, more than the Right, seems to feel that funds for government welfare, for example, are inexhaustible. The Left tends not to look upon promises from political candidates in terms of options – that if we provide free community college education to those in need, where will we cut back, or how much more will taxes have to rise?
Despite my (at times) skepticism as to their motivations, I think that the Left actually believes that what they advocate is good for people and society – that redistribution does not foster dependency; that cradle-to-grave government care is to the benefit of the people, despite the risk of discouraging independence and thwarting ambition; that dependency has no long-term side affects. Aristotle, in “Nicomachean Ethics,” warned of the relationship between benefactors and beneficiaries – that benefactors seem to love those they have benefitted more than beneficiaries love their benefactors. It is more perfect to act than be acted upon – to give than be given. Government’s generosity can reflect a haughty view on the part of providers toward the aspirations and abilities of recipients – that those who are helped desire only to be fed and housed by government; that they are incapable of fending for themselves; that they need “big brother” to look after their needs. For this, they believe they should be loved. It is an attitude that is condescending, elitist and wrong.
Misguided policies that assume fairness can be legislated and that equality can be mandated have always resulted in less of both. They foretell less freedom and offer lower living standards for all; such policies lead to a slippery slope, the bottom of which is autocracy. The differences between the Left and the Right are worth pondering – that it is the means, the process if you will, that distinguishes one from the other. The Left is not evil; they are simply unwise.
The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.
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