Right vs. Left: The Elements
March 8, 2005
By Ernest Partridge, The
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:
the apolitical. 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 define "justice."
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.
The 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, A Progressive Manifesto, 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
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
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
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
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 Great Society.
3. What is the function of government?
The Right: 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 government." (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 regulation.
6. Is wealth generated in society from the top down ("trickle
down") or from the bottom-up ("percolate up")?
The Right: "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
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
9. Political methodology.
The Right: Dogmatic approach to policy. "Top down:"
unyielding principles applied to particular circumstances. "Unconfused
by the facts."
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 are tried, and if they fail, are
revised or even abandoned.
10. Moral perspective:
The Right: Egocentric point of view. Society viewed and
evaluated through "the mind's I." The interests of the
individual are supreme.
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,
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
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
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 Right. ("Master Morality" will be the subject of my
next essay, and the third chapter of A Progressive Manifesto).
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: email@example.com.
This is, after all, a work in progress.
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in
the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He publishes
the website The
Online Gadfly and co-edits the progressive website The
Crisis Papers Archive