Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Conscience of a Progressive

Ernest Partridge

Chapter Three:

Right vs. Left:  The Elements


When one is immersed in the policies, punditry and rhetoric of American politics today, several distinguishing characteristics of the right and the left become apparent. An even dozen come to my mind, which I will briefly set down immediately below, and then examine more thoroughly in the remainder of this chapter and throughout the book.

Because the list below is brief, it is grossly oversimplified – a first approximation. So when you complete it, be sure to read the caveats which follow.

  1. The Right: Society is an aggregate of self-interested individuals. Associations are personal and voluntary. Social progress issues from private greed. Strictly speaking: “There is no such thing as society – there are individuals and there are families.” (Margaret Thatcher). And “There is no such entity as “the public” ... the public is merely a number of individuals" (Ayn Rand). “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. “ Bad for each, good for all.” Conversely, unconstrained self-serving behavior by each individual can harm society as a whole. “Good for Each, Bad for all.”

  2. The Right: A “Master Morality” (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. Example: George W. Bush’s 2006 Budget Proposal. (See “Caveat #4,” below).

    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. The Right: “Government is not the Solution.” (Ronald Reagan, 1981). “Government is the most dangerous institution known to man.” (John Hospers). “I think you can spend your money more wisely than the federal government can.” (George W. Bush).

    The Left: Government “of, by, and for the people” is ideally 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).

  4. The Right (Libertarian): 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 morality).

    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. The Right: Social problems can best be solved through the unconstrained action of the free market. 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, which means, of course, government.

  6. The Right: Wealth “trickles-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. Even so, entrepreneurial investment and risk-taking play necessary roles in a healthy economy, “counting for something” but not “counting for everything.”


  7. The (Religious) Right: Primary ethical attention given to personal virtues (chastity, fidelity, honesty, compassion) and the avoidance of personal sin (drug addiction, alcoholism, licentiousness, abortion, homosexuality, cruelty).

    The Left: Primary ethical attention given to social virtues: justice, fair economic distribution, health care, racial equality, education, environmental protection, international peace, public service.

  8. The Right: Language is a political weapon, to be “shaped” to the advantage of the ruling elites.

    The Left: Language is the primary (“keystone”) social institution. The distortion of language leads to social disorder, public alienation from politics, and economic inefficiency.

  9. The Right: Radical, anarchistic, regressive – thus fundamentally “anti-conservative.”

    The Left: (I.e., the “moderate” left). Progressive, meliorative (seeking staged improvements), accepting of proven traditions, political principles and institutions (in this sense, “conservative”).

  10. 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 “relativism”).

  11. 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 tried, and if they fail, are revised or even abandoned.

  12. 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, 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.

Some Caveats:

  1. Political opinion is 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” or “indicators.” (“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 traits are not defining, a “progressive” or a “regressive” individual may exhibit many but not all of the “elements” 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, i.e., the communists, would deny the necessity and desirability 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, 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, 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. (These bold and generalized assertions require a supporting argument, which I will present in the next chapter).

The list is offered to the progressive as an inventory of “targets” of analysis: 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.



[To be included in the published version]


(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: crisispapers@hotmail.com . This is, after all, a work in progress).

Copyright 2005 by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .