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
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.”
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
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).
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
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
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.
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, investment and risk-taking play necessary
roles in a healthy economy, “counting for something” but not “counting for
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.
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.
The Right: Radical, anarchistic, regressive – thus
The Left: (I.e., the “moderate” left). Progressive, meliorative
(seeking staged improvements), accepting of proven traditions, political
principles and institutions (in this sense, “conservative”).
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”).
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.
The Right: 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
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.
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
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
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.
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:
This is, after all, a work in progress).
Copyright 2005 by Ernest Partridge