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The complexities of left and right

By W. James Antle III
web posted July 16, 2001

Once in a while someone asks whether the standard political classifications of left and right, liberal and conservative, aren't perhaps a bit too simplistic. Such inquiries come from people who have no idea how truly complex such categories can be.

Harry Browne recently wrote an article that offered an interesting perspective on the debate over the size of the US government. According to his reading of history, the Democratic Party has traditionally been dominated by liberals (presumably in the classical sense) who favored smaller, decentralized government. They have faced off against Federalists, Whigs and Republicans who were conservatives and thus favored authoritative, centralized government. When FDR was elected in 1932, on a "liberal" platform challenging Herbert Hoover's economic interventionism, he too began to favor bigger government as a means of resolving the Great Depression. Conservatives began to pretend to favor smaller government in order to more effectively oppose FDR, and from that point on both liberals and conservatives favored big government.

Harry Browne

Browne, who was the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000, is hardly an impartial observer of the liberal-conservative debate. He obviously has a vested interest in people no longer supporting conservative candidates as a way of shrinking government and reinforcing George Wallace's "not a dime's worth of difference" thesis. He also has a lot of explaining to do about Robert Taft, John Bricker and Barry Goldwater. But his essay, whatever its political and historical idiosyncrasies, validates the point that ideological lines are not as simplistically drawn as we commonly think.

Jonah Goldberg is a gifted conservative humorist in the tradition of PJ O'Rourke, but he may contribute more to the discourse on LewRockwell.com than he does to National Review On-Line, the site he edits. So deep runs the conservative/libertarian schism that figures overly identified with a particular side of that divide are attacked more relentlessly than trenchant big-government thugs.

Which brings us to the problems of the political continuum running simply from left to right. A complementary, or perhaps totally independent, continuum can be said to run from the individualist/libertarian end to the collectivist/authoritarian end of the spectrum. Recognition of this may be found in Enter Stage Right editor Steven Martinovich's recent essay "In Praise of Consistency," which praises pro-liberty commentators who write from a non-conservative perspective, and columnist Charles Morse's recent article "Who Is Right-Wing in America." Morse stresses the individualism and dynamic defense of freedom found in many conservatives and libertarians and contrasts that with the collectivism and statism of such proverbial right-wing movements as fascism, which he says has more in common with the socialism of the left. On the other end of the individualist-collectivist continuum, Chronicles editor Thomas Fleming pointed out the genuine rightist elements of various authoritarian ideologies in one of his "Hard Right" editorials earlier this year.

On both the left and the right, one can find collectivist/authoritarian and individualist/libertarian strains. While conservatives like George Gilder and Robert Bartley praise the animal spirits of capitalism as a tremendous catalyst for human progress, older conservatives like Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver worried about capitalism's impact on settled values and community stability. Kirk for his part voted for Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas in 1944 out of gratitude for his anti-war stand and considered capitalism as much an abstraction as communism, his preference for an economic system based on private property notwithstanding. Similarly, while Reason magazine's Virginia Postrel heralds change and inexorable progress as central to her libertarian thesis of freedom, LewRockwell.com essayists like Stephen Yates, Thomas DiLorenzo and Llewellyn Rockwell himself praise the Old South as heartily as any agrarian philosopher from the Andrew Lytle school.

In a fascinating essay on Rockwell's site, Daniel McCarthy went so far as to point out that the federal highway system helped undermine traditional values by making it easier for people to leave their communities. Just as conservatives include both people who favor stringently limited government (e.g., Paul Craig Roberts, Charles Murray, Walter Williams) and those who favor more aggressive government action on behalf of community, family and stability (Goldberg, William Kristol, David Brooks), libertarians range from objectivists who adhere to Ayn Rand's doctrine of the self and people like Gary North, who cite radical libertarian economist Murray Rothbard and Reconstructionist Christian thinker RJ Rushdoony as equally influential. Sometimes the line between conservative and libertarian itself blurs.

On the right alone, current political thought ranges from the radical decentralism of the Rockwellites to William Bennett's Strausian call for the government to exhort its citizens to virtue. Both schools of thought may prize such traditional conservative virtues as duty to family, religion and community, but they differ radically in the role the government should play in promoting those virtues and in their analysis of the modern state's actual and potential impact on those values and institutions.

There is a very real sense in which left and right are insufficient as categories of political analysis. The left/right paradigm does not explain why William F. Buckley Jr., George Soros, Ira Glasser and John O'Sullivan favor drug legalization while Al Gore, Trent Lott, Ted Kennedy, Norman Podhoretz and Bob Barr do not. Nor does it explain Camille Paglia's involvement in the war against political correctness, or Michael Kelly's critiques of the Clinton administration, or Pat Buchanan's call to lift US sanctions against Iraq.

Third Way politicians frequently speak of moving beyond the traditional ideological lines of demarcation, abandoning the left and the right for a vital center that is neither capitalist nor socialist. Smaller alternative political movements call for a political philosophy that is neither liberal nor conservative. In reality, these movements tend to be a more rhetorical than substantive departure from the long-standing political debates. Tony Blair's "New Labour" may appropriate Thatcherite ideas, jettison the most unworkable socialist proposals and speak different slogans, but it ultimately does not depart from welfare statism nor avoid debates over the size of government, level of taxation and national sovereignty that existed decades ago.

Yet debates that weigh the government against the private sector, the individual against the community, tradition against progress and faith against reason do transcend the model that runs from left to right. This does not render the distinctions between liberals and conservatives meaningless - in reality, these labels remain instructive and are still a valuable proxy for a person's viewpoints on the vast majority of US political issues. Such categories will continue to be relevant far into the foreseeable future. But there are going to be some shifting political alliances as we move into a world that anticipates human cloning, expanded genetic testing, worldwide Internet access, continued significant alterations of national borders and a whole host of contentious issues that are scientific, economic, religious, cultural and demographic. Such shifting alliances are already evident on some issues at the close of the Cold War.

John McCain used to accompany his pitch for a "big tent" in support of his presidential candidacy with a quip about his appeal to "libertarians and vegetarians." Today, in order to find such diversity of thought one need not even venture outside the conservative movement. James Madison would be proud.

So, is this business about categorizing people ideologically just an oversimplification? Upon more careful reflection, it is obvious that there is nothing simple about it.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at wjantle@enterstageright.com.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • In praise of consistency by Steven Martinovich (June 4, 2001)
    When Steve Martinovich looks to commentators who consistently trumpet liberty, he doesn't always look to mainstream conservatives

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