Arnold Kling  

Left, Right, and Wrong

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Brink Lindsey is interviewed by Jonathan Rauch for the "five books" series. Lindsey's book choices are not as interesting as his comments on the role of the progressive left and the traditionalist-conservative right.


At any given time truth is partly on one side and partly on the other. It's more a battle of half-truths and incomplete truths than of good versus bad. The excesses of each side ultimately create opportunities for the other to come in and correct those excesses. Liberalism, in Mill's view and in mine, provides the basic motive force of political change and progress. It will go astray, it will have excesses, it will make terrible mistakes - and a conservatism that is focused on preserving good things that exist now will be a necessary counterweight to that liberalism.

Lindsey suggests that the left suffers from what Hayek called "the fatal conceit," the belief in centrally-planned utopian schemes. Meanwhile, the right suffers from an exaggerated fear of social change.

I get the sense that eight years of George Bush moved Lindsey to the left. Two years of Democratic Party rule is having the opposite effect. This may be a fairly widespread reaction. I thought that the Democrats would use their 2008 win to solidify and expand their support. Instead, they seem to be solidifying and expanding the opposition.

Overall, I am not sure that I share Lindsey's relatively Painglossian take that each side can check the excesses of the other. Sometimes, instead I think we get the worst of each party. The structure of American politics is such that one party or the other wins every election. So the winner comes in with formal legitimacy ("we won," as Nancy Pelosi put it), but only a narrow base of support. If there is an incentive for the Democrats to move closer to libertarians on economic matters or for the Republicans to move closer to libertarians on social issues or immigration, I am not seeing it.


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
pj writes:

When did the American right ever fear or oppose social change? It opposes certain specific changes it believes are regressive, but everyone does that. The right has always supported progressive changes. That's why its most beloved leaders are revolutionaries (George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, James Madison) and civil warriors (Lincoln).

bjk writes:

"I get the sense that eight years of George Bush moved Lindsey to the left. Two years of Democratic Party rule is having the opposite effect."

Another way to put this is "Lindsey became a George Bush Republican and an Obama Democrat because the train was leaving the station and he didn't want to get left behind."

BintheD writes:

I think the main problem is the evolution of the American political system into "Group-based Politics." Whether it is modern Democrats and blacks/unions/teachers/hispanics/pro-choicers/LGBT/greenies/etc., or modern Republicans with evangelicals/NRA/pro-lifers/etc.; each political party has devolved into having to fight for and placate certain constituencies.

To complicate matters is the fact that these groups' distribution throughout the country is not uniform. While the influence of the liberal green movement is intense in the urban coast of California, it is relatively minute within the central valley, just as it is a minor factor in flyover country of the Midwest. The inverse is that of private unions - highly popular in the manufacturing states of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, etc., but relatively benign in other parts of the country like the south and west.

The net result is the fact that for different people in different parts of the country, parties mean completely different things, which also impacts who the electorate nominate and who gets elected.

Jim Glass writes:

Overall, I am not sure that I share Lindsey's relatively Painglossian take that each side can check the excesses of the other. Sometimes, instead I think we get the worst of each party.

Old Washington wisdom:

There's a stupid party and an evil party. Usually they selfishly try to block each other (thus proving the wisdom of the founders in creating division of power).

However occassionally they rise above their differences to act bipartisanly in a manner both stupid and evil.

I get the sense that eight years of George Bush moved Lindsey to the left. Two years of Democratic Party rule is having the opposite effect. This may be a fairly widespread reaction.

I thought that the Democrats would use their 2008 win to solidify and expand their support. Instead, they seem to be solidifying and expanding the opposition.

In other words, situation normal.

Major political power swings nearly always result from the people voting against incumbents who have screwed up, become corrupt, etc. (or sometimes just been unlucky).

The people voted against Hoover and the Repubs when the Depression happened on their watch, not for FDR and his New Deal (as he ran on a platform calling to balance the budget by shrinking govt and cutting waste) ... against LBJ and the war and social problems of his day tied to the Dems ... against Nixon ... against Carter and his near 20-point misery idex... against Bush II, etc. Same in Britain, they voted against the horrible mess old Labour had made to bring in Maggie ... then against the encrusted Tories to bring in New Labour ... just now against Labour...

The big mistake the incoming party typically makes then is imagining people voted for them rather than against the other side, leading them to immediately start over-reaching and putting the process back in reverse.

The impressive thing about Obama and the Dems today is how quickly they've managed to do this. The day after the election they were publishing all about the New Permanent Liberal Majority and how the Repubs were doomed for at least a generation to be reduced to no more than regional party ... it was happening already.

Gibbs is right about one thing -- Obama can never satisfy the Dem Left, which fantasizes it finally won a popular election but now is being robbed and sold out. By going as far left as he has, he's already lost the center and independents who really elected him and the Dems, while leaving the Left whining that he's betrayed them.

So in November look for big gains for the Repubs, and them in turn likely stupidily concluding that they did something right and people voted for them rather than against the incumbent screw-ups...

But if the Repubs can take the House at least, we'll be back to the least-bad situation of the stupid and the evil obstructing each other. Like Clinton-Gingrich 1994-2000, probably the least-bad period of governance in a generation, all the way back to Ron-Tip.

BZ writes:

@pj

I think he's referring to the conservatives that opposes/d gay marriage, immigration (why is legalization never on the table?), legalization of drugs, pornography, flag desecration, muslims who build too close to "sacred ground", and procedural rights for foreigners. The same group that thinks school uniforms, national service, and nationalized education are all nifty ideas.

BTW: Republicans here in Texas recently tried to get Jefferson taken off the list of approved Founders due to his take on the relationship between religion and state.

Les writes:

When all is said and done, I have never found a better conclusion than Winston Churchill:

"If a person is not a liberal by age 20, they have no heart. But if they are not a conservative by age 30, they have no head."

Chris T writes:

I'm with Jim Glass in my surprise at how quickly the Dems managed to splinter. I knew they would eventually, but thought they would at least make it to the end of Obama's first term.

pj writes:

BZ - All of those issues are bound up with issues of process that are "hot-button" issues for the right:

1) Gay marriage is much more about who gets to make the law than about what the law is. If legislators were legalizing gay marriage, there would be very little emotion on the right.

2) Similarly if immigration were being decided by republican/democratic means -- we legislate what the immigration law is, and enforce that law -- then it would have very little emotion; instead the perception is that the left can't legislate the immigration laws it wants -- to bring in a left-leaning population that will "change the people" -- and is attempting to achieve that change by a backdoor means, inviting in illegal immigrants, making them dependent on American lives, and then relying on conservative compassion for their victory.

3) Legalization of drugs has also involved court-imposed lawmaking and inconsistent enforcement. Nevertheless, this is much less emotional than the others because the one place marijuana has been legalized, California, it has been supported by a regular law-making process.

4) Pornography and flag desecration. Again, courts over-riding laws with inconsistent rulings. Compare "hate speech" prosecutions to see how inconsistent and unprincipled the liberal approach has been.

No one on the right supports national service -- its only supporters have been on the left for 40 years -- and no one on the right supports nationalized education. (Think of the opposition to the Department of Education.)

The right, ultimately, prizes the Constitution and the rule of law and its culture of liberty and political equality among men. What gets its dander up is an effort to splice the right out of politics and culture, in part by removing lawmaking powers from elected officials and transferring them to an unaccountable elite, thereby creating a society of rulers and serfs, slaves and masters.

Lindsey is mistaken if he thinks that it is "change" per se, or the specific content of the changes, that excites opposition. No, it is the sense that there is a culture war which must be won or the institutions that made America a lovely and lovable society will be lost. The right fears that America is on the "Road to Serfdom," on the path that Hugo Chavez's Venezuela has trod.

Miguel Madeira writes:

>When all is said and done, I have never found a better conclusion than Winston Churchill:

>"If a person is not a liberal by age 20, they have no heart. But if they are not a conservative by age 30, they have no head."

I doubt that expression cold be from Churchill, specially because in Churchill's time and place "liberal" didn't had any "bleeding heart" connotation (in the first half of 20th century britain, the ideology of the "young idealists" was socialism; liberalism was an ideology of a vanishing party of old men).

Miguel Madeira writes:

The right and national service

http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20113953,00.html

djf writes:

Mr. Kling, it seems from your recent posts, like this one, that you now share the "open borders" (or non-restrictionist, if you prefer) views of libertarians generally on immigration. I recall, however, that you used to acknowledge that unrestricted immigration would have deleterious political consequences for the libertarian/free market policy agenda. Have your views changed, or am I misunderstanding something?

MernaMoose writes:

Sometimes, instead I think we get the worst of each party...If there is an incentive for the Democrats to move closer to libertarians on economic matters or for the Republicans to move closer to libertarians on social issues or immigration, I am not seeing it.

Uh huh.

Which is why I've long condemned "democracy" as we know it. It's a train wreck in motion.

Relatively speaking, there will always be more poorer people than richer people. So if everybody's vote carries equal weight, in our "representative" system you've built in an incentive for socialist leaning politics. Politicians will promise to give the poorer something free, by taking money from the (smaller) richer, and sooner or later the majority will go for it.

At minimum we need a weighted voting system, wherein those who pay the freaking bills get the bigger voice. Your vote is weighted in terms of your most recent tax payments. Those who don't pay the bills, should not be granted their current right to what is essentially mob rule.

In the ideal limit we'd get rid of elections as well, because they're just another built-in scam where politicians benefit most by telling lies. The legislatures etc would be filled by something like a jury duty system, albeit with some kind of clauses for individuals to opt out. There would also be "bill payer status" requirements for these seats, meaning your eligibility would be determined by how big your recent tax bills have been.


The relatively poor should not loose all voice in politics, to be sure. Maybe House seats could be apportioned, and some fraction of the House is filled by people from lower income brackets.

In any case, democracy as we've always known is demonstrably stupid in the most charitable light we could give it.

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