Bryan Caplan  

My Simplistic Theory of Left and Right

The Catalonian secession and t... Missing the big picture...
A few weeks ago, Robin Hanson posed a lunchtime challenge: What is the difference between Left and Right?  The point of the question, of course, is not to explain how every self-styled leftist differs from every self-styled rightist.  The point is to identify unifying themes that generalize broadly across time and space.

There are many prominent candidates, like:

1. Leftists care more about equality, rightists care more about efficiency.
2. Leftists care more about the poor, rightists care more about the rich.
3. Leftists are more secular, rightists are more religious.

To my mind, though, all these theories overintellectualize Left and Right.  Neither ideology is a deduction from first principles.  Not even close.  What binds Leftists with fellow Leftists, Rightists with fellow Rightists, is not logic, but psycho-logic.  Feelings, not theories.

What's my alternative?  This:

1. Leftists are anti-market.  On an emotional level, they're critical of market outcomes.  No matter how good market outcomes are, they can't bear to say, "Markets have done a great job, who could ask for more?" 

2. Rightists are anti-leftist.  On an emotional level, they're critical of leftists.  No matter how much they agree with leftists on an issue, they can't bear to say, "The left is totally right, it would be churlish to criticize them." 

Yes, this story is uncharitable and simplistic.  But clarifying.  Communists and moderate Democrats are vastly different, but they have something in common: Free markets get on their nerves.  Nazis and moderate Republicans are vastly different, but they too have something in common: Leftists get on their nerves.  Within each side, the difference between moderates and extremists is the intensity of their antipathy, not the object of their antipathy.

To see my point, imagine two grand conventions.  The first is for all self-identified Leftists.  The second is for all self-identified Rightists.  Now imagine a grand Compromise Statement able to command the assent of 80% of the attendees.  I say the Left's Compromise Statement will consist in a bunch of complaints about markets.  And I say the Right's Compromise Statement will consist in a bunch of complaints about Leftists.

To be clear, my theory of Left and Right is tentative.  If you know of relevant evidence one way or the other, I'm listening.

COMMENTS (77 to date)
Mike Hammock writes:

Hooray, comments are enabled now!

My wife (who is a neuroscientist) says you should read this person's work. Specifically, this paper:
...which tries to tease out what causes people to think in a more left- or right-leaning manner, and indeed whether those inclinations can be shifted or influenced by an experimenter.

[N.B. Comments are and have always been enabled on EconLog and certainly are open and enabled on this post. I'm not sure what you are talking about to suggest otherwise. If you have problems posting comments to any of our recent EconLog comment threads, please email us at --Econlib Ed.]

Ham Solo writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Grant Gould writes:

This concurs quite closely with my own beliefs, but with an additional item 3:

* Capitalism cause leftists.

With this you get a perfect closed cycle. Leftists cause rightists, rightists (at some level at least) advance capitalism, that capitalism produce more leftists.

This is also why I am deeply concerned about the libertarian tendency to side with the right when the chips are down: The leftists only dislike capitalism; the rightists dislike the _results_ of markets. It is much more likely to find a few leftists willing to redefine what they mean by markets (or accept the left-libertarian semantic offer to divorce bad "capitalism" from good "markets") than a few rightists willing to break bread with pinko commie deviants.

The rightist will always shy away from reform at the last minute upon realizing that prosperous people like the products of lefty academics more than the products of righty churches, the tools of lefty diplomats more those of righty soldiers, and so forth. This is what the Trumpish, populist right knows that the traditional right does not: markets and market-created prosperity are, eventually but always and everywhere, the enemy of the right.

Emily writes:

It was also my observation that comments were initially closed on this post.

[Thanks. Good that they are open now. Sorry for any inconvenience. I'm checking on it.--Econlib Ed.]

I think Bryan is onto something here but with the caveat that this explanation mostly applies to rank and file leftists and rightists. The left wing is mostly pro-government and anti-markets, while the right wing is mostly a collection of disparate movements united by their shared dislike for the left.

However, the political class of both sides are so close together there is barely a dime's worth of difference in how they govern.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I think people come to their views for various reasons that are (as you put it) "intellectual", but they affiliate with a broader group of people based on broader feelings or shared values. This isn't a right/left identity thing. Libertarians affiliate with each other based largely on feelings too.

The intellectual paths people take to their ideologies are too numerous to go over here. So what about the feelings that make these broader categories cohere?

The left: feeling that all people ought to have a shot at a dignified/good life
The right: I actually don't know this - I think this can vary more.
Libertarians: feeling that the state is the underlying problem.

So I don't entirely agree with you that peoples' ideologies are so atavistic but I do think feelings help broad ideologies cohere.

mico writes:

I think you're on to something here, but I am not sure I agree that the underlying psycho-logic of leftists is opposition to markets. Many people on the right oppose markets (e.g. Nazis, Steve Sailer commenters) yet they are neither more favourable to leftists than people on the right who support markets, nor do they substantially disagree with who is a leftist and who isn't. That seems strange to me if who is a leftist is determined by their opposition to markets.

Paul Sand writes:

Certainly many leftists tend to pigeonhole all their opponents as "rightists"; I'm not sure that any taxonomy that classifies both Milton Friedman and Hitler that way is useful or interesting. I think I remember Sowell making an observation along this line.

Hasdrubal writes:

I'm not sure that I'm convinced. I think you may be able to reduce the leftist psycho-logic more. I think it would be more accurate to say that

-Leftists distrust (assume the worst of?) personal motives.

Look at modern leftists' critiques of inequality or the market and what do you see? Concerns and stories of people taking advantage of other people. A $15 minimum wage is, at its core, thought of as a way to mitigate "wage slavery" caused by rich folks taking advantage of poor folks. A 5000% increase in a drug price is an attempt to line a CEO's (and venture capitalist!) pockets. Pick any issue, and the left's narrative will almost always be about one person or group of people taking advantage of or harming another for their own benefit.

The solution of government seems to be rooted in the idea that those in government are acting in the interest of society as a whole rather than for personal gain. The lack of a profit motive is a feature, not a bug of government decision making. And professional bureaucrats are trusted more than elected officials for the same reason. It's only logical that you are less likely to harm someone if you don't get anything out of it.

The right might simply be anti left, but that doesn't really sit well with me. I don't know of any philosophy that exists solely to oppose another that has existed for any length of time. I think it's possible that the right is defined by moral absolutism, regardless of what set of morals that is. That would explain how the modern American right has a.) been so easily dominated by religious groups, and b.) is so starkly opposed to the modern left as they more and more actively oppose conventional religious norms. (I've got less insight into how the non libertarian right works because I don't associate with as many, or at least they're not as open, as members of the left. So I'm less confident in this assessment.)

That's not to say that the left is amoral or immoral, that's actually one of their strong points: Reassessing traditional practices with a critical eye to ferret out hidden inequities. On the other hand, the right's appreciation for established tradition also has benefits because society is horrendously complicated, and there's a lot going on there. Trying to jump in and reshape things to fix one part will almost certainly screw something else up in unexpected ways.


I see it as the right wing being made up of a number of groups that don't naturally fit together. What common philosophy do social conservative, small government conservatives, national greatness conservatives and big business conservatives share?

Each of those groups has its own core ideas, so they aren't defined solely by what they oppose.

But the thing that binds them all into a right wing coalition is their shared dislike of the left.

Pat writes:

Nazis were anti-market.

Keith K. writes:

Johnathan Haidt. Look him up. He's already done this.

Not surprisingly, he came to exactly Bryan Caplan's conclusions concerning why people vote the way they do and not how Public choice folks argue they do.

Michael Stack writes:

It's uncomfortable for me to admit it, but I thought Ted Kaczynski was on to something with his "Psychology of Leftism":

(search the page for 'THE PSYCHOLOGY OF MODERN LEFTISM')

Michael Stack writes:

Keith K:

I agree that Haidt has good insights but I think the point of the exercise is to come up with something as simple as possible to explain the differences between left & right folks. By this measure, Haidt is too sophisticated.

_NL writes:

I'd reduce it further and do it without reference to markets: tradition versus progress (or, if you like, orthodox versus heterodox).

The left is for people who want to change things and upset the existing order, taking power away from the traditionally powerful segments of society and empower the traditionally weaker segments. The right is the opposite, for people who want to defend or reassert the traditional structure, rules and order, with some concessions and reform that they view as fulfilling traditional principles.

So when a progressive hates the market, they are attacking old rules and norms that they view as benefiting the traditionally powerful and hurting the traditionally weak. When a conservative attacks a progressive, they think they are defending traditional norms (e.g. "money should be earned, not re-distributed" or "society must remain Christian") against its attackers.

I'll also quibble with the notion that the right is unique in viscerally disliking its opponents. Both sides dislike the other side, not just conservatives. I've been in enough arguments and debates to know that frustrated conservatives accuse you of being a welfare recipient, illegal immigrant, drug addict, criminal, or atheist, and frustrated progressives accuse you of being a sell-out to the rich, a corporate lackey, a religious fundamentalist, or a racist. They like to call each other names and when pressed, partisans of one side have nasty words opposing partisans of the other side. These are features of how people argue, and how some especially partisan people view politics - as a tribal affair. But I don't think it's particularly unique to one side.

Note that my "tradition" axis allows libertarians to land on either or both sides depending on the individual libertarian or even the individual argument. It's not terribly philosophical, ideological or ethical, so much as attitudinal. It's all signaling an emotional issue: tradition versus progress. One could be a tradition-affirming anarchist or a tradition-eschewing classical liberal, or a rigorously agnostic minarchist.

Capt. J Parker writes:

Great topic. How I wish left/right political discourse was primarily a debate, acknowledged by both sides, about market efficiency and prosperity vs socially equitable outcomes and correcting for externalities. Dr. Kaplan is right to say it isn't.

However, leftists aren't so much anti-market as they are ignorant or dismissive of how markets work. More importantly leftists are emotionally pro rule making. At an emotional level they think they can achieve any result they like with the right law or regulation and they give little thought to unintended consequences.

Evidence: I once had a discussion with a PhD social scientist friend about the closing of the one and only candy store in Lexington MA and it's replacement with yet another bank. The candy store was the victim of a rent increase. My friends solution was more laws regulating who building owners could rent to. I just could not get my friend to acknowledge, even to a tiny degree, that such regulatory burdens on existing or prospective property owners might have the unintended consequence of reducing the supply of storefronts and thereby increasing rents still further.

The right isn't simply anti-left. But, the right has become very sensitive to the slippery slope process but which reasonable regulation A today leads to market and liberty destroying overreach regulation B tomorrow. Here are the examples: The right acknowledges air pollution is an externality that needs regulation to correct and it ends up with an EPA redefining CO2 as a pollutant and taking on an extralegal initiative to shut down the coal industry. The right acknowledges lack of foreknowledge of medical device safety is an externality that needs regulation to correct and it ends up with an FDA taking on an extralegal initiative to shut down the tobacco industry. The right acknowledges years racial discrimination is a labor market externality that needs affirmative action laws to correct and it ends up with the dubious legal concept of disparate impact being use to impose a centrally planned quota system.

Christopher John Brennan writes:

American leftist liberals are primarily driven by the fear that there can never widespread economic prosperity without strong government action.

  • Their biggest worry is that the economy will be dominated by the rich unless government regulation is used to prevent that domination--they don't don't accept the assumption that economic markets can ever be truly free.

  • They hate conservatives (and dislike libertarians) because they believe those groups act to support economic domination by the rich--either as knowing minions or as deluded fools.

  • Cultural issues are not their primary concern--liberal passion in this area is usually in reaction to conservatives and populists/authoritarians pushing government control in a non-economic area. Sometimes libertarians are necessary allies in this secondary area.

American rightist conservatives are primarily driven by fear that American national culture will go into decline without strong government action.

  • Their biggest worry is that American national culture will be corrupted by immorality or by foreign values, causing it to go into decline--they see free-markets and Christianity as core elements of American national culture.

  • They hate liberals (and dislike libertarians) because they believe those groups are immoral and disloyal, acting in ways that undercut and corrupt American national culture.

  • Economic issues are not their primary concern--conservative passion in this area is usually in reaction to liberals and populists/authoritarians pushing government control in an economic area. Sometimes libertarians are necessary allies in this secondary area.

Libertarians are primarily driven by the fear that individual choice will be taken from them by government--both in economic and in cultural areas. They are the only group whose primary fear drives them to oppose government action rather than support it.

Because non-libertarians are primarily driven by fear of what will happen without government action, libertarians will others opposed to them on their most important issues--libertarians will only find common ground with them on their secondary issues. Only the existential fear created by 20th century communism made possible the conservative/libertarian fusion at that time--libertarian fusion with other groups is unlikely without such an existential threat.

Populists/authoritarians are driven both by economic fears and cultural fears, supporting extensive government action in both areas. Since they share core fears with liberals and conservatives, they are often welcomed as allies. Since they tend to favor government action across the board, they are often the more radical/reactionary members of these alliances. (Often more mainstream liberals and conservatives start to regret allying with populists/authoritarians when they see the conflicts on secondary issues--but usually they decide the shared fears on primary issues trump.)

One theory: The Left thinks that governments make things go whereas the Right thinks governments make things stop.

Another theory: The Left wants to break down barriers between places and put up barriers between times. The Right wants to break down barriers between times and put up barriers between places.

The phrase "barriers between times" might be hard to decipher. You can think of destroying or denouncing traditions as putting a barrier between the present and the past. You can also think of birth control or abortion as putting a barrier between the present and the future.

Michael Mcilhon writes:

I agree that the left generally mistrusts markets and don't understand how they actually work. It has also struck me that the source of many of the honest disagreements between liberals and conservatives - especially liberal and conservative economists - arises from normative differences in time preference; liberals seem to employ a higher discount rate than do conservatives, thus reaching different conclusions regarding costs and benefits and so different policy preferences.

Sam W. writes:

Neither ideology is a deduction from first principles

I think real ideologies ARE deductions from first principles. Left/right are coalitions that get built to effect or retard political change but what ideology slots where on the spectrum is going to change based on the broader political climate and what policy actions those adherents advocate. What binds leftists and rightist in a coalition is that any polity with some level of majority rules is going to have to have consensus groups that push that groups preferred policy and so forming 2 groups that represent roughly half the polity is the best way to advocate for your favored beliefs/policy.

Of course you're right that most political/policy decisions aren't based off rigorous ideological theorizing but instead mood/herd affilation.

JK Brown writes:

Well, let's put down a couple definitions so we aren't working with abstracts. I've been trying to come up with a decent definition of capitalism that is more explicative than the "private ownership of the means of production" 10th grade economics one.

Capitalism is a system in which the individual has the liberty or is permitted, by the current entity that has monopoly on violence, to retain their personal earnings over that required for subsistence and use this “profit” to purchase additional productive capacity, such as training, machines, real estate, etc., i.e., capital, to better themselves vice spending it on non-productive consumption. Capital is nothing more than retained “old labor” that is put to use producing additional income.

The type of capitalism one has is determined by who is permitted to engage in investments to better themselves up to State capitalism, commonly known as total socialism.

Socialism in contrast uses government to limit the individual ownership of productive capacity up to total socialism where the individual is permitted no ownership of productive capacity except for their direct personal skills and may be prevented by the overseers from using their skills in a job that requires them, instead being assigned other work.

And let us take this "socialistic in its proper sense of that which controls personal liberty for the interest of the community or state"

Now the real Left/Right argument is over the balance of socialism and capitalism.

Left - more controls on personal liberty for the interest of the community or state (mostly in the economic sphere, with political, social, and religious/ideological spheres controlled to gain power and deter defections by those who find personal betterment alluring)

Right - fewer controls on personal liberty (mostly in the economic sphere, but also in the political and religious/ideological spheres, the social sphere to a lesser extent depending on faction)

Your Communists went hard over for State capitalism, i.e., total socialism, while to a lesser extent the Nazis (fascists) went for a tightly guided crony (party member) capitalism.

It's all about the balance of who gets to better themselves through investment of their surplus earnings in productive activities. Or as we in the US have, how high the bar for entry is set (licenses, permits, zoning, etc.) and how onerous the regulatory compliance is, which forces a much larger surplus to overcome in attempting productive activities.

SeanV writes:

Hhmmm. Lefties aren't opposed to markets, it's power they want and righties are in fact opposed to that(them) because of that. Rightism is in that sense reactionary.
If leftists were concerned about the things they claim they wouldn't support the policies that they do. Most notably they'd be 99% suffering, 1% inequality, not the other way round.
It's all about power - they don't want to kill markets - they want them brought under political discipline. Somebody needs to generate the surpluses right? Just a question of who owns it. It's all about grabbing as RH once put it. Kick tribute upstairs rather than dispose of it yourself. That's why there's always that undercurrent of implied disturbance if they don't get their way.
It's always about power - "Who,Whom?" as Lenin put it.

Floccina writes:

To me it seems democrats exist to make new laws and Republicans to enforce them.

Ahmed writes:

Ayn Rand said it best...

“Conservatives” vs. “Liberals”

Both [conservatives and liberals] hold the same premise—the mind-body dichotomy—but choose opposite sides of this lethal fallacy.

The conservatives want freedom to act in the material realm; they tend to oppose government control of production, of industry, of trade, of business, of physical goods, of material wealth. But they advocate government control of man’s spirit, i.e., man’s consciousness; they advocate the State’s right to impose censorship, to determine moral values, to create and enforce a governmental establishment of morality, to rule the intellect. The liberals want freedom to act in the spiritual realm; they oppose censorship, they oppose government control of ideas, of the arts, of the press, of education (note their concern with “academic freedom”). But they advocate government control of material production, of business, of employment, of wages, of profits, of all physical property—they advocate it all the way down to total expropriation.

The conservatives see man as a body freely roaming the earth, building sand piles or factories—with an electronic computer inside his skull, controlled from Washington. The liberals see man as a soul freewheeling to the farthest reaches of the universe—but wearing chains from nose to toes when he crosses the street to buy a loaf of bread.

Yet it is the conservatives who are predominantly religionists, who proclaim the superiority of the soul over the body, who represent what I call the “mystics of spirit.” And it is the liberals who are predominantly materialists, who regard man as an aggregate of meat, and who represent what I call the “mystics of muscle.”

This is merely a paradox, not a contradiction: each camp wants to control the realm it regards as metaphysically important; each grants freedom only to the activities it despises. Observe that the conservatives insult and demean the rich or those who succeed in material production, regarding them as morally inferior—and that the liberals treat ideas as a cynical con game. “Control,” to both camps, means the power to rule by physical force. Neither camp holds freedom as a value. The conservatives want to rule man’s consciousness; the liberals, his body.

Left: Tribal Loyalty
"You would be little without us. Your accomplishments are the result of your group membership."

Right: Individual Accomplishment
"We own what we produce. Our participation in the Group is limited by agreement. Government is moral only to the degree it provides services to indiduals which otherwise could not be produced."

ThomasH writes:

While "leftists" may fit your description, I think the attitude of "liberals" is, "Markets have done a great job, but we can ask for more." Of course, that does not really get to the essence of it either because liberals don't spend a lot of time thinking about "capitalism" or "markets" as practiced in the US in 2015 as opposed to some abstract ideal or other economic systems of long ago or far away. To say that free markets "get on the nerves" of liberals strikes me as a bit over the top.

On the other hand, from reading the comments on this and "Bleeding Heart Libertarians" and attempts I've made to engage in discussions with modern "conservatives," I would agree that animus against "leftists" (and for some "conservatives," against Hispanics, Muslims, and Blacks) is a big motivation.

Todd Kuipers writes:

Based on my understanding, the simplified view is supported by Arnold Kling's Three-Axis Model.

Righties hate lefties because they're anti-civilization - few things irk them more than small b bohemians. Lefties hate markets because of hundreds of years of markets-as-oppressor in-think (and with capitalist/market states promoting corporatism and mercantilism, it's kinda hard to blame them sometimes).

Daublin writes:

I agree about being careful with intellectualizing this stuff. I also agree that left-ists are really down on markets and on anything to do with money.

I really don't think rights are against lefts as a driving force. If anything I would say the opposite. Much of the energy against George Bush's policies seems to have died out once Barack Obama started supporting Guantanamo Bay, pushing for troops in Iraq, and signing off on thousands of separate bombings in the middle east. It really feels like Lefts only hated those policies when it gave them a chance to complain about Rights.

So what drives Rights? I am libertarian but usually vote Republican. I am driven by the following, and think many others might be as well:

- I mistrust Washington to take on large positive changes. Washington pols are more likely to do something big and stupid, and then pat themselves on the back. I put my trust for progress in individuals, families, and communities. Good changes will shine through without needing a governmnent mandate.

- I feel good about rule-based interactions between people, including: markets, politeness, and law and order. In all of these categories, I just feel like people behave better and achieve bigger things when we are following common rules of fair engagement. I have much less confidence in wishy washy ideas about being nice, and I certainly don't feel bad about money and about mutually beneficial transactions. I don't feel good at all when a popular leader like Obama puts out a big smile and then strides forward to just decide how every single detail of my life is going to go. I'm fascinated and horrified that that kind of leader gets called a "Liberal", because it's pretty much the opposite of freedom.

- I feel fine and even positive about churches. I find all the Leftist talk about the inquisition to be obtusely ignorant about what happens in a real-world church, and I feel good about these smaller organizations being able to achieve positive change. Among other things, you can walk away from a church. You can't walk away from Obamacare.

ColoComment writes:

15 words or less?
The Left prioritizes the collective (think, herd of sheep following a bellwether); the Right prioritizes the individual (think, herding cats.)

Well, ok, 25 words or less. :-)

Wallace Forman writes:

Leftists care about eliminating harms, and they reason about them ex post.

Rightists care about protecting the existing order and they reason about it ex ante.

Mm writes:

A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell is the best read on the subject

Capt. J Parker writes:

Thanks for sharing that Rand quote. It was great. Interesting to me is how she characterizes liberals vs conservatives regarding censorship and control of the press, of education and of ideas. Seems to me that today it is the liberals (really progressives) who favor more control over mass media and discourse inside our universities. So perhaps our political divisions are ever so slowly progressing away from ones that exhibit the false mind/body dichotomy of which Rand complains and toward a division where we have progressive authoritarianism on one side and anarcho-capitalism on the other.

Richard writes:

I don't think being "anti-market" is what motivates the left. In Europe, do they jail people for being anti-market? On campuses, do they try to censure speech that criticizes the free market?

1) Leftists see themselves as defenders of the oppressed against oppressors. So mania for minorities, gays, women, whatever.

2) Rightists are anti-leftist

The reason that the Right is derivative off the Left is how much power the Left has. It dominates so strongly among the educated classes, that they annoy everyone from libertarians to Christian conservatives to Nazis.

I don't feel like looking this up now, but if you polled people on whether George Zimmerman was guilty and polled them on whether there should be more market mechanisms in the healthcare system, the Zimmerman result would show a greater partisan divide.

Seth writes:

I am surprised that Kling's three-axis model has only been mentioned once.

1. Leftist axis: Oppressed v Oppressor
2. Conservative axis: Barbarian v Civilized
3. libertarian: Freedom v Coercion

The left is anti-market because they perceive it as the rich (well nameless CEOs, but not Matt Damon or Bill Gates) oppressing others.

It's not that the left and right are critical of each other just to be critical of each other. They just see things along different spectrums.

Capt. J Parker writes:

Todd Kuipers, you said:

Lefties hate markets because of hundreds of years of markets-as-oppressor in-think (and with capitalist/market states promoting corporatism and mercantilism, it's kinda hard to blame them sometimes).

I agree that the left has lots of "markets-as-oppressor in-think" but, to me the historical evidence that the common man does best in a market economy as opposed to a command and control economy is overwhelming. So, that in-think is just wrong. State promotion of corporatism and mercantilism hurts everyone. But the leftist idea that you combat the abuse of state power with more state power is just bizarre. Now I sound to myself like I'm making Dr. Kaplan's point. I just don't like the left.

Henri Hein writes:

My working political definitions are as follows.

Liberal: A person that want to make his or her issue everyone else's problem.
Conservative: A liberal that don't like to pay taxes.

Swami writes:

I honestly have no idea what is the central theme of conservatives is.

As for the left, I really think it is rational control and planning of society. They have a view of society which is that the path to progress is rational design of those values which they hold dear. But the values seem almost beside the point. The key is the rational master planning of society in a top down manner.

The victim/oppressor ideology and the extreme egalitarian values seem to me to be -- at the core -- instrumental means to rational master planning.

They hate capitalism because it is decentralized, unplanned and anti-imposed. It is the other path to social problem solving which so threatens and insults them.

Andrew_FL writes:

The interesting thing I see as requiring explaining is why libertarians understand "liberals" better than they do "conservatives."

Is what I would have said before I realized that a substantial plurality of American "conservatives" are...actually, best described exactly as Bryan does here. Turns out a pretty small minority of self described conservatives are Right-Minarchist or Limited Government types. There is, sadly, no other way to explain Donald Trump.

On the other hand, I don't think Bryan has adequately described the difference between sides of the political class. In fact, the problem with Republicans is that they don't have a viscerally negative view of Democrats as disagreeable individuals. At least, that's my opinion, anyway.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"The point is to identify unifying themes that generalize broadly across time and space." (...)

"Leftists are anti-market."

This is not constant in time - most leftists in the first half of 19th century were not anti-market (not only classical liberals were usually considered left-wing before 1848, but even many "socialists", like Proudhon, were pro-market).

I think the unifying theme is more "Leftist are anti-successful people" (this mean being anti-market in a society where most people becomes successful in the market, but not necessarly in an Old Order type of society); btw, this also explain the constant in-fight within left-wing movements (when the movement begins to become strong, the anti-sucess tendencies of the left makes many of then to leave the movement and create a "sub-sect").

It explains also the frequent combination of economic collectivism and cultural individualism (or pseudo-individuaism) in the left: rich people are successful, then they are bad (confiscate their wealth!); and established values, majoritarian religion, mass culture, etc., are also successful, then they are also bad (reject dominant culture! And if your subculture begins to become dominant, reject it also and accuse them of selling out!)

Miguel Madeira writes:

"Andrew_M_Garland writes:

Left: Tribal Loyalty (...)

Right: Individual Accomplishment"

The main point of conservatism is the idea of a collective intellect contained in the traditions that we inherited from our ancestors, and that this collective intellect is usually superior to individual ideas (a good example of conservative thought could be the T.S.Eliott passage about the "dead poets" - " we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously."; or Louis de Bonald - "they are not the individuals that create the society, but it is the society that creates the individuals"). If anything, it was the conservatives who believe more in "tribal loyalty".

Miguel Madeira writes:

Swamy: "As for the left, I really think it is rational control and planning of society. They have a view of society which is that the path to progress is rational design of those values which they hold dear. But the values seem almost beside the point. The key is the rational master planning of society in a top down manner."

Leftists seems to be very against "top down rational control" when is not used to advance their specific goals - my impression is that, today, the romantization of the "small", "local", "home-made", "grassroots", etc. is much more from the left than from the right.

Hana writes:

The left believes that 'educated' people should govern 'uneducated' people.

The right believes that 'moral' people should govern 'immoral' people.

Hana writes:

A point I failed to make, both are too likely to say, "there ought to be a law".

Pajser writes:

The left is really egalitarianism. I do not know single leftist group which doesn't have that as essential goal. It is not anti-market, there are many pro-market leftists (there are even some "left libertarians") and it is not pro-state - some leftists are anarchists. It is not consciously utilitarian; utilitarianism is too sophisticated. Protection of oppressed? Yes - but everyone claims he is on the side of oppressed, the fascists and the libertarians too.

Lee Waaks writes:

"What binds Leftists with fellow Leftists, Rightists with fellow Rightists, is not logic, but psycho-logic. Feelings, not theories."

If this is the case, then how do we account for the droves of people who have undergone various political transformations, i.e. communist to social democrat; socialist to libertarian; communist to conservative; socialist to liberal democrat; classical liberal to statist, etc. etc. etc.? Did their psychology suddenly change? Or did they simply discover (what they think were) errors? I think it is the latter answer.

Andrew_FL writes:

@Lee Waaks-the implication of Bryan's explanation is that people who change sides probably think more and feel less about the issues which convince them to switch sides. At least, that's my reading.

Lee Waaks writes:

@Andrew_FL: It could be the case that these dramatic transformations are quite rare and indicate greater thought; however, even when we don't see full transformations, we see marginal changes. For example, communists who become socialists, etc. In addition, a social democrat or conservative might be quite sensible on one policy and nutty on the next. How would we account for the fact that people think their way through some issues but not others? I recall a story about the socialist philosopher Sidney Hook who was regarded as a rigorous logician. Initially he was favorable to communism but later became a fierce anti-communist. However, he remained a social democrat until his death in 1989. According to his friend Arnold Beichman, Hook once admitted to Milton Friedman that he didn't know much about economics, so Friedman might be right. But was his socialist allegiance guided solely by feelings? I don't think so. He was simply ignorant of economics (but quite erudite on many other topics). In other words, based on his limited understanding of economics and capitalism, he guessed that (mild) socialism might be superior. Had he known more economics, he might have changed his mind (again). In all cases, I would argue, people don't know what they don't know but feelings follow facts not the other way round -- even when the facts are wrong.

Brian writes:

Bryan's proposal is odd. He has Leftists as people who hate free markets and Rightists as people who hate people who hate free markets. Besides making generalizations that are certainly inaccurate (many Leftists are fine with free markets--certainly they get along with them just fine--and many Rightists spend little or no time thinking about Leftists), the definitions lack symmetry. Isn't it true that many Leftists can't stand Rightists? Don't many of them constantly make fun of or ridicule Rightists?
Why not define Rightists as those who hate change and then Leftists as those who hate those who hate change?

More to the point, defining any group as simply existing in opposition to or in hatred of another doesn't really explain anything. Why do Rightists hate Leftists (if indeed they do)? The hatred must be based on some other value that is more defining than the feeling it motivates.

Frankly, I think Arnold Kling's axes shed more light on these distinctions than Bryan's theory.

But let me add another perspective. Rightists and Leftists are more often referred to as Conservatives and Liberals in the U.S., and those terms get close to what those groups are about.

Conservatives prefer to protect stability and the status quo. Liberals prefer innovation and change.

Conservatives think change carries costs that must be accounted for. Liberals think that change is or should be cost-free.

Conservatives embrace rural values; liberals embrace urban values.

Troy Camplin writes:

My explanation is more complex.

TK Texas writes:

I consider myself a "leftist," though the "left" of Texas may include quite a bit of the "right" in many European contexts and those of the Northeast US and Pacific states. I am not anti-market at all, but believe there should be a robust safety net for all Americans, and that "redistribution" via taxation is the principal tool to accomplish it. I do not consider myself an expert in economics, but believe that redistribution of this type has a very respectable pedigree within mainstream free market economics, and would point to Pigou and Pareto in this regard. I criticize the "right" for their failure to take into account the limitations of the market. Markets work well if liquid, but not so well if not. Republicans in Texas and many other places are addicted to privatization of government services, but this is best understood as patronage and crony capitalism. The "right" has, frankly, become incoherent as a "free market" movement in the US, and especially in Texas. You are definitely correct in calling the "right" the "anti-left." The Rs have been head-hunting the Ds for so long now that they can't imagine framing persuasive arguments for their positions, and have been saying "government is the problem" for so long that they see undermining the finances and functionality of government as a positive good. How better to prove government is the problem than by screwing it up?

Ace writes:

Leftists are people who have experienced unpleasant incidents in their childhoods and have developed inferiority complexes with a hate for the superior.

Rightists look down on Leftists because they (Rightists) feel superior.

Or you can just look up Slave-Master morality as described by Nietzsche.

Mark Brown writes:

That plays out in my mind. Especially about the right. The left has less problem unifying because markets are roughly natural. The left's problem is almost everywhere with nature or natural law. The right has lots of problems unifying against anything other than those dolts who are always messing with the way things work. The first reaction of the right is always to ignore them and hope they go away naturally. They can only unify when it takes markets longer to get rid of them than is bearable.

TR5749 writes:

a simple McCloskeyian dichotomy also works:

*modern US rightists are generally bourgeois or pro-bourgeois

*modern US leftists are generally anti-bourgeois

Tarrou writes:

I don't think it's that at all, Mr. Caplan.

I think it's more complicated, but the closest I've seen to explaining all the relevant phenomenon is the concept of leapfrogging loyalty.

Rightists are concentrically loyal. Family first, then social group, then religion, then country, then humanity etc. They reflexively defend whatever is closest to them.

Leftists are leapfrogging loyalties, and have this reversed. Humanity as a whole first, then other nations, then other social groups and religions, then family etc. They reflexively take the side of people not like them.

So, for instance, for all the talk about how much Republicans hate Obama, and how it's all that rank racism, who were the only people to back him when he said something stupid about Syria? Republicans, while his own party ran for the hills. Because to a Leftist, you can't support even your own party leader against foreign dictators. And to a Rightist, you can't fail to support someone you politically oppose, no matter how stupid his comments, because it makes the country look bad (and there might be a military campaign, which Rightists seem to love)!

rob cyran writes:

I think the idea that leftists are anti-market is really off (as a liberal capitalist). It's the sort of statement someone says who really doesn't understand the opposition.

I think it's more accurate to say:
liberals value equality
conservatives value hierarchy and group

Bruce B writes:
1. Leftists are anti-market. On an emotional level, they're critical of market outcomes. No matter how good market outcomes are, they can't bear to say, "Markets have done a great job, who could ask for more?" ... Communists and moderate Democrats are vastly different, but they have something in common: Free markets get on their nerves.

I would turn this around and say that:
Rightists are pro-market for any and all possible interactions.

Most "leftists" (but not communists, by definition) are willing to concede that free markets are best for the vast majority of situations but wish to regulate certain markets in order to influence outcomes.

Douglas Knight writes:

What is the scope of this theory? America now?

Or broader in space: America+Europe now? everywhere now? Broader in time: America for the past century? America for the past two centuries? Miguel Madeira seems to be the only other commenter to observe that markets do not seem to fit the French Revolution, where the terms were first used.

A methodological question: if we want to understand why people use the terms over so much time and space, should we analyze each time+place separately, and then try to synthesize, or should we try to use all the data at once? Should we synthesize over time first, or over space?

Curt Doolitlte writes:


As you say, evolutionary biology provides greatest explanatory power.

(1) FEMALE: The female reproductive strategy is to bear children at will and to place responsibility for their sustenance on the tribe. The female's interest is to secure a future for her offspring regardless of merit. Her interest is in consumption regardless of externality.

(2) MALE: The male reproductive strategy is to form alliances of near relations of males (brothers) into the strongest possible tribe and to secure their territory against (parasitic) competition. The male's interest is to secure the competitive persistence of his kin (tribe) which depends upon merit. His interest is in capital accumulation.

Human males evolved to kill off males in opposing groups and collect females. And that females evolved to place greater emphasis on children and females than the tribe (males).

Social Classes are sorted by reproductive desirability. Economic classes largely reflect social classes. Rotation is limited out of economic classes for this reason. And the lower classes increasingly vote the female reproductive strategy for the same reason females do.

There are only three weapons of influence :
(1) Violence (ostracism, punishment, death)
(2) Remuneration (compensation, trade)
(3) Gossip (rallying and shaming - threats of deprivation from association, cooperation, affection, and sex)

Of Haidt’s evolutionary origins of moral intuitions, three can be expressed as individual property rights:

1. Care/harm for others, protecting them from harm. (The asset of life and body.)
2. Proportionality/cheating, Justice, treating others in proportion to their actions. (The asset of goods.)
3. Liberty/Oppression, characterizes judgments in terms of whether subjects are tyrannized. (The asset of time, opportunity.)

And three others can be expressed as community property rights covering social capital. Which obviously enough, have been, and continue to be, mirrored in corporate shareholder agreements.

4. In-Group Loyalty/In-Group Betrayal to/of your group, family, nation, polity.
5. Respect/Authority/Subversion for tradition and legitimate authority.
6. Purity/Sanctity/Degradation/Disgust, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions.

Conservatives represent the more reproductively desirable and masculine spectrum. Leftists represent the more reproductively undesirable and feminine spectrum.

This explains the voting data in which white males and married females vote predominantly RED, while single females and minorities vote left.

The south's anti-republicanism from the civil war obscured this trend, but the end of that divide led to the increasing polarization of the electorate.

And we use Violence, Remuneration, and Gossip to acquire resources on our gene's behalf.

That's the simple answer.

Curt Doolittle
The Propertarian Institute
Kiev, Ukraine

J Storrs Hall writes:

Curt D has strong points. Consider:
The leftist (female) mind conceives of the people as members of a family, i.e. children and babies. You do not let children play with guns. You do not account quantitatively how much a baby has produced and let it only consume that much (which is why they hate markets -- a family is very much a setup where it's from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs). They call it a nanny state for a reason.
The rightist (male) mind sees people in at least two classes: those capable and worthy to be fighting companions, and everybody else. The worst thing in a fight is to have a fool, child, coward, or selfish shirker by your side. You need to have your companions in the front line tough, and you test them constantly, and they understand that. Rightists hate leftists because leftists are constantly trying to promote fools, children, cowards, and shirkers into the front lines of society.

Philip Crawford writes:

Moral Politics (Lakoff) changed my thinking back when it came out in the late 1990's. Haidt is definitely worth a read as well (as others have noted).

Moral Politics (Amazon)

The Righteous Mind (Amazon)

Brian Kearns writes:

Leftists believe in Fairness
Rightists believe in Freedom

James Stein writes:

to Brian Kearns:
I think you mean Libertarians, not Rightists, believe in Freedom (as had been said above, in other words).
Rightist restrictions (e.g., gay marriage, drugs) do not seem to value freedom highly.

Dave Everson writes:

Leftists are people who want to confiscate other people's wealth and use it to buy votes. Righties are people who have something and want to keep it.

I have a suspicion Nazis were leftists. A particularly nasty sort but still leftists.

Gigobot writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the to request restoring this comment and your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Kruser writes:

I'm with Bruce B. The right has fetishized markets and is blind to regulatory capture, market failures and situations where regulatory intervention makes real sense. Most on the left are perfectly happy living and working in well-functioning markets.
If I had to come up with my own simple left vs right heuristic, it would be that the right sees black and white (e.g., markets are superior, government is wasteful) while the left is more comfortable with mess and gray.

Kruser writes:

I'm with Bruce B. I'm a former R who was left (no pun intended) behind in the center during the country's 20-year lurch to the right.
IMO, the right has been fetishizing markets and has been blind to regulatory capture, market failures and situations where regulatory intervention makes real sense. I think this is changing, however, as many on the right are also troubled by the gaming of the system by incumbents/rent seekers.

c8to writes:

right on the context - that its almost exclusively psychological - but the content is a bit self referential.

content is really, i'm ok/not ok:

right - i've always been ok so everyone else should be ok; sometimes blind to the fact that people start the game off truly disadvantaged, discrimination is real and enshrined etc...

left - driven by fear - i'm not ok or others are not ok or others are evil and hence we need to correct this - often blind that their solutions simply repeat the problem at a different level (ie government) often ignorant of basic economics eg efficiencies of trade, specialisation, the invisible hand etc.

Phil H writes:

Yeah, maybe. I'm a bit lefty, and I had quite a disorienting experience in a big mall today: I like the choice and comfort that big malls represent, and the kids around me all seemed very cheery, as did the adults, but I still found the relentless commercialness of it oppressive.

I know you want the simplest answer, but I have to complicate it slightly: I think I dislike the contemporary free market because it seems very demanding of me. My existing demands are not sufficient; it must generate more demand in me through advertising and music. But yeah, it is still a form of disliking free markets.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"Bruce B writes: (...) Rightists are pro-market for any and all possible interactions."

"Kruser writes: I'm with Bruce B. The right has fetishized markets"

I think that this is even more wrong than saying that the left is anti-market: there are zillions of rightist who want restrictions to markets - christian-democrats, traditional conservatives, many right-wing populists, neofascists, etc; all of them are very critical of the free-market; even in the US, where conservatives sometimes seems more classical liberals than conservatives, the paleoconservatives are protectionists and the neoconservatives only give "two cheers for capitalism". To find relevant pro-market leftists, who have to go to 19th century; to find anti-market (or, at least, anti-total free market) rightists, you have many even today.

Kruser:"If I had to come up with my own simple left vs right heuristic, it would be that the right sees black and white (e.g., markets are superior, government is wasteful) while the left is more comfortable with mess and gray."

If anything, I think it is the opposite: the left is more prone to see the things as "the Lights of the Progress against the Dark Forces of the Reaction" or "the Social Justice against the Unfair Privileges"; the right is more prone to a grey vs. black morality, when bad things are considered the only alternative to even worse things ("the absolutist French kings, the Tzar of Russia, Franco, the South American juntas, the apartheid were/are bad? The alternative is worse"; "Capitalism has many defects? But the proposed solution do not work and only will make things worse"; "There is occasional police brutality? But the result of liberal lawyers attacking the police was the wave of crime of the 70/80s", etc.); in general, the left is more prone to want to build Heaven on Earth, and the right to believe (if they are religious, with some variant of Original Sin) that the Earth is a place of suffering.

Tom West writes:

Leftist: When there is harm occurring, something can and must be done to fix it.

Rightist: When there is a harm occurring, the harmed likely deserved it.

MikeDC writes:

I don't know if the market or economists have fetishized markets, but I think it's unproductive to reduce leftists to anti-market reactionaries.

Rather, I'd say leftism reduces to favoring rules in every instance. Markets are antithetical to leftism because markets are what happens in the absence of prescribed rules to govern behavior.

This is a better definition because one can clearly see the left's fetish for rules and order even in the absence of a discernible market. Example: there are zillions of laws put into place regarding child welfare but probably legitimately concerned leftists. There's no obvious market-oriented response one-way or another, just a yearning to apply a uniformity to most every aspect of life.

Simply put, the modern leftist is the law-and-order personality type.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"MikeDC writes: (...) one can clearly see the left's fetish for rules and order even in the absence of a discernible market. Example: there are zillions of laws put into place regarding child welfare but probably legitimately concerned leftists."

My impression (but I am talking from a Portuguese point of view - things could be different in USA) is that "child welfare laws" tend to be a specifical left-wing thing in two cases: a) when there is commercial element involved, like laws about safety in toys, or about "unhealthy food", or marketing directed to children; or b) laws reducing the authority of the parents (or teachers) over the children, like laws against spanking; besides these two cases, I don't think that leftists are specifically more prone than rightists to be in favor of laws about child welfare (and, if anything, left-wing parents/teachers seems to be usually more hands-off than right-wing parents/teachers).

"the modern leftist is the law-and-order personality type." - remember that "The point is to identify unifying themes that generalize broadly across time and space" (note the "time" - I imagine that this is about leftists since 1789 to today, not only modern leftists)

MikeDC writes:

Miguel... it's difficult to identify coherent thought between the left of 1789 and the left of today, but that being said, I think one could trace a pretty coherent ideological path from the thought of Rousseau. He authored the basic concept of the General Will and the idea concept people could (and would) live harmoniously within a system of a multiplicity of laws.

In that sense, he's very much the intellectual father of the modern left. The guy who suggested that we should have rules in place basically to reflect society at large's values, rather than simply the laws we have to be there, with harsh punishment, to prevent social ills.

Regarding the parenting laws, I think you've covered the biggest one when you say that leftists consistently want to control how parents feed and discipline their children and rights do not seem to. I guess I just don't see an obvious market issue in either of those, especially the latter. What I do see is that leftists seem to want to pass laws to prevent what they see as common sense (like spanking is bad). To put it another way, they want the law to reflect Rousseau's General Will. The General Will now frowns upon corporal punishment, so it should be illegal. Because it's just not enough to leave it up to common sense. :)

Chris Alcantara writes:

A good friend of mine, Chris Cochrane in the political science department at the University of Toronto, has written a ground-breaking book on the topic of left-right and what those categories actually mean, drawing on theory (e.g. Wittgenstein and others) and empirics. You should check it out:

Plucky writes:

I am more right-winger than libertarian, so perhaps I can speak with a little bit of authority here. I'll propose the difference as revolving around property rights.

Right-wingers think of property as a fundamental, inherent individual right, and any deviations from that pattern as 'artificial' aberrations which are to be tolerated when they produce obviously better outcomes, and even then ought to be subject to suspicion.

Left-wingers think of property as something whose fundamental basis is social, communal, collective, or whatever adjective you prefer to use, and all individualistic property systems are the 'artificial' aberration, tolerated only in the interests of efficiency. Any individual property system is inherently provisional and subject to revision by the political community if and when it is displeased with the results of the system.

Granted, this is a very American conception of right vs left, but that is in part the point. American conservatives look at the European right with a very jaundiced eye and do not really think they are engaged in any kind of common cause beyond those of physical security against communism or sharia. It's worth noting that the most revered European figures on the American right are Churchill and Thatcher, both of whom adhere much more closely to the above conception of right and left than do figures like de Gaulle or Merkel, and that there are essentially no well thought-of right-wing figures from Latin America (ask a right-winger about Pinochet and the answer is essentially "ugh... better than communism, but... ugh"). A recurring frustration among American right-wingers is that leftists (who are much more likely to consider themselves in common cause with leftists in other countries) view the American right as their mirror image, as some kind of evil twin. To an American right-winger, the entire genre of trying to archetype, typecast, or generalize internationally right/left disputes is basically a more clever left-wing way to slander them as fascists.

I'll also note that Bryan's conception of right and left can be developed as an extension of mine- leftists are anti-market precisely because it resists the political control over property and distributional outcomes that they view as the inherent role of politics (meant in the broadest sense of community decision-making). Right wingers are anti-left wingers because they view every political proposal from leftists as tantamount to theft. Even if there's nothing obviously suspicious in a specific proposal, the fact that it is proposed by a thief ought to prejudice one against it.

To use the words of an actual, unambiguous right winger, I once heard a speech by Grover Norquist in which he described the American right as the "low maintenance coalition" because despite all internal disagreements it will reliably unify around saying "No" when the state comes asking for more resources, whereas (in his telling) the left was the "high maintenance coalition" because it consisted of groups fighting for a slice of the resources distributed by the government. Call that conception self-serving or disingenuous if you like, but I think it does reflect right-wing self-conception fairly well.

J Storrs Hall writes:

This fellow thinks Brian has it backwards.

Center-Left Economist writes:

Saying "leftists are anti-market" betrays the blogger's own biases. Leftists are not necessarily "anti-market." Leftists are more apt to blame market failures for misallocations of resources (and sometimes be right), whereas rightists are more likely to blame government failures for misallocations (and sometimes these misallocations are the same ones the left blames on markets). Sometimes the righties are correct; sometimes the lefties are correct; and sometimes they're both correct.

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