Bryan Caplan  

My Simplistic Theory of Left and Right, 2016 Edition

Is economics more "scientific"... Borjas Concludes that Male Ill...
Last fall, I proposed my "simplistic theory of left and right":
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."
But even I'm shocked by how well my simplistic theory fits the 2016 election.  On the Republican side, Trump has steamrolled the competition.  How?  Though his concrete policy proposals are few and fluid, he's expressed minimal interest in free-market ideas.  How then has Trump won over the rank-and-file?  By doing everything in his power to spite the left: teasing, trolling, ribbing, and scaring feminists, Hispanics, Muslims, protestors, and so on.  In a sense, Trump's main campaign promise is to keep liberals awake at night - and he's already fulfilling it.

On the Democratic side, matters are slightly more complicated.  Anti-market ideologue Bernie Sanders has pulled anti-market pragmatist Hillary Clinton noticeably to the left, but Hillary's going to win.  How does this fit with my view that antipathy toward markets is the driving motive of the left?  Because much of Clinton's support is strategic.  It's very plausible that 20% of Hillary voters actually prefer Sanders.  They're voting for her despite their sympathies because they think she's more likely to win the general election.  In contrast, almost no one who prefers Hillary is voting for Sanders because they think he has better prospects in the general election.  In polls, the Clinton/Sanders/other breakdown is roughly 50%/40%/10%.  So if 20% of Hillary voters and 0% of Sanders voters are strategic, the sincere breakdown is 40%/50%/10%.  Sanders really is the soul of the Democratic Party.

And what does Sanders' soul say?  Markets are rotten, leading to misery and injustice across the board.  Sanders doesn't say that markets do a lot of good, but wise government policy can help them do even better.  Instead, he paints lurid pictures of free-market horrors that only government can remedy.  His Twitter feed naturally includes a lot of horse-race posts.  But on substantive policy, 90% of Sanders tweets are outraged complaints about the evils of the market.*  That includes the evils of free international labor markets: "What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don't believe in that."  And Sanders has a long history of admiring socialist dictatorships whose only clear accomplishment is suppression of the hated market.

I know plenty of people on left and right with better motives than my simplistic theory predicts.  That's to be expected; it is a simplistic theory, after all.  But even these noble exceptions tend to sugarcoat the ugly truth instead of admitting their side is sick at heart.

* Yes, I've heard Sanders doesn't fully handle his own Twitter.  But I see no reason to think his Twitter comrades are misrepresenting his views.

COMMENTS (35 to date)
Daniel Rothschild writes:

Yeah but Trump is also saying a lot of things the Left believes: Single payer healthcare, government funding for Planned Parenthood, Protectionism, Bush lied about Iraq, America doesn't need to be the policeman of the world. Now part of me believes he says some of these things just to piss of other Republicans and get recognition since Trump believes there's no such thing as bad publicity, but still I don't think Trump supporters like him solely because he's anti-Left, but because he has fake machismo which the neoconservatives love.

weems writes:

Yes, but who in the GOP Establishment actually wants to bring in "all kinds of people"? Trump seems to agree with Sanders on Borders.

jj writes:

I think Bernie Sanders is proof that Caplan's theory is right. The conventional right wing theory espoused by many commentators on this blog is that more immigrants= more socialism because immigrants will vote for socialism. Sanders is clearly more socialist than Clinton. Why are minorities overwhelming voting for Clinton, the less socialist candidate? Why are so many whites voting for Sanders if he is pro-socialism?

James Sully writes:

What makes you think that a number as high as 20% of Clinton supporters are voting for her strategically? That seems unlikely to me. It seems more likely that the vast majority of voters base their pick about half on the candidates alignment with their views and half on how much they like them personally.

Nathan writes:

I would say Caplan's simplistic theory is broadly right - among white voters. Minorities have different cultures, prejudices, and reasons for supporting different candidates.

Shane L writes:

I have noticed that many on the left are critical of government interventions in the market too, where those interventions appear to favour the rich. Bank bailouts, corporate subsidies, corrupt deals between state and construction companies, etc. are abhorrent to such folk. They seem to think that there is no real free market, that governments intervene to protect the wealthy from the turbulence of real markets.

foosion writes:

Your simplistic theory is too simplistic.

Markets need a governmental framework to operate (for example, basics such as contract interpretation or how long patent protection should last or monetary policy). Markets also need correction for classic imperfections, such as externalities and monopolies.

As Shane writes, the right favors intervening in markets to favor the rich.

Free international labor markets? Trade policy puts lower and middle class workers into competition with foreign workers while protecting the best off, such as doctors, lawyers, etc.

A major component of current trade agreements is to increase intellectual property protection (a form of protectionism), which increases prices and benefits IP owners, largely the rich.

How about monetary policy in which the Fed is on the lookout for general wage increases so that they can stop them? That's hardly neutral between the best off and the poor and middle classes.

The right does often seem to be anti-left.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"I have noticed that many on the left are critical of government interventions in the market too, where those interventions appear to favour the rich."

Speaking as a leftist myself, I think that, when leftists criticizes government interventions in the market to favour the rich, in 99% of the cases the point is not to criticize government intervention, but something like "Are you seeing how the talk about free market and small government is all phony? Of course the government should interfere with the market - even the richs are for intervention, if it suits their interests".

I use somewhat different reasons for stereotyping left and right. Mainstream media cultivate a tendency in most people to look (through those media) toward democratic governments for corrective actions. The dividing question is: How much faith do people feel in that government-media process?

  • People who tend to perceive the government-media process as a way to solve their frustrations fall left — because of that perception.
  • But every government action tends to injure someone's private interest, because government's tool is coercion (using the meaning of "coercion" understood by libertarians). A feeling of that private interest, or an awareness of the importance of someone else's private interest, makes a person fall toward the right in my view.
Leftists have a huge advantage as I see it because media make a visible hand of democratic government. Democratic government is a self-organizing process of the left.

Members of the right, however, are not organized by anything — except their mistrust of the government-media process. The right has only an invisible hand.

Miguel Madeira writes:

But I maintain my theory "Leftist are anti-successful people", who I think also fits with the 2016 election

Miguel Madeira writes:

"Members of the right, however, are not organized by anything — except their mistrust of the government-media process."

Trumpists does seem to trust in the government to restrict immigration and imports.

Matthew Moore writes:

The most pithy explanation for Trumpism I have heard fits Bryan's format:

'Voting Trump is like smoking. It's bad for you, but it annoys all the right people'.

Tom West writes:

If neither side cares about markets, then aren't pro-market forces just another special interest group trying to impose their view on the electorate?

Not to mention that pro-market forces at this point are looking at the "Big Equalization" where world wages rise and developed world wages drop down to meet them.

It may well be just, it's a harder sell to an electorate who may feel they deserve to be part of the global 1% ($48K household income) simply as their birthright.

Richard writes:

If leftists are mainly anti-market why does Trump anger them so much more than Scott Walker or Rand Paul?

Liberals divide the world into virtuous victims and evil oppressors. Anti-market bias is just a subset of this (evil rich, good poor), but nowhere close to being the most important aspect of their belief system. Race, gender, and sexuality are way more important.

Hillary Clinton refuses to call herself a socialist but still beats Bernie Sanders. If she was similarly heretical on the core issues she wouldn't be in the running.

Richard writes:

I'll just add that liberals talk a lot about the evils of the market because it's still a point of contention in our society.

All liberals agree on the evils of "racism," "sexism," and "homophobia." And until Trump came along, they didn't have anyone to fight on these issues. But as soon as someone violates their fundamental taboos, they start to see that person as the biggest enemy, and they'll gladly join with the free market people to stop them.

Leftists believe that the market is simply a matter of the arbitrary will of the "bosses" and disapprove of that.

It looks like a non-trivial fraction of the people on the Right believe that the market is simply a matter of the arbitrary will of the "bosses" but approve of it anyway. They think the best way to oppose the Left is to elect one of the "bosses."

JLV writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Andrew_FL writes:

@Daniel Rothschild-

he has fake machismo which the neoconservatives love.

The core of the early opposition to Trump, such as it was, came from the "Neoconservatives" backing Bush, Rubio et al. Bill Kristol, literal heir to the Neoconservative throne, loathes Trump, and has spoken of starting a third party because of him.

Superficially, Bryan's theory looks better this year than ever. Trump is not a conservative so much as he's an inverted leftist. But on the other hand, Trump is the first choice of at best about 1/3 of the Republican primary electorate. Whether Bryan's theory is really especially good this year will depend upon whether the GOP enthusiastically rallies around Trump. So far, doesn't seem very likely.


The conventional right wing theory espoused by many commentators on this blog is that more immigrants= more socialism because immigrants will vote for socialism. Sanders is clearly more socialist than Clinton. Why are minorities overwhelming voting for Clinton, the less socialist candidate? Why are so many whites voting for Sanders if he is pro-socialism?

Since this comment is clearly directed at people like me and you chose to call this fact a "theory" and then cite "evidence" "against" it-

It's simple really. Most minority voters have some memory of the Clintons, of them being "on their side". For them, Sanders is perhaps an upstart, and he's not "their guy." Sanders resonates with the younger generation. The next Democrat nominee will be much closer to Sanders, and Hillary's policies will be closer to Sanders' as President. And with open borders, that nominee will be elected.


Yes, but who in the GOP Establishment actually wants to bring in "all kinds of people"? Trump seems to agree with Sanders on Borders.

Well, Jeb Bush, for one. Most non Trump candidates on the GOP side had supported at one time or another increasing the allowed levels of legal immigration, in fact. Donald Trump is not the GOP Establishment. Very few good things can be said about Donald Trump, but that's one of them. The fact that he's not the GOP Establishment is negated by the fact that he's actually something far worse, but still.

ThaomasH writes:

Not bad. I guess one might even define a "leftist" as "anti market." And "rightest" as "anti-leftist" also sounds good. The problem is that most "rightest" and this unfortunately includes many Libertarians, think that any criticism of any market outcome or proposal that seems to be a departure from "market" results, makes the person "anti-market" and therefor a "leftist."

Where does that leave a person who is so "market" that he wants to create a "market" solution (a carbon tax) to correct the non-existence of a market in CO2 emissions. Or the person who knows very well (and does not need Prof. McClowsky to endlessly repeat) that Capitalism has been essential to the transformation life for the better of billions of people since the Middle Ages, but thinks that Capitalism would be even better with a more equal distribution of income? And even, if a higher EITC or wage subsidy is not politically feasible, that a little higher minimum wage is better than nothing.

Polka Miner Girl writes:

I forget who originally said it (someone from the Ayn Rand Institute?), but I agree that each side concedes relative freedom to what they do NOT care that much about. That is:

The left cares about money (more broadly, physical means) primarily based on Marx's labor theory & dialectic. The left wants to control money. The left concedes relative freedom to areas they care less about (social issues, etc).

The right cares about morality primarily based on Biblical tradition. They want to control morality. The right concedes relative freedom to areas they care less about (economics, etc).

Having said that, I think the Trump support is independent of the left-right spectrum and is primarily an "anti-establishment" movement that is not coherently FOR anything in particular. Many Trump voters are voting for him to feel significant, just like voting for Perot. A vote for Trump is a big F.U. to the political & cultural (esp mass media & educational) establishment. The feedback loop is:

1. Trump says something un-PC.
2. NY/DC/LA elites ridicule Trump.
3. Voter says, "Ha! Elites are horrified. Way to agitate em, Trump!"

Andrew_FL writes:

@ThaomasH-Where does it leave you, as a supporter of Anti-Market policies? Anti-Market, of course.

Kevin Erdmann writes:

"In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are different."

The way progressives react to Bernie Sanders shows how they feel about the working class in theory.

The way progressives react to Donald Trump shows how they feel about the working class in practice.

Bryan, I'd suggest watching the full interview with Sanders that that clip comes from:

The interview is mainly focused on talking about the Reagan administration's support for the Contras in Nicaragua—an issue where I'd assume you'd side with Sanders. The bit about Castro is just Sanders pointing out that the Kennedy administration was delusional to think the Bay of Pigs invasion was going to spark a popular uprising against Castro, because at the time Castro was quite popular.

He's definitely right about the Kennedy admin being delusional, and AFAICT he was right about Castro's popularity. See here:

jtgw writes:

You seem to be working with two definitions of "leftist". One definition, which you base on strong Democratic support for Bernie, is that they are anti-market. Working with this definition, if the right is "anti-leftist", then they must be pro-market. But then you concede that the right, which you're now equating with Trump supporters, is not noticeably pro-market; rather, their anti-left antipathy relates primarily to social issues, issues that you earlier placed outside the definition of the left. So I think you need to think more about what the "left" really means. Social liberalism in particular is an intrinsic part of the modern left's self-understanding; it is not incidental or marginal. If you recognize this, then your definition of the right as "anti-leftist" begins to make a lot more sense: the right focuses much more on what they see as core left values, i.e. social liberalism, affirmative action for minorities, amnesty for illegal immigrants, etc.

Also, you keep trying to make immigration skepticism a left-wing thing by pointing to Bernie's criticism of open borders. I guess only in the George Mason economics department is anything short of open borders considered anti-immigrant. Normal observers of politics recognize that the left, including Bernie, is far more pro-immigrant than the right; Trump's hostility to immigrants, which formed the basis of his first coherent policy proposal, defines his campaign more than anything else. Unless you're going to argue that this makes Trump left-wing after all, I think you also need to work on your definition of the "right".

ThaomasH writes:


It you who say so. :)

Seriously, in what sense is a carbon tax "anti market?"

Andrew_FL writes:

@ThaomasH- Is that a serious question? You're asking how a tax is anti-market???

Lliam writes:

What's noteworthy is the international applicability of this theory, at least within the English-speaking world.

I was active in the New Zealand Labour Party in my youth basically because I thought markets were bad. Some years later, as a convert to markets, I became active in the New Zealand National Party, which is the equivalent of the Conservative Party in the UK. I am no longer, because after a time it became clear that the National Party's only guiding principle was keeping the Labour Party out of government, even if that meant implementing a large proportion of the Labour agenda.

gda writes:

I don't recall hearing about Trump's hostility to immigrants, at least from Trump, that is.

I do recall hearing about Trump's hostility to illegal immigrants, which of course is an entirely different thing.

I wonder how the "hostility to ALL immigrants" thing got around. Hmmmm. Even jtgw seems to have been taken in by the myth.

jtgw writes:

I didn't say Trump was hostile to ALL immigrants, but he has called for more than just a crackdown on illegal immigration. You can read his position paper on his campaign website; it would make proud. Though from a libertarian perspective, hostility to illegal immigration is like hostility to illegal drugs: it's hostility to things that shouldn't be illegal in the first place.

But my real point is that Caplan's theory of left and right needs some more work. I'm especially not convinced that the left is motivated by economic concerns first and foremost; rather, I think Steve Sailer is on the right track as seeing them as essentially the anti-white-male movement, with the right concomitantly as the pro-white-male movement. Socialism or capitalism are only useful insofar as they can support one or the other position.

MikeDC writes:
Though from a libertarian perspective, hostility to illegal immigration is like hostility to illegal drugs: it's hostility to things that shouldn't be illegal in the first place.

Not IMO. I guess I'm a more legalistic sort of libertarian than others, but I see libertarianism as a collective effort in tolerance.

Thus, we can say drugs shouldn't be illegal because we should be tolerant of people harming themselves.

On the other hand, all of this tolerance rests on people actually respecting each others' rights and being tolerant. So when it comes to immigration, there's real systemic harm to be done both by admitting people who are intolerant and by failing to recognize the sensibilities of the group we're asking to be tolerant and respectful.

ThaomasH writes:


Of course it is a serious question.

Here is an important economic activity the production and consumption of accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere for which there is no market. Is there a better approximation of that market than a carbon tax? Is not favoring an approximation to a market being more pro-market than not favoring it?

Lawrence D'Anna writes:

How does "anti-market" explain all the identity politics about race, gender and religion? That stuff seems pretty important when defining wha the left and right are about, especially the left.

Andrew_FL writes:

@ThaomasH-There's no market for trips to Alpha Centauri, either, how is suggesting the government tax people to remedy that pro market?

Pro intervention is Anti market. You are pro intervention, therefore, you are anti market. Get over it.

Hans writes:

We can further condense the simplification
to it's most fundamental core.

Socshevikes: Collectivists [Rothham's Village(s)]

Rightists: Individualists

So I axe, which of the two is most likely
to lead to freedom of choice and prosperity?

Which of the two are most likely to lie to
advance their ideology?

Governmental units are the third largest killers
of humans.

Chuck McGlawn writes:

The single-plane left/right political spectrum is way simpler than you have concocted. Even though you have successfully hammered the make-up of the 2016 elections to fit your description even though not completely.

The following is not opinion. Regardless of why Marx chose “LEFT” as the designation for his movement, Lenin and Trotsky continued to refer to Communism as a movement of the left. “Lenin’s last major work, addressed to the supporters of the Russian Revolution in the West, was entitled “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder - a critique of the “left-ism”. See Encyclopedia of Marxism. From the Encyclopedia of Marxism we also read, “During the 1920s and onwards, Trotsky criticized (sic) the Soviet Union in some cases for being too far left (e.g. forced collectivization).”. The name caught on and has been used ever since to describe Communism, Socialism and totalitarianism. The “Right” got its name and meaning merely by default, it was all that was left, (oops) I mean it was the only other choice.

Now, stay with me here, if advocating more government (as Communism did) is “Left” and 100% government is the “extreme left”, then the advocacy of less government would have to be “Right” and 0% government would be the “extreme Right”, on a Single Plane Political Spectrum. Conveniently, the English Language has words that substantiate this assertion. Please note, that 100% government is Totalitarianism, where government makes all decisions for individuals & businesses. (Note the word “total in totalitarian.), and Anarchy being 0% government where individuals and businesses are free to make their own decisions is derived from the Greek meaning “no rule”.

This is not just conjecture; gentle reader, nor is it just my opinion. An advocate of more government is not necessarily a communist, but is calling for a move toward 100% government on the left. An advocate of less government is not necessarily a advocate of anarchy but is calling for a move toward 0% government on the right.

Confirmation of this hypothesis can be found in two articles by Murray Rothbard. (and many others that preceded him) In The Transformation of the American Right First published in Continuum, Summer 1964, pp. 220–231. Murray Rothbard correctly observed, "The modern American Right began, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, (Emphasis added) as a reaction against the New Deal and the Roosevelt Revolution, and specifically as an opposition to the critical increase of statism and state intervention…" (Emphasis added)
According to Dr. Rothbard, the left/right political spectrum measures the increases in governmental power, especially the power to intervene into the daily lives of individuals and businesses.

A reinforcement of this concept is found in “Confessions of a Right-Wing Liberal” published in 1969, Rothbard further observed: “…we adopted the standard view, (Emphasis added) let me repeat that “…we adopted the standard view, (Emphasis added) of the political spectrum: “left,” meant socialism, or total power of the state; the further ‘right’ one went the less government one favored. Hence, we called ourselves “extreme rightists." Rothbard’s standard view of the left right political Spectrum was a single-plane left/right spectrum. With LEFT as an advocate of more government, and RIGHT being an advocate of less government.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top