Right vs Left Is Not the Real Issue; the Real Battle is Between Freedom and Statism

by Andrew Alexander The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.

Barbed wire

A remarkable piece of polling appeared in the wake of the 2013 government shutdown in the United States. Given the opportunity, 60% of Americans would fire every single member of Congress, be they Republican or Democrat. Despite the media perception of the dispute representing a cleavage between the economic Left against their counterparts on the Right, the public interpreted the shutdown as an abuse of the privileges of the state by politicians of both sides.

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Increasingly, this is a phenomenon in all developed countries. A poll earlier in 2013 for the University of Southampton found that in Britain, 80% felt that MPs were unable to govern effectively because of their myopic focus on headlines, while 72% thought that politicians on all sides of the House were ineffectual because they sought to promote the interests of the powerful over the interests of the wider population. In Europe, a Pew Survey in the same year found that only 45% of people across eight countries had a positive view of the EU, and almost three quarters found the political machinery of the union to be economically damaging.

Image shows a floating duck island.
The MPs’ expenses scandal included the resignation of Peter Viggers after he attempted to claim for a £1,645 floating duck island.

If the twenty first century has a political motif, it’s this: “a pox on all your houses.” While it is a commonplace to tie the disillusionment outlined above to a particular moment – the expenses scandal at Westminster, the economic crash in America, the German-led strong-arming of Greece by the Troika – the reality is that public belief in politicians of Left and Right has been in free-fall for a while. A separate Pew index tracking public faith in the US federal government has seen positive impressions dip from 73% in 1958 to 19% in October 2013, with a particularly savage dip since the new millennium. Likewise, in Britain, the 29th Social Attitudes Survey found that the percentage of people who never trusted any single party or combination of parties in government rose from 9% in 1987 to 40% by 2009. So, what has precipitated this democratic crisis in the Western hemisphere? At heart, democracy is about choice. The disillusionment of voters mirrors two wider political trends which undermine the foundations of the democratic process. The first is an issue where voters are offered a false choice – Left or Right. The second is an issue in which voters are offered no choice – the relative role of the state.

Image shows a Big Issue seller in the snow.
Those on the Left support the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor.

A discussion of the Right and the Left will differ according to the political terrain in the country in question. Nevertheless, broad based principles can be seen to recur across jurisdictions, and it is worth outlining these at the outset. The Left is broadly representative of a strand of political thought which amounts to social liberalism and a broad acceptance that economic intervention by the government is needed to check injustices created by the free market. At its heart is a desire to redistribute power within the existing body politic. The Left’s social interventions aim to spread the privileges which historically one class or group may look upon as its sole preserve. Economically, the same principle applies, a redistribution of income through the taxation system is intended to provide a greater set of opportunities for the poorest, and has the consequent effect of impairing the incomes of comparatively more privileged groups. In contrast, the Right tends to stand for the maintenance of the existing social order. This is not to say that it operates as the opposite of the Left. In Britain and Europe, governments of the Right have not stood for the wilful privileging of already successful groups. Rather, they seek to conserve the social balance which they find on coming in to office. In this vein, the Right tends to be more restrictive in social areas such as immigration and wider marriage rights, believing that the existing balance is not in need of reform. Economically, the Right is less wedded to the idea that government intervention ought to be a dynamic process addressing societal ills as they occur – again, its emphasis is on fitting existing commitments within a balanced spending envelope. The belief that society ought to be essentially fixed applies to the economy also – the notion that large deficits can be financed because social change will provide economic growth is largely an anathema. Notwithstanding the turbulence occasioned by the financial crisis, the party political systems on the major Western powers have more or less remained in stasis for most of the late twentieth century. In these systems, be they the two-party system in America, the three-party system in Britain, or the mono-party structures seen in much of Scandinavia, the essential divide in the public mind has always been between Left and Right.

Image shows Nick Clegg shortly before the 2010 election.
Nick Clegg has been heavily criticised for reneging on his tuition fees promise.

In Britain, the political fence runs between Labour, as the party of the Left, and the Conservatives, as the party of the Right. These positions are deeply ingrained on the public mind. The Liberal Democrats, now content to pitch themselves as a party of moderation, have a somewhat patchy history. John Diefenbaker once said of their Canadian namesake that they were “the flying saucers of politics. No one can make head nor tail of them and they are never seen in the same place twice.” This is apt also for the British party which has struggled to forge an identity in the context of the hard dichotomy of Right and Left, Tory and Labour. In its short life since the 1983 joint Liberal and SDP manifesto, the party has backed precisely the sort of military interventionism it won its spurs opposing, it has done the same thing on tuition fees, it has campaigned vigorously for gay rights and also run the most homophobic by-election campaign in living memory, it has campaigned to give pensioners free electricity, gas and landline telephone use, its leaders have also advocated means testing of bus passes and TV licences for the same group. It is a party without a place or a fixity of beliefs, and it is appropriate to the current political landscape that it finds itself in power.
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[pullquote]The Conservative and Labour parties in the UK have long stopped swinging ideological punches and now lean contentedly on one another’s shoulder in the centre of the ring.[/pullquote]The position of both Tory and Labour parties is more interesting. Voters identify primarily with particular interests close to their heart. This may be welfare spending levels, immigration, health service spending or the extension of sexual rights. These views tend to be translated through the prism of Right and Left. Despite the Conservative Party enacting a gay marriage statute at tremendous cost in terms of lost memberships, 59% of the wider country believes that it did so despite not believing “it is right”, indicating those pro-reform will continue to vote Labour, given the traditional association of sexual liberalism with the social liberalism of the Left. For this reason, both parties are left with large captive votes. The consequence, as Otto Kircheimer pointed out, is a perverse one. Given that they are identified with strands of belief with a great deal of natural support, large parties have a tendency to go fishing for new voters in the middle ground. This, by its nature, involves a disassociation with the values which the majority of their voters support, and a movement towards an identical political position. Five years ago, both Tories and Labour talked of “sharing the proceeds of growth”, accepted that public service quality was a function of state subsidy, and viewed green policies as a matter of pressing national concern. In 2013, they compete with near identical deficit reduction plans, dispute the best way of bringing down immigration, and have discovered that energy bills are of greater import than energy subsidies for green technologies. They have long stopped swinging ideological punches and now lean contentedly on one another’s shoulder in the centre of the ring.

Image shows Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, in front of his party's logo.
UKIP have benefited from the perception that the three main parties are all sharing the same centre ground.

This is not a new development, and the reaction of voters is not new either. Christopher Allen’s masterful critique of the Swedish and German electoral systems attributes the failure of the Social Democrats in both models to a similar fishing expedition to the middle ground. While the vote share of the Left was still sufficient in both countries to sustain the Left’s hold on government, the gradual disillusionment of their natural voter base saw them haemorrhage votes to fringe parties on their flank. As the Conservatives are discovering, through UKIP, and the Republicans, through the un-governable activities of the Tea Party, this is not a circumstance limited to proportional voting systems, the Continent, or the Left. As political consensus between the party arms of Left and Right calcifies, an important area of debate is removed from the table. Unlike voters, major Western parties of the Right and Left do not disagree about the fundamental role of the state. This is a historically anomalous development and has its roots in the perversions of language and political thought practiced by governments of the soft-Left in the early part of the century. The idea of a “third-way” in government, that most symbolic and ill-defined Labour programme, amounts essentially to the abdication of responsibility. All governments must steer a course between the freedom of the individual from state control, and the statist approach which offers social protections at the cost of individual autonomy. In doing so, they accept trade-offs. In so far as it represented a strand of intelligible thought, the third way was an attempt to have both cakes and eat them. The governments concerned offered the most extensive range of state protections ever seen outside of Communism, but at the same time refused to expand that taxation base, in the name of individual liberty. It is a system entirely reliant on debt finance, and one which we labour under today at a time when the folly of eternal debt financing looks decidedly unsustainable.

Image shows the bridge leading to St Paul's cathedral. On one side is a man dressed in a suit; on the other is a man in casual clothes and a flat cap.
The financial crisis that began in 2007 tends to be viewed as the result of government-induced moral hazard by the Right and as the toxic consequences of pernicious Capitalism by the Left, leading to two mutually exclusive prescriptions: less government and more government, respectively.

There is every reason that voters should be exercised about this at present. The financial crisis admits, if one ignores interpretations of either invincible ignorance or divine displeasure, two basic readings. The critique from the statist broadly runs that the activities of banks representing the private capital of the wealthy were not sufficiently constrained by the activities of government – the irresponsibility of these banks, arising from the personal greed of their workers, required state largesse to remedy, and hence it is right that in future the state acts to regulate private activity much more thoroughly while punitively taxing those responsible. The critique of the proponent of individual freedom is that the present crisis is caused by governments living beyond their means and creating unsustainable debts in a bid to bribe voters – in this view the remedy is a much smaller state which balances its books at the cost of a reduction in its activities. In other words, the great intellectual battle of the age is between those who view statism as freedom from the mendacious markets, and those who view it as entrapment by policy makers who must attempt to fix their own mistakes by making increasingly pernicious demands from individuals. Not since the Cold War have Isaiah Berlin’s concepts of positive and negative liberty contended so starkly in the public mind.

Image shows a red flag with the logo of 'Die Linke' ('the Left'), a German political party.
‘Die Linke’ grew out of the former East German communist party, and is now the third largest party in the German parliament.

This is a debate in which the traditional parties of Left and Right are almost uniquely ill equipped to participate. Both are run by a political class which would see a diminution of status, importance, and possibly income by relinquishing state power and withdrawing its boundaries. At the same time, neither can commit to an expansion of the state programme while their countries stagger under a debt burden which they would be unable to renew were it not for the continued consent of financial markets which demand the economics of gradual austerity. Instead it is a debate whose public participants are on the margins of public respectability and public life – UKIP, the Tea Party, the Front National, the Green Party, Die Linke, Syriza. All the same, it is this question which frames our times. Third-way states, with their mixture of market liberalism, mass welfare, open borders, globalised trading and huge banking industries cannot survive. The UK has been in deficit for all but seven of the last 50 years. For it to do anything but wither, the state must either expand or retract. The alternative is economic ruin. The state’s presence in health, pensions and welfare means that it must consume ever greater revenues. The state’s absence from trading and financial markets means that taxable revenues disappear offshore, cheaper foreign imports cost jobs and close factories meaning less revenue still, and open borders mean a higher rate of unemployment amongst lower skilled native workers. Something has to give – the model has been tested almost to destruction, and it is now only through monetary debasement that destruction has been temporarily stayed. Politics has always been the art of hard choices. The current Left/Right divide offers no choice at all. It stands for inaction, mutual drift and the sustenance of an unsustainable, broken and dishonest model of the state. It is in the clash between those arguing for the greater state or the unencumbered individual that the future will be forged.


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Image credits: banner; duck island; Big Issue; Clegg; Farage; St Paul’s; Linke.