Left and Right and Wrong

I hate the terms “left” and “right” as indicators of ideological opinion. What “left” and “right” means is based on a person facing a particular direction. Change direction, the cognitive content of “left” and “right” must change. The continued use of the terms as permanent and significant markers of ideas and norms and the like cannot help but be idiotic.

Smart people should stop using them.

And yet, I use them. We all do. They are so ingrained in our political mindsets.

Libertarians, especially, should disassociate themselves from the terms, since there’s so much libertarians have to disagree with others on the alleged left and the alleged right. But, aside from not easily fitting in either category, it’s worth asking what permanent attitudes or ideas are traditionally associated with the “right” and the “left.”

I tend to repeat one idea, over and over: The left, generally, wants freedom without responsibility; the right, generally, wants responsibility without freedom. Like all generalizations, it falls apart on case by case examples, but damn the outliers, there does seem a pattern here.

It applies on issues of sexual conduct, surely. The leftists I know want and demand the right to engage in sexual play with anyone they can find to reciprocate. But the consequences of varied partnerships? Disease is one. And the expenses of treating AIDS, for instance — which often cost vast fortunes for every patient — are usually paid for by government, in this country. So, no individual responsibility there. It’s been socialized, the burden taken up by society, through the tax-and-spend system of the state.

Similarly, the leftists I know insist that taxpayers fund every woman who gives birth, if she has no income or savings to handle her responsibilities. And leftists notoriously demand a right to abortion. That’s a tidy way to clean up after one messy result of sexual play.

On the right, though, there’s a strong disgust at abortion, where abortion tends to be seen as irresponsibility incarnate. Further, there’s some resistance to taxpayer funding of social diseases. Mostly, though, you can feel the frustration, the desire (often now no longer expressed) to forbid people from having sexual freedom. Just say “no” and abstinence before marriage, etc., are still actually trotted out, among right-wingers.

This attitude may flip, though, regarding the financial risks taken by entrepreneurs and professionals. On the left, freedom of enterprise and trade no longer plays much a role, but regulation does. Freedom, no; responsibility, yes. On the right, regulations still receive some lip-service opposition, but one function of the Republican Party does seem to be to make sure that fat cats receive bailouts when they fail. Freedom to risk other people’s money? Yes. That’s a rightist position. Responsibility to bear the full cost of that? Not so much.

So, even my nifty little formula flipflops. Freedom and responsibility? That’s a minority position. That’s the libertarian position. That’s the position that makes sense.

But it’s no way to get re-elected. What do you trade? Stick to principle, stick to the ideal compromise position, and no other compromises are necessary. Social Statics: The still point in the turning world. Liberty. But politics is political process. Dynamism in the state. And it must not tolerate a principled stance against the push and pull of interest against interest.

This seems to be the general play of left and right, today. Leftists and rightists bid for competing trade-offs in liberties and responsibilities. At any given time it’s easy to distinguish one from another, but there are no sure, lasting principles, no element of constancy.

So, left and right must be context-dependent terms. They are useful designators in any given context.

But if you meet someone who insists that the terms mark something important, some lasting truth, you’ve probably met someone who resists reality in some fundamental way. For the reality of politics is that everything’s up for grabs.

Including “left” and “right.”

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  • I should have linked to this earlier piece on my blog, Wirkman Netizen: http://www.wirkman.com/Wirkman/Netizen/Entries/2009/12/4_Why_I_am_not_a_“left-libertarian”.html

  • A previous debate, about the term “left-libertarian,” elicited this response from Kinsella’s and my objections: http://freedomdemocrats.org/node/3649

    Careful readers may want to see if I really did attribute such bad things to left-libertarians in particular, or whether I had merely characterized “the left” in general.

    It has been my impression that people move to the left because it seems “cool.” One reason I’m resistant to such enticements is that I remember my childhood and my youth. The coolest kids were often the most foolish. And now that Americans have elected a demonstrably cool president, we can see what that can mean.

    On the right there seems to be a strong sense of disgust, especially at people who live differently from oneself.

    You cannot get much more basic than “coolness” (which is a revival of honor codes applied to sexual riskiness and daring, usually) and “disgust” (which is one of the seven basic affects – when applied to decay and bodily fluids, etc.). But they are very tangential to substantive political issues.

    They have everything to do with the style of evaluation and value-maintenance.

  • If people gave up talking about politics, they could ditch right and left.

    Try talking about politics without using the terms right and left.

    Strike the root.