There Is More Than Left And Right

There is a fundamental misunderstanding in America when it comes to understanding the left and right, and it comes down to terminology. Typically, we define the right as conservative, and the left as liberal. The problem is: conservatism and liberalism are not opposites. Let me explain, with the help of Timothy Ferris, author of the highly recommended The Science of Liberty (not the 4-hour workweek guy).

The left and right are better thought of using the following diagram:


The more accurate terminology for the left is ‘progressive.’ Everyone in American politics is a liberal. Timothy Ferris explains:

By liberalism I mean the original political philosophy called by that name–the one espoused by John Locke and embodied in the Bill of Rights. Liberalism is based on the hypothesis that people ought to be maximally free, with the government intervening only to the extent required to protect their freedoms against abridgment by their compatriots or by enemies abroad.

Liberalism is the opposite of totalitarianism. Both conservatives and progressives have the capacity of moving towards totalitarianism or liberalism embedded in their ideologies.

This diagram also makes it easier to wrap your mind around moderates:

If you are a liberal conservative or a liberal progressive you will show up, on the old one-dimensional diagram, as a “moderate.” (Most Americans are called moderate because most are liberal, in that they support human rights and are suspicious of big organizations, whether governmental or private, that threaten those rights.) When people say that they have become more moderate with age, what they usually mean is that they’ve become more liberal–that, having come to appreciate the virtues of freedom in action, they have strayed from the dogmatisms of the Left or Right. From this perspective there is no need for neologisms like “neoliberal,” “neoconservative,” or liberalism with an uppercase or lowercase “L.” These words simply describe various trajectories taken on the playing field of tradition vs. innovation and freedom vs. despotism.

This model of left and right has really helped me understand the true nature of our political persuasions. What do you think? Do you feel that this model is more accurate to real life?

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8 Responses to There Is More Than Left And Right

  1. Although I agree in principle with the definitions of progressive/conservative and liberal/totalitarian (authoritarian), I’d like to offer a word of caution about using multidimensional graphs to illustrate the political spectrum. The Tea Party has already seized upon this concept ( as justification for pursuing an extreme anti-government agenda. From their perspective, the mere existence of a centralized federal government is inherently totalitarian.

    I prefer the conventional one-dimension left/right construct from the French Revolution with a caveat. When government power infringes upon basic human rights (i.e., Nazi Germany, Soviet Union, etc.), it is practicing authoritarianism (totalitarianism). When government power is insufficient to protect basic human rights (i.e., Somalia), it is allowing the practice of anarchism. In today’s complex and overpopulated world, effective governance is imperative. The problem isn’t too much or too little government, it is getting government to work properly in the best interests of all people.

    • Thanks for adding to this. I couldn’t agree more that the ‘too much or too little’ arguments are pretty tiresome. The amount of government we have is essentially set, and each party can only squeeze out tiny wins for their side. Effective government is a far better discussion to have.

      Hope you had a great New Year!

  2. At this point isn’t it so instilled in our political vernacular that trying to change what politicians call each other and their policies would only confuse us and them.

    I understand what you mean. You had told me that the conservatives in England would be considered liberal here.

  3. uberspeck says:

    I’m going to start calling my conservative friends “dirty liberals”, then just sit back and watch the fireworks…

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