Many of those of my political tribe (for ease, and lack of a better term, let’s say “libertarians”) tend to look askance upon the classic left-right division. In part, libertarians think they’re both half wrong. The left is wrong on governance and economics the right is wrong on what are often called social and cultural issues. And some simply regard the whole thing as a big game: by having two teams it keeps people cheering for one side or the other. Reagan will save us; Obama will save us. The Afghan war is bad when led by Chretien or Bush, but somehow defensible when led by Harper and Obama. (Or is it the other way around?) Basically, it’s partisan hypocrisy as a team sport.
I don’t deny the truth in these criticisms, but I think they miss something vitally important. The real reason that the left-right divide has become empty theatre is that it actually doesn’t exist anymore. Many readers of this blog will know, but for those who do not, this left-right language grew out of the French Revolution; it referred to where one sat in the Estates General. On the left was what my professor of Introduction to European History 101 called the social republicans, who wanted radical social change: not only the overthrow of the king, but statist intervention to ameliorate the conditions of the poor. In the centre were the political republicans, who wanted the overthrow of the king for republican government, but no state intervention into the relations of civic life. Finally, on the right were the anti-republican, monarchists who wanted to maintain the crown.
By this strict definition, there obviously isn’t much of a rightwing left anywhere: very few people are clamouring for the return of absolute monarchs. However, even if we adjust the political geography away from the peculiarities of the original historical context and use “right” to refer to the protection of the status quo (which is why being “conservative” is usually considered rightwing), it quickly becomes evident how archaic such left and right distinctions really are. If those social republicans could see us today, with our welfare states based on forced expropriation of wealth; workers’ unions that are backed by the violence of the state in imposing anti-market negotiations upon employers; and the whole host of regulations and interventions, allegedly to protect the poor (e.g., rent controls, minimum wages, “protective” tariffs and bailouts to “save jobs” and consumer “protection” laws – the actual effect of such measures aside); they would have been astonished at their success. Their dreams have been realized…well, beyond their wildest dreams.
And therein lays the rub. The left now is the right: not because they’ve changed their goals, but because of the degree to which they’ve achieved them. Defending the status quo (the job of the right), today, means defending the legacy of the welfare state (the job of the left). This is why one can hardly be surprised that when George W. Bush was in power – all rhetoric on both sides to the contrary – the U.S. saw the greatest growth in the size of the federal state in half a century; it spent more taxpayer money on issuing and enforcing regulations than any previous administration in U.S. history; it vastly expanded so-called socialized medicine; and virtually brought the entire country’s school system under control of the central planning, educational engineers. The historical left won and is now the right – clinging to the status quo as desperately as once did the ancien régime of France. The name written on the team jerseys is nothing more than part of the entertainment industry distraction that aspires to a kind of bread and circuses show; to distract attention from the grinding erosion of our liberties and prosperity.
The great irony though is that the French Revolution claimed to be the legacy of the Enlightenment, with its extolling of liberty, reason, and the necessity of each person being freed from state tutelage to exercise responsibility over their life and actions. Yet, today, there is nothing the left/right fears more, as its stone-cold boney fingers cling desperately to a past turning to dust in its death grip.