How I understand left and right today

One of the things that I discussed in my Ph.D. dissertation some five or six years ago was the concept of left and right in politics. In the context of my dissertation, the discussion had to do with the fact that 19th century Brazil had primarily two political parties, the Liberal and the Conservative. I was trying to find ways to make sense of these two parties. My advisor said that the Liberals were the left, and the Conservatives the right. I came to the opposite conclusion, but mainly because we were using different criteria to define what is left and what is right.

At least in my experience, people call left something that is closer or more sympathetic to socialism. Right is something that is opposite or aggressive towards socialism. This explains why most people believe that nazism and fascism are far-right movements: they are perceived as archenemies of socialists. Liberals (in the American sense) are also considered left-wing, although true liberals would not go so far as to embrace full socialism. Conservatives and Libertarians are in the right because they are more opposite to socialism. The left is also identified with revolution, for wanting to radically change things, while the right is perceived to be conservative (with a small c) or even reactionary.

Even when I was in high school, learning these things for the first time, I found them to be somewhat confusing. Really, what is the difference between Hitler and Stalin? How can it be that one is on the far-right and the other on the far-left if I perceive them to be so similar? In my 15 or 16 years old mind, a possible explanation was that left and right are not in a straight line, but in something that resembles a horseshoe, with the extremes very close to each other. I thought about that sitting in my high school History class before I read it anywhere, and it served me well for many years. All I had to do, I thought, was avoid the extremes, for they end up being equally totalitarian. For many years I thought of myself as a social democrat, in favor of a substantial welfare state and some level of economic intervention by the state, but only when market forces were unable to do their job right.

Since I truly started learning about classic liberal, conservatives and libertarians, my horseshoe theory started to make less sense. I think that the traditional way to think about left and right already makes less sense because we have to bend the line like this for it to work somehow. But also, I think that this model has a problem because we use socialism as a reference: we classify things and people as left or right depending on how they relate to people and things like Marx, Stalin, Lenin, and the USSR! Intuitively I think that there is something wrong with that. And that’s when I started to think that we should classify things as left and right according to how they relate to individuals.

Today I think of left and right according to how much freedom we are willing to give to individuals. In my mind, far-right means maximum freedom. Far-left means minimum. That’s it. Of course: Rousseau will say that people are not really free until they are free according to his definition of freedom. In a Rousseauian state you might believe that you are in chains, but you’re actually free and your process of reeducation is still ongoing. Granted, Christians think something in similar lines: you’re not truly free until you serve God. However, I think that this is mistaking freedom and flourishing. You can have whatever understanding of what human flourishing (or happiness) really means, but the point is that if you want people to be free, you can’t force it on them.

And so, that is it: when I think about left, I think about forcing on people your concept of human flourishing. When I think about right, I think about letting people free to figure this out by themselves. I don’t think it’s a perfect system. After all, am I not forcing upon people the concept that they have to find their flourishing ideal by themselves? But I avoid thinking about that. Of course, this model might make some conversations harder, because I’m thinking about Hitler and nazism as far-left movements, while a lot of people (maybe the majority) learned to think about them as far-right. But on a personal level, it has helped me to think about politics. On my part, I believe that a society where people are in general free to choose (Milton Friedman) is a better society. Generally.

 

Nightcap

  1. Hayek’s rapid rise to stardom David Glasner, Uneasy Money
  2. Why I am not a natural lawyer FH Buckley, Law & Liberty
  3. British Imperial Federation (pdf) William Smith, Political Science Quarterly
  4. The people who profited from the Trail of Tears Caitlin Fitz, Atlantic

A very short note on despotism

Democracy was once viewed as a counterweight to despotism. Democracy was also once more exclusionary, too.

However, once democratic regimes in North America and France were established in the late 18th century, despotism flourished. How to deal with democratic despotism is at the heart of the conservative-liberal split (socialists embrace democratic despotism).

Conservatives believe a stronger executive “branch” will temper democracy’s excesses, while liberals believe a stronger judicial apparatus will do a better job of keeping democratic despotism at bay. (By “liberals” I mean libertarians.)

Thus Hamilton and Trump argue for a stronger executive branch. Thus Madison and Hayek argue for a stronger judicial branch. Thus Marx and Sanders argue for more power to the people. This is at the heart of all political disagreement, and not just in the United States. Indeed, it’s at the heart of politics itself. Discuss.

Nightcap

  1. Obama, Houellebecq, and modernity Christopher Caldwell, Commentary
  2. Meet the “reocons” (“reactionary conservatives”) Laura Field, Open Society
  3. The vigorous foreign policy debate on the Right Conor Friedersdorf, Atlantic
  4. On the liberal world order’s resiliency Duedney & Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs

Nightcap

  1. Michel Houellebecq’s fragile world Siddhartha Deb, New Republic
  2. Classical liberalism vs libertarianism John McGinnis, Law & Liberty
  3. State capacity libertarianism is just old fashioned conservatism Samuel Hammond, Niskanen
  4. Meritocracy and capitalism in China today Long Ling, LRB

Nightcap

  1. Sir Roger Scruton (1944-2020) Johnathan Pearce, Samizdata
  2. Sir Roger Scruton and free market economics Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  3. Roger Scruton’s conservatism Bradley Birzer, American Conservative
  4. The problem of defining civilization Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex

Nightcap

  1. How the French Revolution reshaped the Catholic Church Glauco Schettini, Age of Empires
  2. The man who saved the Electoral College Christopher DeMuth, National Affairs
  3. Is the name of the country Myanmar or Burma? Mark Clifford, Asian Review of Books
  4. Suicide is not an act of cowardice Ken White, the Atlantic

Nightcap

  1. Why the left keeps losing elections worldwide Jonathan Rodden (interview), Jacobin
  2. In praise of religious pilgrimages Santiago Ramos, Commonweal
  3. Conservative arguments for radical ideas Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  4. The mysterious Pieter de Hooch Roderick Morris, TLS

130 years of Republic in Brazil

Yesterday Brazil celebrated 130 years of Republic. It might be a personal impression but it seems to me that there is growing support for monarchy among conservatives. It’s very funny.

Brazil was initially a monarchy. Dom Pedro I, the prince regent of Portugal, declared Brazil’s independence from his father’s country in 1822. But he had to go back to Portugal less than 10 years later, leaving his son, Dom Pedro II, in Brazil. Dom Pedro II was too young to govern, and the 1830s were a mess in Brazil. When he effectively became emperor, things got much better.

Dom Pedro II ruled Brazil for about 50 years. To my knowledge, he was a wise man, genuinely concerned about Brazil. The 1824 Constitution was fairly liberal, and so were the emperors. Centrally, Dom Pedro II wanted to abolish slavery, but he was going against Brazilian elites on this. It’s not a coincidence that slavery was abolished in 1888 and the monarchy fell in the next year.

To my knowledge, Brazil had two good emperors and the constitution that ruled the country at that time was mostly good. However, Brazil was extremely oligarchal, and there was little that the emperors could do about that. I believe that Dom Pedro II was a wise and patient man, who slowly did the reforms the country needed.

I don’t know if Dom Pedro II’s daughter, Isabel, would have been a good empress. But I know that Dom Pedro II himself didn’t offer resistance when some republicans changed the regime. He peacefully went to exile in Europe. Dom Pedro manifested on some occasions that he was a republican. Maybe he was being ironic. Maybe not. In any case, I believe that he was glad to see the country coming to age, and being able to take care of itself without an emperor.

The first 40 years of Republic were not too bad. They were not perfect either! Slavery didn’t make a comeback. The republican constitution was written after the American one. The economy was mostly free, was it not so from the fact that coffee oligarchies ruled things to benefit their business. Things got really bad when the horrendous dictator Getúlio Vargas came to power in 1930.

I think there is something funny in the way some conservatives miss the monarchy. It wasn’t too bad. But it was also a time when Brazil suffered a lot under slavery and oligarchy. I’m certainly not sure if the monarchy was the best antidote to that.

Nightcap

  1. Wars makes us safer and richer Ian Morris, Washington Post
  2. Sovereignty is no solution Dalibor Rohac, American Interest
  3. American conservatism and Marxist paradigms Mary Lucia Darst, NOL
  4. Libertarians and the legitimacy crisis Arnold Kling, askblog

Nightcap

  1. Why Hayek was wrong about American and European conservatism, I Barry Stocker, NOL
  2. Why Hayek was wrong about American and European conservatism, II Barry Stocker, NOL
  3. Why Hayek was wrong about American and European conservatism, III Barry Stocker, NOL
  4. Why Hayek was wrong about American and European conservatism, IV Barry Stocker, NOL

Nightcap

  1. Australia’s shame JM Coetzee, New York Review of Books
  2. Conservative critics of capitalism Christian Gonzalez, City Journal
  3. The age of American despair Ross Douthat, New York Times
  4. The cosmopolitans of Tsarist Russia Donald Rayfield, Literary Review

Nightcap

  1. Australia’s long-ignored South Asians Alexander Wells, History Today
  2. Three takes on economic inequality Roderick Long, Policy of Truth
  3. Capitalism and its discontents Joseph Stiglitz, Times Literary Supplement
  4. Conservatism imagined Nicholas in Faith, All Along the Watchtower

Will the conservatives usher in a federal Europe?

Bill Wirtz does a great job reporting, in the American Conservative, on recent developments in European politics. Basically, the “populists,” who are socially conservative by European standards and anti-immigrant, are not actually opposed to the European Union. In fact, these right-wing parties are building international coalitions as you read this in order to better wield the dormant power of the EU; nobody is “actively seeking to leave the EU.”

Wirtz concludes that the anti-immigrant populist parties will spell the end of the European Union as we know it, but how can this be if these populists now want to use the EU rather than leave it? Wirtz is a great reporter but I think he wanted to mock Europhiles and the dreams of Euro-federalists rather than think things through. I’m happy to pick up where he leaves off, though.

For example, what if these populists succeed in federating Europe, rather than breaking it up? It’s not as radical as it sounds. The populists are small-d democrats. The populists are actively working with each other in an internationalist framework. The populists share the same anti-immigrant goals. The populist parties of Europe share the same opinion of Western civilization and believe their way of life is under threat. The populists realize that the EU can help them achieve their goals, and they share an affinity for some semblance of local (“national”) sovereignty. The ideological underpinning of these populist parties seems to be, then, that their way of life – their freedom – is under threat, and that they are not united and therefore susceptible to outside threats, and that the European Union is a great way to help them achieve some semblance of unity and security. Why not federate? Why not cure the mischiefs of faction?

Conservatives have a long track record of supporting radical change if it suits their worldview, too. The best example of this in politics is Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian diplomat who patched together a unified German state in a federal manner, but you don’t have to stop there. Examples abound everywhere.

The populists and could-be federalists aren’t going to usher in a new era of fascism, either. Today’s anti-immigrant sentiments are very different from the anti-Semitism that has plagued Europe for centuries. While I am disappointed that the European elections were essentially won by the anti-immigration faction, I am not surprised. I would not be surprised, either, to see a strong federalist push by these populists.

Nightcap

  1. Julian Assange deserves a Medal of Freedom James Bovard, USA Today
  2. Assange, Ecuador had a testy relationship Solano & Armario, Associated Press
  3. Assange was a window into America’s polarized soul David French, National Review
  4. What lessons do conservatives need to learn? Scott Sumner, MoneyIllusion