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Thoughts on My Simplistic Theory of Left and Right

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I have a Simplistic Theory of Left and Right.  A reader sent me their thoughts on the theory.  Reprinted anonymously with their permission. I’ve been thinking about your conception of the Right and Left in American Politics and thought I would run a thought by you. You say: 1. Leftists are anti-market.  On an emotional level, they’re critical of market outcomes.  No matter how good market outcomes are, they can’t bear to say, “Markets have done a great job, who could ask for more?” 2. Rightists are anti-leftist.  On an emotional level, they’re critical of leftists.  No matter how much they agree with leftists on an issue, they can’t bear to say, “The left is totally right, it would be churlish to criticize them.” While both sides form their views on an emotional

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I have a Simplistic Theory of Left and Right.  A reader sent me their thoughts on the theory.  Reprinted anonymously with their permission.


I’ve been thinking about your conception of the Right and Left in American Politics and thought I would run a thought by you.

You say:

1. Leftists are anti-market.  On an emotional level, they’re critical of market outcomes.  No matter how good market outcomes are, they can’t bear to say, “Markets have done a great job, who could ask for more?”

2. Rightists are anti-leftist.  On an emotional level, they’re critical of leftists.  No matter how much they agree with leftists on an issue, they can’t bear to say, “The left is totally right, it would be churlish to criticize them.”

While both sides form their views on an emotional level in this framework, the Left’s views appear more substantive.  Disliking the market seems far less personal and petty than categorically disliking a group of people who disagree with you, and anti-market intuitions could, at least in principle, develop as a reasonable response to repeated experience with market processes.

But is this framework really getting to the heart of the matter?  If we grant that the left broadly shares an instinctive skepticism of markets, no matter their performance, it is still a little puzzling WHY this is so.

In my view the left is reflexively critical of markets because they favor a society in which leftists have high status and exercise social control.  The more social processes we assign to markets, the smaller the role there is for leftists.

At this point I can piggy-back off of the data brought to bear in this excellent article by Richard Hanania, which shows that leftists derive much more meaning from activism than the typical rightist, investing substantial time and money into these endeavors.  Leftists want to be actively involved in shaping policy, not sitting idly by while markets claim the credit.  In contrast, conservatives are often content to ignore politics–provided that leftists will leave them alone.

Looking at your model from this angle, the underlying motivations of left and right appear much more symmetric.  “Anti-right” still doesn’t quite approximate the psycho-logic of the former, but conservatives become a natural enemy to the march of leftist-led progress.  “Anti-left” still basically fits the psycho-logic of the latter, but begins to resemble a plausible low-information heuristic for someone wary of leftist control.*

At their best, leftists are proactive do-gooders and rightists are unassuming defenders of personal freedom.  At their worst, leftists are hubristic and totalitarian while rightists are paranoid and conspiratorial.

*I noticed as I was writing this out that Thomas Sowell’s “Vision of the Anointed” analyzes the left and right in a similar vein.

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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