Here’s a challenge – organise my thoughts on politics. Here we go…
Left and Right
As I said in my post on the big five personality traits, the traditional Left/Right model is not useful. It lacks the nuance to fully explain the philosophies and values of real humans. Humans are complex. Ten aspects is a stretch. Two simply won’t do.
This is why free thinkers, who don’t completely adhere to Left/Right orthodoxy, such as (to pick the first few from the top of my head) Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and The Weinsteins draw (or drew) so much criticism – often upsetting both sides of the classical political spectrum in the same breath.
So let’s just throw Left/Right directly out of the window.
Except we can’t do that because the entire political model (in the UK and US, at least) is orientated around this false dichotomy. Where the rubber hits the road – election time – it comes down to a choice along the Left/Right continuum; which generally boils down to a matter of tribal allegiance, or of opting for a least-worst option. Neither is a particularly compelling way in which to decide who should hold the reigns…
Hierarchies, and The Dispossessed
So we need to develop a more nuanced understanding of The Left and The Right. The most compelling exposition of their roles puts it in terms of hierarchies and (vs.?) the dispossessed. You can search Youtube for Jordan Peterson doing a really good job of thinking this through.
The idea goes like this:
- If there are valuable pursuits in life, then competence in those pursuits is itself valuable.
- If competence varies across individuals, then some people will be more capable of generating value than others.
- Those individuals will extract more of that value for themselves, and will rise through a hierarchy of wealth and, consequently, power.
So as long as there are valuable pursuits in life, hierarchies are inevitable.
The Right tells us that this is a good thing. Hierarchies create incentives for competence. Competent people, properly incentivised, will apply their competence in the world. This produces value and is good for everyone.
This idea underpins “Economic Liberalism” which, despite the name, is the economics of The Right. In extremis this is a winner-take-all zero-regulation battle-royale in which the most competent value generators get to scoop up (and keep without taxation) all of the rewards of their efforts. The argument in favour of this system is that it maximises overall value generation, and that value will trickle down through the hierarchy making everyone better off – even if some are more better off than others.
In practice the extreme implementation is not stable. The problem with a system in which wealth aggregates to the top is that power and control also aggregate. This becomes self perpetuating because that power enables those at the top to set the rules of the society, helping them to retain power and accumulate even more wealth. At this point the hierarchy is not the meritocratic value generation engine of the ideal, but rather an exploitation engine serving those that hold power over those that don’t.
There is a point at which there is a critical mass of people at the bottom of the hierarchy (The Dispossessed) that have absolutely no power, no land, and no assets. They cannot get off the starting blocks of the race to the top, and they have literally nothing to lose. When this critical mass decide to seize power from the top of the hierarchy, the wealth and political power disparity is overcome by force, and there is revolution.
This is a sort of natural self-regulation of the system, and one which is to be avoided at all costs. To have reached this stage there will have been a huge amount of suffering and oppression – which is bad enough in itself – but the act of revolution is also violent and painful.
On this landscape, the role of The Left is to oppose hierarchy and promote equality in society. It is the bulwark against these cycles of aggregation of wealth and power which eventually but inevitably lead to suffering, oppression, and revolution. This is a Good Thing…
…but not an unmitigated Good Thing. The further left you go on the spectrum, the more likely you are to find an ideology that repudiates the very idea that wealth and power could be justified on the basis of competence. It is assumed that any power is unearned and is instead a result of violence and innate societal privilege. Individuals are demonised on the basis of their group membership (some groups naturally holding more unearned power than others), whether or not they have in fact, personally, accumulated wealth and power.
Indeed, if taken to the extreme, industrialists and intellectuals become the enemy of the state, personal property is outlawed, and the state has absolute control over the allocation of resources in the name of establishing equity across the society. This is called communism, and it too is unstable.
This is what the political discourse is [supposed to be] – a negotiation between The Left and The Right; between those that advocate for hierarchies and those that defend The Dispossessed; with the extreme ideologies of each being detected and squashed as soon as they start to emerge.
States and Industries
When thinking about my politics I first had to think about what politics is. A simple answer is that politics is the art and science of gaining and retaining control of the state.
So, what is the state? The state can be defined by the things it does – like set and collect taxes, build armies and fight wars, create laws and imprison those that break them, etc – but there’s a simpler definition: the state is an imaginary entity which has an absolute monopoly on violence.
State monopoly on violence
This sounds terrifying, but let’s consider the lengths that modern societies go to to avoid any single person or political party having absolute control over the state. Constitutions (guaranteeing certain individual liberties like free speech), houses and branches of government, courts, and a free press are all part of the checks and balances that prevent groups and individuals from seizing absolute control over the monopoly on violence.
Although, clearly, there is violence perpetrated by others outside of the state, this is illegitimate and the state will use it’s legitimate violence to stop it.
Absolutely everything the state does is underwritten by its monopoly on violence.
- If you don’t pay your taxes then value will be seized from you to make the state whole and/or you will be forcibly imprisoned.
- If you use violence against a citizen of the state (considered the property of the state for legal reasons, and so the crime is actually perpetrated against the state, not the individual – hence “The Crown Vs.” and “The Crown Court”) then you will be forced to pay reparations to the state (a fine) and/or face forcible imprisonment.
- If you say certain words which the state defines as unacceptable then you will be compelled to attend a court hearing and pay reparations to the state (a fine) and/or face forcible imprisonment.
The role of the State
The Left advocates for a bigger and stronger state, with a great deal more being bought into its purview (all underwritten by its monopoly on violence). The Right would prefer to dismantle the state, allowing maximum liberty for the individual.
In the extreme, if the The Left were to have its own way, there would be a state with absolute control over all resources which would seek to distribute those resource as equitably as possible (“from each according to his ability to each according to his need” – Marx). If The Right were to get its own way, we would have the Hobbesian Nightmare with individuals competing to seize all the wealth and power through acts of violence (and dehumanising and subjugating the rest), with no Leviathan (the state) to hold them at bay.
There is bitter irony and hypocrisy to be found wherever we see the very extremes of both ends of the political spectrum establish too much control over the state. Although The Left fights for collective rights and equity, there will emerge a ruling class, family, or individual. Here, greed will overcome equity, and they will aggregate wealth and power whilst hypocritically outlawing similar behaviour in the general population. Similarly, with the far right, a ruling or superior ‘tribe’ will be excluded from the general population, and the ‘in group’ will hold different rights from the ‘out group’, including the right to control behaviour and seize property. This can happen at the level of ethnicity, nationality, or any other arbitrary characteristic, but does not honour the ideology of the individual being sovereign.
Healthy political discourse and the free exchange of ideas is the only way to avoid those terrible extremes.
State control of speech
This is why it’s so terrifying that, right now in Britain, it’s possible for the state to use it’s monopoly on violence to control speech. Things have gone even further in Canada with compelled speech laws.
This is even more terrifying than it might at first seem. The only tools of negotiation that exist are speech, and violence. Everything else are shades and variants of those two things. In fact, it could reasonably be argued – and in fact it is argued – that speech is actually just a very dilute form of violence. We already know that the state has a monopoly on legitimate physical violence, and for that to be leveraged to also establish control over speech leads to state totalitarianism.
To allow state control over speech by degrees is dangerous and foolish. If we accept that the State should be allowed to regulate to a degree, then who sets the boundaries? If we attempt to define the regulation of “hate speech”, for example, as the job of The State, then it is inevitable that the definition of “hate speech” will be driven by the political agenda.
As soon as we cede any control, we cede all control. As soon as there is speech that is forbidden then, by definition, the rest is speech that is permitted. Even speech which is permitted is only permitted because the state allows it to be, and this is subject to change over time. Re-read 1984, and understand how this is not a door that we want open, even a crack.
State control of industry
Another battleground on which The Left and The Right meet is the extent to which industries should be under private (individuals) or public (state) ownership and control.
The Left, being in favour of collectivism over liberalism, advocate in favour of state ownership. In regimes outside of all but the remaining attempts at communism, this debate happens at the level of utilities (gas, electricity, etc), healthcare, prisons, infrastructure (roads, trains, etc), and banking. Western democratic nations tend to agree that pretty much everything else is better served by private ownership and a competitive marketplace, with the debate between The Left and The Right being over the extent to which the state should regulate those markets.
The libertarian position is that the State should have no influence over industry at all, with the only concession being the state military. The argument is that markets are self regulating over the long term. The counter argument is that this isn’t true, because markets fail.
Consider these causes of market failure:
As discussed, outright power can replace competence as the force that perpetuates market dominance. Government lobbying and ‘political donations’, leading to targeted easing of taxes and regulation, for example, do happen (to a terrifying extent), and serve to maintain private monopolies and lock out competition. This is not a free market, and the market forces of free and fair competition will not work.
2. Free riders
The free rider problem (also known as the tragedy of the commons) is a scenario in which a public resources will be consumed without being paid for. The benefits accrue to the company, whilst the cost is spread out across society. Environmental pollution is a good example of this. Factories that pollute impose a cost on society (public illness, cost of cleanup, etc) which they don’t pay, but from which they benefit.
3. No supply side competition
For a market to function there needs to be both demand and competition. Take the example of a railway line, in which it’s not possible to vote with your feet and take a competitor’s train if you don’t like their pricing or service.
There are other causes of market failure, but the point is that the unbridled libertarian argument is flawed.
Progressivism and Conservatism
This is yet another way that the Left/Right are in opposition. The idea here is that the hierarchy-loving Right think that the current setup is ideal, and should be conserved. The advocates of the dispossessed on The Left think the game is rigged, and needs to be changed.
In the context of any particular ‘system’ (the economic system, the systems of government, industrial regulation) this is fine and healthy – there should be tension between the degree to which these systems change over time. There is no evolution without change, and proper debate leads to positive change over time.
The problem is when the abstract principles of progressivism and conservatism become integral to the ideology. If change per se is seen as good or bad, independent of context, then we have a problem.
This goes haywire on The Left when a less than ideal outcome for a group is attributed to abuse of power which is intrinsic to the institution, and so the institution itself needs to be rebuilt. This is the post-modernist/social-Marxist view on all things, because they hold that nothing else exists aside from power, and so every injustice is the consequence of the abuse of power. Nothing is as it is without power having made it so, and so it is inherently unjust and should be rebuilt. Any and all inequity (note, as opposed to inequality – the former being different outcomes and the former being unjust outcomes) is caused by hierarchical dominance. This hierarchical dominance is behind everything, including science, and so there is no valid criticism of this assertion. There are no objective facts, no intrinsic properties or character of individuals, no preference – just power.
At the other end of the scale comes an ideology of conservatism. If you reject outright the idea that anyone is at a societal disadvantage and insist that everyone has equal opportunity to succeed, then change should be resisted at all costs. Any inequity that emerges is as a result of hard work and ingenuity on the part of the winners, and lack of gumption on the part of the losers. This ignores the role of luck in our lives. Being born into a wealthy family – even if that wealth was honestly earned – is an unearned advantage in life. You won the genetic lottery as compared to someone born into poverty in the third world. This lack of empathy is where an unbridled conservative ideology goes haywire.
My political compass
So, after all this rumination, where does my political compass point? The boring answer is that it points due north, slap bang in the middle of these generalisations. I believe that free markets, where they can function properly, are a good thing; but also that pro-active effort should be made to help those at the bottom apply their skills and expertise and participate in the game. I think there is a role for the state in regulating behaviour of individuals and companies; but that this is should be minimised, and should certainly not have any influence over thought and speech. I like innovation and change, but I also think there are things worth protecting. Everything should be challenged, but not necessarily changed.
So, I’m a centrist. Shoot me.
If you had to label me, I guess I’d prefer you to use the label “Classical Liberal”. I think that the individual is sovereign, regardless of immutable characteristics, and the State should only exist as a bulwark against the worst catastrophes that would emerge from a state with absolutely no laws.
I like the concept of “natural laws” (although impute no metaphysical author of these). An example would be murder, and the acid test is whether or not an equivalent exists in nature. Of course, murder does exist in animal ‘societies’ (chimp troupes, etc) but it generally comes with dire if not terminal consequence for the perpetrator. It’s well documented that brutal and murderous control over a chimp colony is unstable and that several sub-dominant chimps will violently overthrow this leader. It is not explicitly codified, but there is a law against extreme violence and murder within the society which is enforced by agents of the group.
There is no natural “right”, however, not to be offended, and it’s my view that The State has absolutely no role in regulating the degree to which one person is offended by another.
In terms of voting, I can only speak to my record. I try to look at the case being put forward rather than default to ‘my party’. I don’t have any allegiance, and any party can win my vote if they make reasonable arguments, conduct themselves properly, and debates in the spirit of advancing the conversation rather than winning a fight.
A pretty depressing point to finish on, given that there’s no current political movement that looks anything like that. It’s also depressing that the public discourse on politics revolves around how big someone’s hands are, or a goofy tweet that’s been sent. It’s on us to transcend this and democratise the political discourse beyond the failed mainstream media – on both sides of the political divide.