Misconceptions of Left vs. Right (Part 6)

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The concept of left and right as a political dichotomy originated during the French Revolution, since then has become one of the dominant frameworks for political ideology in the western world.

Because these terms are so vague and hard to define, there have been many different attempts at defining what makes an ideology left or right.

Thus far, we’ve covered the authoritarian vs. libertarian, liberal vs. conservative, order vs. chaos, equality vs. hierarchy, nature vs. nurture, and constrained vs. unconstrained dichotomies, as well as the “Chesterton’s Fence” analogy.

Individualism vs. Collectivism

During the French Revolution, where the political dichotomy of left and right originated, it was the left-wing revolutionaries that were most influenced by individualism. To be an individualist then was to be left-wing.

Looking towards the United States, the American Revolution was heavily influenced by individualism. As a nation founded on individualist principles, American conservatives are much more individualistic than the conservatives of other nations. Even then, to be right wing in America does not necessarily mean one is an individualist. Nationalism is much more common on the right, and to be an extreme nationalist is to be extremely right wing.

American conservatism is, to some degree, both individualist and nationalist, but extreme nationalists are very collectivist. If fascism is placed on the right, based on its extreme nationalism (the placement of fascism on the political spectrum will be covered in a later part of this series), then we cannot say that individualism and right-wing beliefs are highly correlated.

Then again, individualism is very much absent in many of the modern left-wing parties in Europe and North America, when in the past individualism was more common on the left. To be an extreme leftist today often means to be extremely collectivist.

In other words, individualism and collectivism do not adhere to opposite ends of the political spectrum. There are many examples of both ideologies on the left and the right. Therefore, to say that one side is inherently individualist while the other is intrinsically collectivist would be incorrect.

Empathy For The Rich vs. Sympathy For The Poor

This topic is more of a dichotomy of viewpoints or habits than ideologies.

To have empathy for the rich can be influenced by one’s ideology, but is not in itself an ideology. Because this dichotomy is defined in such a unique way, applying this framework to the left vs. right political spectrum can be accurate but not necessarily comprehensive or helpful — as it looks at how each side acts, rather than what each side believes.

Throughout the French Revolution, it was the right-wing royalists that empathized with the aristocrats and those in power, while the left-wing revolutionaries sympathized with the poor.

Leftists declare themselves as advocates of the working class and the poor while the right tends to empathize with those at the top of hierarchical systems, whether they be aristocrats or entrepreneurs.

The American right takes the view that the poor are “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” and encourages them to work their way to the top, and empathizes with the rights of the rich to keep the money they have earned.

The left advocates a redistribution of wealth away from the rich and to the poor.

Overall, this framework is accurate, with one exception: there are many individuals that are both right-wing and poor, just as there are many individuals that are both left-wing and rich. Both sides will tend to side with their own, along ideological lines rather than wealth.

Today we see the right embracing populism and opposing the “Hollywood elite” and the establishment in general. Leftists thus far remain relatively skeptical of the left-wing elite but show minimal sympathy for poor people on the right.

In many ways, this framework resembles the liberal vs. conservative dichotomy covered in Part 1 of this series. Those that empathize with the rich are content with the status quo, and will, therefore, be more conservative. Those that sympathize with the poor are sympathizing with those that have “lost” within the current system, and will, therefore, be more willing to change the “system.”

Although it is mostly accurate, this framework is by no means comprehensive and should be, if anything, secondary to the “liberal vs. conservative” framework.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]