Misconceptions of Left vs. Right (Part 3): Equality vs. Hierarchy

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Part 1 of this series addressed the origin of the left vs. right dichotomy, as well as the authoritarian vs. libertarian and liberal vs. conservative dichotomies. Part two addressed Chesterton’s Fence and the order vs. chaos dichotomy. Next we’ll address the equality vs. hierarchy dichotomy.

Definitions

Both the left and the right claim to support equality, but their definitions differ.

The right tends to advocate for equality of opportunity, while fully acknowledging the natural differences between each person. The left tends to advocate for equality of outcome. This second definition is what is referred to as equality in this dichotomy, being the antithesis of hierarchy.

According to Brooks Peterson in Cultural Intelligence, a society or culture emphasizing equality encourages self-direction and individual choice. It also allows more flexibility of the system’s rules and each person’s role in society, whether it be the role of an employee in a company, or gender roles. Egalitarian societies are also more open to challenging authority. An extreme version of an egalitarian society is the anarcho-syndicalist vision of communes and industries run by “the workers” as opposed to managed by leaders. Put simply, they are less concerned with order and the management of society.

In contrast, hierarchical societies discourage everything that is encouraged by egalitarian societies. Hierarchical societies are more concerned with maintaining the system and abiding by the rules in place. An extreme version of a hierarchical society can be seen in most militaries. Each person has their position, and is expected to fulfill their role and not to deviate from it.

Exceptions

Libertarianism appears to be in the middle of this hierarchy. It strongly supports capitalism, a system that inevitably results in hierarchies within businesses and other organizations. But unlike extreme hierarchical systems like fascism, libertarianism is far more egalitarian in its skepticism to government and enforced hierarchies, and tends to be more liberal in regards to gender roles.

The only other significant flaw in this dichotomy is the inevitable result of leftist systems. Anarcho-communists call for a classless system without hierarchy, but the end result will always be an authoritarian system with hierarchies. But when placing ideologies in a spectrum, we need to compare what they believe, not necessarily the accuracy of those beliefs.

The Egalitarian Left

If we judge leftist ideologies like Marxism by their vision of an ideal society and not by the inevitable results, then we see the most extreme form of an egalitarian society, where nobody is supposed to have any legitimate authority or command over another, even in a voluntarily-organized arrangement. And modern leftists are strongly advocating for a breakdown of any hierarchical system, some even going so far as to call for the abolition of gender.

Looking more towards the center, we see a left-wing with a history of advocating for civil rights and government programs to (allegedly) combat poverty. We see a left-wing that denounces income inequality and strict adherence to gender roles. These are characteristic of the egalitarian view.

It could be argued that advocating for greater government power over the people is expanding hierarchy, not reducing it. In response, the egalitarians would argue that in a democracy, government is accountable to the people. When government manages a single-payer healthcare system or free public education, it is the people that are taking power from the (hierarchical) corporations and allowing each person access to a system, regardless of their ability to pay.

In this sense, it is indeed more egalitarian and less hierarchical. Whether or not this system actually works is an entirely different question. For the moment, we’re only measuring the consistency of left-wing ideologies in regards to favoring equality and opposing hierarchy.

The Hierarchical Right

Considering that the right generally opposes everything mentioned earlier that the left supports, that places them in favor of hierarchy. The right is more in favor of established systems that provide structure, and are more in favor of traditional gender roles. Parts of the right (especially the modern right) desire a system of meritocracy and equality of opportunity. Each individual begins where they are, and works to rise higher in the capitalist system. Of course, to rise higher implies that a hierarchy is in place to rise through.

The French Revolution

Looking back towards the original application of left vs. right to the French Revolution, we see this dichotomy fits. The right favored the hierarchical system with a clear class divide between the aristocrats and the poor. The left were the revolutionaries, favoring a new system with greater equality between the rich and poor. While the French royalists may not have been consciously in favor of hierarchy and against equality, the system they wished to preserve was more hierarchical and less egalitarian than what the revolutionaries desired.

Overall, the equality vs. hierarchy dichotomy provides a rather accurate overlap with the left vs. right spectrum. But there are still many more methods of viewing left vs. right, some of which will be addressed in Part 4 of this series.

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Nathan A. Kreider is the host of The Conversation, a podcast about ideas and how to spread them. He also 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]

1 COMMENT

  1. The end result of propertarianism is unfortunately in extremely authoritarian systems, either some sort of fascism or extreme capitalist master/serfs relationship. Anarcho-syndicalism seems to be the only movement probable to be striking (hah!) a reasonable balance between egalitarianism and individual freedom in postindustrial society.

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