Monday, March 21, 2005


Ineffective -- But Reasonably Appropriate -- Political Spectrums

An excellent response was made to a recent post regarding my continued commentary on definitions of libertarianism, and the inevitable debates that occur between libertarians and those on the Left. More specifically, the comments refer to what may be a false dichotomy when some of us refer to “The Left” or “The Right.” The comments made and my attempts to clarify my own views on the matter are stated below.

Please consider that the left/right dichotomy may be a false dichotomy. There may be alternative forms of political/socio/economic organization that do not map onto this spectrum very well. There are many on the cultural right, like myself, who are not on the economic right (they are not classical liberals). There are different modes of economic production that would fit neither the mode of the right or the left. Many of them are classified under the name of Distributism, and were advanced by such thinkers as Hillaire Belloc and GK Chesterton. Such thinkers think that the real devil in the system is neither collectivism nor capitalism, but rather the bureaucracy that arises from large-scale systems. Their solutions involve increasing the number of private property owners and small businesses. They also idealize the guild system of the middle ages, where professionals owned some assets in common with one another. However, it is also important that these smaller common associations not be government agencies and not infringe excessively on the rights of private property.

What distributists want is to have a good number of strong intermediate institutions between the individual and the state like universities, churches, guilds, foundations, and especially families. It is their belief that these intermediate institutions are of fundamental importance in building the sort of strong culture that can sustain freedom and liberty. In some ways this thought is not so different from Jefferson's ideas about a nation of yeoman farmers.


Some well stated and intelligent issues to consider. Indeed, political spectrums and the semantic reliability of various labels are ultimately impossible to “map” accurately. Admittedly, the single axis Right/Left spectrum is probably the least effective, though I think it still describes a somewhat valid dichotomy, and not a completely false one at that. Other attempts to map out political ideals have noted such things as degrees of authoritarianism or economic liberty, etc. There probably is no perfect all-inclusive template for mapping the political psyche. Those of us traditionally described as Right or Left are certainly polarized against something at variance to our own stance.

Although it may be a somewhat base appraisal, I have to intuitively perceive some of the values and stances I encounter to be of like character (when I hear or read the rants of Ward Churchill, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Hugo Chavez et al.).

Socialists, Marxists, Leftists, Jacobins, Progressives…whatever, may vary on many things but I know their values are not mine and I recognize a family likeness that requires some word or phrase to distinguish them from what they are not. In my own scheme, I seldom use the word, “liberal” as it is used often today to note a more leftist orientation. In the 60’s I would have described Lyndon Johnson or Hubert Humphrey as “Liberal” but Ted Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi today are in a completely different league. Likewise, I see “progressive” as just another euphemism conjured by socialists simply to say they’re better people with better values (something I’ve never bought into). Labels like, “New Left” are meaningless to me when it’s so obvious that, in spirit and goals, they are really no different from old Left brethren. Marx, Mao Zedong, or Angela Davis may differ on particulars but they are all relative opposites of Adam Smith, Ronald Reagan, or William F. Buckley (and, I’d maintain, not all that opposite to Hitler or Mussolini). Perhaps David Duke or Jerry Falwell don’t fit well into such polar schemes but I’d suggest that their desire to rally people collectively to an imposed cause bears more resemblance to the former collectivists and not the pro-free market “conservatives.”

All of this aside, your references to Distributism is interesting and worthy of inquiry. On the surface, Distributism sounds somewhat “idealistic” (as is Libertarianism). I don’t think the yeoman farmer idea could be easily pulled off today (I realize that this was not an actual stated goal), though I thoroughly admire the sentiment behind the concept. I definitely believe smaller and more localized is better, and I certainly favor private everything over the imposed will of politicians, lawyers, or “philosophers.” The value of “intermediate institutions” is also a sober and praiseworthy concept as is the desire to increase private ownership and small business enterprises. Unfortunately, large scale enterprises like aircraft or bridge production will always be beyond the capacities of local guilds. If I were to favor who should build cars, a modern corporation or the U.A.W., I’d go with the traditional capitalist enterprise – warts and all.

Arguments against an individualist stance inevitably assume individuals to be people who will freely choose to not associate with other individuals or organizations – a most ridiculous straw-man contention. Collective association is certainly no problem to a libertarian – when it’s voluntary.

While I’m aware of the evil that can occur under any power aggrandizing institution (corporate or “public”), I’m inevitably polarized against the rants expressed by socialists. Their opposition to “greed, selfishness, and profit” just never comes across as very sincere to me. I’d prefer to take my chances with systems that permit creativity, ambition, and self-striving. If such self-striving “pays off” in wealth and success, that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. How the “lucky” person (who’s usually taken considerable risk and invested considerable energy) uses their profit doesn’t concern me either. I could personally “give” twenty percent or more of my income to “the poor” and still get by fine but I don’t – and neither does the average whining socialist. I don’t think either of us is “selfish” for not doing so. I find it pointless to hold the random “rich” person to any higher standard than I would live by myself.

In the usual Right/Left political spectrum, the left typically assumes that business in general represents greed and selfishness, with the implication that government authority somehow represents “compassion” (there’s a laugh).

From your descriptions, it appears that Distributism favors private property, decentralization, and voluntary association. As an ideal, they have my vote. If I were to criticize their stance (and, I’m really in no position to do so yet) I would say that they appear to be libertarians who wish freedom would not occasionally lead to large corporate institutions.

It would seem that we are stuck in a kind of fractal -- material, social, and political – where one may choose their level of affiliation (family, community, state, or world), or be compelled to do so. Those whom I define as, “on the left” seem to consistently demand that any choice in this matter be eliminated and that allegiances be focused on higher levels of affiliation (“the People” and “the State” seems to always trump the individual or family with them).

In our time, and under present circumstance, the main conflict appears to be between those who – for whatever reason – favor greater and more centralized government authority, and those who favor less. So for now, I’m calling myself right-wing, conservative, libertarian, and classical liberal to distinguish myself from what I am not -- Ward Churchill, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Hugo Chavez et al.

Thanks for the excellent comments.

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