Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Left, Right and Crippled

One thing I hate about politics is the way that so many people choose to draw a chalk line on the floor between themselves and their opponents and say, “You and I cannot agree.”

Ideas around Left and Right Wing politics represent one area that this happens. Left and Right in politics has meant different things at different times since the origin of the terms in revolutinonary France. But by the twenty-first century, in British politics, the Left and Right of politics had come to represent the inevitable conflict between two interests, both of which must be accommodated to run any sort of democracy. In absolutely basic economic terms, these interests might be labelled the interests of the collective (Left) and the interests peculiar to the individual (Right). The individual may be any political or economic entity; a person, a household, a business or even an entire country.

Both of these interests are important. Again, in very simplistic terms, ignore one interest and you’re left with something like Feudalism, ignore the other and you’re left with Communism. Most people (now) acknowledge that neither of these systems hold much benefit for either the collective or the individual. So we need to be somewhere round about the middle and there is always going to be some debate about exactly where along the spectrum our priorities must be; more with the collective good or more with the individual.

This is not a relativist argument. There must be some optimum point of balance, but it is likely to shift about a fair amount with a changing world and has to be constantly revised. Thus democracy. A rather crucial premise of democracy is that the best way of doing things will change in time.

The wonderful (terrible) thing about the current UK New Labour government is that people hate it for being too Left Wing or too Right Wing depending on their own political viewpoint; New Labour are left-wing bastards and also right-wing bastards; which is a neat trick. However, this particular government has done something a little different from previous ones, working on the basic principle of whatever sells, rejecting this old-fashioned model. This makes New Labour arguably less hypocritical than previous governments because they lack any principles which can be betrayed.

Anyway, there are some things that Left and Right do not mean – at least not in British politics up until now. It is, for example, perfectly possible to be a Right-Wing liberal or a Left-Wing authoritarian. There is no magic correlation between religiosity and Right-Wing politics, or environmentalism and Left-Wing politics and so on.

And the point I am concerned with today is the fact that egalitarianism can be compatible with both Left and Right. It really frustrates me when people on the Left make Right Wing synonymous with oppression, and when those on the Right assume that equality is none of their business.

I do not merely believe in equality because I think it is a nice idea, but because I think it is the best way of going about things, which benefits everybody. And there are two quite different ways in which this is the case. I'll use the example of disabled people, although similar goes for other disadvantaged groups:
As an individual, I want to get as much out of life as possible. I want as much freedom as possible, to do what I like with my life and to contribute to the society in which I live.

As a collective, the more people allowed to contribute – financially and in every other sense, the better. The greater variety of people involved in society, the greater variety of skills, talents and perspectives can be brought to the table when we’re working out the best way of going about things.
And there are two different perspectives in opposition to this:
As an individual, I want the freedom to do what I like with my money and resources; I do not wish to use them to support other people, I do not wish to be told who to employ or how to run my business. If I have unfair advantages over other people, then so be it; I enjoy these advantages and do not wish to give them up.

As a collective, we do not wish to be burdened with supporting people who do not make a tangible financial contribution to society. If they cannot come to the table without the collective needing to change in some way, then they cannot come to the table at all.
You may notice that it was basically Left-Wing language that was used to support the T4 program; these people are too much of a strain on the collective. This despite the fact that within the history of British politics at least, it is generally Left-Wing administrations who have made the bolder steps towards disability equality (as well as sexual and racial equality).

This is because it is usually those on the Right who are concerned about the amount of tax paid by individuals, and perhaps most importantly, the amount of legislation and financial obligations forced on individual businesses and organisations. It can be costly, in the short-term, to make the necessarily changes, and these costs are felt far greater by individual entities than the collective as a whole.

A Right Wing Egalitarian is far more likely to attempt to empower the individuals who are experiencing disadvantage; through education, training, access to equipment, increased personal freedom (e.g. more flexible benefit rules) etc.. Which would be nice, but would be likely to have very limited results if businesses and organisations were not also obliged to change.

However, the fact is that from whatever political perspective, the more unequal our treatment, the more burdensome we are on both individual interests and the collective. And everyone loses out.

Please note I have only capitalised Left and Right in order to make it clear I mean Left and Right in that way. I don't know whether that is grammatically correct.


fluttertongue said...

I very much agree with your sentiments here - Left and Right wing have been hijacked to mean something different from what they actually are. However, for democracy to work - at least in the system of democracy we follow - there has to be a strong opposition in order to keep checks on the governement. This doesn't necessarily have to be Left against Right. I am continually surprised by people who vote LibDem because they believe they are the most socially responsible. Liberty is such a mistreated word (look at US policies). Have you read Amartya Sen's Development as Freedom? It encapsulates what I consider individual liberty to represent without putting the burden on the collective.

The Goldfish said...

Hi Fluttertongue,

I've not read Sen, no, but if you're interested, I did write a serious of posts about concepts of liberty last... August.

They start with Tow Concepts of Liberty, about positive and negative liberty. Then there's Liberté, Égalité, Fratenité #1 about the importance of negative freedom and the private domain, Liberté, Égalité,Pornographie about positive freedom and problems around consent Liberté, Égalité, Fratenité #3 about how liberalism and egalitarianism can interact.

I do vote for the Liberal Democrats because I do think their policies are largely liberal and democratic and my experience suggests that they are very good in local government.

Mary said...

It's the local government that gets me. Our Conservative candidate lives twenty miles away and works forty miles away, so I don't want him to be my MP.

The LibDem candidate lives only a couple of streets away from me, but is "creepy" in all sorts of ways.

The Labour candidate, on the other hand... I went to school with his children, he's a decent bloke, and one of the few politicians who really *does* work tirelessly for the good of his constituents, even when it goes against the party line. Locally, he is the only logical choice. But, he's Labour, and I really don't want that mob in Downing Street for another term.

But I don't want to just not vote, because I'm scared that's how the BNP might get in.

We Need Loonies!

fluttertongue said...

Sorry - I worded that badly. The assumption is that Liberty is always a good thing - it's one of those words that is inherently imbued with utility. However, sometimes there are issues, like foxhunting for example, or the time limit of abortion that need more than just a blanket liberal approach. Also, a lot can be done negatively in the name of preserving our liberty - invading other countries for example