101: Left, Right or Center?
Dr. Judd W. Patton
Today we often hear that our political candidates or certain groups are either to the
"left" or to the "right" on the political spectrum. We hear commentators talk about the
"radical right" or the "religious right" and our First Lady blames certain problems of the President on a
"right-wing conspiracy." Perhaps there is a "left-wing
conspiracy?" And then there are the terms "liberal" and
"conservative." Where do people with these labels fit on this spectrum?
Do most American know what is meant by these terms? It seems unlikely. In fact, the spectrum itself makes little sense in explaining someone's political and economic philosophy. Let me explain.
When I was in high school my chemistry teacher explained that a spectrum is a scale measuring continuous variation in some property, like the color spectrum. I still remember, decades later, the color spectrum as "Roy G. Biv." That's red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. A meaningful spectrum taught by a great teacher!
Sometime later in college I learned about this so-called political spectrum. As I recall, Communism is to the
extreme left and Fascism or Nazism is to the extreme right while other types of government are somewhere in between. Then I took my first economics class. Dr. Hans Sennholz taught that Communism and Nazism are both command economies, two forms of socialism. Both are anti-capitalist. After all,
Nazi is an acronym for "National Socialism." and the former U.S.S.R stood for Union of Soviet
Socialist Republics. Two peas in the same pod, as it were. Anyway, here's the political spectrum:
Well, clearly Communism and Fascism are not opposites in some political spectrum or continuum. That much is crystal clear. But before long, though, I discovered the reason why this political spectrum is so confusing. Moreover, I discovered two spectrums that really make sense out of political/economic ideologies! But first let me explain how the current left/right political spectrum came to be.
Seating in Parliaments
The left/right "yardstick" is the product of a lexicon of yesteryear that purports to "line-up" or measure political/economic philosophies on a continuum according to where political parties sat in Parliaments throughout
Europe. Incredible as this may sound, it's absolutely true! The revolutionaries, usually the Communists, sat on the
far left and the military dictatorship-type people who wanted to glorify the all-powerful state, like the Fascists, sat on the
far right. Other parties, I presume, sat somewhere in the center.
To put it bluntly, this is crazy! The ideas of political parties change over time. Where they sit in Parliaments is irrelevant and immaterial, as Perry Mason would protest. Does this "yardstick" or spectrum really make it possible to compare political/economic ideas to one another? Of course not! It is hopelessly misleading and confusing.
Now, let's consider another political spectrum that has recently been proposed in the July, 2000 issue of
Ideas on Liberty (formerly the Freeman).
Mark Skousen, an Austrian economist teaching at Rollins College, has recently proposed that we abandon the left/right or pendulum approach, as he calls it, of political parties and instead use a top to bottom approach much like an Indian totem pole. As you may recall Indians placed their most-favored chiefs at the top, followed by lesser-significant chiefs below.
Skousen's criterion for placement on the totem pole is the degree of economic freedom in one's
ideology. That is, the more economic freedom a person, candidate or political party advocates or an economic system permits the higher on the pole they rate. Thus, in his example, he would place Adam Smith near the top followed by John Maynard Keynes in the center, and Karl Marx at the bottom (low man on the totem pole!). Smith advocated the highest degree of economic freedom
(natural liberty in his own words) while Keynes advocated heavy government intervention in the economy through deficit spending, public works, and monetary inflation while Marx advocated a command economy with no economic freedom, period.
Without question economic freedom is a much better yardstick to gauge political/economic philosophies and discover where individuals, economic systems, nations or political parties stand to one another. One valuable annual publication that can be used to implement this approach is the Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal's 2000
Index of Economic Freedom. The index measures how well 161 nations score on a list of fifty factors related to
economic freedom. The nations on the bottom of the totem pole in 2000 are Cuba, Somalia, Libya, Iraq and North Korea. The top of the totem pole includes Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, and the United States. Russia comes in at 122.
The Index dramatically demonstrates a strong positive correlation between economic freedom and a nation's standard of living, i.e., more economic freedom produces higher living standards; lesser freedom produces lower living standards. A stark confirmation of economic theory!
free-market capitalism, then, would be the "top man" on the totem pole while
socialist command economies, whether the governmental structure is Fascism, Nazism or Communism, would be at the bottom of the totem pole. Other types of governments with
mixed economies, whether monarchy, dictatorship, democracy, or even a constitutional republic, depending on their policies, could fall anywhere on the totem pole. The issue is: How much political and economic freedom do these governments permit? The type of government as such is essentially irrelevant.
One key conceptual advantage of the totem pole approach over the left/right approach is that the middle-of-the-road or center position, the so-called non-extreme position, would no longer seem like the moderate ideal as is often implied in the contemporary approach. Ranking 80 out of 161 nations just doesn't seem to be the ideal position!
Founder's Political/Economic Spectrum
But there is another insightful political continuum I discovered while studying the works of our forefathers. Their political spectrum was based, not on political parties, but on political power, the coercive power that a particular system of government exercises over its people. Their political spectrum went from
tyranny on the left to anarchy on the right. Here are just two examples.
George Washington referred to the human struggle wherein "there is a natural and necessary progression, from the extreme of
anarchy to the extreme of tyranny." In the Federalist Papers, No. 9,
Alexander Hamilton also referred to nations that are always, "in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of
tyranny and anarchy." Notice their political spectrum:
Interestingly, our nation experienced both extremes. King George III was a tyrant and the Declaration of Independence cited 27 acts of tyranny.
Thomas Jefferson concluded, "A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free
people." But after throwing off tyrannical government by the Revolutionary War, our nation, under the Articles of Confederation, quickly drifted to the right toward the "no law" anarchy side of the spectrum.
Consider this. The Articles of Confederation had not given the national government any taxing authority or enforcement power. There was no executive or judiciary. Then runaway inflation of the Continental paper dollar during the War rocked the post-war economy when prices collapsed. Riots broke out. Even a group of disgruntled soldiers besieged the State House in Philadelphia where Congress was meeting. Trade wars between the states began heating up with protective tariffs, import duties and other regulations. Dozens of different and depreciating currencies were circulating. New England threatened to secede. Anarchy was "in the air" in the 1780s.
These were the prevailing conditions when the Constitutional Convention convened on May 25, 1787 to discuss revising the Articles of Confederation. Surely they felt the ever-present threat of anarchy and feared any return to tyrannical government. Thus their purpose was to discover a system of government with sufficient authority to
"establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our
posterity." In other words, they sought to find the balanced center of the political spectrum.
I believe they found it! On September 17, 1789 thirty-nine of the forty-two delegates signed the Constitution. "We have given you a Republic, if you can keep it," replied
Ben Franklin to a lady who had inquired of him as to the type of government the delegates had devised. Indeed, it was a Constitutional, republican (representative) form of government with specific, enumerated powers (Article I, Section 8) and a system of checks and balances to protect the nation from ever experiencing the likes of King George III again, and, for that matter, experiencing the chaos of anarchy.
Conclusion: The Real Political Spectrum
Let's review our Founder's political spectrum. On the left belongs communism,
fascism (a government of unlimited regulatory power with only the appearance of private property),
dictatorships, welfare states, and even most democracies where the people have voted for government programs and controls on the economy. Of course
communism and fascism are on the far left.
Anarchy is to the extreme right with no government or law. It is usually characterized by general lawlessness and civil war. We have seen such conditions emerge in the 1990s as the aftermath of the collapse of socialist nations.
Here is an essential point in understanding our Founder's political spectrum. Free-market
capitalism, the private property order, is not on the right. It is not the opposite of tyranny. Capitalism is the economic system that goes "hand-in-glove" with Constitutional, limited government.
It is in the center of the political spectrum! Capitalism, after all, is simply the economic corollary to political freedom. We notice this relationship specifically in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution that protect Americans from Federal and State governments depriving us of
"life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," and neither can
"private property be taken for public use without just compensation."
One of Regis Philbin's million dollar questions should be: "Where are the Republican and Democratic parties today located on the Founders political spectrum? Candidly, neither party offers a vision or platform on the role of government as required by the original intention of the Framers of our Constitution, specifically in Article I, Section 8. Both are on the left. Neither Mr. Gore nor Mr. Bush wish to tear down the welfare state that America has become. Indeed, Mr.Gore wishes to go further left with more socialistic programs.
I wonder how they would respond to the Father of the American Revolution,
Samuel Adams: "The utopian schemes of leveling (redistribution of wealth) and a community of goods (socialism) are as visionary and impractical as those which vest all property in the Crown. These ideas are arbitrary, despotic, and, in our government, unconstitutional."
Jefferson said it best: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." Americans have seemingly forgotten our Constitutional heritage. Isn't it time to re-learn the political spectrum of our Founder's and reject the misleading left/right spectrum? How one frames an issue or debate is often the first step in making progress. I hope you will join me in this educational challenge. But remember, we are neither left nor right. We're in the balanced center of the political spectrum!
Home - Top of Page