On news that F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom is number one on Amazon, I visited there and checked some of the reviews and forum discussions. One comment prompted me to make a stab at something I’ve been struggling with for some time: the inappropriateness of the current most popular labels of political discourse: right versus left, and liberal versus conservative. The two sides are addressing different issues, rather than the same issue from different perspectives.
@Kreitman: “Do you think [Beckheads] will go on to read Hayek’s “Why I am not a conservative” essay?”
I am not a Beckhead, but I do follow Hayek, and thus believe in strictly limited government. I have also read “Why I am not a conservative”, and largely agree with it.
The problem with “conservative/right” and “liberal/left” is that those terms have been ripped loose from their historical foundations. “Left/Right” originally referred to the seating in the 18th century French parliament. “Conservative/Liberal” referred to supporters of the nobility and existing social, political, and religious institutions versus a more fluid, egalitarian, humanistic society. The original conservative v. liberal fight is, in the light of the American revolution, essentially over in the US and nations modeling themselves on the US success. The liberals won.
The current fight is between collectivists and individualists. The true modern political spectrum runs from tyranny to anarchy. Both extremes are, ahem, extremely dangerous; anarchy is also unstable and quickly collapses into tyranny.
The descriptions and labels of the two camps are incommensurate; they’re talking about different things. Worse, the basic vocabulary has been set by the statist/collectivist/socialist/communist wing, which has taken to itself the liberal/left label, and applied the right/conservative/capitalist labels to the individualist/minarchist/free market/entrepreneurial wing, which has no widely accepted terms of its own to apply to the debate.
A good example of the conflict is the differing interpretations of “the people”. Collectivists regard “the people” and “the state” as the same thing, with the state being the mechanism for achieving the most good for society as a whole by leading the people to act in concert for common ends; see various local and state courts, where the prosecution is announced as representing “the people” against individual members of same. Individualists regard “the people” as the aggregate of individual citizens acting in their own best interests; see “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”, which makes no sense under the collectivist understanding. Then there’s the differing interpretations of “the right of the people to keep and bear arms”….
Another example is “class”. Originally, this referred to the idea that people were either, by birth, “noble” or “common”, and that there was little mobility between the two. However, socialists have redefined it to mean “rich” versus “poor”, and “capitalist” v. “worker”, again assuming a rigid hierarchy. Thus, advocates of a free market enabling individuals to make their own decisions regarding the best use of the resources available to them, within the constraints of the rule of law, find themselves conflated with advocates of unconstrained robber barons and the divine right of kings.
Obviously, when such fundamental terms have such disparate definitions, it’s almost impossible to have an intelligible conversation.
[I have made some minor tweaks to the version posted here.]