Until recently, I always considered myself a devout progressive. Nurtured by a fiercely Democratic family, I remember debates with my classmates in elementary school about how Al Gore was a better candidate than George W. Bush. I spent both my undergraduate and graduate studies inundated with leftist political philosophy and ideology. For many reasons that I won’t examine in this post, I came to believe that the left had moved from progressive to regressive, from tolerant to intolerant and from liberal to illiberal.
This realization pushed me to the center (the excesses of the right are no less sickening). Despite this, I understand that the left fulfills an indispensable societal function. At the cost of their own welfare, conservatives fail to see this. Like the “regressive left” that they condemn, conservative absolutists view politics as a zero-sum game, where policy concession and compromise are relinquishments of power instead of bipartisan optimization. However hyperbolic the left’s antics have been recently, Americans must not throw the baby out with the bath water. Here’s the reality: we all need the left.
What does the left stand for? Conservatives will say high taxes, big government, crippling regulation, promotion of minority rights (over majority rights), open borders, redistribution of wealth, protection of criminals, single-payor healthcare, secularization and ultimately, total equity achieved through tyrannical mechanisms. While there is some truth to this over-the-top caricature, especially in certain leftist circles (Democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), it misses the true aim of the left.
The foundational axiom that informs all leftist political ideologies, from communism to socialism to welfare statism and everything in between, is that inequality is harmful and avoidable. This principle motivates the left to reduce or eliminate inequality through public policy. While there’s variation in the specific policies that are pursued, most fall into four neat categories:
- Make it more difficult for the wealthy to pass their inheritance on to their offspring.
- Limit the scope and breadth of private property rights (or eliminating them altogether).
- Regulation of the marketplace (to protect consumers, prevent monopolies, etc.)
- Wealth redistribution via higher taxes on the wealthy and middle-class coupled with social services, lower taxes and cash payments for the poor.
The latter part of the twentieth century saw America, invigorated by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, add a fifth species of equality policy – affirmative action, which sought to eliminate racial inequality caused by centuries of oppression. Admired leftist qualities include compassion, diversity and inclusion. The good leftist strives to work towards social justice so that inequality is minimized.
Right Isn’t Always Wrong, But It Is Sometimes
Because the leftists view the world through the prism of inequality, it’s easy to see why any praise of, or even allusion to meritocracies and laissez-faire capitalist marketplaces make them nervous; competitions with winners and losers inevitably generate hierarchies, which result in inequality. Leftist regimes in the twentieth century were hostile toward religion (Christianity in particular) because it was seen as a tool of the ruling class – Karl Marx famously called religion the “opium of the people” – and also because it promoted individuality and inequality through the cultivation of discipline. The Marxist looks at the ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ and sees an excuse for the ruling class to perpetuate wealth disparity.
The latter effect is a big sticking point with the left and provides a nice segue to the tension with the right. The bedrock principle of all right-leaning political movements is the inevitability of hierarchies and, therefore, the inevitability of an uneven distribution of wealth, class and status. An inevitable outcome can’t be unjust. For example, storms hit, plagues explode and famines torment; nature is indifferent to human welfare and morality. Attempts to soften the world’s inevitable brutality are as naive as they are ineffective. As conservative hero William F. Buckley, Jr. once said, “Freedom breeds inequality.” Order, patriotism and a sense of duty are prized virtues to the right, while personal responsibility and accountability are only the minimum requirements for success in society.
The point of this post is not to advocate for conservatism or to say that the left is superior to conservatism. The point is that we need both. history has proven that societies that ignore the voice of the left become victims of their hubris and greed. Jordan Peterson enjoys reminding right-wingers that once wealth inequality gets passed a certain point, the poor will rise up. This is a proven political law, just like the scientific law of gravity. In his landmark work of political philosophy, The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau warned that unchecked disparities in wealth between the upper and lower classes will produce dangerous societal tension.
World history has seen many ineffective autocracies (King Louis XVI of France and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, to name a few), whose abusive leadership spurred its citizens to rise up and revolt. Revolutions caused in whole or in part by income inequality aren’t anything specific to modern civilization. As stated before, wealth inequality is a guaranteed catalyst for societal destabilization. Aristotle wrote the Athenian Constitution in 350 B.C.E. and in the first several lines, he outlines the abject horrors of pre-revolution (and pre-democratic) Athens – when the city was ruled by tyrannical oligarchs.
History is filled with many more instances of inequality-induced revolutions. To ignore the past is to repeat it. Ironically, the wealthy that tried to hoard as much wealth as possible actually ensured that they were killed or driven into poverty, because their claim to their property wasn’t respected during violent revolutions.
Another invaluable goal of the left is to keep the market in check. The right doesn’t care about keeping the public safe, it cares about having an incentive structure that spurs innovation and rewards ingenuity and hard work. Quality control systems and safety measures for the products that we use save lives and put our minds at ease. These features are expensive and annoying to manufacturers. In the 1970s, Ralph Nader pressured the auto industry to install airbags in cars (due to an epidemic of automobile accident deaths). The industry, citing the impractical cost of the safety feature, fiercely resisted.
Unregulated market participants will never be incentivized to worry about externalities (byproducts of production that negatively affect the surrounding environment) because doing so raises costs, which makes their products less attractive relative to their competitors. Reasonable environmental regulations are gifts from the left and everyone should be grateful for them (granted Richard Nixon did start the EPA). From Erin Brockovich’s discovery of the dark side of capitalism to the current situation in Flint, Michigan, Americans have been reminded too many times of the indispensability of environmental checks on industry to forget its importance.
Vigilant regulators have saved lives. In the 1950s, a new sedative drug called thalidomide was released in Europe and quickly spread from Germany to its neighboring countries. The drug’s manufacturer, Chemie Gruenethal, wanted to introduce the drug to the American public as quickly as possible.
Brand new to the FDA and a recent medical school graduate, Dr. Frances Kelsey was assigned the task of approving thalidomide for use in the United States. After reviewing the evidence, she concluded that the drug’s scientific literature was not robust enough for the drug to be classified as safe to use. She eventually found that some of the drug’s self-serving ‘evidence’ was written by the manufacturer, not physician researchers. Despite intense pressure, from both inside and outside of the FDA, Dr. Kelsey refused to bow to financial concerns and did not approve the drug for distribution in the United States.
Soon after, thousands of babies across Europe were born with gruesome birth defects, ranging from shortened limbs to lack of vital internal organs. More than 10,000 thalidomide babies were born in Europe and hundreds of thousands were miscarried or stillborn. Because of Dr. Kelsey’s integrity and fidelity to her duty, American newborns were spared this gruesome fate. To call her anything less than true American hero would be a drastic understatement.
Dr. Kelsey exemplifies why we need the left. Profit-driven corporations are concerned with their bottom line. Markets need to be regulated. The environment needs to be protected. However, even more important, wealth inequality must not be allowed to reach the threshold of societal breakdown. It’s happened before and it will happen again. That’s why we need the left.
- Johnson, Paul. (2005). “A Glossary of Political Economics Terms.” Auburn University, Department of Political Science
- Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. (1762, republished 2017). The Social Contract. Early Modern Texts.
- Aristotle (Translated by Sir Frederic G. Kenyon). (350 B.C.E). The Athenian Constitution. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Feinberg, David (Editor). (2014). Searching for the Crashless Car. The New York Times.
- Bernier, Jeff (Editor). (2013). The Shadow of the Thalidomide Tragedy. The New York Times.