A simple theory of the political left-right division
What exactly is the political left and right? In the classical economic sense it is simple to follow: The left wants more state control, regulation and redistribution, and the right wants less of those things. However, increasingly issues that are not strictly economical become part of this divide. To name some examples: it is more right-wing to support a originalist reading of the constitution, and to be against transgender initiatives; and it’s more left-wing to support things like immigration and the environment.
So what is the base principle? I believe it is this:
The left wing puts more weight on empathy for the less fortunate, and the right wing puts more weight on tradition or system thinking.
Let’s first go through how it fits with the classical, economic left-wing split.
— Rent control —
The left — Empathizes with the poor tenant who pays too high a rent.
The right — The system works better overall without government interference.
— Redistribution —
The left — Empathizes with the less wealthy person, and wants the government to redistribute more money to help improve his lot.
The right — In tradition, people should keep what they earn themselves. In systems thinking, people will work less hard if their returns depend less on their effort.
It’s not a ground-breaking perspective in these examples, but makes decent sense. Where the principle shines is in applying it to other issues.
— The supreme court —
The left — If society is unjust against people through no fault of their own, such as in prohibiting gay marriage, the supreme court should rule it illegal
The right — We have a system where the democratically elected government makes laws, and the judicial system interprets those laws. If the judges base their judgment too much on what they personally think is fair, that will in effect create a system where we confer a large amount of power to a small number of unelected people, which is not good.
— Transgender issues —
The left — Empathizes with people born who are in the wrong body, and have to live their life as the wrong sex in addition to oppression from society.
The right — Glorifying transgenderism may cause people to identify as transgender when they aren’t, and giving too much encouragement for gender transitions at young ages, may cause young people to transition who will later regret it.
An important facet of empathy is the expanding circle of empathy.
— Immigration —
The left — Empathizes with immigrants being oppressed and denied opportunities in their home country. This circle of empathy is expanded compared to
The right — which has less empathy for foreigners compared to citizens. Also see it as too much of a change of traditional society.
— The environment and animals —
The left — Feels more empathy for animals compared to the right, due to the expanding circle of empathy. This is relevant for animals hurt in factory farming, as well as animals in the wild hurt indirectly by human activity. And even the environment in itself is the subject of empathy-like feelings.
The right — In traditions especially, there is a more limited circle of empathy, and thus more moral weight is put on humans alive today. In systems thinking, environmentalism receives push-back by thoughts of effectiveness of the approaches, and cost-benefit analysis of what can be achieved with the resources.
The principle can also be used to predict future development. For example, take the issue of free speech. Previously, there hasn’t been much political division on the issue. But if we look we can see that it has a natural left-right split:
— Freedom of speech —
The left — Words can be hurtful to individuals who we should empathize with.
The right — While individual cases may have bad consequences, over the system of a society with full freedom of speech works better than one in which there is limited freedom of speech.
Tradition and systems thinking may seem like odd companions. I think it makes sense from the following perspective: To counter-act empathic feelings, you need a strong conviction that the alternative is better overall. And only two things can give this conviction: Either tradition, doing things in a way we know that works and makes sense; or systems thinking, that with all things considered including indirect effects, the alternative is overall better. Thus they are natural allies in the counter-argument against the empathy-based view. However, there are many obvious differences between tradition and systems thinking, as is illustrated in the split between classical conservatives and libertarians.
Markets are of course the ultimate non-empathic but efficient system. As the conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg put it “Capitalism is the most cooperative system ever created for the peaceful improvement of peoples’ lives. It only has one fatal flaw: It doesn’t feel like it.” In Bastiat’s That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen he describes how unseen indirect effects can be as important as the direct effects. If you help a tenant with his rent you see (e.g. can empathize with) the direct effects on this tenant, but there are also things that are not seen, such as the effect on the incentives of people to build more housing (the system).
This principle of the left-right split aptly explains sayings like: “If you are not a liberal at 25, you have no heart. If you are not a conservative at 35 you have no brain.” Having a heart is about empathy, and having a brain is about understanding the system and that which is not seen. It also explains why women tend to be more left-wing, since they have higher empathy on average.
That the division is on such a basic level of values also explains why much political of disagreement is so entrenched and uncharitable to the other side. If empathy for suffering people is your focus, talk about systems or tradition will not be satisfying to you; and likewise if the overall efficiency of the system if your focus, talk about the fate of particular individuals in the system will be unsatisfactory to you.
Footnote: Of course the left-wing view is also focused on the overall system. For example a system in which poor people suffer more is a system that works less well. Also the left-wing opinion can be more rooted in sense of social justice and oppression than empathy for specific people as such. Neither is it accurate that right-wing people have no empathy, and are cold, unfeeling systems thinkers. What the principle says, is that when there is a left-right point of disagreement, the position that is more left-wing is the one that is more focused on improving the situation of people in less fortunate situations that one can empathize with, and the position which is more right-wing is the one that claims that other considerations overshadow these concerns. Naturally, not every person on each side will share every one of the opinions of that side, and people on both sides will consider empathy, social justice, systems, and tradition to some degree. Just not overall to the same degree.