The Right-Left Fallacy

Our habit of dividing political opinions into a spectrum of Right and Left has its origins in the seating arrangements of the 18th-century French parliament. There was and is an ancient tradition of putting honored guests at the right hand of the host, and Christian scripture relates the belief that the saved will stand at the right hand of God while the damned depart to the left. Whatever the reason, the parliament was divided into two sides: those that favored the nominal authority of the King sat on the right side of the legislative assembly, and those opposed to it sat on the left.

The tradition of naming political positions as ‘left’ or ‘right’ has something of a problem with it.

Consider the original division. There are three ways the groups can be said to be distinct:

One group favored the existing status quo, while the other wanted to depart from it.
One group favored authoritarianism and aristocracy, while the other rejected those systems of thought.
One group was in favor, the other was not.

There’s no logical reason any of those ways must be related to any of the others. When authoritarianism and aristocracy are out of favor, is a group that approves of them on the Right or Left? When rejection of those things is part of the dominant status quo, is rejecting them Right or Left? That depends on which of the three principles one uses to define the spectrum.

‘Conservatism’ is often said to be a Right-wing political position. But at present, it refers to an ideology that is out of favor and has been for some time – the status quo is against it. So conservatism isn’t conservative, in that it now represents a break from the past. It’s also out of political favor. So why is it Right? By the original system, it fits two of the three criteria for being Left – and depending on how you interpret modern Conservatism and Liberalism, it fits the third as well.

Referring to political positions in this manner creates inaccuracies and obscures meaning. Habits of speech that act as barriers to communication in this way ought to be avoided whenever possible.

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10 Responses to “The Right-Left Fallacy”

  1. I like the parliamentary terms Government (which Americans use to refer to the State) and Opposition. They are always applicable to any political system, regardless of what the parties supposedly stand for.

  2. Except that lumps together everything that isn’t currently in power.

    It’s possible for two groups to each be utterly opposed to the status quo, but yet mutually incompatible.

    Saying that something is in favor, or in power, is specific in a way that being out of favor or power is not.

  3. The 1-dimensional schema is useless. Just add more dimensions.

    Left/right for communism vs liberalism (economic scale)
    Up/down for authoritarianism vs libertarianism (social scale)

    They’ve already done this at http://www.politicalcompass.org/analysis2

    I put you somewhere in quadrant IV.

  4. Bryan Caplan and others have noted that for practical purposes, a one-dimensional axis works pretty well. Beliefs in one area predict beliefs in completely unrelated areas. But if you want multiple axes, you can do more than two. I’ve seen several using three.

  5. “Beliefs in one area predict beliefs in completely unrelated areas.”

    It would be more accurate, I suspect, to say that beliefs that tie people to one overarching ideological group will influence what other beliefs they’ll claim to have.

    As I see it, that’s part of the problem. It’s even worse if it’s accurate.

  6. Ideology (like religiosity, though not adherence to specific sects) seems to be substantially heritable, so there’s likely a genetic explanation. I don’t find your theory plausible, because as Converse found and others have confirmed, most people have no understanding of ideology and what the different sides are supposed to believe. Similarly, in religion we have theological incorrectness where people aren’t aware of the dogmas they are supposed to believe.

  7. What if we narrow our focus to people who know something about their espoused ideological positions, excluding all of the mindless drones?

  8. I just wanted to shoutout and say thanks for taking the time to address this problem so long ago.

    I thought I was all smart and shit figuring this out but much more brilliant people beat me to it before I was even analyzing these systems at this level of depth.

    Must have been depressing over the last half decade (potentially a full decade?) understanding the inherent flaws preventing effective solution based governance…

    May I ask what your opinion on Capitalism is? I’ve found there to be copious amounts of misinformation around the topic. But in reality, the existence of several factors, for instance, Wall Street, would suggest that Capitalism does not exist and perhaps hasn’t for many years.

    Perhaps a better term for the economic state today is: corporate consumerism? I believe the political system is a: representative democracy. Which I believe by the virtue of its attributes to be stuck in this right/left paradigm fallacy.

    If anyone is interested in discussing these topics critically in search of a solution and not furthering an agenda, I’d love for you to reach out to me via: chris@woeigo.com

    If you honestly think Capitalism exists, then you haven’t done enough research to warrant a discussion just yet. Stay open minded and keep looking around. Use an incognito browser so that the search engines don’t serve up biased misinformation in order to please you 🙂

  9. […] have often cited this post on politics always being divided into two sides (the government and opposition, in parliamentary […]

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