On the OActivists list, Rick Kiessig linked this post at his blog 12 Know More, where he proposes a way to “fit” the idea of individual rights into the prevailing “Left-Right model” of politics. As readers of my posts will know, I do not believe this is possible, and would lead to the same sort of dead end as the well-known libertarian “diamond” graph, and for the same reason: it attempts to integrate valid knowledge and concepts with *invalid* ones. In writing my answer to Rick on the list, it became necessary for me to finally lock down and explain what precisely IS wrong with the “Left-Right model”. I’ve given pieces of that answer in many posts, but never put it all into one place. This is that place.
Before I begin, however, I would like to segue in via a slight detour first. Rick’s graphic reminded me of the visual aids to a joke I told to a teacher many years ago, to express my distaste for the conventional political “spectrum”:
I first drew the conventional spectrum on the blackboard, with fascism to the “right” and communism to the “left”, and then drew a dollar sign above it to make a triangle like Rick’s. I explained that in this view, I was neither Left nor Right, but “Top”. I then said that I didn’t care whether my opponents were “left wing nuts” or “right wing nuts”, because “they are all wingnuts, and they are all Bottom feeders!” and then circled the “bottom” to collapse it into a *point* on the vertical line. He got quite a laugh out of it, but I know he got my idea. (That was good ol’ Dr. Schlotzhauer. He is who I think of when I refer to “old guard liberals” whom I could respect — and like that style of American liberalism, he is likely no longer with us.)
OK, down to brass tacks.
First, let us ground our ideas. The left-right model purports to be a “spectrum”, or what I in math-speak would refer to as a one-dimensional finite coordinate system. The essence of this idea is that points on the spectrum are located and defined by a single variable (hence: one-dimensional), which varies from a minimum at one end to a maximum at the other.
To be useful and valid, a spectrum must first be grounded in reality by meeting certain criteria:
1. The Highlander test (“There can be only one”.) What is the **single** variable being measured? E.g. for the electromagnetic spectrum, it is wavelength.
2. That variable must be **exhaustive**, i.e. all possible real-world measurements of that variable must fall *somewhere* on your spectrum, and be present in all concretes that are considered as possessing that variable. For example, all electromagnetic wavelengths fall somewhere on the EM spectrum; what does not fall anywhere on that spectrum, is not EM. If some “EM” isn’t on your spectrum, it isn’t EM — or you’re measuring something other than EM.
3. If there are two endpoints designated as the “opposite extremes”, the spectrum is finite, with a definite scope. The variable is at an absolute minimum (usually zero) at one end and a maximum (100%) at the other. From not there, to all there. The *visible* spectrum has two endpoints, two extremes, set by the human eye.
4. More to the political and Objectivist point: the variable must be important, a fundamental. An inessential variable has the same consequences for your spectrum that a definition-by-nonessentials has for your concepts, and for the same epistemological reasons: it detaches it, and anything that relies upon it, from reality. Instead of clarifying, it blinds.
Now take a look at the left-right model. Remember, the conventional spectrum has fascism at one end and communism at the other. I challenge anyone to identify the fundamental variable that moves from a minimum to a maximum between communism and fascism.
While I’m willing to entertain any attempts at answering that question, I hold that there is no answer — because there is no fundamental difference between communism and fascism, and therefore of the supposedly opposite “extreme left” and “extreme right”. Observe the equal presence in the Occupy Wall Street movement of the purported opposites; “right-wing” Ron Paulites and Zero Hedge “libertarians” mingling with actual communists and Daily Kos style “liberals”… and with sprinklings of anti-Semitism evenly spread all around. Observe the relative ease with which Jared Loughner and the IRS plane crasher mixed “leftist” and “rightist” talking pints together in their screeds, enough that each “side” insisted that these crazies belonged to the other “side” all, with equivalent semi-plausibility.
The reason for this is simple: they aren’t “opposites” at all. The “opposites” are two flavors of one kind of idea. Jared Loughner belongs to all of them, all of the Occupiers. He is one with them, and they with each other. They are a *single* extreme. The irony is that the more intelligent in the mainstream are able to notice this, up to the point of speaking of these “extremists” going so far around the bend that they “come back from the opposite direction”, i.e. that the “spectrum” bends around in a circle. Obviously, that’s not a valid spectrum — but I’ve not seen anyone take the next step to realizing what that “spectrum” really is: a TRAP.
I will now illustrate how such a trap is constructed.
Imagine the following: Over on OEvolve, a new poster has come along who claims to have come up with an idea that will revolutionize eating. They have a Food Spectrum, which will serve as the ultimate yardstick which anyone can use to navigate the universe of food choices.
When pressed for more, however, all this hypothetical poster has to say is that his spectrum is defined at one end by grapes, and at the other end by coconut cream pie.
So — what’s the variable? Well, grapes are fruit, while pies are man-made, so that would establish the variable as degrees of artificiality. That *is* an important variable, as OEvolve members know… but there’s more.
Is it exhaustive? Well, that’s an easy “no”. Where do fish fit in there — next to the pie? Are mushrooms “middle of the road”? Or how about beef jerky, or celery sticks? Evidently, the world of food is far larger than is dreamt of in this tiny little “spectrum”; and there simply is no rhyme or reason to slotting in these items onto this “food spectrum. If you hate celery sticks, you could just as easily pigeonhole celery sticks as “extreme pie” or “extreme grapes”, depending on which of those you favor over the other. Or, if you are sufficiently intelligent to get this far but no farther, you might just dismiss celery sticks as being “beyond the pale” — i.e. not food at all.
The variable is finite, at least; natural grapes are near the minimum of artificiality, while a Pepperidge Farm coconut creme pie comes pretty close to “food-like substance”.
That brings us to the question of fundamentality. That’s where this one really falls down. Can you imagine the absolute chaos that would result in the entire world of food if this “spectrum” were the only yardstick people had when dealing with food questions? Imagine starting from there, examining all the options of sugary foods available to you — oh wait, you noticed that too? Sugar is a pretty big deal, isn’t it — but it isn’t even accounted for in this “spectrum” of food; it’s just universally present, “underneath” it all, an unquestioned, unaddressable, unchallengeable, inescapable constant.
Isn’t that a bit suspicious? Assuming you were sufficiently active-minded to even notice this sleight-of-hand, one could reasonably suspect having been played by someone with a vested interest in trapping you into a world of sugar — while excluding fish, mushrooms, beef jerky and celery sticks from the realm of “food”. Good luck trying to introduce a person long trapped in this “food spectrum” to the notion of grass-fed beef! “Grass-fed what? I can’t eat that, there’s almost no sugar in it — it isn’t even food!“
They can’t get here from there without rejecting everything they “know” and starting over!
It is clear that this spectrum is worse than useless for any purpose related to food. Not only is it not “exhaustive”, but the variable, such as it is, is not really fundamental at all. While there is a correspondence between processed foods and poor nutrition, there are plenty of naturally occurring “foods” that are worse than a Twinkie (poisonous mushrooms, for instance). Other variables can be divined from the postulated “extremes” — color, for example, if we’re talking about Concord grapes — but again, that variable has a tenuous at best, and non-essential at worst, relationship to food. Poisons come in just as wide a variety of colors. The real variable, of course, is actual nutritional content — of which sugar levels are a dominant component.
I expect that, at a minimum, the paleos in the audience would have some fun trying to “extend” that system, but I hope that my point is made.
As used in mainstream political discussion, left-right is not merely an invalid spectrum; it is my contention that it was built that way, intentionally, by the academic Left (more on that choice of terminology in a minute), for the express purpose of “you can’t get there from here”. It is intended to trap people into their little space of omnipresent statism. In the meantime, liberty floats unmoored from its principle, now absent from the basic terms of mainstream political thought. It drifts in fragments all over the false spectrum without rhyme or reason, while the flavors of statism, firmly at home, grows in all directions between its twin “extremes” of Leftism[*] and conservatism. Thusly scattered, it registers to most people as an accidental, optional abstraction, making the process of identifying the *proper* political variable a far harder struggle than it should ever be.
Imagine what it does to those minds sufficiently active to try and make sense out of that hash. Such will take one of three courses:
1. Accept the false alternative, surrender the principle, and pick whichever mixture of statism and liberty seems to cost him the fewest uncomfortable contradictions. You’ll find the better “conservatives” here.
2. Abandon politics entirely, leaving it to the lesser minds that currently dominate the field and either don’t notice contradictions at all, or know how to exploit them. This is all the highly rational yet compartmentalized people you know who parrot utter crap, when they can be bothered to think about politics at all.
3. Transcend it all and work to independently discover and define a proper spectrum for themselves — including the identification and abstraction of the correct principle (individual rights), and thusly the correct, exhaustive and fundamental variable (liberty)., From there, it’s a quick step to measuring that variable, and defining a new spectrum, complete with the properly opposite extremes — tyranny versus capitalism. That’s us.
In the meantime, while advocates of liberty are essentially homeless in this milieu, statists are at home *everywhere*.
Our job as advocates of liberty — one extreme of the *valid* political spectrum — is to help as many people as we can to reach #3 — not to “patch” a worse-than-nonfunctional product.
To put it in terms of Rick’s graphic: in my joke to Dr. Schlotzhauer, I did not “extend” the left-right model. I *collapsed* it into the correct model, by *replacing* the non-essential left-right distinction with the essential “top-bottom” one: liberty versus tyranny.
I have long considered this topic to be a big deal. I believe that we Objectivists *and* our allies in the Tea Party, such as they may be, must nail this down as a key part of fighting our single enemy intellectually — as well as solidifying the ground we stand on. Individual rights simply cannot be “fit in” or otherwise expressed in terms established by the left-right model. As nearly all of us encounter every day when we try to communicate the principles of liberty, we have to deprogram all kinds of crap out of a person’s intellectual way before we can even *introduce* them in any substantial way to our ideas. Consider how off-base is so many people’s reaction to Atlas Shrugged, even among those who love the book!
When people are asking the wrong questions, the answers don’t matter!
In studying and integrating the flow of ideas in this culture, the role of the left-right false alternative as a trap is been one of the most prominent ones I see. I believe that demolishing that “spectrum” outright is a key step in breaking the flow of ideas, the basic *terms* of political thought, from the academic heights dominated by the Left[*], into the culture at large (including most conservatives and many libertarians.)
[*] Some notes regarding my terminology: I use the term “Left”, capitalized, as a proper name to designate that cultural-philosophical movement that most people associate with the political “left”, particularly socialists. It designates what became of the Enlightenment post-Kant, i.e. a mutated, zombie anti-Enlightenment that has nothing to sustain it but the destruction of all remaining vestiges of that Enlightenment. Like James Taggart coming to his dead end when he realized that he sought John Galt’s death at the price of his own, the Left will cease to exist should it achieve its goal.
The other side, which I rarely ever refer to as “rightist”, is conservatism, born of religious anti-Enlightenment reaction, the voice of the ancient feudal order speaking with pretensions to Enlightenment modernity, but ultimately distrusting it and logically seeking return to that benighted era before it ever existed. Conservatism’s only hope is to be the last man standing after the Left destroys the Enlightenment for it.
Historically distinct yet philosophically commensurate, they form the twin fists of our single philosophical *and* political enemy, or the relatively insignificant “bottom” of the triangle opposite Objectivism.
So, when I write “left” or “right”, it is during those relatively few times where it is necessary for me to distinguish between the opposing “teams” of mainstream politics in terms compatible with mainstream commentary. As such, considering that spectrum’s fundamental brokenness, its only remaining utility for me and for friends of liberty in general, is comparable to that of identifying team colors in a football game. You know that they are playing against each other, and that there are two teams, so it’s useful for keeping track. Beyond that, the colors tell you nothing about the fundamentals of how they play that game… or that it is the same game they are playing.
(edited to remove bits of an email that weren’t supposed to be here; apologies to Rick Kiessig.)