My Simplistic Theory of Left and Right, 2016 Edition
By Bryan Caplan
Last fall, I proposed my “simplistic theory of left and right“:
1. Leftists are anti-market. On an emotional level, they’re critical of market outcomes. No matter how good market outcomes are, they can’t bear to say, “Markets have done a great job, who could ask for more?”
2. Rightists are anti-leftist. On an emotional level, they’re critical of leftists. No matter how much they agree with leftists on an issue, they can’t bear to say, “The left is totally right, it would be churlish to criticize them.”
But even I’m shocked by how well my simplistic theory fits the 2016 election. On the Republican side, Trump has steamrolled the competition. How? Though his concrete policy proposals are few and fluid, he’s expressed minimal interest in free-market ideas. How then has Trump won over the rank-and-file? By doing everything in his power to spite the left: teasing, trolling, ribbing, and scaring feminists, Hispanics, Muslims, protestors, and so on. In a sense, Trump’s main campaign promise is to keep liberals awake at night – and he’s already fulfilling it.
On the Democratic side, matters are slightly more complicated. Anti-market ideologue Bernie Sanders has pulled anti-market pragmatist Hillary Clinton noticeably to the left, but Hillary’s going to win. How does this fit with my view that antipathy toward markets is the driving motive of the left? Because much of Clinton’s support is strategic. It’s very plausible that 20% of Hillary voters actually prefer Sanders. They’re voting for her despite their sympathies because they think she’s more likely to win the general election. In contrast, almost no one who prefers Hillary is voting for Sanders because they think he has better prospects in the general election. In polls, the Clinton/Sanders/other breakdown is roughly 50%/40%/10%. So if 20% of Hillary voters and 0% of Sanders voters are strategic, the sincere breakdown is 40%/50%/10%. Sanders really is the soul of the Democratic Party.
And what does Sanders’ soul say? Markets are rotten, leading to misery and injustice across the board. Sanders doesn’t say that markets do a lot of good, but wise government policy can help them do even better. Instead, he paints lurid pictures of free-market horrors that only government can remedy. His Twitter feed naturally includes a lot of horse-race posts. But on substantive policy, 90% of Sanders tweets are outraged complaints about the evils of the market.* That includes the evils of free international labor markets: “What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that.” And Sanders has a long history of admiring socialist dictatorships whose only clear accomplishment is suppression of the hated market.
I know plenty of people on left and right with better motives than my simplistic theory predicts. That’s to be expected; it is a simplistic theory, after all. But even these noble exceptions tend to sugarcoat the ugly truth instead of admitting their side is sick at heart.
* Yes, I’ve heard Sanders doesn’t fully handle his own Twitter. But I see no reason to think his Twitter comrades are misrepresenting his views.