Left and Right: A Socratic Dialogue
By Bryan Caplan
[Backstory: Greek luminaries Socrates, Pericles, and Leonidas have time-traveled from ancient times to the 21st century. A few months after immersion in the modern world, Pericles is a convinced member of what modernity calls “the left,” while Leonidas is an equally staunch member of “the right.” Socrates, in contrast, finds 21st-century political thought shallow and confused. But perhaps it’s his fault…]
Socrates: Quite an intellectual journey, my friends.
Pericles: Indeed, I can’t believe how much I’ve learned in so short a time.
Leonidas: Well, I’ve learned a lot. Pericles seems dumber than ever.
Socrates: Gentlemen, please – let’s be civil. As you know, I’m baffled by your sympathy for either of these strange schools of thought. In fact, I struggle to figure out what even defines them.
Pericles: It’s not so hard. Leftists like me care about everyone. Rightists like Leonidas only care about people like themselves.
Leonidas: [harumphs] You don’t “care about everyone.” You only care about people on your side – and you expect the rest of us to foot the bill.
Socrates: And who exactly is on your side?
Pericles: I don’t know what Leonidas is talking about. Everyone counts in my book.
Leonidas: Really! How about people who cherish the traditional family? Traditional religious believers? Rural whites? Cops? Front-line soldiers?
Pericles: This identity politics game you’re playing is only an attempt to distract people from the real issues: inequality, corporate power, structural oppression.
Leonidas: Yeah, yeah. Your virtual signaling is only an attempt to distract people from the real issue: liberals like you run government half the time and culture all the time. No wonder the world gets more leftist with every generation.
Socrates: [sigh] Since you two seem to have lost the ability to converse with each other, perhaps you’ll let me direct the conversation?
Socrates: Very well. One common view is that leftists favor a larger role for government, while rightists favor a smaller role for government.
Pericles: Sure, because only government – rightly guided – can address the real issues of inequality, corporate power, and structural oppression.
Leonidas: I guess some rightists favor smaller government, but most of us are just pragmatists. The military is definitely “big government,” and if the whole government worked as well as the military, I’d be thrilled. When I actually looked over government budgets, I discovered lots of big programs that are well worth the cost: Social Security, Medicare, education, police, and much more.
Socrates: I see. Another common view is that the left cares more about the poor, and the right cares more about the rich.
Pericles: More or less. I don’t intrinsically care less about the rich; I just think they already get a lot more than they need or deserve.
Leonidas: I don’t know any rightist who says, “We’ve got to stand up for the rich.” I care about middle and working class people who play by the rules. If we can help them by taxing the rich more, great. But I don’t trust leftists to do that. When they say, “Let’s tax the rich to help the poor,” they mean, “Let’s tax everyone who plays by the rules to help everyone who doesn’t.”
Socrates: How about the theory that the left is heavily guided by smart, well-educated, reality-based thinkers, while the right follows the lead of flamboyant demagogues?
Pericles: There’s little doubt that leftists dominate academia, the media, and science, especially the highest levels. Leading leftists disproportionately come from these well-educated fields. Are they especially “smart” and “reality-based”? I don’t know how to prove this to outsiders’ satisfaction, but it seems a reasonable inference.
Leonidas: Scientists are great within their specialties, but when they talk politics, I don’t see that they know any more than anybody else. The media and the rest of academia seems even worse. They may have lots of book smarts, but they’re lacking in common sense.
Socrates: According to a very smart fellow named Scott Alexander, “Rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing
for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re
optimized for thriving in a safe environment.” Is he correct?
Pericles: I don’t think we’re in a “safe environment”! The world is a lot richer than it was in ancient Greece, but there’s still pervasive insecurity due to inequality, corporate power, and structural oppression.
Leonidas: And I think the modern environment is pretty safe – as long as you follow the rules. Or at least that’s how it used to be. People like Pericles feel like they can make up the rules as they go along.
Socrates: So what’s the gravest danger facing society?
Pericles: Climate change. Global capitalism is slowly cooking the planet.
Leonidas: I say: Islamofascism. Though I’m tempted to respond “leftists,” because they’re the ones who won’t let us decisively address this looming danger.
Socrates: Another really smart guy named Robin Hanson argues that left/right strife reflects a primordial forager/farmer conflict. A summary, if you’ll bear with me:
And here is the key idea: individuals vary in the thresholds they use to switch between focusing on dealing with issues via an all-encompassing norm-enforcing talky collective, and or via general Machiavellian social skills, mediated by personal resources and allies. Everyone tends to switch together to a collective focus as the environment becomes richer and safer…
People who feel less safe are more afraid of changing whatever has worked in the past, and so hold on more tightly to typical past behaviors and practices. They are more worried about the group damaging the talky collective, via tolerating free riders, allowing more distinct subgroups, and by demanding too much from members who might just up and leave. Also, those who feel less able to influence communal discussions prefer groups norms to be enforced more simply and mechanically, without as many exceptions that will be more influenced by those who are
good at talking.
I argue that this key “left vs. right” inclination to focus more vs less on a talky collective is the main parameter that consistently determines who people tend to ally with in large scale political coalitions.
Pericles: I’m a big fan of dialogue, but not because I feel “safe.” As I said, I think the world faces serious – and maybe even existential – problems. We need dialogue because it’s the only viable way to wrest control of our society and our world back from moneyed interests.
Leonidas: Leftists’ idea of a “dialogue” is them talking down to the rest of us, and shaming anyone who fails to loudly applaud. I’d love to have a series of frank discussions – discussions where the answer is genuinely up for grabs, and pragmatism prevails. And we really need such them, because Pericles is right about level of danger we’re all in. He just can’t see that people like himself are a big part of the problem.
Socrates: Hmm. Before we move on, let me share one last theory by a noticeably less brilliant thinker named Bryan Caplan. His story: the left is anti-market; the right is anti-left. He elaborates:
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.”
Pericles: Rather simplistic.
Socrates: I know. Caplan even calls it the “Simplistic Theory of Left and Right.” So is he correct?
Pericles: Of course not. Leftists are rarely “anti-market.” We’re just highly dissatisfied with the way unregulated markets work.
Socrates: Is the poor performance of unregulated markets an ephemeral coincidence?
Pericles: No, it’s a timeless problem. Heard of market failure?
Socrates: Isn’t that precisely what an anti-market person would say?
Pericles: I don’t want to abolish markets; I just want vigorous government corrections and vigilant government oversight.
Socrates: Caplan never accuses the left of favoring the abolition of the market. He merely claims you feel a lot of resentment toward it.
Pericles: Well, there’s lots to resent!
Leonidas: Yea – and I resent the implication that I’m an anti-intellectual rube.
Socrates: Does Caplan so accuse you?
Leonidas: Implicitly. I hate the left, but only because they keep pushing society in the wrong direction.
Socrates: But you seem to embrace many ideas once seen as leftist, like Social Security and Medicare. Why make the sweeping claim that the left “keeps pushing society in the wrong direction” when you embrace so many of their brainchildren?
Leonidas: We’re pragmatists on the right. We’re happy to adopt left-wing ideas that actually work.
Socrates: What about those small-government rightists we mentioned earlier?
Leonidas: The right is a big tent. I don’t agree with them, but they’ve got some interesting ideas, too.
Socrates: So what unites you and the rightists you disagree with?
Pericles: Perhaps Caplan’s half-right. It is hard to name anything Leonidas and Milton Friedman share – except resentment of the left.
Leonidas: Right back at you, Pericles. What do you and Hugo Chavez share – except resentment of the right?
Socrates: Caplan would say they share a resentment of markets. How is he wrong?
Pericles: Chavez may be on the left, but he goes too far.
Socrates: Likely. But Caplan’s theory really doesn’t speak to who’s correct. He’s merely proposing a political taxonomy.
Pericles: On the surface, perhaps. But there’s a hidden agenda. Caplan’s Simplistic Theory insinuates that both left and right are shallow and confused. But only one of our sides has these defects.
Leonidas: For once, I agree. The left is shallow and confused.
Pericles: No, the right is shallow and confused.
Socrates: Friends, you’re both tremendously convincing. What you lack in logos, you make up in ethos.
Pericles: [unamused] Very funny, Socrates.
Leonidas: In other words, you agree with Caplan.
Socrates: Agree? Not exactly. As he openly admits, Caplan theory is simplistic. That means “simple to a fault.” The Simplistic Theory leaves many big questions unanswered. But… unlike the competition, at least it satisfactorily answers some of my main questions about modern political thought. [shudders]