When children are taught the difference between left and right, grown-ups like to make fun of them by saying that all they have to do is to look at their hands: The left is in the direction of that hand on which the thumb is to the right of all other fingers, and vice versa. This hint won’t fail to increase the child’s confusion, to the sardonic delight of the adults. In the grown-up world of politics, however, the distinction between left and right nowadays proves just as puzzling. The traditional classifications are growing fuzzy. The only conceptual rescue can come from a switch to an altogether different compass: the differentiation between policies that promote and those that suppress liberty.
The right-hand side of the political spectrum is traditionally the conceptual meeting-point for conservatives leaning either toward the civilized, moderate centre or toward the right-hand fringe, where odd nationalists, xenophobes and, at the very extreme, neo-Nazis (not only in Germany!) find their pastures. What unites them all in spite of their enormous differences in the detail is that they give priority to what they consider to be the inherited cultural norms, values, institutions and conventions of their countries. The stereotypical “right” countries are the US, the UK and Switzerland. Economically, a right policy implies a business-friendly stance, with an emphasis on individual property rights and responsibility, leading to a – moderate – free-market approach, complemented with some elements of the welfare state. “The right” is associated with an adherence to traditional values such as law and order, a strong state, bourgeois ethics and priority for the family as the nucleus of civil society. This goes along with a call for protection against influences from abroad that might erode one’s own culture and the wish that one’s country should develop world importance. As one moves further and further to the extreme right, the rightists, just as totalitarian in their hearts as their extreme leftist counterparts, even dream of a “racially clean” community.
The left-hand side of the political spectrum traditionally harbours social democrats, “liberals” in the North American sense, “Libdems” as in the UK, socialists and communists. They view the failed Soviet experiment at least as a noble endeavour toward a “new civilization” (Harold Laski). Past the age of revolution and its call for common ownership of all means of production, the left is still united in stressing equality, justice and democracy as core values, linked with more or less massive State interventionism. In the economic sphere, they replace the “invisible hand” of the market (Adam Smith) by the grabbing hand of the State. Their common denominator is a deep-rooted distrust of free markets and trade, the call for a redistribution of income through strongly progressive taxation, an all-encompassing social security system, and proactive macroeconomic engineering. To this can be added, as one moves further to the left, a minimum wage, a constitutional individual “right” to a job, price controls, the nationalisation of banks and industry etc. Extreme leftists dream George Orwell’s (dystopian) dream of a community of complete equals and consider private property to be theft.
The “left” has always had a special aura. “If you’re a socialist when you’re old, you have no brain. If you’re not a socialist when you’re young, you have no heart” – the popular saying neatly sums up that the ideas of the left have a positive emotional appeal. The left has always been associated with being sweepingly anti-traditional, anti-establishment, anti-conservative, i.e. modern, progressive, open-minded and deliberately provocative, with claims ranging from the emancipation of women, pacifism, ecological reform and open borders to homosexual marriage. This is probably the reason why the left still appeals so much to many young people – at least as long as these don’t grow up to recognize that socialism lead to economic failure and political serfdom (Friedrich Hayek).
With these stereotypes firmly rooted in public opinion, it is difficult not to get lost these days. The US, traditionally viewed as a “right” place of free enterprise and unbridled capitalism, is run by the Obama administration, a somewhat disoriented and disenchanted left-wing government. But the “socialists in all parties” (Hayek) don’t seem to have noticed this, and thus they still indulge in their deeply engrained anti-Americanism. Their equation is compellingly simple: The US = capitalism + imperialism = social injustice + war. This they consider reason enough to turn their sympathies toward the traditional counterexample, Russia (or Iran, for that matter). The Soviet Union used to be the embodiment of real leftism, and strangely enough, modern Russia is thus still viewed this way. Perceptions move slowly. The socialist experiment is long dead and buried, but its romantic aura prevails – even though the country has performed a complete turn-around under the reactionary former KGB spy Vladimir Putin. Russia these days is an authoritarian far-right experiment.
Although formally a democratic state, Russia is in fact ruled by a dictator who allows, in the economic sphere, at most a system of crony capitalism. Putin has forced the economy “into the straitjacket of the vertical power structure” (Robert Skidelsky) of his reign. The man whom his buddy, the former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder once praised as a “pure democrat”, has shrugged off the rule of law, as the multitude of phony trials against his adversaries demonstrates at length. His sole aim and ambition seems to be the restoration of the nation’s former geopolitical importance, whatever the price. He fosters hegemonic nationalism, conjures up the ideal of a purified “nova Rossia”, breeds hatred against the allegedly degenerated Western civilization, suppresses free speech, prosecutes homosexuals and endorses the ultra-conservative tenets of the orthodox church. Putin’s policy is conservative in an evil sense, backward-looking, anti-progressive, greedy for power, full of disgust for the Western values of liberty, rule of law, diversity and tolerance. In this respect, shockingly, it ranges not far from the Islamist ideology. In terms of another simple equation: Russia = crony capitalism + dictatorship + nationalism + imperialism = social injustice + loss of civil liberties + war.
Russia on the right-hand side, the US on the left-hand side: at last, the geographical maps have won. But perceptions adapt slowly, and thus it is not only the disoriented leftist youth who still look east instead of west in hope of a new and better civilization. Europe seems to be full of intellectuals and politicians who rush to Putin’s rescue in the conflict about Ukraine. The more moderate ones do have a point in criticizing the western sanctions as unfair to the population. Others excuse Putin’s theft of the Crimea and his manipulation of Eastern Ukraine as an entirely understandable reaction after an undue extension of Nato influence. Tellingly, the Russia fan club can pride itself of new members: the traditional leftists have been joined by agitators from the farright, from Marine Le Pen’s (Kremlin-sponsored) “Front National” in France to the “Alternative für Deutschland” in Germany.
“On the left, nothing is left, and on the right, nothing is right any more”, as one version of the famous pun goes. The reverse is true as well. Turn it as you will, it is time to enhance the old directional dualism with a more powerful criterion for distinction. That criterion is liberty, and liberty alone, whether we find it in the West or in the East, on the left or on the right. What really counts is whether the political ideal is one of individual liberty, rule of law, free enterprise, secure property rights, free competition, checks and balances, spontaneous order through voluntary interaction, respect for the multitude of possible lifestyles and individual philosophies of happiness – or whether it is an authoritarian or even totalitarian one, where people must renounce their liberty for the sake of some vision of man or the nation, where justice is replaced by arbitrary rule, where central planning is preferred to seemingly chaotic free interaction, where democracy is an empty phrase, where opposition inevitably leads to oppression and dissent to imprisonment and death.
The criterion of liberty serves as a uniquely efficient and reliable test of policies, doctrines and governments. Never mind if someone classifies himself as a leftist or a stern right-winger. Without prejudice, just apply the liberty test to him: Do his ideas promote liberty, or do they threaten to curtail liberty? With this sharp criterion in mind, it is difficult not to realise that the Obama administration is leading the US economically down the (illiberal) road to big government, and it is altogether impossible to exculpate Putin’s authoritarian politics.