Friday, June 17, 2011

Dumb right-wingers giving the right a bad name

When I was in college I was surrounded by left-leaning people, students and professors, and our discussions of world events were informed by a popular, broadly left-wing perspective.

This was in the early 2000s, with George W Bush in the US and the American military in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2003 I joined my friends and tens of thousands of others in marching through Dublin against the invasion of Iraq. I didn't know a single person who was in favour of it and we were pretty confident that we understood what was going on, buying into simplistic talk of Iraq's invasion being an imperialist oil-grab.

To us being left-wing seemed natural and obvious. We cared about poor people and the left promised to end poverty with wealth redistribution. We were peaceful and the radical left were the most vociferous campaigners against the most famous wars - Afghanistan and Iraq - at the time. We opposed sexual inequality and homophobia.

By contrast the right seemed clueless and bigoted. Ireland lacked a strong left/right division so debates tended to revolve around British or American examples. Right-wing Americans - led by the ineloquent Bush - seemed to be backward in every possible sense: bloodthirsty, Creationist, homophobic, sexist, racist, and determined to serve the wealthy corporations above ordinary citizens. To call someone's beliefs 'right wing' was to insult them.

I had some doubts in college, bothered by the left-wing consensus of a place that complained loudly about a supposed right-wing consensus in media, and wondering sometimes if I was missing something. Generally, though, I bought into the centre-left ideas of my peers, and I wasn't seriously exposed to right wing alternatives until after I graduated.

An important step was meeting libertarians online. These people agreed with left-liberals on most social issues: calling for the legalisation of illicit drugs, sexual freedom, secularism and peace. Some libertarians were almost paranoid about war, denouncing conscription as slavery and attacking the US as an 'empire'. Their solution was capitalism, a much freer market in which individuals would compete with one another without states intervening. They opposed the bailouts of huge companies as much as the welfare for the poor.

One libertarian argued that left-wingers boasted about being 'liberal' - favouring drug decriminalisation and religious and social liberties - while simultaneously calling for higher taxes and stricter regulations in business. That is: less economic liberty. Meanwhile the right boasted about economic freedom, while demanding tighter drug controls, sealed borders, prohibitions on gay marriage and so on. Only the libertarians, he argued, called for true individual freedom. In college I had the impression that the left wanted to steal from the rich to aid the poor while the right wanted to steal from the poor to aid the rich. The libertarian idea of not stealing (taxing) at all had been mostly unconsidered.

As well as libertarianism I found intelligent conservatism, informed not by kneejerk bigotry but by an appreciation of humanity's incapability to predict consequences of social change. I came across realist foreign policy debates that side-stepped the tone of moral outrage I found with both far-left and far-right discussions. I found calm American conservatives who opposed war in Iraq only because it was not in America's own interest. Another well-travelled online conservative was able to challenge left-wing ideas about colonialism by pointing to the divergence between former colonies after independence: Singapore and Hong Kong boomed, Malaysia grew steadily, Zimbabwe collapsed.

Then I discovered a few critical books that further challenged my views. Freakonomics by Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner showed how well-intended policies could result in negative side-effects by creating harmful incentives. For example, to boost blood donations one authority decided to offer a small payment for each donation. Instead of increasing, donations decreased. The Freakonomics team suggested that the payment altered public perceptions of blood donation, changing it from a charitable practice that decent people choose to do, to an act of desperation that pathetically poor people do for money.

Freakonomics showed that positive intentions were not enough. That left-wingers were claiming to help the poor did not mean that they were successful at it.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Black Swan continued in this vein, emphasising further our inability to understand or control the world. Taleb showed that critical world events went unpredicted until they happened - like World War I or the September 11 attacks - yet afterwards journalists and historians tried to make them appear inevitable. Taleb emphasised the cognitive biases which make humans struggle to see reality clearly.

These books showed that the good intentions of socialists could backfire spectacularly. I already knew this was true for the extremes of communism as Utopian dreamers created societies that collapsed into famine and oppression. Now I was reading about the unintended consequences of policies on a smaller scale.

Of course this right-wing concern with unintended consequences applied just as well to foreign policy. How surprised I was to find that the most determined and rational anti-war argument would come from passionate capitalists like economist Byran Calpan, and that their pacifism would be perfectly consistent with their capitalist libertarianism. Calpan's argument is simply that the costs of war are immediate and certain, while the benefits are vague and uncertain:
Pacifism, similarly, is the radical notion that before you kill innocent people, you should be reasonably sure that your action will have very good consequences.
Then there was Thomas Friedman's Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention:
No two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain, like Dell’s, will ever fight a war against each other as long as they are both part of the same global supply chain
Friedman believed that global capitalism made war unprofitable and increasingly unlikely. Right or wrong, here were capitalists and conservatives who found intellectual oppositions to war that often sounded more rational than the emotive slogans - "No Blood For Oil" - of the more populist left.

I also found right-wing libertarians more internationalist than any I'd seen on the left, calling for completely open borders to immigration. I even found anarcho-capitalists calling for the collapse of borders completely so that we could all live in a single global capitalist market.

These examples stood in start contrast with what Paul Pillar calls 'the airhead wing of the Republican Party, as represented by Sarah Palin'. Yet it was the airheads that we were most exposed to. There were bizarre conspiracy theorist radicals like Glenn Beck, trying to terrify Americans into believing that: 'The radicals are at the top.' There were bloodthirsty religious bigots like Ann Coulter, calling for holy war and mass-murder of Muslims. There was the lumbering rule of George W Bush, an administration that left the US in two wars and almost bankrupt. Bush and Sarah Palin were candidates for the 'ordinary man': dumbed-down.

Here is British commentator Charlie Brooker's amusing (and not balanced) take on the radicals of American media:
Terrified and enraged, these right-wingers promote a hilariously distorted view of reality. What terrible representatives of right-wing perspectives they are. These ignorant right-wing fearmongers are the reason the right takes so much criticism. They blame 'liberal media', and they do tend to get a hard time from media commentators, but they attract contempt and amusement with their own absurd behaviour. I understand left-wingers who view the right with contempt when their exposure to it is mainly through foaming-at-the-mouth xenophobes.

I'm not sure why this brand of foolish radical right is so prevalent when intelligent and tolerant right-wingers are a-plenty. The US will have its next presidential election in 2012. Are the Republicans going to pick another dumbed-down candidate like Sarah Palin or George Bush? If so I expect further polarisation, with centre-left moderates understandably dismissive and centrists forced to pick a side or abandon politics completely. Which would be a shame.


  1. Probably off-topic, but I think Singapore is a country that might appeal to the brand of right-wingers mentioned here. Very free economy, very low crime rate and a strong state that is harsh of illegal immigration,homosexuality is illegal, drug use carries a capital punishment and capital punishment is carried out frequently.

  2. I'd be pretty surprised if the leftists of your college days promised to "end poverty".

    The public policy objective is to alleviate poverty, rather than the unrealizable goal of ending poverty.

    One argument the Right likes to make (not talking about you here, Shane) is that the Left believes in "the perfectability of man", or the "elimination of economic injustice".

    This is a straw man, however. It attempts to delegitimate the Left's policy objectives by asserting that the policies are intended to achieve a completely unobtainable objective.

    But the assumption on which this charge is based is mistaken; just because society can't be perfected doesn't mean it can't be improved.

  3. Haha interesting about Singapore! But I bet they have strong gun control too, that would be a deal-breaker for many!

    Absolutely Dave, I remember arguing with one American right-conservative who was complaining not only about social welfare, but about CHARITY itself, on the grounds that poverty clearly persisted so it must not work. Yet charity can help individuals suffering from poverty.

    One thing I noticed, though, was that in college it seemed that poverty was easily solved (or alleviated) through wealth distribution or through public ownership. The problem seemed to be only one of motivation. That, if the government actually WANTED to, it could easily tackle poverty, but that it didn't only because it was under the control of a wealthy elite. The idea that economics is extremely difficult to understand and predict went unmentioned. The fact that history is cluttered with failed top-down attempts to solve poverty went unmentioned too.

    That said, we didn't really go into this to a deep extent, and after college I was soon fascinated by the right-wing alternatives. There may be biases at work there because of this (converts tend to be particularly dismissive of their earlier beliefs).

    But if we'd been exposed to economists and historians instead of braying Bushites I think the right would have seemed much more attractive and interesting to us.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.