Left-Right Isn’t About Markets

Matt Yglesias:

In the spectrum debate, a commons is considered a “left-wing” position, while property rights are considered “right-wing.” In contrast, in the carbon debate you find right-wingers advocating a “carbon commons” while left-wingers advocate a property-like regime called cap and trade.

… To borrow an idea from Robin Hanson, I think it’s useful to think about political conflict in terms of valorized figures. On the right, you see a lot of valorization of businessmen. On the left, you see a lot of valorization of pushy activists who want to do something businessmen don’t like. Formally, the right is committed to ideas about free markets and the left is committed to ideas about economic equality. But in practice, political conflict much more commonly breaks down around “some stuff some businessmen want to do” vs “some stuff businessmen hate” rather than anything about markets or property rights per se. Consequently, on the left people sometimes fall into the trap of being patsies for rent-seeking mom & pop operators when poor people would benefit more from competition from a corporate bohemoth.

Yup; political ideology, like most ideology, is a lot more about who should get respect than it is about abstract principles of governance.

Added 10a: Pushy activists and businessmen emphasize different features in desirable associates.  Pushy activists seek shared values, passionately and articulately expressed.  Businessmen seek practical competence, and a respect for [contract] law and hierarchy.  So does my push for a focus on robot respect for law flag me as politically right?

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  • When you say “Businessmen seek practical competence, and a respect for law and hierarchy”, I wonder which businessmen you are thinking of. The traders who run investment houses? The guy who runs the coal mining company that is delinquent on a lot of safety violations? The guys who ran Enron? Mortgage companies? Car salesmen?

    Conversely you could look at the mode of operation of long term community, issue and union organizing, which can’t realistically depend on primarily emotional motivations to sustain twenty to forty year efforts. The core motivations (like those in the more successful businesses) are long term self-interest among the participants.

    You are trying to indicate an interesting dimension; building on your language I’d suggest we could call it “pushy” vs. “sober”. However this dimension is more or less orthogonal to the “for profit business” vs. “social activists” dimension. Your identification of the two (in the face of many contradictory examples) suggests some kind of bias you might want to analyze further, but I’m not expert enough with the taxonomies of bias to suggest what it should be called.

  • Simon K

    Activists look for shared values. Businessmen look for shared interests. It doesn’t matter why you want to buy my widgets. It does matter why you want to join my campaign to save the long-toothed sewer rat.

    I don’t know any successful businesspeople who respect hierarchy, and sadly I know a few who’d happily break the law, as well as the obvious ones you hear about on the news. Most activists are extremely law abiding, because they’re under much greater suspicion.

  • Drewfus

    So lets put the right-wing and the left-wing to a test…

    In the West we have the principle of the separation of powers with respect to church and state, and judiciary and state. The West also has it’s two houses of parliament/congress, other constitutional limitations, etc.

    Now consider the possibility of a new separation of powers that probably wasn’t considered during the Enlightenment due to capitalist forces being much less prevalent and powerful before the industrial revolution. That is, the separation of commerce and state. The principle would support:

    * The banning of donations to political parties by organizations (for-profit or otherwise)

    * Very strong conflict of interest tests on business owners and managers seeking government employment or consultative contracts

    * Publicly available lists of all lobby groups and their members

    * A commitment to free trade – zero tariffs and subsidies – including local markets

    * A general preference for governments to not liaise with commercial interest groups for policy purposes – data collection and surveys being acceptable exceptions

    * Compulsory publication of all discourse between governments and those receiving government contracts (with strict security exceptions to be determined by the high court)

    * Detailed publication of government budgets to be available on the web for free

    * A shunning of personal relations between politicians and business leaders.

    Now, which group would be most likely to support the concept of the separation of commerce and state, the right or the left?

    • Violet

      The “commitment to free trade” does not seem to belong to the group.

      The other ones I see many leftists as supporting.

  • Tyrrell McAllister

    * The banning of donations to political parties by organizations (for-profit or otherwise)

    What counts as a donation by an organization? What if an organization decides that each of its members will personally donate a certain amount to some politician? Suppose that joining this organization requires one to sign a contract obliging one to submit to the organization’s decision.

  • Marcus

    All generalizations are bad, but this one is pretty horrible: “Businessmen seek practical competence, and a respect for law and hierarchy.”

    Regulation is law. Equality is only created through law. Commerce happens whether or not the lawyers are around to write the contract.

    What labels you as Right is your generalization. But it’s so sloppy that I doubt you’re serious.

    • Marcus

      On further consideration, my generalization about Equality is approximately as useful as yours (meaning not useful). But the regulatory angle is useful for considering importance of law to the left.

  • I changed “law” to “contract law” to clarify.

  • Forrest Bennett

    Robin, I think you’ve nailed this one. I’ve noticed that my lefty friends admire the Ghandi’s and Schweitzer’s of the world as the ones who make it a better place. Whereas I tend to admire the scientists, engineers, inventors, and businessmen as the one’s most responsible for improving the human condition.

  • tom

    I think Yglesias’ comment about valorized figures is less useful than Robin thinks in understanding big issues of government regulation. How much does it help us understand the debates about health care, VAT, wars, unemployment insurance, home mortage subsidies?

    On the specific issues he’s discussion , there are some pretty basic and huge differences that explain why people want to treat them differently. Almost everyone agrees that in the near term spectrum is finite and there is less of it than demanded, and you would need a radical change of our communications systems to try out a commons model. In contrast, in the near term carbon emissions are not finite and there is no immediate natural cap on them. Also, there are huge disagreements about whether it will be possible to limit carbon emissions in a useful amount since that may require a worldwide agreement (spectrum allocation is much more naturally domestic and even local) and about the short- and long- term costs and benefits of limiting emissions.

  • Φ

    I want to echo Tom’s critique of Yglesias’ “valorized figures” model, and be a little more specific:

    While I can’t speak for them, I’m pretty sure that the Left identifies with specific activiists, not activists in general. Just ask them for their opinion of the NRA or the Tea Party.

    Yglesias is being disingenuous when he suggests the Right tries to valorize businessmen. The elite economic Right along the National Review – Megan McArdle axis is much more interested in maximizing both freedom and utility than they are in privleging one class of people over another. Meanwhile, among the popular Right, there is plenty of outrage over tricksy banksters carting off the national wealth, and while their economic anecdotes may echo the frustration of many businessmen, the focus is on jobs destroyed and/or not created in response to the government, oh, say, capping carbon emissions.

    On the alleged inconsistency between the Right’s attachment to private property and its resistance to capping carbon emissions, I will give Yglesias half a point: property rights don’t automatically resolve all conflict when there is a dispute as to the extent of one person’s property interest in another’s activity. But in this case, the cap-and-trade proposal imposes a property regime on an arena that the Right believes is not a “commons” but free and unlimited: the ability of the earth’s organic life to convert CO2 into O2. The Right may be right or wrong about this, but this is the issue, not a sudden preference for commons over property.

  • Curt Adams

    The peculiar split on carbon control mechanisms is a result of party politics. Traditionally Democrats have favored pollution control, and tax-based methods over cap-and-trade methods. Republicans traditionally oppose pollution control, and if they have to have it, prefer cap-and-trade over tax-based methods.

    The Democratic party leaders decided, strategizing over how to get CO2 pollution controls in, to go with cap-and-trade, partly to try to pull over moderate Republicans, and partly because cap-and-trade has gotten good results in the past (example: sulfur emissions). The Republican then flipped to “supporting” tax-based CO2 pollution controls, not because they think it’s better, but just as part of the general effort to prevent the Democrats from passing anything whatsoever by opposing anything they do.

  • kebko

    I don’t think the cap & trade divide is quite so simple as some of the comments here suggest. Some of the opposition is about simplicity. Property rights are effective only if they are simple. If there are good property records, but you have to bribe 6 bureaucrats to amend them, then property rights are still pretty weak. This seems like a danger with CO2 trading in the hands of our federal government.

  • I’ve always thought of myself as right-wing, but I favor (revenue neutral) carbon taxes (perhaps combined with geo-engineering) & abolishing the F.C.C. I’m also disappointed to hear that Cato gives the thumbs-down to nuclear power.

    I think you can only have so many successful pushy activists. A society full of businessmen would seem to be better off than one full of activists.