‘Left’ and ‘right’ not so useless after all

Commenter Senexx today joined others who don’t think much of the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’. Way back in 1993 I wrote an article for the IPA Review arguing something similar.

But re-reading that article after all this time makes me think that if anything ‘left’ and ‘right’ have gained in utility since the early 1990s. The test of labels like ‘left’ and ‘right’ is not whether they can fully describe someone’s political position. Rather, it is whether the label will reasonably reliably locate someone in significant political contests of the day.

In 2007 I used results from the 2004 Australian Election Survey to suggest that this was the case with the questions I examined – especially on party preference, perhaps the most important indicator because of the way it bundles reactions to many different issues.

In my 1993 article I suggested that Labor support for market reform was complicating the old left-right divide. Now there is little support for further market reform in Labor or anywhere else on the left, and near universal left support for a serious reform rollback on industrial relations.

I also mentioned the divisions on the right over economic policy which were then noticeable, led by Robert Manne and John Carroll with support from BA Santamaria. But now Manne has returned to his left-wing roots, Carroll has admitted he was wrong, and Santamaria is dead. While the broad right is economically pragmatic and has its share of rent-seekers, there is little in-principle opposition within the right to market reform.

‘Left’ and ‘right’ are simplifying and sometimes simplistic. In many contexts more nuanced labels will be preferable. But in other contexts they are likely to preferable to long-winded lists of various ideological sub-groups who, on the issue in question, are largely in agreement.

4 thoughts on “‘Left’ and ‘right’ not so useless after all

  1. No left and right. Just and wrong.
    On another note, good to Rudd is on the way out!
    Sorry for going off topic, but felt it justified on this score.


  2. I’d say economically “left” and “right” are reasonably accurate and consistent descriptions, but often the terms are used to refer to conservative/ progressive social policy. The Conroy internet filter shows that not everyone on the “left” is socially progressive and the existence of classical liberals/ libertarians shows that not everyone on the “right” is socially conservative.

    Also it gets murkier when talking about “right wing politicians” like Abbott, or Pauline Hanson. Both are often painted as being on the extreme end of the right-wing spectrum, but on economics Hanson is more left (but in nationalist terms rather than social class terms) and Abbott is hardly the biggest free marketeer in the Liberal Party.

    A lot of politicians can be hard to locate within “left-right” space. “Left-right”, to me at least, is BEST seen as a divide between those who believe in “tax and welfare” and those who believe in “tax and churn”. The divide is a class divide and a pro-union/ anti-union divide more than it is an economic divide.

    That said, within the Labor party the left-right divide is even more confusing with the right of the Labor party basically being “pro-union” and the left being “should be in the Greens, but too opportunistic”.


  3. I think the term populist needs to be thrown in the mix as well. Pauline Hanson was a populist. Ideas that might sound good, but are completely untested and lack evidence.

    I tend to put Latham in this category from the left. Bagging the US and private school is I think a populist left line that appeals to a demographic, while offending others.


  4. I find it unfortunate that liberals and conservatives are both combined politically into a “right” alliance (which happens in many countries around the world.) I seem to be unable to hold my nose and vote to support big government social conservatives like Abbott and Joyce, and so I end up voting for Labor’s social liberalism and hoping that their economics end up closer to Hawke and Keating.
    If liberals were in power in the Liberal party, it would be an easy choice.


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