The Quantum Thomist

Musings about quantum physics, classical philosophy, and the connection between the two.
A Universe from Nothing? Part 5: Is Nothing Unstable?

Are left-wing and right-wing politics a false dichotomy?
Last modified on Sun Nov 17 20:33:04 2019

It is election season, so I will take a quick break from reviewing Krauss, and wander into the frosty ground of politics. I should say, at the outset, that I have no special expertise in this area, beyond what I have read and viewed. So think of this as more of a conversation-starter than anything definite or world breaking.


It doesn't take much reading and viewing to know that the terms "left" and "right" are frequently used in political discourse (as well as the "centre" which apparently lies between them). The terms originated during the French revolution, and have been exported everywhere. Today, things seem to be more polarised than ever. This is certainly true in two party systems, such as the United States. It is also true in multi-party systems, as are prevalent in Europe. And, in particularly, it strikes me that there is an increasing lack of understanding or appreciation, on both sides, of what the other stands for.

This is ultimately (in my perhaps ignorant view) because each starts from widely different premises, and use the same words to mean very different things. My hypothesis is that "right" wing views are not only opposed to the "left" wing understanding, but can't even be expressed properly in terms of the assumptions and language that people on the "left" use. What this implies is that people on the "left" don't just happen to not understand the "right", but can't understand them unless they have the rare skill of being able to put aside their own assumptions and walking into a very different world. Thus what the "left" attribute to the "right" wing is not what the "right" wing actually believe or preach, but the closest approximation to it possible in the "left" wing paradigm. And, of course, the opposite is true as well.

What this implies is that there are not just two political views being discussed (ignoring the centrists or moderates for simplicity), but four. You first of all have the standard "left"-wing view. Then you have the "left"'s conception of the right. Then you have the authentic "right" wing view. And the "right"'s conception of the left.

There is another obvious sense in which the language of the "left" and the "right" is deficient, and that is that politics involves numerous different subjects, and it is quite possible to have one view on one topic and another on a different topic. This is sometimes visualised by having an extra axis on the chart -- I have seen authoritarian/libertarian in addition to the left/right axis. One could also, for example, be generally left wing on social issues (i.e. support things like abortion on demand and officially recognised same sex partnerships), and right wing on economic issues (i.e. generally in favour of privatised industries and less regulation, rather than government owned or regulated industry). One can split it finer than this, and (for example) support a national health or educational service, while being in favour of little regulation as possible in manufacturing, finance or agriculture.

But that's not what I want to focus on. I have something a little different in mind.


I'll start with the definitions of what "left" and "right" mean. Ask somebody on the "left", and you will get various responses. The most common one is probably that being "left-wing" means that you are in favour of equality, while "right-wing" means that you are in favour of maintaining a hierarchy. Others might say that "left-wing" policies are those which favour the poor or working people, while "right-wing" policies favour the rich or employers.

Ask somebody on the "right" what the terms mean, and you will get different answers. Some will answer that "right" wing policies are those which favour limited government and left wing policies those which seek to increase government regulation and expenditure. Others might say that "right-wing" policies are those which favour localisation, while the "left" favour centralisation. Others might define the terms by saying that "right-wing" policies favour wealth creation, while the "left-wing" focuses more on wealth distribution. Others might define them by saying that the "right" focuses on a more classical view of ethics and economic theory, while the "left" favours whatever the latest untested fad happens to be.

I should add that I have been known to define the distinction in terms of a view of human nature; with the "right" believing that people, when unrestricted and not held accountable, have a natural tendency to moral corruption, while the "left" have the opposite view, believing that people are naturally good, and it is the systems they are caged by which cause the friction and problems.

When someone on the "right" looks at the "left-wing" definitions, they immediately see problems. For example, many on the "right" would deny that they intend to promote the rich at the expense of the poor. Most people (there are a few exceptions on both sides), whatever their political views, are equally concerned about relieving poverty. The difference is that people have different solutions to the problem, and believe that the opposing solutions are counter-productive. For example, the "right" believes that typical "left-wing" policies just make the problem worse, backed up by both economic theory and what has happened when such policies have been put into practice. For example, someone on the "left" might seek to control income inequality through greater regulation. But greater regulation favours large, national or multi-national companies, since these have the more resources to implement them and find the loopholes. The ones which suffer are smaller companies. Yet it is those larger, well resourced, companies which tend to have the greater income inequality -- they are the only ones who can afford to pay excessive salaries.

Similar concerns would be raised against saying that the "left" uniquely favour the working class. While the "left" believe that working class are benefited by minimum wages, union action, government redistribution of wealth (whether via taxation and benefits as performed by social democracies, or by direct confiscation and denial of private property as in a soviet style socialist society), the "right" will believe that their policies best favour workers. People don't stay on the lowest rung for their whole careers, and raising a minimum wage beyond what the labour generates for the company is counterproductive. Either companies will go out of business, or stop providing those jobs allowing people to get a foothold in the workplace, or be forced to raise their prices, when everyone will suffer. Poverty is, after all, not just about someone's wage, but the ratio between the wage and prices. That's the theory. In practice, we see that introducing and raising the minimum wage has left some people better off, and others worse off, but overall certainly hasn't reduced the number of people in poverty.

Increased taxation will simply take away money that would otherwise be used to buy goods and consequently employ workers. The redistribution is inefficient (since the middle men from the government will take their slice), and more rewards unproductive workers, damaging the economy and thus wealth creation as a whole. Unions effectively create a cartel, with the usual problems that generates. While members of the cartel might personally gain, everything provided for the union members beyond what their labour generates for the company will ultimately lead to a rise in prices. Since workers are also consumers, what is gained in one way is taken away in the other.

The "left" will counter that a completely free market doesn't help the workers either. Many businessmen are motivated by greed, and are not really held accountable. Shareholders are in it only for the money. There is nothing to stop these people siphoning more and more of the company's revenue into their own pockets, while leaving the people who actually build the product just as they were: stationary in absolute terms, losing while taking into account inflation. It is clear that inequality between the very highest paid and the very lowest paid has been increasing rapidly in recent years. This wouldn't matter so much if the lowest paid were still keeping up with inflation above the poverty line, but while I don't have the figures in front of me, my own experience seems to suggests that is happening. When I just started out as a postdoc all those years ago, my salary was distinctly average, but I had plenty to spare. Now I can look up what the median salary is, compare it against my own (rather frugal) costs, and I struggle to see how anyone could survive on it. But then, would the "left-wing" solutions to this problem actually help, or just make things even worse?

The issue of poverty is a real one. In some respects even the poorest people in the Western world are historically and globally among the richest to have ever lived. But in another respect, if your salary isn't enough to cover your accommodation, utility and food costs, then it is not pretty. But it is much easier to identify the problem than find a solution that actually works. Especially if we only search for economic solutions, and ignore moral education.


Now lets come to the issue of equality. Immediately, somebody on the "right" will say "equality in which aspect?" For example, equality of outcome, or equality of opportunity? You cannot have both.

But the bigger distinction is equality to be enforced across groups of people, or at the individual level. The problem is that individual level equality can't really be measured. Two people apply for a job. One of them gets it, the other doesn't. You can't give them both half a job. That's inequality of outcome immediately, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

So it is more fashionable on the "left" to think in terms of group identities. We can then average over the outcomes of a group, and discuss discrimination against groups. The idea that there are historical power imbalances between groups which ought to be corrected is central to the ideology. Marx envisaged divided the population between the workers and the capitalist elite, and imagined a conflict between them, with the wealth owners exploiting their employees, and the employees being perpetually exploited. The way to avoid this imbalance is a revolution, where the workers (or those who believe themselves to be on the side of the workers) take control of the means of production and distribution. More modern political views divides people in other ways, for example by race, culture, sex, or one's sexual attraction, and again imagining power struggles between each group, with all members of one group institutional oppressors, and the other group perpetually oppressed. Yet each group is fundamentally equal. This injustice must be corrected! Or so that side of the argument believes. And certainly, historically and still today, there has been bullying and prejudice. It is correct to point that out. The message that we should treat each other with dignity is appealing. But does the "left"-wing view help with this, or hinder it?

To the "right", of course, the "left"'s fixation on group identities is seen as clear nonsense. For example, suppose somebody was to say "black people are stupid." (Note that I am not saying this; I profoundly disagree with the statement, and I am about to explain why). They could define stupidity such that all people of whatever race are stupid (i.e. nobody anywhere matches the level required to be non-stupid), in which case the statement is true in the strictest sense of the word, but misleading (since it falsely implies that non-black people are not stupid). But let us suppose that we are not doing that, and defining stupidity with below average intelligence across humanity, or something similar.

So we have humanity as a whole. The species has a number of accidental attributes, one of which is race, and the other intelligence. Many of these attributes are independent of each other, or at least very weakly correlated. In as far as they can be quantified, the number of people with a given degree of that quality is described by some continuous distribution. There is one distribution for race, and another for intelligence, and there is little (if any) correlation between them. So when somebody says "black people are stupid," what do they mean? Do they mean that "all black people are stupid?" That is clearly false. So they mean that "black people are, on average, stupid?" But that is clearly of no utility, because our concern is only ever with individual people, and the average person is just a fiction who doesn't exist. What this means is that if we have a person before us, and all we are told is that he is black, it makes no sense to judge anything about him except the colour of his skin and those things common to all humanity. It is foolish to judge him on any attribute accidental to his race. He might be stupid. He might be intelligent. The only way we can find out is by conversing with him, or by giving him some sort of test. Precisely the same as with anyone else. Why guess based on attributes largely uncorrelated with intelligence, when we have the man there in front of us and can find out directly? And if we are not planning to work with (or against) him in some way, then why do we care?

We never deal with black people as a whole, only ever with an individual or a few individuals together. Except for the colour of their skin (or whichever characteristic we use to select a subset of humanity), there is always far more variation in the subset than they have in common.

But if it is meaningless to say that "black people are stupid", it is equally meaningless to say that "black people are equal" or "black people are unequal." One can ask "equal in what respect?" Equal in their humanity? That's obvious; being human is an essential aspect of our species. We all equally share it. So if the statement refers to something essential to humanity, then it is a tautology. If it refers to something accidental to humanity, then it is meaningless. Once we have defined by what we mean by "equal," it will refer to some attribute. To continue with my example, let us suppose that we mean that "Black people are equal in intelligence to all other races." How could I possibly object to that? Intelligence is an attribute which only applies to individual beings, and the concept of "black people" is not an individual being. It is not the sentiment I object to, but the logical error of applying an attribute to something to which it (whether intelligence or stupidity) is not applicable.

The statement "The average intelligence of black people is equal to that of other races" does have a meaning, but it is clearly untrue. The reason for this is that people are born and die all the time, and none of those people will have precisely an average intelligence. Thus the average intelligence of each race is constantly changing. Even if in one moment they happened to coincide, in the next they will differ. We could, of course, say that they are approximately equal to within some tolerance, but then what do we mean by approximately? And what relevance is that to our every-day lives?

"All races are equal" is an axiom of the modern "left". It is a statement which certainly sounds nice and just. So they will propose some policy to try to enforce equality of outcome between the groups. When the "right" oppose that policy, the "left" are placed in a quandary. The policy, they believe, follows from the principle; to oppose the policy means accepting the opposite principle, namely "All races are unequal." Thus the "right" are classed as institutional racists, and evil. But the reality is that the "right" believe that both statements "All races are equal" and "All races are unequal" are meaningless. The only things which matter are interactions between individuals. Whatever race someone is is irrelevant to almost all questions of interest. So when someone on the "left" demands that someone on the "right" favour somebody over another, on account of their race or any other accidental attribute, then that is seen as a racist decree. Judgements are made at an individual level, and should only depend on whatever is essential to the matter at hand. Favouring any race, for whatever reason, to an individual judgement, when it is irrelevant, is the definition (to those on the right) of racism. Simply by dividing people into groups based on an accidental attribute, and letting that influence how they think about those people in other respects, the "left" show themselves to be idiots and irrational, and thus evil.

To those who adopt the philosophy of the "right", whoever it was on the "left" who invented the quota system is a racist, and ought to be held in disdain for their stupidity (racism being an intellectual error). While the person on the "left" views those who oppose their quotas as racist, and thus ought to be held in disdain for their hatred of others (racism being a moral error).

A good example of this is the child sexual exploitation gangs which affected some cities in the UK, and came to prominence a few years ago. The vast majority of the perpetrators (or at least those who have faced justice), though not all, were of Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage, with the victims drawn from whites or Sikh. (There are equally plenty of perverts of other races, but mostly they have been caught and convicted acting alone rather in gangs.) Stories of this abuse reached the police and social services, but, with a few notable exceptions, most of these officials didn't act. Why? Because they didn't want to appear racist. From the perspective of the "left," this almost makes sense. The "crime" of racism is viewed in terms of power struggles between groups. The white officers could not investigate those reports without exacerbating that power struggle, and making the injustice worse. The Pakistani heritage people are classed as one of the historical victim groups. Better to do nothing rather than increase that victimhood. But from the perspective of the "right", the officers who did not act were in fact being racist, in the very act of trying to avoid accusations of racism. They would not have treated a gang of white child abusers in the same way. The law against child abuse (rightly) makes no mention of the race (or religion) of the perpetrator or victim. People of all races or religions have been known to practice it. To let someone's race influence one's judgement, in whatever way (since the "right" knows nothing of power struggles between groups, because only beings can have power struggles, and the groups are abstractions from a population and not beings), is thus both irrational and racist.

Four perspectives

So we have four possible positions. Those who believe in group identities, and believe that all groups are fundamentally equal. Those who believe in group identities, and believe that groups are unequal. Those who think that group identities are either in reality or in practice meaningless ideas, and refuse to let their decisions be affected by irrelevant details concerning accidental attributes. And those who think that group identities are meaningless, but do let themselves be influenced by irrelevant details. The first of these groups I will call the "left." The third is the "right." The second I will call the "bottom (type 1)." The fourth group I will call the "bottom (type 2)." Practically people belonging to the two types of "bottom" will act in a similar way, so they can be treated as variations on a theme. Both the "left" and the "right" view the "bottom" in disdain, albeit for different reasons.

The problem comes that neither the "left" nor the "right" understand the other. In both cases they try to push their rivals into their own philosophy, where they don't fit. Thus I think many on the "left" place people who are actually on the "right" in the "bottom (type 1)" group. And those on the right assign the "bottom (type 2)" attribute to individuals on the "left".

And this is why the false dichotomy of "left" and "right" (with the sliding scale between them) in politics is so dangerous. There is a third group, whom almost everyone (especially today) agrees to be beyond contempt. But because both sides are taught that there are only two groups, and because both of them acknowledge the existence of the "bottom", and because their rivals are based on a wholly alien set of philosophical presuppositions which is difficult for them understand, while some variation of the "bottom" group is just an inversion of their own principles and thus easy to understand, they both come to think that everyone who isn't a member of their own party belongs to the "bottom" group. Their political opponents are thus not only seen as wrong, but downright evil.


With regards to economics, the pattern is similar. In classical economics, the price of something is what somebody is prepared to pay for it. Therefore business transactions should be solely be decided by two people: the supplier, and the customer. The one selling a good or service, and the one buying it. They know their own circumstances better than anyone else, and are thus best placed to make the decisions about how much to produce, how much to pay for it, and whether or not to go through with the transaction.

This is equally true (or ought to be) for employment relationships. Somebody sells their labour to a company for a fair combination of salary and a good working environment. The terms and conditions of that employment ought to be agreed between them. Once that is negotiated, then everyone is on the same team. A company exists primarily to provide a particular good and service to people who want it or need it. That is, or ought to be, the purpose of the company, and everything else the company does should contribute to fulling that purpose: producing the best possible end product at a price the customer will accept. The company is formed because producing the service requires the work of more than one person. Thus you have multiple people coming together, united by purpose. Each member of the company has a different role, according to their individual skills. Thus (this list is, of course, not complete) you have somebody communicating with the customer, to discover their needs, someone communicating with the supplier, somebody actually building the product, somebody looking after the interests of the staff, and somebody (since time and resources are never enough to do everything) making the decisions about which aspects of the work should be prioritised. Every decision, whether about employment or the product, ultimately comes down to a conversation between two people. The shorter the distance between the people building the product and those using it the better: that way, you can have direct feedback going to those who make the decisions, with the shortest time lag. A company thus interacts with three sets of people: firstly, and most importantly, the customer; secondly its employees, and thirdly its suppliers. Each of these interactions is defined by a specific purpose. A just action is one that satisfies all people. For example, ideally, an employee should be paid in proportion to what his labour is worth to the company, and enough for him to be able to support himself and his family.

This ideal is distorted in two distinct ways. They both involve redefining the purpose of the company. Firstly, there are those who would turn making money into the company's primary purpose. Obviously, every company ideally needs to make a small profit. A company consistently losing money won't last for long, and shouldn't. That profit needs to be enough to cover any lean years, or to invest in the company's infrastructure. But if the goal of the company becomes to maximise profit, then it loses sight of what it is actually there for: to provide some service to people who need it. Something will have to give: either the customers will pay too much, or the suppliers paid too little, or the employees forced to accept a worse deal, or the quality of the product suffers, or a combination of them.

The reason this distortion is appealing is because we, as a species, are naturally greedy. We want ourselves, our families, and those friends we are close to to have as much as possible. But, beyond our circle of close associates, we don't have the same empathy for others. Thus if we charge the customer a little more so we can earn a little more, we see the benefits of our excess, but not the cost to the customer. Again, distance between those making the decisions and those affected by it makes the decisions unjust.

The first direction in which "right" wing economics can lead is free market capitalism. Capitalism is built on two principles: the free market, and the financial market. The free market is all about people having the choice of where to work, what to produce, and what to buy, without any outside coercion. Financial markets and services come in several forms. Firstly, there is the banking system, which makes the transferral and lending of money easier. Secondly, the stock market. One of the problems in building a company is that it costs money. You need (for example) to build a factory, you need to buy the tools. You need to hire people. But you can't get the resources until all that is in place and you can start making and selling your product. The situation is worse if there are already established competitors in the market. You might be able to produce the product better than them. But to get there, you first need to reproduce what they have -- the tools, expertise and knowledge. The more developed the industry, the harder it is to break into it as a newcomer.

So you might have people with ideas and ability to create something, but no resources to get it going. On the other hand, there are people with the resources, but who lack the expertise to deploy them to create this wonderful product. The stock market brings these two groups together. It gives the people with the idea the chance to sell the only thing they have -- a share of the company and their own drive -- in order to get the funding to actually obtain the tools and people they need to start building the product. The stock market has proven to be the best way yet discovered to democratise entrepreneurship. You don't need to be wealthy in order to enter the market.

Secondly, you have the derivatives markets. These arose because people wanted security. They exist because the pay-off often comes later than the investment. You need to put in the work and have all the outlay at the start of the year, but you don't have a product until the end of the year. (Think of a farmer sowing seed in spring and not harvesting it until Autumn.) The problem is that you don't know what the final price is going to be when you make the initial investment. That makes planning difficult. If you get it wrong, then you might overspend initially (and have a lot of product you can't sell, and be out of pocket), or underspend (and be unable to satisfy the demand, and miss the opportunity to take advantage of the good years and provide yourself with a financial safety net when the bad years come along). A derivative contract is essentially a promise by somebody to buy the end product at an agreed price at the start of the cycle. It moves the risk from the producer to the investor. Why is this better? Partly because it protects the producer, who is the most important part of the process. They often operate on a tight budget: one bad year could otherwise see all the wheat farmers going out of business. The investor, however, can split their investment across numerous industries. If he loses on wheat, he will probably more than make up for it on soy. And if everything fails, it is the middle man rather than the farmer who goes out of business, someone who is less important to the overall economy. Secondly, the derivatives market is a useful division of skill. The producer's skill lies in actually producing the good. He is not an expert at predicting demand six months down the road, and spending time worrying about that would detract from his main purpose in life. The investor, on the other hand, might not have the ability to produce the product, but does have the skills required to predict what will happen to future demand and supply. Thirdly, the derivatives market allows the producer to be paid at the time when he has his largest costs. There is no need for him to get into debt, or to constantly worry about how much to save up. This is a system which naturally developed over time, in response to different needs. And it works well. Nobody has come up with a better way of solving the problems the derivatives market addresses.

The problem is, of course, that all these financial markets can be abused. Shares of a company and derivative promises can be resold; they need to give extra security to the investor. But it is possible to become very wealthy by this buying and reselling. So there are people working the markets, becoming rich, but not actually providing anything of value to the wider economy. They are not producing a good or service someone wants to use. Neither are they investing in or enabling such production. They just make money for themselves or the people they represent. The motivation is pure greed. So greed is the problem. Both in the real production of actual goods and services, where getting rich rather than producing a service becomes the motivation for founding a company. And in the financial markets, where getting rich becomes the motivation rather than providing the producers with financial security.

Obviously, the theory behind capitalism is that this natural greed can be utilised for the overall good. One makes money by providing a good service. If one treats one's customers badly, then they move to your rival. If you treat your employees badly, then the best staff will take up jobs elsewhere, leaving you with only the dregs, an inferior product, fewer customers, and thus less profit. Of course, this assumes a free market in both labour and product: that it is easy for customers to move from one product to another, and for workers to move from one workplace to another. For this, there must be some agreed standards for the finished product across the industry (so you can easily replace Alice's component with Bob's device with a limited cost of conversion). There must also be a genuinely free market, with no monopolies or cartels, and, in particular, demand for employees must outstrip supply, and supply of products outstrip the needs of customers, so that if you do give a poor offering you will suffer for it. There needs to be an underlying infrastructure (currency, information, transport) so that the buyer and seller can interact. There needs to be an authority to ensure that individual contracts are honoured and are not exploitative. This is all the role of the government in capitalism. The cost for entering the market needs to be small, so if all the current suppliers are inefficient, a new player can quickly build up from nothing and under-cut them. And, in all of the individual business contracts, there needs to be a position of mutual benefit: what one party needs and can provide overlaps with what the other party can provide and needs.

Capitalism can work very well, and most of the time it does. But not always. One problem comes because different roles in the company might be easier or harder to fill. There might be very few people able to fulfil (or who are perceived to be able to fulfil) a particular skilled role. Each company must therefore outbid each other in order to try to gain their services. As such, such people might well be paid more than what they are worth to the company. The company will pay them more than they contribute to the products and ultimately sales. This is unjust, and greed will compel the employee to try to get as much as they can from the relationship. On the other hand, if there are too many potential workers to fill a particular unskilled role, then the company has the bargaining power. It can pay them however little it likes, and treat them like dirt, knowing that there will always be somebody desperate for that job, however poor it is. This is also unjust, and greed will compel the company to get as much as it can from the workers for as little as possible. Another problem is that it is often difficult to break into established industries as a small company. Instead, you have a small number of big companies emerging. Economies of scale mean that a large company can, if they choose, out compete a smaller rival until they have destroyed it. Mergers and acquisitions (made easy by the stock market), and the occasional company failure, reduce the field further. You end up heading towards monopolies. This is good for the people at the top: they get all the profit from every company they bought. But it is bad for everyone else: less choice, or innovation, or influence on the mammoth suppliers. Wealth and financial power get concentrated. Those beneficiaries get more than they contribute; the rest of the world suffers in consequence. More injustice.

Thus the vices of capitalism are greed and injustice, and these are the ultimate causes of its failures. It does, however, have the advantage that to a large extent it keeps business transactions at a local level; it keeps the distances between customer and producer short. If we know someone and their needs personally, the less likely a reasonably decent person would be to exploit them.

A second direction that "right"-wing thought could lead is to object to both big government and big business. One example of this is the idea of distributism, promoted by various Catholic scholars (albeit not economists), but (to my knowledge) never put into practice. Here the focus is on small, local communities. The means of production are owned privately, but ownership is spread across as many people as possible. It starts with the family, and builds up to small town and village industries (along with the necessary support services). As much as possible, people should themselves own the tools they need to do their work. Each family should be as self-sufficient as possible; each local community should be able to take care of each of its members: providing its basic needs (such as food, water, and so on) and earning enough from its industry to exchange for everything else. Each village industry should do one thing, but do it well. The village industry is composed of people who work together in different roles but for a common purpose; the is no dissension or competition within a company. Generally free market principles are accepted. Standards allow interchangeability of parts, and thus competition between villages. No larger unit should be allowed when its functions can be provided by a set of smaller ones working together. For example, when manufacturing a car, you might have one group of companies designing it, and each leasing out their own design. Another group would build an air conditioning unit, another each component of the engine, and so on, and yet another group will exist to put all the parts together. Each company will be independent, though obviously will communicate with each other. Each community is small enough that all the families in it know each other, and can support each other, and this will avoid the temptation to corruption when one person becomes too powerful (as happens in capitalism). Central government again exists solely to enforce private contracts, and provide the necessary infrastructure and public amenities unrelated to production and wealth generation. Similar to capitalism, it has well defined purposes, and its power is limited.

An economic flaw with this system is that it ignores economies of scale, and that sometimes you need large companies to manufacture a product efficiently. Equally, it is difficult to secure finance for investment, needed in some industries where developing a new product is expensive. Unlike capitalism and socialism, it does not depend on people being driven by some vice. This can be seen as an advantage (eventually the greed of capitalism or the envy of socialism become fully developed and bring down society), but also as a disadvantage, since it is based on an idealised vision of human nature which doesn't exist in practice. Also, is distributism stable? I can foresee that without some sort of control, and it could collapse into capitalism and industries effectively merge. Too much control, and it collapses into socialism.

Socialism, of course, runs on an entirely different set of economic principles. Like most "left"-wing thought, it begins by dividing humanity (or in this case a company) into groups, and declaring that there is a perpetual power struggle between those groups. The bosses are one, and seek to maintain their hierarchy over the workers. The workers are united, and desperate to liberate themselves, but are trapped into impoverishment by the unfairness of the system. The workers do all the work, but have no power. The capitalists have all the power, but do none of the real work. (The needs of customers, of course, don't get as large a consideration, which is one of the reasons why this doctrine fails. Another is that the "groups" are neither homogeneous nor static: people can and are expected to change roles over the course of their career. Another is that it treats every company as though they were a large Victorian factory: small and medium size businesses have very different dynamics.) Transactions take place in negotiations between one group and another. This is why trade unions are so important to the socialist acting in such a system. An individual employee is always stepped on. Only together can they force the elite to give them the wages and working conditions they deserve. Of course, after the revolution, there will be no need for unions, because the workers themselves will be the ones in control. A company is not a single body living for a shared purpose (as in standard economic theory), but a war zone, divided between competing interests.

From this premise, "left"-wing thought tends to go in one of three directions. The first is centrally planned socialism. Here the means of production and distribution are owned and controlled by the people as a whole, represented by the state. The state is in principle the representative of the people (many such socialists profess to be democratic, albeit that in practice such systems have evolved into one party systems). Thus government makes all the decisions concerning employee rights, prices, how much to produce, and whom to lease it to (in the most extreme cases, nobody has property of their own). In practice, of course, this is a disaster.

Firstly, only the people who actually produce or consume the good have the necessary knowledge to make those decisions. But they are not the ones making the decision. That knowledge, therefore, has to pass down a long chain of officials, taking time and getting distorted on the way. At this point, things are collected together, everything is averaged, and all the statistics is massaged. A decision is made on the basis of these regression. That decision then needs to be passed back again down the chain of officials to the people, who are then informed what they are allowed to produce or buy. By the time this happens, circumstances will have changed, and the decision will no longer be valid (if it ever was). Centrally planned socialism cannot cope with variations in either time or place. And that's the best case scenario, where the right decisions are reached in the first place, since those making them have no real expertise. The experts are those actually making or using the good, waiting for some ignoramus in government to tell them what to do. In order to do the averaging, the knowledge has to be supplied in a fixed format: certain questions have to be asked, certain boxes ticked and forms filled out. This is both inflexible, often useless (the wrong information is gathered) and wastes the time and resources of the producers. The teacher spends more time filling in forms and ensuring that he has met all the government sponsored targets than he does in actual teaching. [I recognise that what I have discussed here is an extreme version of centrally planned socialism. Not all decisions will be made in this way. But the problems of over-demand, over supply, poor quality, government corruption, and a lack of innovation, risk, and consideration to consumer demand are common to all centrally planned states.]

Secondly, there is no motivation for the workers to do a good job. The fools who decide how much to reward them have no experience of working with them; and no idea what they are like to work with. People get paid the same, no matter the quality of the work. Thus there is no motivation to put in the extra effort, and productivity as a whole suffers.

Thirdly, those making the decisions have no stake in the outcome of those decisions. They don't suffer if they get things wrong. Somebody else will suffer, but only some minion separated from them by a long chain of bureaucrats. People are thus likely to be rewarded by how well they fit in with the current party ideology, or how nice they are at dinner parties, than in how well they actually do the job. Given that party ideologies are invariably flawed, this always leads to the promotion of the incompetent.

Fourthly, governments tend to be risk adverse, and that is harmful to the economy as a whole. Anybody not taking risks is doomed to lose in the long run. The idea is to compare the probability of success times the gains for winning against the probability of failure against the costs of losing. Get that calculation right, and, while you will sometimes succeed and sometimes fail, in the long term you will gain more than you lose. The person who takes no risks at best remains static, and at worst slowly declines through depreciation. In a market economy, you can have three companies each taking a calculated risk. Two of them come off, one of them fails (it was well worth a try; just happened not to work on this occasion). Society gains more from the two successes than the failure costs it, and there is enough left over for the people involved in the failure to be picked up and have another go later with something else. But when government takes a risk, the price of failure is not just the loss of one company, but the loss of the whole economy. That can't be chanced. So they invariably opt for slow stagnation instead.

Fifthly, by concentrating power in one unaccountable group, it makes corruption an inevitability. There is a reason why Kim Jong Un is by far the richest man in North Korea. It's because he can, so he does. In a market economy, corruption by a company's officials ought to leave it as a disadvantage against its rivals. It is naturally weeded out. Not so in a centrally planned economy, because the state has no rivals.

The second type of "left"-wing policy is what we might call corporate socialism. This (in its most extreme form) is when you have private ownership but state control, through regulation. The aim is to correct for the deficiencies of capitalism. In the classical economic system, everything is determined by individual contracts. Both parties freely agree to the contract, and there are no outside constraints on it, although doubtless there will be compromises on both sides. If the terms are unacceptable to one party, then that party walks away, and tries to find somebody else to deal with. If nobody offers acceptable terms, then they might have to consider that their own position is unreasonable, and they need to compromise a little more. In practice, this leads to a system where people can be valued or undervalued for their work. So this is where the government steps in. It tries to correct these imbalances by mandating that each contract contains certain terms. These regulations thus will always harm one side or the other in comparison to the natural goal, and usually it will be the company. There is a difference between regulations and standards. Standards (which are invariably seen as a good thing) say that the final product must satisfy certain conditions, so that goods from different suppliers are inter-operable and there is no cost in moving your allegiance from one to another. Regulations refer to the processes involved in producing or distributing that product. Standards are essential to capitalism. Regulations are essential to socialism.

One can approach a mild corporate socialism from either the "left" or the "right". From the "right", the underlying premises remain that of capitalism: decisions are made at the individual level. The goal of the company is still to maximise profit. The company is still a body of people striving for a single purpose. The regulations come in because it is recognised that this system has its flaws, and this is a light touch to try to protect against those flaws. On the left, one still starts with the idea of a power struggle between the workers and the management. The government steps in as an arbiter of that conflict. The two sides still loathe each other, but they have a peace treaty which at least allows them to live with each other. Of course, the left-wing version of corporate socialism can also exist in a more extreme view, where government takes complete control, albeit that the companies remain under private ownership. There is no need for trade unions. This is not because of the right wing perspective: that they lead to a cartel, destroying the company's freedom to negotiate employment contracts that are fair to both individuals (and in particular their freedom to not hire individuals who demand more than their labour is worth, so the company would lose money by employing them).

The problems with corporate socialism begin with that regulations create extra costs for business. They divert business from its core objective: how can I produce the best product possible for my customer? Instead, they have to divert resources towards ensuring compliance. Every resource diverted represents a loss of productivity. Secondly, those costs tend to be proportionately larger for small and medium size companies than larger companies. The large companies can also lobby for these regulations, since they have the resources to spare to do so, while the smaller company's don't. The flaw of big business, like big government, is that it increases the distance between the users of the product (or the people who actually make it) and those making the decisions. This leaves things more open to corruption, and poor decision-making, leaving the customer and employee unfulfilled. Thirdly, while if done correctly, the regulations could compensate for the injustices of pure capitalism, if done badly then they could over-compensate, and make the injustices even worse, only in the opposite direction. This is particularly true since the regulations are not adaptable to local needs or changes in time. If they are tuned correctly for one company, they would doubtless be wrong for all the rest. And they will invariably be bad: they are designed by politicians and civil servants, who know little about the needs of those businesses and workers. Furthermore, corporate socialism shares all the problems of centrally planned socialism (albeit to a lesser degree), while still encouraging capitalistic greed and bringing about its own injustices.

The third approach that those on the left can take is to argue for worker cooperatives. Here the shareholders and owners of the company are its employees. If the manager fails to give them a pay rise, then they can vote to sack the manager, and replace him with somebody more compliant. Here the revolution takes place not at the level of the state, but at the level of the company. In corporate and centrally planned socialism, there is a single power struggle between the workers and the management across the whole country. The victory of the workers needs to take place at the national level. This view of "left"-wing thought states instead that there are thousands of independent individual wars taking place, not at the national level, but in each local community. It resolves this by giving the workers victory, but again at the local rather than national level.

Cooperatives are obviously different from state and corporate socialism, and have different advantages and flaws. For a small company, where everyone knows and trusts everyone else, they can work well. They show greater signs of worker solidarity and satisfaction, greater income equality, and don't fare worse than traditionally owned business. On a larger scale, problems can arise. I will highlight a number of them. Firstly, people are hired in a company to do a particular job. Their productivity depends on how much of their energy they can devote to doing that job. Any distraction represents a loss of productivity. If they have to make a decision about the company as a whole, then that is such a distraction. Either they would have to spend time researching the issues, or they vote in ignorance. If the company is too large, then workers will be disconnected from most of the others in the company, and have little knowledge of what is happening beyond their own little circle. Unskilled and junior workers are given the same vote as senior staff, on matters on which they have no expertise. Instead of decisions being made by people who gather information from all parts of the company, they are made by uninformed people who only have a part of that knowledge. The role of management is to provide vision and a purpose for the company as a whole, and that is better done as a single voice. And, most of all, the governing structure ignores the customer. In any place where the needs of the customer need to be balanced against the needs of the employees, the customer will almost certainly lose out. Of the three natural purposes of the company, one is given undue preference over the other two. Additionally, the financial burden of the company falls on the workers, who are not likely to be wealthy enough to finance expansion or secure additional funding (one thing which capitalism makes easy).

I have little doubt that a system of workers cooperatives are superior to centrally planned and corporate socialism. They indeed can correct the flaws of capitalism, but introduce new ones in their place. Again, it can work well on a small scale, but fails when things become too big.

However, in whatever form, "left"-wing economic thought is built around the vice of envy, and leads to the vice of sloth. Envy because it is built around visions of power struggles. Each group sees itself as oppressed, and its goal is to take what the oppressors have by replacing them. It encourages sloth because people are provided for by the state; hard work is not rewarded to the extent that rewards it, and therefore most people would not work hard. This reduces productivity, and makes everyone poorer. In a free market system, a lazy worker harms himself.

Returning to my original theme, we again see that the dichotomy of "left" and "right" wing thought is not sufficient to explore all the options. I have offered two different forms of "right" wing thought, and two different forms of "left" wing thought, and one (cooperatives) where the outcome, depending on its precise form, can be reached from either direction. And of course, there are others.

But the main difference is that "left" and "right" wing thought are built from different principles. The "left" is built from ideals of power struggles between groups. The way to end poverty is to either forcibly end, or at least strongly regulate, the oppressive wealthy class. Wealth is then forcibly re-distributed, so that all have what they need. The right see localisation as the best way to reduce poverty. Wealth is generated when people are free to make their own decisions in order to enrich themselves. And with everybody doing that, society as a whole will become wealthier.

Those on the "right" see centralisation as the opposite to their position, and therefore class the "left" as people who favour centralisation. While they might acknowledge the "left" care about the poor, the "right" firmly believe that "left"-wing policies invariably lead to the increase of poverty. A conclusion that arises both theoretically, and from numerous historical examples. The "right" thus view the "left" as being either naive and stupid, or blatant power grabbers, selfish and corrupt. For example, a version of corporate socialism is consistent the right wing premises: but it leads to larger business, and thus less choice, freedom and power for both employees and consumers (leading to a worse outcome for both: their bargaining power arises from their freedom to walk away). It is thus seen as a worse option than having a freer market.

The left, however, see the opposite of their position as promoting the rule of the wealthy and privileged few, and encouraging their oppression of the working many. They thus characterise the right as those who promote financial inequality and favour the rich. This they regard as evil (as indeed it would be, were it a true characterisation of "right"-wing thought. In practice, the "right" simply don't think of things in terms of power struggles, and instead see over-regulation and reliance on the state to provide handouts rather than private charity and teaching people to be self-reliant as the cause of poverty. The "right" want to end poverty just as much, perhaps even more, as the "left." They just have a different way of going about it.).

So again we have (at least) four distinct positions caused by the two different philosophies. Neither side can understand the other, because they only think of them in their own terms.

As an example of this, I will mention the debate about whether the National Socialists were economically far-right or far-left. Each side accuses them of being an extreme example of the other. The "left" view the Nazis as far-"right", because they were in favour of private property, hierarchy and inequality. The "right" view the Nazis as far-"left" because their political views were centred around group-identities (rather than each person treated as an unique individual), and their economic policies favoured centralised control rather than localisation (economically, they were an extreme form of what I have called corporate socialism). The difference comes from the different definitions of terms. The "left" assert that the Nazis violated the "left"'s core principles. The "right" assert that the Nazi's violated the "right"'s core principles. Since the advocates of both of these viewpoints understand their own ideology far better than they do the ideology of their rivals, we should this far take them at their word. We are forced to conclude that the Nazis were neither far-left nor far-right, but something else (far-bottom, perhaps).

Ethical and Moral Values

One further way in which the "left" and "right" differ (or ought to differ) is in the basis of their moral values. The "left" is the product of the enlightenment, and as such it has an optimistic view of human nature. The moral systems it favours are those based around groups as a whole. Utilitarianism is the classic example: one maximises the happiness of the whole of humanity. Not individuals, but a group. Or the "left" might favour moral relativism (based on objections by Hume and Moore to an objective morality) everyone is free to do whatever they like, as long as they don't impinge upon other's freedom. The moral problems which the "left" worry about are those which require mass social responses: protecting the environment, or combating poverty. (Although it is far easier to talk about such things or protest rather than actually do something effective.)

The right, on the other hand, naturally favour those ethical theories which concentrate on individual responsibility. Virtue ethics and duty ethics ought to be the preferences of the political "right", and certainly used to be. There is thus a focus on character and family values. There is concern for the poor, but almsgiving is a private act of charity, which a focus on improving character and helping people learn to fend for themselves more than continual handouts to provide needs.

Again, they very different principles, and neither set of policies makes sense in terms of the rival philosophy. To the "left", the "right"'s focus on character and duty is a burden, unreasonably restricting people's freedom and happiness. To the "right", duty and virtue are, to those who appreciate them, not a burden but a joy. The "left"'s focus on individual freedom without responsibility is a prelude to chaos. Without virtue (or a sense of duty, though virtue is better) relationships will become dysfunctional; families break down; the wider economy will suffer.

I say that this ought to be the "right"'s moral philosophy. Sadly, in my country, this is no longer the case. The main "right"-wing parties are the Conservatives and the Brexit party (which has effectively replaced UKIP). UKIP/Brexit are libertarians. Most of the parliamentary Conservative party at least have fallen into the trap of moral relativism (although there are still a few people holding onto virtue and duty ethics). The problem is that nobody that I can see is willing to take a moral lead, and persuade people of the truth of their values. Instead, there is only the easy way out and submission to what is seen as being the prevailing view. Which has become the "left"-wing view almost by default. It is what is implied by the schools, shouted out from every part of the culture. Ethical theory is not taught to anyone except those who take philosophy courses, and even there it is dominated by utilitarian and relativist garbage. Even in the churches, I cannot recall a sermon on why the Christian moral principles are a better solution than the common ethical framework.

In the US, the situation is perhaps better. But when was the last time a presidential candidate campaigned on the importance of virtue, or put virtue ethics on the public school curriculum, or even hinted that there is an alternative to the "left"'s story? When was the last time that there was a clear, public, first principles presentation of virtue ethics and demonstration of why it is superior to utilitarianism and moral relativism.

For me, the most important issue facing the UK is that most of the population has rejected Christianity. That is, however, more down to the failure of the Church than a party political issue. The second issue is political, and it concerns education, and in particular moral education (though not only moral education). A big part of this is student discipline, which (I understand) is greatly affecting the morale of the teaching profession. Instead, we seem to be breeding a generation of people who are unwilling to take responsibility, accept alternative perspectives, or even listen to an opposing argument or think through things logically. Too many people have just lost the desire to learn. Third on my list (and related to the first two) is the breakdown of the family. Divorce, and separation of unmarried couples, and tensions in relationships which do survive, damage the children. That damage only makes things worse generation by generation. Each generation has more brokenness, achieves less in their education and in their later life, and then is even less able to raise children of their own.

Yet none of the major political parties will even mention this. All of them enact policies that make the problem even worse than it is today. It is though they do not see the problem despite the abundance of evidence of the social ills caused by family breakdown caused by moral failure. Or maybe they believe family breakdown to be "progress". I have never had much hope for the Labour or Liberal parties. But the recent Conservative proposals to allow for easy divorce, or to teach students as young as five the "glories" of sexual immorality have left me with little doubt that they have joined Labour and the Liberals as political regressives (seeking to undo the 1600 years or so of progress under Christendom).

So this is the other way in which the "left/right" distinction is a false dichotomy. Not in the philosophy, but the political parties. All of them seem to be dominated by people from the same basic economic status and background. In some areas of policy, they have adopted the same underlying philosophy. And in these areas, there is no dichotomy, since they have the same views.


To have a dichotomy, you need two positions which assume the same underlying terminology, but are inversions of each other. Heads and tails form a dichotomy. They both refer to the result of the same coin toss. They rely on the same basic assumptions. They are identical in every respect bar one: one refers to one side of the coin, and the other to the other. You can't have a dichotomy if the positions are either identical, or based on very different principles which are not opposite of each other. All it leads to in either case is confusion. Which is what we see all around us.

Modern politics is not represented by points along a single line. There are at least two very different lines, with a vast gulf in both understanding and practice between them.

A Universe from Nothing? Part 6: Where do the laws come from?

Reader Comments:

1. Scott Lynch
Posted at 02:39:30 Tuesday November 19 2019

Excellent Post!

Always an excellent read. I thought your points on distributism were well-stated. There is a great YouTube video by Dr. Taylor Marshall called Against Catholic Distributism. He comes to the same conclusion as you (but goes on much more depth than you had space for).

Yeah I would have to agree as an American, my experience has been that virtue ethics is low on the priority list. Ironically, I feel like Donald Trump has done more to encourage virtue ethics than most politicians by simply not pandering to the other side. I think the virtue conservatives lack the most is boldness. And when it comes to making virtue ethics mainstream, I think boldness is more valuable than moral rectitude (at our current state). We have to stop trying to make virtue ethics work on a Utilitarian framework. In that since, I would say there is a true dichotomy between moral conservatives and liberals. But by conceding that first premise, we have given the game over to Progressives. We need to fight for the framework, and explicitly and boldly so, not just fight issue by issue.

2. Michael Brazier
Posted at 19:28:00 Tuesday November 19 2019

Asymmetry and inequality

In point of fact, the Right has no difficulty understanding the Left's principles. The statement that, to a Leftist, politics and society are a war among identity groups is a common trope in right-wing discussions; I have seen and heard it any number of times. The Left, OTOH, is swiftly losing (or has wholly lost) the ability to understand that anyone could reject that proposition, could see politics in terms other than groups at war. The situation is not symmetrical at all.

(I would ascribe this to the fact that very few Leftists know anything about their own movement's intellectual history, never mind their opponents'. Marx was quite clear about his basic assumptions, but modern Leftists don't read him; they read people who take those assumptions for granted and never state them.)

As an aside, left-wing policies that are meant to promote "equality" (as the Left defines that word) don't even manage that - they are failures even in their own terms. Handing one group the tools it needs to oppress another, on the grounds that the latter group has the power to oppress the former, doesn't make the groups equal. It just sets them against each other in constant warfare.

3. Nigel Cundy
Posted at 19:04:09 Wednesday November 20 2019

Asymmetry and inequality

There are certainly studies showing that the right understands the left better than the left understands the right. That far I would agree with you.

However, being more towards the right myself, I see frequent confident assertions that the "right" believes this when I know full well that it doesn't (or at least it is not consistent with my own view and those I follow most closely).

However, I wanted to maintain an element of balance in my article out of worry that I could fall into the same trap. Are my own characterisations of left-wing views accurate (at least once you get beyond the superficial level of group identities and so on)? The problem is, not having that mindset, I don't have direct evidence that my characterisation of the left wing world-view is correct. Even when I read some of their works, am I reading them correctly, or reading into them what I think they should say. I know that such misreading is possible, because I see it when "the other side" comments on right-wing works. Almost invariably, that will happen, at least at some level. So while I believe that my errors in understanding left wing thought are considerably smaller that the left's errors in understanding my thought, I recognise that I could be mistaken. So, in the interests of humility, I kept the article neutral.

At least, that's what I say in public. Privately, of course, I agree with you. But my experience might not be representative. Without direct evidence, I prefer not to shout that out.

4. John E
Posted at 20:22:19 Thursday December 5 2019

Great Post

I really enjoyed this post. Regarding U.S. politics, although I'm not sanguine about the future, there remains some hope. A small, but interesting coterie of senators who seem at least interested in discussing the moral ills and social anomie plaguing the nation have recently emerged. Men such as Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, and, to a lesser extent, Ben Sasse, have been mounting traditionally-minded social arguments as a starting point for political engagement, and that's more than we've seen in several decades. Now as to their sincerity vs. political opportunism, only time will tell, but merely having prominent members of Congress's upper house--all of whom are under fifty-- vocalize these ideas offers a respite from the usual libertarian-esque policies in vogue among the right for so long. It's also intriguing that this phenomenon contains a potential underlying religious alliance among reformed Presbyterians and Baptists (such as the PCA, CRC, URCNA, OPC, SBC, etc.) and orthodox/practicing Catholics, something rare, if not unprecedented, given America's largely anti-Catholic bent, at least in historical terms.

Also, as a relatively young teacher in an independent Texas day-school, I can add anecdotal evidence to your theory concerning divorce and family breakdown. Nearly every student who struggles academically, behaviorally, or socially comes from a broken household (this problem is far more common and intractable in public schools, mind you). While this has typically been true and probably appears somewhat commonsensical--though teachers must euphemize any reference to it when talking among each other—it remains an ever-growing, all-consuming issue, which has far-reaching academic and communal repercussions. There are also interesting parallels between pupils diagnosed with various, sometimes dubious, psychological/learning disabilities, which are also on the rise. Though, seeing how it is anecdotal, that might simply be coincidental.

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