The power of the right is principle, and the principle of the left is power. Understand this and you will understand the basis of modern politics. It also explains why the struggle between the right and left is universal and unending, with neither able to gain long-term advantage.
In these tumultuous times of constant controversies, it is normal to seek a lodestone by which to navigate politics. Yet politicians shift stances erratically. And the ebb and flow of party fortunes only increases inconsistency. To find greater constancy in politics, we must first view it externally to see its most basic forms.
Viewing politics from the proposed impact on individuals is pointless. Every party and government — from the most totalitarian to the most libertarian — claims seemingly the same positives for citizens. The more discernible conflicts of politics lie not in the ends, but in the means proposed for achieving them.
Without question the most powerful man-made institution in history is capitalism. It has fueled an unprecedented rise in living standards and societal wealth. How the state addresses capitalism is crucial to the society it governs, and an even more differentiating feature of its political philosophy than its professions about the individual.
The right is pro-free market. Acknowledging the market is the best organizer of endeavor, it believes government should take a de minimis approach in its relations with the market. The government of the right therefore aims to facilitate market-based outcomes.
The left does not acknowledge that the market produces the best outcomes. To the left, the market on its own will yield an unfair distribution of resources — a suboptimal societal outcome. Instead, market-based outcomes inherently arouse their suspicion. As a result, governments of the left aim to sublimate markets to their own ends.
Each camp aims to govern capitalism according to these philosophical tenets. The right following a market-first approach. The left following a government-first approach.
Because the right believes the market should take precedence over the government, it must look for ways to constrain government. Ultimately, these ways must rely on principles.
The right needs some principles ensconced beyond the ordinary reach of government. Relying only on laws means anything so enacted could be simply overturned in the legislative process’s normal course. So the right seeks a supra-legislative bulwark.
The Constitution is a perfect example. Yet even here, the right ultimately must rely on principles that it intends to be beyond challenge, which will be simply accepted and respected by all political actors. Without this, even supposed bulwarks stand little chance — witness the many constitutions regularly violated at will around the world.
Because the left believes government should take precedence over the market, it must ensure government is not constrained. For something to be truly a principle, it must be a universal. However, because the left believes government should not be constrained — that the market is constantly changing and thereby demanding that government keep pace with circumstances yet unforeseen or foreseeable — the left must ultimately adhere only to power.
Again, the Constitution is a perfect example. For the left’s vision of government to be realized, there must be ways around a supposedly immutable constraint. So the Constitution must be characterized as “a living document” — one not simply taken literally. It becomes malleable and increasingly porous so that government can move through it.
Of course there are exceptions to these observations, but their exceptional nature serves to prove them as rules. Just as ships can wander off course, the right and left can as well for limited periods. However, each’s fundamental orientation does not change, even when off course. Eventually their compasses will bring them back, so neither drifts far or for long.
The basic stance of the right and left determines their government’s approach to the economy and the individual. And their supporters’ attachment to them determines these individuals’ approach to government and the economy.
The right and left’s contradictory approaches also explain their permanent confrontation. This conflict can never be more than temporarily resolved. Nor can either side hold the advantage for an extended period.
Both the right and left harbor the seeds that undermine them in their ascendancy. The right continually hamstrings itself by adhering to principles the left does not — foregoing the full use of political power when it holds it. The left constantly and transparently seeking power at all costs — willingly sacrificing the principles the general population embraces as their security.
If contemporary politics seems confusing it is not because of its vagaries. It is because of the basic certainties arising from the conflict between the right and left. The right and left are not only unable to reconcile their differences. The right and left cannot even reconcile their own internal limitations.