Neither Left nor Right

Economics on Trial – Ideas on Liberty - July 2000

by Mark Skousen

“Those who control the adjectives win.” — Larry Abraham

The use of the political labels “left” and “right” may be popular in today’s media, but there are several reasons why the dichotomy is a false and misleading guide to political and economic philosophy. It implies that “left” is equally as extreme as “right,” while the “middle of the road” position appears the more moderate and balanced position. I call this system the pendulum approach, where each individual is categorized along a political spectrum from “extreme left” to “extreme right.” Recently I encountered an example in an economics textbook.

Extreme Left Extreme Right

Source: Mark Maier and Steve White, The First Chapter, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998), p. 42.

The problem with the pendulum approach is that Adam Smith is characterized as “extreme” as Karl Marx. By implication, neither economist is sensible. Yet the evidence is overwhelming that Adam Smith’s system of natural liberty has advanced civilization far more than Karl Marx’s inexorable system of alienation and exploitation.

Moreover, in the pendulum approach, the middle-of-the-road position held by John Maynard Keynes appears to be the moderate ideal. A pendulum that experiences friction will eventually come to rest in the middle, between both extremes. But is that the best way to go?

A New Alternative: The Totem-Pole Approach

I prefer a fresh approach, which I call the top-down or “totem pole” way. Instead of left to right, I use top to bottom. In Indian folklore, the most-favored chiefs are placed at the top of the totem pole, followed by less impor tant chiefs below. Look at the next page for my rendition of the same three economists according to the totem-pole method.

In this system, I rank Adam Smith first, Keynes second, and Marx third. Of the three, Adam Smith advocated the highest degree of economic freedom. Nations that have adopted Smith’s vision of laissez-faire capitalism have fared the best. Next is Keynes. He usually favored maximum freedom in the microeconomic sphere, but frequently endorsed heavy intervention (inflation and deficit spending) in the macro sphere. His big-government formula has resulted in slower economic growth in many industrial nations. The low man on the totem pole is Marx, who advocated a command economy at both the micro and macro level. Historically, centrally planned Marxist nations have vastly underperformed the market economies.

Political and economic positions should not be divided by left and right. They are either right or wrong. As Milton Friedman has said many times, “There’s only good economics and bad economics.”

Avoid Being Close-Minded

A second reason why I avoid the left-right labels is that it puts people and ideas into boxes. When someone’s theories are labeled and compartmentalized, thinking stops and name-calling begins. There has been far too much bad blood spilt over the years between camps that spend more time shouting epithets than engaging in legitimate dialogue.

This criticism applies equally to the worn out adjectives “liberal” and “conservative.” If John Kenneth Galbraith is a “liberal,” why should conservatives listen to him’? If Milton Friedman is a “conservative,” why should liberals read his books? I try not to prejudice myself. To me, both are economists who have ideas worth examining.

The media will continue to use the hackneyed political lexicon of yesteryear and engage in character assassination. But I will resist the outdated and misleading left-wing/right-wing/liberal-conservative battlelines, and treat every scholar, candidate, and philosopher on his own merits, and not according to some arbitrary label.

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