To a substantial extent the ‘left/right’ divide is characterised by a common way of seeing the world in which there’s self-interest and its opposite – altruism. But I think that impoverishes the debate. I think there’s a third category far more important than ‘altruism’.
To generalise or propose ‘ideal types’ I think it’s fair to say that while both right and left think both categories exist and are important, the right think that self-interest is the real engine room of life, and that altruism is a much weaker force, and not something one would want to rely on. In the words of right wing Labor man, Jack Lang and his one time acolyte Paul Keating “Always back a horse called ‘self interest’. At least you know it’s trying.”
Or as Adam Smith put it, beneficence is an ornament. As he wrote regarding justice:
It is the ornament which embellishes, not the foundation which supports the building, and which it was, therefore, sufficient to recommend, but by no means necessary to impose.
The left think that the world is unfair – which it pretty obviously is against any reasonable abstract definition of fairness – and that therefore a core role of collective institutions is to use coercion to realise at least some of our altruistic intuitions – to make the world fairer.
To reduce the thing to its irreducible essence, I think it might be better to say that both the left and right share that last proposition – that collective institutions realise various altruistic intuitions but that the right are more likely to regard such things as artificial and/or fragile, and this limits their enthusiasm for collective action, and their suspicion that it’s likely always being eaten away at by people ‘gaming’ the system in their own self-interest.
Where the left might pursue more redistribution via the state, the right might question the justice of this, but their strongest case is surely regarding the wisdom of it. As our institutions must impose things against self-interest – as they go against our selfish grain – they’re pitting an ornament (altruism or beneficence) against more visceral and perseverant forces – of self-interest. And as the effort mounts, more and more people will seek to evade and undermine the collective institutions. Continue reading