Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

93. Left and Right

Note: This post is the ninety-third in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs defines two distinct syndromes, one covering commercial ethics and one covering guardian, primarily government, ethics.

The last few centuries of politics in western countries has been dominated by a battle between two rival ideologies, the left and the right. It's always seemed a bit mysterious to me that certain groups of policies would end up neatly packaged along an ideological spectrum like that. Given the similar structure of the syndromes and the left-right political spectrum, I naturally wondered if there was any connection between the two syndromes identified by Jane Jacobs and the left-right political divide.

Thinking about it a little, I don't think that an analogy to right vs. left really works, but maybe there is some connection to the distinction between conservatism and liberalism.

The defining element of Conservatism is respect for tradition (a guardian trait) while Wikipedia defines a concern for equal rights which lines up with the commercial ease of collaboration with strangers and aliens, and contrasts with the conservative respect for hierarchy. Similarly, classical liberalism emphasized the role of free markets and that government needed the consent of the governed (respect contracts, come to voluntary agreements). Wikipedia says that, Edmund Burke, a famous conservative, "insisted on standards of honor derived from the medieval aristocratic tradition, and saw the aristocracy as the nation's natural leaders."

When I think of our modern political parties of the left and right, however, even though the names Conservative and Liberal remain, there seems to be some drifting from the traditional Conservative and Liberal roles. The current 'Conservative' party is actually descended from the 'Reform' party, a movement which wanted to fight and overturn the existing hierarchy, and which wants to dispense with tradition in many ways, from the role of the Governor General to the Senate.

Similarly, old-style conservatism involved the concept of noblesse-oblige, in which there was an obligation of the wealthy to help the lower classes, but in modern politics it is the left-wing which supports the lower classes, while right-wing policies generally favour the wealthy. Meanwhile, the Liberal party favours far more government intervention in the economy than would have been considered under classical liberalism.

Looking back at the twentieth century, it seems that the World Wars and great depression led to a new political model, known generally as 'the welfare state' in which government directed a significant percentage of spending in the economy. Since then politics has divided between those who want to continue or expand that trend and those who want to go back to the 19th century of a much more limited government role in the economy.

On the one hand, Jane Jacobs identified mixing of the morals from the two syndromes as the primary form of moral corruption. But on the other hand Jacobs identified a number of examples where government and the commercial sphere could use their respective strengths to accomplish things that otherwise couldn't be done.

At any rate, words like Liberalism and Conservatism have so many meanings these days that maybe this post is just a waste of time, but it seems as though with the emergence of capitalism and the growing importance of the commercial syndrome, there was a period where the new commercial ethics and old guardian ethics battled it out in the political forum but in more recent years the lines have been re-drawn partly along class lines instead with the battle between the classes replacing the earlier battle between Liberalism and Conservatism.

Of course, there is no reason why a party couldn't support implementing Jane Jacobs ideal vision of both syndromes in force, complementing each other as necessary, and kept separate where appropriate. But I guess figuring out just what that last part means exactly isn't so easy.

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