Peter Smith

Fair and balanced

Fox News, the conservative US TV channel, makes a good deal of its claim to be fair and balanced. This reflects a view among conservatives that those on the left are prone to making outlandish claims and to distorting the truth. Clearly conservatives (those on the right) believe that they are more wedded to the truth than are those on the left.

What I would like to do is to explain why this might well be true and, ironically, in doing that, to provide an excuse of sorts for those on the left; though I admit to this being something of a back-handed dispensation.

Let me postulate a linear model where ‘the truth’ – defined for this purpose as the actual dimension of any particular economic or social problem and the optimal amount of government intervention – is at some point along a perpendicular line. North of the truth lies the territory of saying that problems are larger than they are and that more must be done and spent by government. South of the truth lies the territory of saying that problems are smaller than they are and that less need be done and spent. Those on the right would likely emphasise self-reliance and be somewhere south of those on the left who would emphasise collective responsibility. The status quo can be identified on the line but, for the most part, no-one knows exactly where the truth is positioned.

At issue is which of the coalescence of left or, alternatively, right views is generally closer to the truth on any matter. You might say it is moot because we generally don’t know where the truth lies. However, the likely dispersion of views north and south of the truth provides reasonable guidance, provided the truth is not too far north of some reasonable proximity to the status quo.

I would suggest that the dispersion of views north of the truth – held by those on the left – is likely to be much greater than the dispersion of views south of the truth – held by those on the right. What this means is that those on the right are more likely to congregate closer to the truth than those on the left, whose views will show much greater dispersion and as a result will throw up outliers: Pilgers, Michael Moores, Chomskys. This is so because those on the right usually cannot afford to travel very far, if at all, south of the status quo.

There is any number of examples. Take the amount of public funds that should be spent on Aboriginal welfare. To hold a position that considerably less should be spent on Aboriginal programs is not a tenable position. On the other hand, there is little constraint on the side of arguing for increases in expenditure. It is obviously easier to hold the totally unrealistic view that everyone must be provided with first quality health care no matter how much it costs, than it is to hold the view that we are already spending too much. Bob Brown can urge that our economy be dislocated in the cause of saving the planet without too much practical limit. Tim Costello can urge us to take in more refugees without specifying any limit.

While the right are anchored by the status quo, the left puts itself in position of being on the side of humanity and, accordingly, is the only side with something approaching carte blanche scope to travel.

Having carte blanche can be corruptive. Perhaps those on the left are no less wedded to the truth as a matter of conscience than those on the right but they are much freer to roam without censure than are those on the right. Of course, less generously, perhaps the left also provides a more conducive home for those who as a matter of temperament and inclination are reluctant to let the facts get in the way of a good story. In any event, it is understandable why those on the left might be prone to making outlandish claims and to distorting the truth. Seen in this light, Rudd’s promised education revolution, for example, or Obama’s promise to provide health insurance to 30 million uninsured Americans without increasing the budget deficit, start to make sense.

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