Left Forum: Why we differ

Whither the Australian Left? 

When I first settled in Australia some twenty years ago, I wrote a major article on the Left in Australia. I spent a month or more trawling through all the leftist publications I could find (the Internet was not an option back then). After this lengthy period of research, I wrote a large piece summarising my findings (a shorter version of which appeared in the August 1990 IPA Review).  

This week in the Australian a six-part series on the Left appeared. It is interesting to read these articles in light of what the Left was saying twenty years ago. The bottom line is, little has changed. These recent pieces are all united by the usual collection of clichés, platitudes, and ethereal thinking. 

There is very little which is concrete here, just the usual moral rhetoric and the usual buzz words: equality, social justice, fairness, diversity, and so on. And what also binds these articles together is the usual leftist alliance on the state. For the most part, the state, not the individual or the family or the community, is generally viewed as the ultimate saviour. Thus in the end, expanding government is what we are left with (no pun intended). 

While others will examine in greater detail these articles, here I wish to simply utilise broad-brush strokes. One way to proceed is simply to outline the ways in which Left and Right differ. Thomas Sowell has very nicely summarised the major differences between the two in his many works, especially in these three important volumes: A Conflict of Visions (1987); The Vision of the Anointed (1995); and The Quest for Cosmic Justice (1999). 

Sowell argues that the Left and Right operate from fundamentally different premises. These premises really amount to differing worldviews, with differing ways of looking at the world, man, his predicament and possible solutions. Thus the foundation, or vision, on which political ideas are built is hugely important. 

The two main visions Sowell discusses are what he calls the constrained and the unconstrained visions. The constrained vision (the conservative worldview) acknowledges that there are limits. There are limits to human nature, limits to what governments can do, limits to what can be achieved in a society. 

The unconstrained vision (the radical or leftist worldview) tends to downplay limits. Mankind is seen as more or less perfectible; social and political utopia is to a large extent achievable; and evil is not endemic or inherent in the human condition, and therefore is able to be mostly eliminated. 

The conservative vision tends to reflect the Judeo-Christian understanding that mankind is fallen, is limited, is prone to sin and self, and cannot produce heaven on earth, at least without the help of God. The left-liberal vision, by contrast, tends to see the human condition as innocent, malleable and perfectible, and tends to think that utopia on earth is achievable under the right social conditions.

Edmund Burke may best exemplify the former vision, with the American Revolution one of its main fruit. Rousseau may best exemplify the latter vision, with the French Revolution a key expression of it. Sowell argues that on the whole, the conservative vision, being much more closely grounded in reality, will usually produce better outcomes for those intended to benefit by them, than those of the leftist vision. 

These basic differences are nicely illustrated in the Australian series. There is plenty of utopian vision here, but little of realistic substance. And when they do start to offer some tangible proposals, it is interesting to see how centrist they become. In other words, the more down to earth and practical they want to be, the more rightward they tend to go. 

What also should be pointed out is that in some respects the Left and Right do not differ so much on what they consider to be ultimately important. Both want to see such goods as justice, tranquillity, national well-being, and so on. Where they differ, as Sowell and others have pointed out, is how to best achieve these ends, and what can realistically be attempted. 

Both for example favour equality, but the Left tends to favour equality of outcome, while the Right favours equality of opportunity. And are bureaucrats, ruling elites, social engineers and expanding state powers the answer, or are individuals, mediating structures (church, family, community, etc) and free markets best placed to achieve social goods? That is where the differences emerge. 

Indeed, the Left does not have a monopoly on moral concerns. It is not just Julia Gillard who is “Driven by indignation at injustice”. Conservatives are also incensed at injustice. It’s just that the Left so often seems to be highly selective in where its outrage is directed. 

America, capitalism, globalism and the West in general tend to be its targets. At the same time, they seem deathly silent on the mega-injustices of such things as Soviet Communism or Islamo-fascism. Some of us might be more persuaded by their rhetoric if they were a bit more consistent in where their moral outrage was sprayed around. 

The truth is, the enemies of the Left usually in fact turn out to be the best guarantors of genuine social goods, such as freedom, opportunity and prosperity. The things the Left tends to press for are often at odds and conflict with such goods. 

Light on a Hill? 

Also of interest is the decidedly secular tone of this entire series. Given that fact, it is interesting to recall the title used in the very first article: “A new light on the hill”. Whether the author or subeditor realised it, this is of course taking us back into history, especially religious history. The phrase was first used by the ancient Hebrew prophets when describing what life would one day be like when Yahweh puts an end to evil and suffering, and establishes his universal kingdom. 

The early Puritans and American founding fathers also utilised such terminology as they expressed their hopes of what sort of place that new land was to be. In both visions there was an overwhelming spiritual reality which lay behind the terminology. 

What is remarkable about this series is the fact that there is not one religious or spiritual reference to be found anywhere. God is entirely left out of the picture, and the heaven on earth which the leftists want to create will be one entirely constructed by human efforts and mortal hands. 

Of course we have been there and done that. Modern history is replete with such secular visions of a new earth. We have seen one bloody example after another of such coercive utopians in action. And lest anyone doubt the bloody results of such experiments, they simply need to consult the now classic work, The Black Book of Communism.   

But it is not just the fact that the desire to build heaven on earth sans deity is bound to fail, and lead to bloodshed, but the very vision of what the left is seeking to achieve (justice, peace, harmony) in fact can ultimately only be achieved by divine help anyway. These qualities happen to be his attributes. 

To seek to bring heaven to earth without the author and source of such values and goods is an exercise in futility. It is as C.S. Lewis warned about:

You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that our civilization needs more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. (The Abolition of Man) 

So while some of the aims and goals of the Left may be morally laudable, the question remains as to whether the worldview of the Left, and its proposed remedies and polices will in fact usher in these sorts of goods. Fortunately we have history on our side here, and the verdict is not very favourable. 

In sum, the Australian Left does not seem to have changed much from when I last analysed it in depth some two decades ago. The same rhetoric prevails, the same vague and intangible social visions are offered, and the same inability remains to see that individuals, rather than states, are best placed to make of life what we all want it to be.

Bill Muehlenberg is a lecturer in ethics and theology, Secretary of the Family Council of Victoria, and a regular contributor to Quadrant Online.

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