Monday 29 August 2022

The Left and Right are wrong (and right)

Taking a short-hand of left and right as being collectivist and individualist is an approximation that looses some finesse. But let's just consider the collectivist/individualist dichotomy aspects of left and right and proceed to show how they're simultaneously correct and incorrect.

The current wave of Woke Totalitarianism is a new brand of authoritarian collectivism, incidentally in its employment of race as an identity group its closest cousin is not communism, which uses class as the identity group. Rather the division by race of this intolerant totalitarian ideology has a closest cousin in the ideas of National Socialism. That issue raised, and put aside, neither Nazism nor Communism should be tolerable political viewpoints in our civilisation. They've been tried and have failed.

In this post I am talking more about the contrast, for example, between the right wing individualism of the USA and the more democratic socialist leanings of Europe, but also as psychological traits of the individual (which is a very important aspect). In the most admirable aspects of these traits at a societal level, the US has released the freedom of the individual to create great prosperity and Europe has devised schemes to protect the weak and vulnerable. 

Both individualism and collectivism are valid approaches to aspects of the same problem, posed by a common root of Enlightenment thinking: How to protect the rights of the individual.

Let me pose a thought experiment, inspired by people I have actually met here in the UK. Both born to poor single mothers, Paul is a plumber, he came from the same council estate (state run housing for the poor) as Peter. 


Consider Paul's situation, his mother worked hard and cared well for him, he wasn't very good academically and left school with poor qualifications, but a friend of the family took him under his wing and encouraged Paul through a plumbing course at the local college. Whilst doing the course, at weekends Paul would go out with his mentor, who was a plumber, and learn while helping out.

Paul got his qualification and in time became a time-served plumber, he went on to build a strong business by hard work and people's word-of-mouth recommendations. By his late thirties he ran a business that employed over twenty people and had contracts with major supply companies.


Consider Peter's situation, he was born to a poor single mother with a drink and drug problem, a result of self-medicating after childhood abuse and neglect. His mother drank through the pregnancy and he was born with foetal alcohol syndrome. Peter's IQ was 75. He left school with poor qualifications despite his best efforts. 

Upon hitting the job market he found nobody would employ him, so he ended up on the dole (unemployment), petty thieving led to a criminal record, dabbling in drug-dealing led to him getting caught. He was, after all, not a bright man. By his late thirties he was totally demoralised and bad choices led to bad outcomes and more bad choices.

The individualist right would tend to read the story of Paul and see a success story that bolsters their argument. Then look at Peter and dismiss him as lacking motivation and deserving what he gets. Peter is a subject of scorn.

The collectivist left would tend to look at Peter and see more evidence of why a tax system aimed at driving wealth and support to the poor is so necessary. Then look at Paul and see someone successful who needs to be taxed to support their scheme. Paul is a subject of envy.

So, the left look at the right and accuse them of being evil, the right looks at the left and accuses them of being evil. The truth of the matter is that both sides are fools indulging in confirmation bias.

Given the vast variety of human experience and inherited traits, only a fool would come up with one solution and claim that it fits all. And often in pursuit of the utopia they seek, instead they leave such wreckage that arguably their search for utopia creates hell on earth. Indeed this seems to be the general rule of history.

There is a middle ground, and this is what the democracies of the West should be seeking. This doesn't imply one solution, rather it involves the messy pragmatism of compromise between the individualist and collectivist. Yes, it's hard, but as an adult you should have divested yourself of the notion that life is easy.

The individualist right are correct that life is tough and that we all have to keep struggling. But the collectivist left are also right in that life is tough and sometimes we all need a helping hand and a safety-net that stops us falling into hell. The purpose of democracy should be to engage these traits of individualism and collectivism and make them sit around the table and compromise for the good of the population and our civilisation. 

It is quite possible for two people to look at the same evidence and come to different conclusions based on that evidence, that is what the parable of the Blind Men and The Elephant tells us. Given that this parable is at least 2500 years old, there is no excuse for not knowing it and, more importantly, not understanding it.

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