Restoring Political Health, Left and Right

When they are healthy, both the left and the right contribute positively to a flourishing society. We need people with both temperaments (note that I am referring to the Big Five theory of personality.)

People with a temperament that is high on openness and low on conscientiousness are inclined toward the left and tend to be curious, tolerant, and willing to explore the world with a commitment to intellectual honesty. People with a temperament that is low on openness and high on conscientiousness are inclined toward the right and tend to emphasize standards of decency, restraint, and good behavior. As shorthand, I will refer to these as the left and the right, respectively. We are plagued today by an authoritarian left and a badly-behaved right. Restoring health will require work on both sides.

Explorers and Defenders

As a metaphor, think of society as living in a castle. Inside the castle is the known, and outside of the castle is the unknown. The known includes our scientific understanding, our sacred beliefs, our morals, and our habits. The unknown includes potential new discoveries, alternative world views, and behavior out of the mainstream.

The left’s mission is to explore outside our castle. Exploring will uncover new possibilities and eventually lead to growth and improvement. The left seeks to venture into this unknown territory and return to the castle with beneficial discoveries.

The right’s mission is to defend our castle. The world outside our castle includes many predators, germs, and hazards. The right wants to make sure that our castle’s walls are secure.

If we were at the dawn of humanity, living in the African forest, the explorers would be tasting different vegetation and checking out different hunting grounds. When successful, the explorers on the left would expand our food supply.

Meanwhile, the defenders would be warning of the dangers of unproven vegetation and unfamiliar hunting grounds. They would be trying to keep people away from poisonous plants or areas teeming with predators. When successful, the defenders on the right would ensure that the entire population does not perish from a catastrophic mistake.

If you accept this characterization of left and right, then a crude theory of evolution would suggest that society works best when it includes the temperament of the left and the temperament of the right. If only one temperament were best, then societies dominated by that temperament would have thrived, and people with the opposite temperament would have died out.

The Authoritarian Left: Identity Politics

I see identity politics as inherently authoritarian. It buries individual rights under a suffocating blanket of class categories. It closes off rational discussion. It justifies unlimited prejudice against target groups. I reject identity politics because I believe that individual differences are larger and more significant than group differences.

If you compare the temperaments of men and women in terms of averages, you will find some differences. For example, some personality psychologists measure a characteristic called agreeableness, and on average women tend to be higher on this trait than men. But individually, there are many men who score higher on this trait than the average woman, and there are many women who score lower on this trait than the average man. Regardless of what the averages turn out to be, agreeableness is a trait of individuals, not of social categories.

According to identity politics, no individual can claim to have ideas that are valid for everyone. There is only one objective truth in the world, which is that certain social categories have power over others. Otherwise, people’s beliefs are merely tools in these power struggles among social classes.

For identity politics, social categories are seen as overwhelming individuality. Identity politics treats men as inherently having more power than women, whites as inherently having more power than blacks, and straights as having inherently more power than LGBTs, regardless of individual characteristics.

In fact, if one looks at who occupies positions of power in the United States, we can see differences in averages across social categories. But there are many women who occupy higher positions than the average man, there are many blacks who occupy higher positions than the average white, and there are many LGBTs who occupy higher positions than the average straight.

The power relationships among different social categories may still be more unequal than one would like. But this does not entitle anyone to stand up and say, “As a woman. . .” or “As a person of color. . .” as if to claim a sort of inviolable moral sanctity for what follows.

Identity politics that assigns people to social categories and smothers their individuality will tend toward authoritarianism, and eventually even genocidal murder. The Nazis denied any meaningful individual differences among Jews. The Soviet Communists denied any meaningful individual differences among the classes of people who they murdered or sent to the Gulag.

Identity politics is so dangerously authoritarian that it leads the left to betray itself. Rather than supporting open-minded inquiry, it confronts conservative speakers on college campuses with bans, shout-downs, and violence. Rather than seek to explore outside the castle of the known, it demands “safe spaces.” Rather than judge people by the content of their character, it judges them by the color of their skin.

There are some on the left who believe that identity politics hurt the Democrats in the last election. There are others who believe that identity politics is the best hope for Democrats going forward.

But regardless of whether or not identity politics wins elections, I believe that with identity politics the left loses its soul. We do not need a left that stokes group animosity and stifles thought. We need a left that bravely explores with an open mind.

The liberal left that I prefer may be fearful of separating itself from the identity politics of the authoritarian left. Perhaps liberals fear that by dissenting from identity politics they might weaken the left and empower conservatives. I prefer to believe that by standing up for individual identity, free speech, and open inquiry, liberals would be strengthening the left.

The Right Becomes Fiscally Irresponsible

If the left loses its soul when it shuts off open inquiry and debate, then the right loses its soul when it condones irresponsible behavior. The topic du jour is sexual conduct (I could use the support for Roy Moore as an example), but I wish to focus instead on an issue that is of more enduring concern, fiscal discipline.

Fiscal discipline can be undermined in two ways. One way is to run budget deficits. The other way is to make commitments today for future spending without providing the means to pay for that spending. These commitments take the form of pension funds for government workers and entitlement programs for senior citizens.

As of today, both the Federal government and many state and local governments are on budget paths that are unsustainable. These governments have made commitments to future retirees and to holders of government debt that cannot be met without sharply cutting services and/or sharply raising taxes at some point in the future.

In effect, what fiscally irresponsible politicians have done has been to gain political advantage today by setting the stage for political strife in the future. To see how this process works and how it tears up the political fabric, see my article, Lenders and Spenders.

Many decades ago, conservatives were committed to fiscal responsibility. President Eisenhower sought to run balanced budgets. He succeeded in running primary surpluses, meaning that apart from the cost of paying down the debt from World War II, his budgets often were in surplus.

President Reagan maintained the rhetoric of fiscal responsibility, but he abandoned the reality. He campaigned on a platform of large tax cuts, and he got those enacted. I will not re-enact the classic Ferris Bueller scene and try to explain “supply-side economics,” other than to say that it served as a rationale for cutting taxes without cutting spending.

During the Reagan Administration, it became apparent that the government needed to collect more money from the Baby Boomers before they reached retirement age, so that their benefits could be paid without causing strife elsewhere in the budget. President Reagan appointed Alan Greenspan to chair a commission to deal with the challenge, and this commission proposed a combination of reduced future benefits and higher payroll taxes that was intended to improve the outlook for Social Security. These proposals were enacted into law.

But the Greenspan commission’s solutions were only superficial. What was actually required to meet the Baby Boomer retirement obligations was for the overall budget to run surpluses while the Boomers were still working. In fact, the budget began to move into surplus during the latter years of President Clinton’s second term.

Then came President George W. Bush. His largest economic policies were yet another tax cut and an expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs, neither of which was paid for by cutting spending elsewhere. Among those defending the fiscal responsibility of the tax cuts was none other than Alan Greenspan, who said that without them the cumulative budget surpluses would be too high. This was one of the most disingenuous economic arguments I have ever heard, but at the time Greenspan had impeccable prestige.

As I write this, the Republicans in Congress are considering another major fiscally irresponsible tax bill. Some of the fiscal irresponsibility is disguised by a process of “gaming” the scoring system of the Congressional Budget Office. In recent years, the CBO has come to be abused by both parties to construct false scenarios for economic policy. I have a forthcoming article about this in the Yale Law Journal, but that is another story.

The possibility of a debt crisis worries me. The longer that we postpone dealing with it, the more painful the political adjustment becomes. It is deeply troubling that commitment to fiscal discipline has all but disappeared from the ranks of conservative politicians.


Some of today’s polarization consists of partisans on each side whose hatred of their opponents is so intense that they are willing to throw out core principles in the process of political combat. I think that both the left and right would be healthier if they were less committed to winning at all costs. We would be better off if the left were instead totally committed to free inquiry and the right were totally committed to fiscal discipline.