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What Makes Us Lean to the Political Left or Right?


An examination of the underlying philosophical basis of conservative and liberal political ideology respectively. Dr. William L. Ryan, Ph. D. argues that neither the Progressive Conservative Party nor the Reform Party is truly conservative in a philosophical sense.


William L. Ryan

 Author Notes

Former Professor of Moral Philosophy at McGill University in Montreal, now retired, Dr. Ryan makes his home in Nova Scotia.

 Essay - 1/29/1998

Most people seem to be extremely confused about the reasons why a person is labelled as being politically or socially 'right' or 'left' as well as about the relationships of these labels to being either liberal, conservative, or socialist. One reads and listens to legions of journalists who use these phrases, often in pejorative terms, without ever bothering to explain just what they mean by these terms.

To attempt an explanation, it is easier to begin with the term 'conservative.' The Judeo-Christian culture, which includes the Platonic and Aristotelian philosophical traditions, is based on religious ideals, objective morality and virtue. These very definite elements provide the foundation for basic conservatism. To put it differently, basic conservatism is rooted in the preservation of religious and philosophical principles about reality, man and his behavior. What confuses the issue at the present time is the fact that many of the cultural and political pundits identify conservatism with the nineteenth century liberalism of John Stuart Mill, with its emphasis on freedom from government interference and its laissez-faire capitalism. Many journalists reduce even this position to a more simplistic formula that conservatives cater to big business and concern for the deficit, at the expense of social programs, while liberalism is concerned with the poor, the disadvantaged, the minorities as well as some newly discovered 'victim' groups like homosexuals and lesbians.

A conservative and true Tory, like Edmund Burke, approached the problems of his day from the position that there are such things as true and moral principles and that these principles cannot be thrown aside when attempting to solve current problems.

Liberals, on the other hand, treat democracy as more than just a political system. Democracy for a liberal involves a total philosophy of life based on a Civil Liberties view of freedom and with everything in reality evolving according to a concept of limitless change.

Liberals of the pre-war and war period tended to sympathize with Communist philosophy. They also tended to rely on science, (especially Darwinian evolution) and the pragmatic relativism of John Dewey. Liberals still tend to accept the pragmatic dictum that "every day and in every way we are getting better and better." This is why liberals can never accept that any society they have influenced could possibly be getting worse, with regard to crime, youth development, education or anything else. They will say things like, "it only seems worse because we are keeping better statistics today." Since the war, liberals have depended more and more on the social sciences and accepting the individualism and subjective relativism of the humanistic, self-esteem, human potentials, feeling based movement in psychology.

Ruth Wiss, of McGill, was taken to task by a liberal Senator, for stating correctly that liberals have a tendency to see western capitalism, rather than communism, as the real danger to democracy. If this senator had but turned to another page of the same newspaper, he could have read an item from a liberal perspective where the main issue of marriage and family life was identified as women having the same sexual freedom as men. The article was written naturally from a psychological rather than a moral perspective.

Liberalism does, in fact, share many of the same attitudes and beliefs as communist-socialism. Socialism, however, differs from liberalism in the matter of government control of private property, as well as the extent that draconian measures can be used to control or eliminate opposition. Yet, both communism and liberalism share a secular humanist view of sex, marriage, and morality. Both foster abortion. Both have a rather pragmatic view of a social morality based on utility and consequences. Both tend to equate authority with power. Both tend to label even legitimate uses of power as "fascist and authoritarian." Both share a utopian view of societies' development, as well as of a person's capacity for perfectibility. Both tend to look to scientific materialism for the ultimate justification of their practice.

But just who is left-wing and who is right-wing in this welter of ideas? It would be simple to say that a right winger was a reactionary conservative, who refuses to change when change is needed, while, a liberal left winger presses for changes in order to bring society in line with his utopian vision of, "the good society." At one time many found it easy to declare that communists were leftists, who wanted justice for the down trodden proletariat, while Nazis and fascists were on the right because they espoused an oppressive dictatorship. However, this will not do, because the Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of the proletariat was, at the very least, every bit as viscous as Nazi National Socialism --- one only has to mention Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot.

Today, in Canada, the term right wing is applied to the Conservative and Reform parties, while the term "extreme right" is reserved for racists and the religious right." But how can this be at all accurate? Kim Campbell was a liberal in regard to abortion and radical feminism. Flora MacDonald supported abortion and both she and Hugh Segal called themselves "red Tories." Brian Mulroney and the "Conservative" party supported radical feminist groups, while, at the same time, they managed to freeze out traditional women's groups. John Crosbie left the Liberal party to join the Conservative party, not out of philosophical conviction but because he rejected Joey Smallwood. Jean Charest recently voted for the homosexual bill C-33. Moreover, in the Liberal party we find a number of members who espouse traditional social and moral values, like Tom Wappell, Roseanne Skoke, Harry Varran and others who fought against bill C-33 and other anti-family manoeuvres by the liberal Cabinet.

After the war, when the Liberal party supported the construction of the Avro Arrow and C. D. Howe directed Canadian manufacturing, while Diefenbaker, the Conservative, wanted to use the money for social programs, who was right wing and who was left? When the Liberal party cut back on transfer payments need for Medicare, in order to concentrate on deficit cutting (as advocated by Reform) who was right wing and who was left? The Reform party is called right wing because it does not accept the lax immigration system, the affirmative action programs, the deception of gun control legislation and the smoke and mirrors arguments involved in the notion of "gay" rights and "gay" marriages. Yet, although Reform has a core of members who support traditional family values, it also supports a populist notion that local constituents should decide what moral principles the local member should support in the party --- hardly right wing or even conservative.

The truth is that our western society has moved towards a leftist concept society, the family and morality as reflected in the universities, in law schools and by the media, so they insist on restricting the labels left and right only to an economic application. In other words, a person today can support abortion, homosexual marriages, and radical feminism and still call themselves "Conservative," while the majority of citizens who are Catholics, Protestants, Moslems and Orthodox Jews are relegated to the "extreme right."

Today's liberals have become even more leftist by adopting a socialist view of equality, which encompasses an extreme view which is not restricted by democratic 'equality of opportunity' or 'equality before the law.' Because of their subjective individual relativism, they have adopted toleration as the sole virtue. This then is applied to the views of diverse minorities, as well as those who are sexually deviant, but it never is applied to any who accept a traditional view, which defends the notion of absolute truth or absolute goodness.

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