I am a leftist who loves reading about political theory and how it shapes our world today.
If you have spent any substantial amount of time reading and watching news in the US you will likely know about the great divide in the political landscape. This is a division between the right and left, conservatives and liberals. One thing that is constantly said, especially by people like Donald Trump, is the reference of liberals as the “radical left”. However, if you dive deeper into the meaning of both the left and liberals you will see that they are not similar, in fact, conservatives are more similar to liberals than liberals are to leftists. This case of mistaken identity has caused leftists and liberals, the people who are supposed to be the same, to hate each other. To understand all of this we must look at the definition of liberalism.
What Is Liberalism?
There have been many debates about what the true nature of liberalism is. If you were to ask a dozen people what they thought liberalism meant you would probably get a dozen slightly different answers. I will use a definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary as an example:
“A political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties.
Specifically : such a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities (such as those involving race, gender, or class)”
As the definition states, liberalism is simply the belief in individual liberty and the use of government as a way to combat social inequalities. This is where the mix-up between liberals and leftists come from. Many conservatives believe that backing social quality programs is a symptom of leftist beliefs. Advocating for the state to reduce poverty, racial inequality, and income inequality is what really segregates the liberals and conservatives, not leftists and conservatives.
Liberalism Vs Conservatism
Most conservatives believe that social ineqaulities should be solved through methods that do not involve the government. Charter schools and privatized healthcare are examples of government deregulation of services that they believe could help solve these problems. Liberals advocate for more government mandates that would control parts of these institutions to solve social inequalities. Examples of this would include things like Obamacare, affirmative action, public schools, etc. Liberals and conservatives advocate for changes within the system, however, they still advocate for the use of our current system.
What is this “system”? Within the government, it is democracy. Many founding fathers advocated for a separation of power within the government. That is, the splitting of government into multiple branches that keep checks and balances on the other branches. This separation of power is not something you will commonly see argued about between liberals and conservatives. They may suggest slight changes, but not a complete rewrite of the system. Both groups believe in representative democracy, democracy where representatives are elected to make decisions on behalf of the people. Again, the main difference between liberals and conservatives is how this system should be used, not the system itself.
The second part of the “system” that liberals and conservatives back is free market capitalism. Liberals believe in the ability for free markets to produce and sell certain goods that are needed by everybody: food, healthcare, housing, etc. The United States is currently a Neoliberal state. Meaning that little intervention is done by the government to regulate the free market. Neoliberalism and classical liberalism is very similar in that they both advocate for a free market. Classical liberalism, however, advocates for government intervention when it is used to protect the people. Neoliberalism, and by extension conservatism, advocates for a sort of government of capital. A system where the government is influenced more by privatized sectors (through the use of lobbying) than the private sector is influenced by the government.
So liberalism and conservatism are not so different. Really, they have more similarities than they do differences. They advocate for the same government and the same use of capitalism, but they disagree on how these systems should be used.
Liberalism vs Leftism
Acceptance of free market capitalism is the main point of contention between leftism and liberalism. Many leftist philosophies, whether it be communism, socialism, anarchism, or anything between deject capitalism in most forms. Leftist views still vary between the existence of government and the abolition of government. With Marxist-Leninism being supportive of the former and anarchism the latter.
The political compass, while it may not be perfect when assigning ideologies, is useful in visualizing this difference. The compass places political ideologies on a spectrum, using authoritarianism and libertarianism as the y-axis. The x-axis is used for economic policy, with communism being to the left and capitalism to the right.
As I stated before, liberalism can shift between being libertarian and authoritarian based on the time period and policies. However, the compass still shows that liberalism is firmly on the right side of the political spectrum. It still advocates for the use of free-market capitalism, which is actively rejected in leftist ideologies.
Leftism can be described as a broad political ideology. Leftist ideologies often deject social hierarchies, especially a class divide. They also often based on the need to harshly reduce inequality, especially when it comes to the rich vs the poor. Leftist ideologies in general advocate for a society where the means of production are owned by the working class. That is, the workers of a company should be the ones owning and controlling the company, not a CEO. In pursuit of making society more egalitarian, the basic needs for survival (shelter, food, water, healthcare) are treated as basic human rights, and that people should not have to work for these things.
So how exactly do leftists policies compare to liberal policies? Generally speaking, most leftist policies advocate for the socialization of industries and services that are now privatized. This would include things like making college, healthcare, childcare, and even housing free through the use of taxation. Liberal approaches to college would include making restrictions on the price of tuition or policies like affirmative action that allow more people to get into college. In comparison, leftists would want to reform how college works. Making it tuition free and available to anybody that wants to get a higher education. The Nordic countries are an example of modern countries that have leftist policies put into place. While they are not entirely socialist, they are much more left leaning than the United States. The policies that leftists propose reflect their drive to make society more egalitarian. Socialization would make what leftists consider basic needs free. Along with other things that are seen as needed to succeed, such as education.
Liberal policies work to make quick fixes to the current system. Keeping things like private health insurance, but just making it cheaper. Keeping colleges privatized, just making it so more people can get in. Unions would still exist, but they would still have to negotiate for fair wages. Leftist policies on the other hand would make changes to the system. Healthcare would be deprivatized, college would be deprivatized, unions would take more control over businesses, etc.
People living under liberalism must work to pay for the mentioned services above, with some amount of help from the government. Neoliberalism takes this even further, with very few things being made available that a person needs to work for. Leftism, broadly speaking, seeks to free people from this barrier of work. To have people’s needs attended to first, with working being used to make people’s lives better. Liberalism makes working the journey towards the end goal of survival.
In short, liberalism is not leftist. In fact, it is much more similar to conservatism than it is to leftism. It still advocates for privatization, capitalism, and a democratic republic government. Because of these reasons, liberalism is right-wing, not left-wing. If you consider yourself a liberal but find yourself disagreeing with capitalism and our current system, consider looking into leftist ideologies and figure out which one matches your beliefs the closest.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
Howard Schneider from Parsippany, New Jersey on July 09, 2020:
This is a wonderful clarifying Hub, Matthew. Too often those on the far right of the political spectrum seek to demonize those with different political philosophies. This Hub is an excellent retort to that. Great job.