“You’re no Liberal!”: when is it Right to Play the Label Game?

“You’re a closet right-winger!”

“This is fundamentally illiberal!”

“[X] is now a conservative position!”


You’ve all heard it. It’s everywhere — the semantics, the bickering over terms and self-identities, the casting of your opponent out of your camp. Who is right, and does it even matter? I think it’s worth taking a closer look what I hereby dub the political Label Game, and examining exactly what it is, how valid people’s self-identities are, how much and what kind of intellectual diversity can be had under a particular ideology, and what bearing it has on the argument.

Let me start by saying I don’t believe there’s any point squabbling over who is a left-winger and who is a right-winger. I think my feelings on that dichotomy have been made clear on this blog already, but to recap I think they’re uselessly general and arbitrary. It is right-wing to be socially conservative and left-wing to be socially liberal. OK. It is right-wing to fiscally conservative and left-wing to be fiscally liberal. OK. The problem is that these things are not necessarily related. It is entirely possible to be fiscally conservative and socially liberal, and vice versa. Therefore, aren’t these terms useless? How do they usefully narrow it down? You know authoritatively that someone is left-wing, but what does that actually mean? What kind of positions are fundamental to the left? Because, whatever you pick, I bet I can find someone who bucks the trend whose left-wing credentials were never doubted.

Moreover, when I talk about social conservatism I don’t strictly mean authoritarianism. I mean things like traditional values, respect for old institutions, suspicion of fast change and faith in social unity, none of which is necessarily authoritarian; one can hold these views in tandem with massive respect for rights, liberties and choice, as many Americans do. The authoritarian/libertarian angle has yet to be addressed, and that is that totalitarianism can come from either the left or the right, and has. There’s no use saying one wing is more authoritarian than the other by nature. Just look at anarcho-capitalists, for goodness sake, or at tankies, or at the hippies of the 1960s. Your wing says little about anything, really.

And now on to the outright contradictions. Grammar schools, for instance, imply intervention in the education system and higher public spending. Their purpose is also to facilitate social mobility, and allow those who deserve it to rise through the system. The left, however, opposes these schools, under the pretext that they “cause social division”. But isn’t that pretty much the point of the left? Wrecking havoc with the established class system to replace it with something more egalitarian and meritocratic? Why is it that the right — the wing of social unity, preservation and community — is championing this policy? The right’s opposition to immigration, on these grounds, makes more sense, but the left’s support for it doesn’t. How do open borders imply big government? How does possibly endangering the masses’ jobs and certainly angering them imply care for the working class, or any class? Let’s take tuition fees, rename them “graduate taxes”, and have a left-wing government implement them. Don’t they just fit right in? Especially when you consider free university essentially just means welfare for the middle class. Make bourgeois students pay for the privilege of their own higher education, just as you would make companies pay their fair share of tax. Stop being a drag on the system.

My point is that you can construct reasonable arguments for most people to be either left- or right-wing. Look at Donald Trump’s jobs-first, highly heterodox economic policy that somehow manages to be both Hayekian and Keynesian. Look at the pledges of France’s National Front where they support a retirement age at sixty — hardly right-wing big business stuff. Look at Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke, continuing to support the European Union, which the media tells me should make them left-wing. Maybe we should reclassify Tony Benn as a right-winger, as he continued to oppose the E.U. for sovereignty reasons right to the end of his life, just like the hated Norman Tebbit. Of course, Heseltine and Clarke hail from a time when the Conservative Party supported the E.E.C., and Benn from the 1980s when a radical and broken Labour Party opposed it. But the meanings of left and right change anyway, right? Right? Right? Right? RIGHT? What was once a right-wing position is no longer, so the argument goes . . .

I hope I’ve demonstrated how pointless this is. If a label creates a net amount of ambiguity, it may as well be dropped. I’ll call myself a left-winger if you press me because I believe, if I had to stick a post-it note with one of those infernal words written on it on my head, that would be the one most fitting with my beliefs, but I’d rather not have to, because it would be a terrible and misleading fit. Stop forcing me to use them.

With that in mind, I’m going to be bold and assert that, whenever somebody accuses somebody else of not being a true left- or right-winger, they are simply a tribalist. In most cases I think it would be so. They have these two nice, big, monolithic camps, and they are uneasy about the idea of arguing with one of (ourguys). They cherry-pick criteria and come up with reasons why their opponent is wrong in self-identifying his beliefs, within the stupid dichotomy he has to work with.

“You can’t be [X] because you support [Y]!” is probably the most childish and overtly partisan argument they put forth to this end, and I feel I should deal with it via this simple graphic:

If you’re so caught up with “us and them” you can’t understand this, God help you.

The problem is not only one of moderation, but the “policy and ideological agreement is the only valid criterion!” angle also leaves out leadership as an issue, as well party cohesiveness and extraordinary circumstances. Politics at a pure level is the conflict of ideas, but that isn’t always the case at election time. I am not necessarily a hypocrite if I champion liberal ideas but decide for the time being a conservative ought to be running my country. I’ll have some explaining to do, but it can indeed be explained. It may that there are no decent liberals around, or that the liberal party itself is not fit to take office, or that I find a single issue to be of such importance I value it above ideology, and am willing to elect a government I trust to get this one thing right at all costs, even if it means passing up the opportunity to have ministers with whom I generally agree more. None of this means I don’t think my idea is better; I just have some reasons as to why I can’t vote for its implementation right now. The Label Game played like this is no more than irritating, and people who do it should be ignored.

Does this mean jumping on people for their labels is entirely pointless? No. There are times when people self-identify wrong, usually because they don’t understand their ideology. Now, one might ask, “What’s the point of having ideologies if they’re so complicated you need to study them to find out what you are?”, to which I respond, “What’s the use of having political terms defined completely at will by different people?” One is a pain, but the other is outright misleading. I think they should be prescriptive; moreover, I think they are prescriptive, and we can find out what they mean if we look.

Why do we need ideologies at all? Can’t we just be advocates for different things, e.g. a free speech advocate or a gun rights advocate? You could, but then what would you say if you were asked what your political beliefs are? An ideology is a vision of an ideal world, built around a set of themed principles. Most people have principles of some kind, in fact I would venture to say all. Even if you are just an advocate, your advocacy must stem from somewhere, some feeling of how our society should be. Ideologies can help us understand these feelings, and studying the sayings and writings of the greatest thinkers who shared them can help us be more articulate. I won’t say it’s a universal rule, but I think most people would find themselves nodding along to certain parts of political philosophy courses, if only they could find the school of thought that was right.

Not everyone fits in neatly and there are disagreements within schools — I am rather an uncommon brand of liberal, at least today — but ideologies give us a much more useful roadmap than that dumb left/right monolith as we try to understand our thoughts, and those of our friends and leaders, especially since we can drill down further, into traditional and neo-conservatives, classical and social liberals, and nationalist and internationalist socialists, which we cannot do with left and right. Not having one is not exactly the same as choosing directions without a destination, but the comparison is there. I do not believe it is possible to map the spectrum properly, at least yet, but correct use of ideologies can help. Just think of it in terms of them being prescriptive and static, and us moving between them and into the areas of overlap, instead of them floating around following us.

Let’s take liberalism as our example. See, most philosophies begin with a view of human nature. Liberals start from the optimistic belief that individuals are rational, and essentially good. It is certainly possible for us abuse our freedoms, but they are worth that, and in any case we are improvable. With exceptions, we do not generally want to do things to people we would not want done to us. We can change, with education, a widening of horizons; we can overcome the appeal of religious dogmatism, confirmation bias, class war, bigotry and those other dark forces. It runs in stark contrast to the conservative view, that we are violent and need to be protected from ourselves, that we are fiercely independent but also competitive and selfish, and that these things together, without a strong state, would create a miserable situation where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. To a liberal, only Dave is capable of judging Dave’s own self interest, which is where liberals differ from socialists. We do not believe, as Douglas Jay made clear he did when he wrote The Socialist Case 1939, that “in the case of nutrition and health, just as in the case of education, the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for the people than the people themselves”.

It originated first with John Locke in the seventeenth century, who wrote that all humans are born with certain agencies and rights. The most important liberal thinker was (arguably) John Stuart Mill (special mention to Thomas Paine), whose On Liberty in 1859 was a forceful argument that humans are naturally free and should be able to do as they please. And that’s what liberalism is fundamentally about: freedom to choose for yourself. Freedom to seek your own happiness because you can do it best. All liberals believe this, and hence have a natural aversion to tyranny of any kind, and anyone who doesn’t is not a liberal. There I am playing the Label Game, because I think here it is justified. Rights are simply not negotiable. It is a core part of the philosophy, and if it isn’t then the philosophy has no core and may as well not exist. I think if someone outright contradicts the fundaments of an ideology, they can safely be said to not believe in it. Anyone who thinks it is possible for a democracy to vote “wrong”, ergo, is not a liberal, and I want them to stop dragging my good name through the mud.

However, there is more to it than that. We have our core principles, but we can still argue about the best way to put them into practice. John Stuart Mill shared many of locke’s ideas, but also added that the state, because it is the greatest threat to freedom, should be as tiny as possible, protecting people from each other but trying not to poke its nose into anything else. This became “classical liberalism”, which in recent years seems to have renamed itself “libertarianism”. It runs off the simple equation that less government = more freedom, within the constraints of ensuring national defence and law and order. However, in the early part of the twentieth century the concept of liberty began to be extended. It was accepted that not only the government could oppress people: poverty and ill-health can take away freedom just as easily and just as unfarily as slave-owners. Social reformers like Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree had shown the poor were not always deserving, and thus there were other ways people could be stripped of their freedom, and liberals responded. The last liberal government introduced such reforms as old-age pensions, labour exchanges, progressive taxation and even primitive health insurance for workers. The plan for the first modern welfare state was not produced by the Labour Party in their 1945 manifesto, “Let Us Go Forwards Together”, but in the Beveridge Report published during the war, by a liberal. The new school became “social liberalism”, and while it resembles socialism in its methods (which can include wealth redistribution) it is entirely different in aims.

These are both kinds of liberal — they’re just arguing over the best way to create what is in principle the same utopia. Here the Label Game does not work.

Another example. There can be nationalist and internationalist liberals. To the nationalist liberal, nations are like individuals in that they have the right to self-determination; they have sovereignty. People have an identity as a nation — inclusive and accepting of those who wish to join, but real — and large countries ruling over small ones is viewed as being intensely undemocratic and tyrannical. On the other hand, the internationalists dispute the whole idea of national identity, and assert that certain things are simply better if they are handled at a higher level. In order for something to be more democratic it may be necessary to move it up instead of down, to a supranational level. Climate change, for instance, or the development of strategies to deal with volatile stock markets, is best done at an E.U. or even U.N. tier. Can it be said that one is more liberal than the other? Not really. The argument is about which is the better method of putting into practice liberal ideas.

In conclusion, sometimes it is right to play the Label Game. It is right when a person clearly contradicts the (equally clear) core of their political philosophy. The philosophy will have a core of some kind, or it might as well not exist, like left and right, which are useless. If it does have an obvious foundation, make sure that when you accuse people of  betraying it you are not simply disagreeing with how they want to put it in place. They may interpret it differently from you; that does not mean they do not believe it. If we do this properly, we can start to clear up our discourse, and have a handful of clear statements of values to stop any further confusion.




2 thoughts on ““You’re no Liberal!”: when is it Right to Play the Label Game?

  1. A position becomes right wing when enough people who identify as right-wing advocate for it. Same goes for left wing positions. I agree with you that these labels are pointless, arbitrary and just serve to complicate things beyond necessity; either use them only when describing economic beliefs (capitalists being right wing, anti capitalists left wing) or don’t use them at all and just describe individual positions they advocate for.


  2. One also has to take the motive or rationale for the position into account and the context.

    E.g., I’m somewhat socially liberal but only because I don’t think that federal government has any valid say into much of that. I do, however, believe that the several states do have some measure of validity over much of what is described as socially anything.

    E.g., I’m all in favor of gays serving openly in the military but solely because I never read any version of the 2nd Amendment that made an exception to “keep and bear arms” for catomites and/or sodomites.


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