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Left vs. right? That’s really so 18th century

Published in The Dominion Post (Wellington), 21 May 2012

Leaving political polarisations behind would open a path to a much more constructive dialogue.

As a newcomer to New Zealand, one of the biggest surprises to me was the degree of polarisation I perceived in its political discourse. In the complex world of 21st century globalisation the way in which debates are still conducted as “Left versus Right” is not only anachronistic. It almost guarantees that we will not find good answers to the challenges of our time. Such answers can only be based on empirical evidence. Political namecalling will not get us anywhere.

It was in the course of the French Revolution that political parties began to emerge, which then positioned themselves along a Left-right scale. The world has changed dramatically since the days of Hebert, Danton and Robespierre. But though nobody still rides in horse-drawn carriages or writes with feathers and quills any more, we cling on to the political labels developed in their days.

Maybe it is also because I am German, but little irritates me more than the term “Right-winger”. In Germany, to label someone a Right-winger still borders on classifying him as a neo-nazi. For obvious historical reasons, the terms “Right-wing”, or worse, “Right-wing populist”, are heavily stigmatised. Thus almost every German, dedicated Left-wingers excepted of course, desires to be seen as “Centrist” to remain respectable.

After my departure from Germany in 2004, I first worked in Britain, then in Australia and now in New Zealand. In the English-speaking world I noticed how “Right-wing” has different connotations, albeit ones that are still fuzzy and corrosive of constructive public debate. The more I have been reflecting on these political labels the more meaningless they all appear.

Arguably, the messiness of the modern world seldom lends itself to easy characterisations. Though it would be nice to abbreviate topical debates, the Left-right dichotomy only gets you so far. Not least because what is Left and what Right changes over time. One such example I came across in my think tank work is town planning. Modern planning came out of early 20th century socialist thinking. It was the British government under (Labour) Prime Minister Clement Attlee that introduced a “Town and Country Planning Act”. Its entirely laudable is idea was to plan good cities with affordable housing for people on modest salaries.

The Planning Act started its life as a quintessentially Left-wing, socialist project. Sadly, it failed to deliver affordable housing, as anyone who has lived in Britain can confirm. In a bizarre twist, recent attempts to reform the planning system have been resisted not by the Left but by the political Right.

That is because over time planning constraints kept wealthy conservative strongholds in the countryside insulated from new buildings (and less affluent neighbours). The price was paid precisely by those who were meant to be served by town planning: people on ordinary incomes who could no longer afford decent homes.

The effect of this Left-right swap is that conservative newspapers like the Daily Telegraph, also known as the “Torygraph”, now lead the campaign against planning liberalisation. Meanwhile, rather Left-leaning organisations like charities for the homeless support such reforms. It is obvious that planning reform no longer matches Left versus Right thinking.

The traditional political dichotomy is even less clear when non-economic questions are debated. The social goals of the historic Left have been achieved in most developed countries: universal suffrage, equal rights for men and women, religious freedom and the separation of church and state, to name just a few.

A century ago a programme containing such demands would have been Left-wing. Today nobody yearns for a return to the pre-democratic, feudal age. On these issues the traditional Left so comprehensively won that in a sense we are all Left-wingers now.

Finally, there are debates which are often fought as Left-Right debates where such thinking is completely inappropriate. Whether it is climate change, deep sea oil exploration or “fracking”, how we stand on these issues should be informed by our understanding of science, cost benefit analyses and risk assessments, not by our position along a crude Left-Right spectrum. Engineering challenges have never been solved by political philosophers in any case.

The prevalence of Left-right thinking no doubt reflects its utility in short-circuiting political debate. But this comes at the cost of impoverishing the vitality of public debate. On social issues at least we may have buried most historic disputes between Left and Right but sadly they still try to rule our other debates from their graves.

The real challenge is to develop, test and apply policies with which we can achieve widely shared aspirations. Leaving political polarisations behind would open a path to a much more constructive dialogue between those who previously believed they did not have much in common. They would be surprised how many goals they share.

Dr Oliver Hartwich is the Executive Director of The New Zealand Initiative (www.nzinitiative.org.nz), which was formed by the merger of the Business Roundtable and the New Zealand Institute in April. Dr Hartwich is a German-born economist and former Chief Economist at Policy Exchange, Britain’s leading independent think tank.

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