The old distinction between left and right has lost its meaning. In politics, there is only one main axis of difference, that between statism and individualism. Statists believe that decisions are best made by an authority and that individuals should be required to abide by the authority’s decisions. Individualists believe that every person has a natural human right to make their own decisions. There are extremists at each end of this axis, but wherever you are between the two extremes, the key political question is whether you favour more statism or more individualism. Whether you want to pass more decisions to higher authorities or bring decisions closer to the individual.
Statism is a continuation of the child’s belief in parental authority. As babies, we have to accept our parents’ authority. We may scream and throw tantrums when what we want is overridden by a parent, but in the end the parent makes the decision. As we grow up, we become better at making decisions for ourselves and we gain confidence in our ability to make decisions. In other words, we realise that parents don’t always make the best decisions for us and that they don’t have a right to dictate what we do. Typically, this is a gradual process, as we get more and more individual freedom, until the day we are legally free adults. We can then interact with our parents as equals in decision-making. Each of us makes our own decisions and we cooperate as far as we want to and can do so. We have become full members of society.
Picture a family on holiday. One parent and two children, 6 and 8 years old. It’s morning and the question is: what shall we do now? One child wants to stay in and play computer, the other wants to go to the beach. The parent has to make a decision because neither child can be left alone. The parent may want to go to the beach or stay in. They may think beach is better than computer or vice versa. They may try to persuade one child to change their mind with treats or threats or arguments about fairness. In the end, the decision is made and enforced by the parent, and the children like it or lump it.
Now imagine that the children are 16 and 18 years old, another family holiday. What shall we do today? The answer is more likely to be that each does what they want and perhaps meet up for lunch.
Under statism, the first question is how to choose the authority – who gets to make the decisions? The choice has typically been made by “god”, usually through war or hereditary right, or by committee members, such as the Soviet politburo, or by elected representatives, as in modern democracies.
How the authority is chosen does not define how good or bad it will be for the people. This depends on the wisdom, motivation and methods of the chosen leader(s). Do they know what is good for the people, do they make the good of the people their sole objective, how deeply do they intervene against individual freedom and what level of violence they use.
The Soviet Union was led by an appointed committee, it intervened heavily against individual freedom and used high levels of violence to enforce decisions. It is widely thought to be one of the worst political systems in human history. The European Union is led by an appointed committee, it intervenes heavily against individual freedom but uses low levels of violence to enforce decisions. It is loved or hated by about half of its people. Monaco is led by a hereditary monarch but intervenes lightly against individual freedom and uses low levels of violence to enforce decisions. This seems to be one of the best loved systems tried so far.
The main areas where states intervene against individual freedom are economics and morals. Communism and fascism are examples of extreme levels of intervention in both areas, enforced by high levels of violence. Most modern democracies intervene heavily in the economy and in some areas of morals, such as drug use, but have turned away from intervention in religion and sexuality, whilst using low levels of violence in enforcement.
Our political conversation is confused by the use of terms like socialism, social democracy, conservatism, collectivism, capitalism, radical, progressive and the like. None of these terms has a clear meaning. Your idea of socialism may be more or less economically interventionist than mine. Your idea of conservatism may be more or less morally interventionist than mine. And so on. The level of violence that any person or party wants to see used changes with circumstances and is not determined by the name of the party or the colour of the flag.
We can only get agreement on political questions if we use words with clear meanings. In every question, we should ask whether we want more or less state intervention, and we should realise that this is the same as whether we want less or more individual freedom.