All Commentary
Saturday, August 1, 1981

Why Right Does Not Triumph

Mr. Foley, a partner in Schwabe, Williamson, Wyatt, Moore & Roberts, practices law in Portland,

Ponder a question which perplexes most of those persons professing allegiance to the political, economic, social and moral principles characterizing the right side of the political spectrum: Why does the position fail to gain adherents and reach ascendancy? Why do the pillars of propriety and good sense appear to crumble round about us?

Initially, allow me to sound a caveat: labeling persons or philosophies involves inherent risks. Indeed, an analysis of the political spectrum, with its terminology of “old right,” “new right,” “old left,” “new left,” and “center,” deserves a separate discourse.

For the purposes of this essay, I interchangeably utilize the terms “right,” “conservative,” “voluntarist,” or “libertarian” to indicate persons possessing varying degrees of commitment to the concepts of limited government, personal liberty and a willing exchange economy, recognizing the intrinsic hazards in throwing together a mass of discrete individuals and applying an all-en-compassing mark or brand to them. Such conduct tends to obliterate the essential differences in outlook and philosophy which attach to the individual within the group. Use of the label merely facilitates analysis of the political system in broad-brush terms sufficient for our purpose herein.

By like fiat, I have applied the labels “statist,” “left,” or “liberal” to those citizens generally placed upon the opposite end of the political spectrum; the “left” normally refers to persons viewing man as subject to social engineering and favoring government intervention and control of at least some aspects of human life.

The issue posed appears particularly vexing in light of the certainty that the postulates of limited government, individual freedom, personal responsibility, private property, and free market exchange merit universal acceptance. These conditions, existing as both ends and means, demonstrably reflect human nature and better man’s lot on earth. The free society ought to prevail because it is just and because it harmonizes with the essential truth of the universe. Why, then does the free society falter and fail to even gain a foothold in our culture? At least seven causes coalesce to produce this state of affairs.

1. Cohesion and Dispersion

First, the individualist rails against programs, organizations, and suffocating details which seem so necessary to shape and mold a doctrine into publicly acceptable form. The herd instinct preponderates in those enthused by the liberal or statist approach; the identical characteristic evaporates when one observes a libertarian. The liberal seems quite able to chant, shout, or cry in unison with other milling beings, unlike the individualist who follows his own inner directions. In simple prose, the statist by his nature, can mass-produce and orchestrate the endeavors of myriad like-minded beings, bringing power and numbers to bear upon the specific problem confronting him at the moment. Such computerized directives abrade the voluntarist who exhibits the traditional traits of self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and internal motivation.

The end result of this human tendency produces a fragmented right and a cohesive-appearing left in western political tradition. The conservative wing (and the majority of intelligent persons interrogated in recent opinion polls tend to categorize themselves as “conservative”) splits into dozens of different branches, often soliciting support from the identical played-out sources, often waging internecine warfare among themselves. In part, this trend reflects the diverse interests of the participants, each lending his efforts to the matters considered most pressing; yet unquestioning acceptance of this view masks the underlying reality.

To be certain, members of the right diversify, some concerned with national security, some with the threat of international communism, some with monetary matters and a return to the gold standard, some with outrages against decency, some with political contests, some with free market philosophy, to identify but a few endeavors. Yet the left, both old and new, focuses upon at least as many if not more real or imagined needs: national health insurance, energy, ecology, senior citizens, housing, welfare rights—the list goes on and on.

Perhaps one major difference between statist and libertarian lies in how each views his allies. By and large, the liberal maintains a working truce if not genuine harmony with his fellow zealots; while A may expend the bulk of his energy campaigning for cleaner water or better apple pie, he is not above running over to assist B in the latest drive for more mothballs for the senior citizens’ home. The conservative, to the contrary, tends to cast watchful, wary, and downright covetous and envious eyes upon the ranks of those ideologically related to him. He often begrudges their money and manpower and devotes at least a part of each day cutting away at the support achieved by those who should serve as his adjuncts. Divide and conquer—we save the liberal the trouble for we do it to ourselves!

2. Pragmatism Versus Messianic Zeal

Second, and related to the first reason, one discerns in the libertarian a messianic rigidity absent in the liberal, an inflexibility which tends to be counterproductive to the ends sought. In a word, the liberal practices pragmatism while the conservative retains an uncompromising idealism. This trait explains, to some degree, the earlier tendency considered, the lack of allegiance between groups and individuals expressing common bonds.

While the left does not lack for uncompromising metaphysicians, the right seems destined to carry this aggressive crusader characteristic to an extreme. All too often, prophets and practitioners of libertarianism act as though they had a lock on Eternal Truth, and would allow their fellowmen but a glimpse through the keyhole in their own good time and upon their restrictive conditions. Inability to tolerate the slightest deviation from the party line marks this type of individual and inevitably leads to verbal brawling. In addition, the religious fervor and doctrinaire approach tend to quell any interest abiding in the casual onlooker, the person who might conceivably join the cause if only he were not put off by all the shouting. Thus, this self- defeating trait loses both new members and old friends already active in the movement.

The liberal appears more ready to live and let live, to work in concord with those in fundamental agreement on one or more principles. The doctrinaire tendency has gained some ascendancy in the old left, but fundamentally the statist agrees that government possesses the answer to solve all ills, and agrees to disagree on implementation of the program.

This is not to say, however, that principle does not deserve an honored place in our lives. An ethical man cannot morally compromise his fundamental principles. Yet there exists a wide gulf between compromising one’s principles and eating with publicans and sinners. I may believe social security to constitute the greatest hoax, pox, and fraud ever perpetrated upon the American public. I adhere to my principles by refusing to accept social security payments and by writing and lecturing upon the evils of the plan; I do not compromise these revered tenets by working with those who disagree with me on social security if we encounter a common disinclination for the Federal Reserve System and decide to present a united front in favor of private, disciplined banking.

3. Creators and Takers

Third, the value structures between right and left differ significantly. This essential truth appears to most observers, but the ramifications of the proposition may remain disguised. The left values power and manipulation, for all its prattle about personal needs; the worth of the in dividual forms the epicenter of the right. View and value of man qua man colors the entire mode of thinking of each point of view. If man is a mere plaything of the social architect, to be molded and folded like ever so many computer cards, it becomes exceedingly simple to denigrate the worth of the individual and to submerge him for the good of the social whole.

On the other hand, if man can be defined as a fallible yet improving being possessing intrinsic worth because he is a man, deserving of freedom and differentiated from the rest of the worldly beasts and birds by his power of choice, quite a different set of values follow. Man becomes a creative, productive, worthwhile creature, capable of conceiving, designing and achieving his own destiny, not mere clay to be kneaded and cast by unworthy hands.

One salient concomitant to these distinct views of human worth characterizes the competing philosophies and partially explains the seeming failure of the right to prevail. The conservative tends to be more engaged in creative and productive efforts and unable or unwilling to devote substantial time and energy to the business of expounding a philosophy. The liberal often seems quite willing to expend considerable time and energy in destructive pursuits, forging alliances and importuning those clothed with political power to transfer some tax-funded largess or coercive power to a person or cause or group deemed just. The conservative is too busy producing the bounty which the liberal uses to mulct and enslave the creator. The right produces; the left takes. And the right often fails to understand what to do to protect the value created.

4. Understanding and Explaining Liberty.

Fourth, the conservative exhibits an almost total inability to grasp, comprehend and propound the system of freedom, while the liberal mouths half-truths and invalidities repeatedly until they become readily accepted. The right manifests a curious, almost mystic, faith in freedom, yet ever so many of the practitioners fail to understand the system and the philosophy which feeds their success and sustains their being. Indeed, little systematic research and defense of individualism appeared for many decades; common acceptance of the doctrines and lack of organized antagonists rendered it apparently unnecessary for men to school themselves in ancient truths. Yet during this very time of almost universal lip service to a seemingly healthy doctrine, the opposition had organized and inoculated the body politic with a deadly strain of virus: the cancer of socialism.

Ever so patiently through the dying days of the nineteenth century and into the new era of prosperity, the left honed their ideas and inculcated their radical and alien nostrums into our culture: The Interstate Commerce Commission, Granger Laws, Conscription, the Federal Reserve System, the progressive income tax, to name but a few. Appearance and reality: to all appearances, these little deviations from the norm of liberty seemed harmless enough, and after all, they were “necessary for the betterment of mankind.” The right had so relaxed its vigilance that it lost the war unaware that the gauntlet had been flung.

Even during the populism of the New Deal and the Fair Deal, few voices cried aloud for a return to a fiscal and moral sanity. The conservatives appeared stunned and unable to defend themselves or their values. Like those early people of Israel, the right dispersed and splintered into many tribes.

While the miasma continues, the perceptive observer over the past quarter century has witnessed and come to recognize an awakening, a gradual alteration in attitude. Conservatives have resurrected the thoughts of earlier thinkers, long dead and almost forgotten. New and exciting defenses of freedom and the market score the current scene. Yet the bulk of proponents of the right remain untaught in their own doctrine, unable to defend the system against the onslaughts of the left which, after all, own a splendid head start.

Related to this subject looms one eternal verity: truth does not teach itself. Too long the conservative has naively assumed that he knew the truth and because truth was valid it would prevail. Truth would triumph in a perfect world, but we do not inhabit such a place. Instead we are fallible human beings sojourning on a bit of rock in a vast universe governed by natural laws, norms which permeate the social as well as the physical realm. Just because a government undisciplined by a gold standard is foredoomed to economic tragedy does not mean that all men (or even a majority of them) will see, or accept, this truth and take action to avoid disaster. Man is not perfectly rational. He does not know all of the laws governing his existence. And when he glimpses truth, no matter how darkly, he must repeat it over and over again else the next generation will not hear and heed it.

Let there be no misunderstanding. Just because we do not perceive reality does not destroy its essence. Natural rules of order exist and control this flotsam on the sea of the universe whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, and whether we care or not. One fundamental rule exceeds most others: the law of cause and effect. If we do not heed this command it will work vengeance upon us. Enslaved people produce less material goods than free men; therefore, if one ignores the law of cause-and-effect, and en-slaves a person or a nation, the material wealth of that community will decrease.

Flight from Reality

The statist, unlike the right, fails to comprehend most of the laws governing the universe or, if he does grasp their working, thinks that he can alter, delay, or thwart the ordained reactions. Oh, to be sure, even the liberal recognizes some natural rules, but fairly analyzed, his world does not comport with reality and his philosophy bares a mass of inconsistencies and contradictions.

For example, the current gospel of the left prates about national health insurance “so that all people will be afforded decent medical care,” yet natural laws dictate that a market economy in medicine will produce better health care at a lower cost than a coercive system. The end result of national health insurance: good physicians will evacuate the field (since they cannot receive a fair return for their created value) to the less talented and devoted; perhaps some persons who would not have received medical assistance under a market system (because it did not coincide with their values) will obtain substandard (by the market system) health care coercively subsidized by others, but many individuals will acquire lessened quality and quantity of service at a high cost including subsidies for the takers and salaries for the administrators.

Despite his inability to perceive and understand actuality, the liberal persists in braying his particular brand of “truth” (usually half truth or falsehood) to the public at large. The left knows what the right does not: if you want to get your point across, repeat it on every available occasion. The left may lack insight; it does not lack exposure. The liberal at least comprehends his system and can articulate it.

5. Human Heartstrings and Basic Insecurity

Fifth, the nature of the messages carried to the mass of people by left and right vary in impact.

Remember the fact that a relatively few individuals display commitment to the theories of left or right: most remain in an uncommitted center. Those in the center not only represent the bulk of the population but also the epitome of power, for they carry the social vote in political elections and the dollar vote in the marketplace. The left succeeds and the right fails because the former overwhelms the latter in the political arena. While verbiage veils the reasons for this continual victory, one matter remains certain: the center finds the message transmitted by the left more palatable than that emanating from the right. The right ofttimes disdains political solutions to market problems; it must, nevertheless, ]earn to cope with the political world, if only by effective expression of opinion.

The liberal entreaty tugs at the human heartstrings and appeals to man’s fundamental fears and insecurities; in essence, the left tells the center what it wants to hear. Both left and right manifest that real human concern which attends all persons: A desire that no one be ill clothed, ill housed, or ill fed, that misery and fear be avoided. The left, however, poses as the champion of the downtrodden and defenseless and offers to “do something” for the needy or to “solve” their problem—always accompanied by massive doses of government funds and the coercion of eternal bureaucracy. The right, by contrast, appears heartless because it insists that each should follow his own path to his own star. The liberal offers a patent solution, the right an open-textured one. The left says the state should alleviate suffering, the right evinces belief that free men acting freely can solve more problems more quickly.

Moreover, the liberal suggests attainment of a perfect world while the conservative knows that imperfect man can never create perfection. Thus, the statist addresses a base need, the drive of man for security, while the individualist puts man on his own, to sink or swim. Freedom offers neither easy answers nor a guaranty of success. Many enterprises falter and wither in the free market. Man expresses an essential need to believe in something permanent and eternal, and the liberal fulfills that need in this world by providing cradle-to-the-grave care by the state. People want to accept and believe their leaders, to know that someone is looking out for their best interests; the liberal nourishes this wish with an abundant bureaucracy supposedly coddling the citizen, assuaging his ego, caring for his needs (with his money) and making him feel safe and important.

Reality teaches us that the panaceas of the left do not really cure any ill, although they may beget a desired narcotic effect upon the aggregate of the population. Indeed, application of state coercion not only creates more problems than it solves but also stifles individual initiative and creativity. Who will work and produce to care for himself and those he loves if someone else promises to do it for him? But the barrenness of the statist opiates does not dispel their effectiveness in swaying the center. As Marshall McLuhan has taught us, it is not what you say that is important, it is what people think that you say. And, one might add, it is not whether what you prescribe works or not that is important, but whether the recipient believes that it works. Statism doesn’t work, but the left has convinced the center that it does and the right has not counteracted that message.

6. Internal Inconsistency

Internal inconsistency of the conservative represents one salient reason for the failure of the right to convince the citizenry of the propriety of freedom.

Review the myriad factions of the libertarian philosophy, each steeped in its own particular brand of ideology and search for harmony with everlasting truth. All too often, the adherents of one branch or point of view reveal logical and moral ambivalence when discussing or acting upon a distinct problem. Thus, the businessman who parrots the lingo of free enterprise while accepting government subsidies or government regulations as a precondition for government contracts, and who argues for monopolies sanctioned by the state in areas “affected by the public interest,” or in the “national security” interest, does little to advance his individualistic cause. By the same token, the farmer who decries government interference in pricing but accepts quotas and soil bank payments exhibits grave inconsistency.

An endless list meets the observing eye, for most freedom lovers seem all too willing to make an exception to the rule of freedom when it affects their interests or their particular passion. Free me, but regulate others! Exposure of this hypocrisy to the uncommitted surely does not encourage devotion to the cause.

This inherent paradox partakes of the fifth reason, the drive for security. Man, driven by his nature, does seek certainty in an uncertain world. Freedom entails risk, for liberty means that not every man can achieve his chosen goals when competing with every other man in a finite world peopled with fallible beings and supplied with scarce goods. Freedom does include freedom to fail.

The Urge for Security

The impulse for security sometimes overcomes the longing for liberty; the actor may want the state to assure his success in a particular endeavor by compelling other beings to approve his goals and bear his risks. Thus, the entrepreneur engaged in the enterprise of selling widgets refuses to trust the market mechanism of free men acting freely, for in such a milieu, widgets may not accord with the values of other men and they might not trade with the maker so as to guarantee his continuance in business. Therefore, the producer induces the state to compel consumption of widgets, or to exclude other manufacturers, so as to protect the producer and en hance his position.

Again, let there be no misunderstanding: the left flaunts substantial discrepancies and deviations from reason in its philosophy. Indeed, as viewed from this vantage point, statism doesn’t work and can’t succeed because it commences with a faulty conception of man and proceeds upon a disharmony with reality. Thus, the professor who chatters about academic freedom while enjoying tenure and teaching socialism displays as much ambivalence as the newspaper publisher indulging in all manner of socialist editorials while asking the public to buy his product produced by nonunion labor during a union strike. But, by and large, the left wins debaters’ points and converts from the center precisely because it has molded a cohesive and consistent, if incorrect, philosophy: the belief that all real or imagined ills or problems stemming from man-to- man encounters in society can only be solved by the organized force of the state.

7. Play It by the Rules—and Lose

Methodology and ethics coalesce to determine the victor in the right-left conflict. The left plays by no rules, because its very ideology considers that the end justifies the means and man represents a mere pawn to be molded and manipulated for the good of the community. On the other hand, the right adheres to traditional values of propriety and fair play, consistent with its view that the end pre-exists in the means and the concept of man as possessing value and intrinsic worth.

A harsh indictment? To be sure, but one supported by both rational and empirical evidence. Review of newspapers, magazines, and other accounts of the passing scene presents a plethora of data reinforcing this conclusion. Look around you. Local school districts often require voter approval for budgetary matters. Control of the election equipment resides in those favoring state intervention in education, i.e., passage of the budget. Somehow, election notices prominently reach those anticipated to support the budget (e.g., parents of school-age children), while those disinclined to cast a ballot for state interference often have difficulty discovering the location of the polling place. State law normally prohibits pressure on public employees to support measures submitted to the people, yet the left finds varied and subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways to coerce teachers to vote for the budget and to prostitute their principles to convince others to do likewise.

Do you require more evidence? Then consider the biased reporting of media in the United States. Documented elsewhere beyond cavil, the media picks and chooses that which will be emphasized and that which will be ignored. All too often, the right is ignored and, if “balance” is sought in programing, the representative of the libertarian point of view selected by the statists hardly depicts the true position, or is given inadequate exposure.

Can you stand another example? Many states offer voters’ pamphlets in which candidates and organizations can explain their positions and offer their wares to the citizenry. Yet the left so fears the truth that in some states those voicing different values are locked out of the voters’ pamphlet by restrictive legislation; only that material which meets the criteria of the liberal establishment can be distributed to the voters, even if the partisans offer to pay their own way!

The issue contains moral overtones. To the conservative, free men should not be defrauded or coerced. He retains the conviction that truth will out, that right will triumph, if all positions gain equal airing. He believes in the free marketplace of ideas, as much as in the free market for material goods, and force does not belong in a market because initiation of force is immoral. To the contrary, however, the liberal, no matter how much he proclaims an interest in the individual, lacks the moral restraint exercised by an overwhelming belief in the worth of the individual. One who views a person as so much clay to be modeled and fit into a master plan cannot vaunt a convincing concern for the means of discerning truth. He thinks that he knows, better than anyone else, what is good for mankind and, vested with this arrogant attitude, he proceeds to impose his will upon others by any means available.

Conclusion: Steps to the Preservation of Freedom

This essay addresses the question, why right does not triumph. It does not offer answers, in the form of a master plan. That task belongs to each of us as we evaluate our talents, our desires, and our commitment to the cause of freedom.

Nonetheless, to avoid the charge of being remiss in my obligation, allow me to offer some conclusory comments in the full knowledge that mere conclusions sans rationale may tempt the challenge of the dissenter who cannot agree unless the underlying logic of the position appears point by tedious point.

Initially, not all of the seven reasons offered were intended as criticism of the right. Certainly one cannot decry the attendance upon amoral position as wrong. Rather, the analysis sought to isolate some pertinent reasons in the hope that each devotee to the freedom philosophy could bear them in mind and seek to counteract their effect.

In end result, some constructive suggestions appear. Conservatives should coordinate their efforts with one another and work more closely with their natural allies in the pursuit of common goals. They should seek to identify, inform and incorporate like-minded persons into the mainstream of libertarian thinking in the hope that it will become a welling tide. They should avoid inconsistency and fervent zeal which detract from their position. They should learn their philosophy, expand upon it, and live it: a never-ending labor. They should devote time normally accorded to the production of goods and services to the nurture of freedom. Finally, they should remain alert to the positions of the left and the methods it employs, never failing to articulate and publicize liberalism and its failings. If we all do this, right shall triumph.

  • Ridgway K. Foley Jr. is a litigation lawyer who is passionate about individual and economic freedom, and has authored numerous scholarly articles on related subjects.