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The Right and the Left, in a Nutshell

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Message Ernest Partridge
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Those of us who are at middle age or beyond have lived through a revolution in political and economic theory and practice, a revolution so profound that few of us can even begin to appreciate its significance, much less its peril.

Future historians, however, will understand and appreciate this revolution and will wonder at the passivity of the public today and the ease with which those who instituted this upheaval achieved their success. The same historians, I would venture, will be equally or more amazed at how this moment played out. But this we cannot know, for their past is our immediate future. We are the agents of that still-to-be written history. The United States of America, in this year of 2006, is at a hinge of history. Our fate, and that of our successors, rests directly in the hands of all of us who are politically alert and active today. As Edward R. Murrow famously said, "we can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result."

Those factions and interests now in control of the United States government declare that their policies, which they choose to call "conservative" and I prefer to call "regressive," are an advancement in the course of human history. Those who disagree, and the pollsters tell us that they are a majority of the American people, believe that in the past five years, and arguably in the past twenty-five years, the people of the United States and their government, have suffered a grievous setback.

I count myself among this dissenting majority. In my book, "Conscience of a Progressive," now nearing completion, I attempt to articulate that dissent, criticize the foundational dogmas of the regnant, "regressive" regime that now controls our country, and justify the principles of "progressivism" - the political-economic ideology that distinguished and honored our past, and if we are both determined and fortunate, may once again guide and enrich our national future.

Here, briefly, are the "players" in this political contest.

The Regressives:

To begin, it is important to note that the regressivism that controls and supports our present government is not a unified political doctrine. Rather, it is a coalition, some factions of which are in strong disagreement with others, most notably "the libertarian right" and "the religious right."

In general, most regressives tend to believe that the ideal society is merely a collection of autonomous individuals and families in voluntary association. In fact they assert that strictly speaking, as Dame Margaret Thatcher once proclaimed, "There is no such thing as a society -- there are individuals and there are families," and Ayn Rand, "There is no such entity as 'the public' ... the public is merely a number of individuals. " It follows that there is no such thing as "public goods" and "the public interest," apart from summation of private goods and interests. Moreover, there are no "victims of society." The poor choose their condition; poverty is the result of "laziness" or, as the religious right would put it, a "sin."

Each individual, by acting to maximize his or her personal self-interest, will always act "as if by an invisible hand" (Adam Smith) to promote the well-being of all others in this (so-called) "society:" that which is good for each, is good for all. Accordingly, the optimal economic system is a completely unrestricted and unregulated free market of "capitalist acts by consenting adults." (Robert Nozick) Moreover, private ownership of all land, resources, infrastructure, and even institutions, will always yield results preferable to common (i.e. government) ownership and control. Finally, the regressives firmly believe that because economic prosperity and growth are accomplished through capital investment, the well-being of all is accomplished by directing wealth into the hands of "the investing class;" i.e. the very rich, whereby that wealth will "trickle down" to the benefit of all others.

The libertarian right insists that the sole legitimate functions of government are the protection of the individual's unalienable natural rights to life, liberty and property. The libertarian's demand for individual autonomy and government non-interference entails a tolerance and respect for privacy, and thus the libertarian has no use for sodomy and drug laws, for laws prohibiting gay marriage, abortion, voluntary euthanasia, and least of all for government endorsement of religious dogma or enforcement of religious practice. Thus the libertarian fully endorses John Stuart Mill's pronouncement that, "over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." In general, the libertarian advocates the fullest possible freedom of the individual, consistent with equivalent liberty of all others. In these respects, there is much of libertarian thought that should be attractive to the progressive.

The religious right, of course, vehemently rejects the libertarian's uncompromising tolerance and insistence that the government has no right whatever to interfere in the private life of the individual. The religious right, to the contrary, believes that the government is entitled to enforce moral behavior and even to support religious institutions and "establish" religious doctrines in the law. In the most extreme cases, the religious right advocates the establishment of "biblical law" in place of our present system of secular Constitutional law.

With the exception of the dispute between the libertarians and the religious right regarding private behavior, all the other tenets of regressivism share this characteristic: They all lead to policies that benefit wealth and power ("the masters"), to the disadvantage of all others; i.e., the "ordinary citizens.

The Progressives:

"Progressivism" is essentially the "liberalism" of most of the twentieth century, as promulgated by both Roosevelts, by the Kennedy Brothers, and by many Republicans, such as Dwight Eisenhower, Jacob Javits and Earl Warren. "Progressivism," to put it simply, is "liberalism," free of the slanderous connotations heaped upon it by contemporary right-wing propagandists.

In general, progressives endorse the political principles of our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as well as the fundamental moral precepts of the great world religions and the ideas of many secular moral philosophers - precepts most familiar to the American public through the moral teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

Accordingly, progressivism is founded on enduring "conservative" principles. Thus the familiar "liberal vs. conservative" dichotomy is a hoax. Moreover, the Right, far from being "conservative," in fact endorses a radical political doctrine, with policies designed to return society and the economy to a condition of autocracy, wealth and power for the privileged few, and servitude, poverty and ignorance for "the masses" - a condition which, until recently, was generally believed to be permanently discredited and relegated to the distant past. Hence my preferred term, "regressive."

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Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. Partridge has taught philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The (more...)

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