A Basic Argument For The Left
Thomas Ash

It would be a huge task to offer a comprehensive argument as to why people should be 'left-wing' as opposed to 'right-wing', or indeed any-other-wing. It is not a task I will attempt here. Instead, I will try to offer a simple defence of one of the basic principles underlying the left, which is often at the heart of the philosophical differences between it and conservatism (and also libertarianism). This principle is that it is perfectly acceptable for the government to take an active and substantial role in areas such as the provision of health care, the creation and maintenance of infrastructure, and some provision for the poor and disabled. [1]

Now, a great many conservatives would have a problem with this. Such government programs will tend to benefit some more than others, and are always funded disproportionately by the rich and well-off middle classes (even if everyone paid a flat percentage of income, the rich would still pay much more, out of proportion to the amount they benefit from those programs conservatives oppose[2]). They effectively redistribute economic goods, although I do not intend to justify them on the grounds that they aim towards a particular 'just' distribution. In fact, I intend to bypass the issue of justice altogether, thus rather removing the wind from conservative sails. Because if we concede the point that the wealthy's money is 'theirs' (in the same way that a left wing writer's keyboard is 'his', something he would be likely to maintain if you tried to take it away from him without impressive reasons), but then go on to ask what they should do with it, conservatism has little to say here.

I suppose what it would say is: "Whatever they want". But while apparently answering the question, this in fact waves it away. I'll grant that people are "entitled" to spend their money as they please - that is their right in a liberal society with a free market. But in asking what the wealthy should do with their money, I mean to consider not only their obligations but also how they could go above and beyond the call of duty to which would I am hoping that you can still see the point of the question: "But what would it be best to spend it on?" This does assume that you have a morality; I think that the notion of an amoral left-wing makes little sense, although many modern 'liberals' accept a moral relativism which is really nihilism. Granting that assumption, some things are morally better than others,

Wouldn't most people say that charity is right? Even if money is yours, if you are faced with spending $500 dollars on a designer T-shirt or spending the same $500 dollars on providing shelter for someone who is homeless for half a year, the latter is absolutely the right choice. I'm assuming the existence of absolute morality and absolute right-or-wrong choices, rather than there being no reason to pick the shelter over the T-shirt, it simply being a personal preference. But I think absolute morality is a fair assumption - most people do acknowledge right and wrong. (And I think this is philosophically justifiable - see elsewhere.)

But if that's the case, couldn't it be the right choice for rich people to pay, along with smaller contributions from less wealthy members of society, for some basic goods? For instance, basic shelter for the homeless, a health-care safety net if people fall seriously ill and can't afford vital operations, education, or the broadly shared public good of clean air? Again, I'm not necessarily arguing that we should force rich citizens to pay large sums in tax for these things, as probably currently happens. I'm just arguing that this basic left-wing credo is correct, and should be believed in by everyone. So everyone, rich people included, ought to be voting for these government programs for moral reasons (indeed, many already do, citing exactly these reasons.)

The view I'm advocating here, which I think is the one most people at heart accept, is that the welfare state is simply the voluntary socialization of charity, for purposes of increasing efficiency and evenly sharing the burden of paying for it (so that larger contributions come from those who can comfortably afford them). It would be exactly equivalent to voluntary private giving, if everyone voted for it. Isn't charitable giving right? Though I wouldn't defend the superior efficiency of all forms of state action currently practiced, it clearly brings a huge boost in practicality in some cases. For example, few could doubt that if people wanted the benefits of law-and-order (who doesn't?), common laws, courts and police are the only real option. Coordinated shelter for the homeless is, at least in theory, more effective because it allows comprehensive coverage and ensures everyone in need gets an equal share.

If everyone agreed on the moral rightness of certain goals, the state would simply be an avenue for agreed cooperation in the service of these goals. So we would spend on defence because it would bring everyone the obvious benefit of security. (I choose defence delibarately as an unconventional use of the word charity. Of course, your own interests are always served by strong defence, but so are other people's, and this is equally important. If someone chooses to fund a cure for cancer, this is still charity, even though they may in the future also benefit from it themselves.) Likewise, some sort of safety net would be provided by society simply because of the benefit it would (hopefully) bring to the poor or temporarily unfortunate - not because they have any inborn 'entitlement' or 'claim' on the rich, or could wave a fictitious social contract in their faces. And people who could more easily afford to do so would voluntarily pay for much of this simply because it is the right thing to do. So what I'd like conservatives to answer is: if it is good to help people by choice, then isn't it good to choose to vote for such public charity?

What this means is that public policy debates ought simply to concern what we can do for the best results and the least cost, tempered by any distinct moral concerns we might decide there are. Of course, this is an empirical question. Standard left-wing answers may not be the best way to help people: for example, there is some evidence to show that overly-generous welfare systems tend to create ruts of poverty and dependence, and people actually do better after reform of these. But if the state, or charity, is the best, most effective way in which to do good, then why shouldn't we go for it? At this stage, conservatives tend to point to failed government programs, as if this counted against the principle that we should engage in collective action when it works, rather than implicitly accepting it. At the very least, this suggests some confusion in their ideas. What can conservatives who regard themselves as less confused say to defend the idea that the right thing to do in private choices (i.e. good) isn't it the right decision to do in public choices? If you don't feel that do-gooding deserves its name that's a different matter, but most of us do. I haven't heard an answer to this over the years this argument has been here, read by many people, but feel free to e-mail me.


1. I'm desparate to use the word 'liberal' rather than 'left' as a synonym for sylistic purposes! However, 'liberalism' is still associated in Europe with classical liberalism, and the minimal 'nightwatchman state' of this is the opposite of what I am defending. (It might also be thought that classical liberal ideas about rights sit ill at ease with my argument, but that is not true since as I emphasise later I am making a proposal about what individuals should choose to do with their money.) Furthermore, since my argument is concerning solely with a sort of public charity, it is quite independent of many of the ideas strongly associated with 'liberals' - that affirmative action is correct, that the death penalty is not, and so on - and it would be a bad idea to muddy the waters for those opposed to these ideas (particularly given that I am sometimes among their number).

2. Some people claim that the well-off have obviously benefitted far more from their society than the poor, and should give accordingly. Presumably they are referring to the fact that if there were no state (and no law and order) it is likely that quite different people would be rich (and this holds even if, as some libertarians suppose, private 'law enforcement' agencies would emerge). But this means at most that the currently wealthy owe more to, and thus for, the maintenance of roads, police and the like - none of which normally number among "programs conservatives oppose". Nonetheless, it could provide a rationale for progressive taxation for those who approach the question from a perspective different than the moral one I outline - though only within a far more minimal state.

© 2002

About the author...
Tom Ash is the webmaster of Big Issue Ground and Atheist Ground. He studied philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, where he was president of the University Atheist and Agnostic Society. He currently does non-profit work and freelance web development. See more information about Tom Ash.

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