A Rejoinder to Douglas Giles, Ph.D.

not an attempt at a refutation, just engaging in a discussion

In “Clarifying the Political Spectrum” (here in Medium) Giles makes the case that in politics, ‘left’ and ‘right’ refer to a goal either to “circulate” power or to “concentrate” power, respectively, in society. In his paradigm, the more authoritarian a political system, the further to the right it is. So the U.S.S.R. and Nazi Germany were about equally right-wing.

I was expecting some discussion of democracy by Giles, but there was none. His paradigm seems to assume a democratic process. To my mind, though, democracy not only deserves, but requires explicit consideration in any discussion pertaining to any kind of ideal (or as ideal as possible in this world) society.

Democracy can be a difficult concept to nail down. Perhaps Giles didn’t want to risk getting bogged down in a conceptual quagmire that is tangential to the central point he was seeking to make. I’ll take a stab at clarifying that term for present purposes.

Literally, the word means rule by the people. It obviously is the last word in “circulating” political power.

It is most purely expressed in a direct democracy. There, the citizenry as a whole (at least the whole of the people who are counted as citizens) acts as both a legislature and an executive, debating issues and voting on all proposals related to the governance of society then seeing to their implementation (via committees, no doubt).

Setting aside the issues of who should count as a citizen and who would get to decide that issue, there is not, as far as I am aware, a direct democracy in any nation on the planet. ‘Democratic’ nations are either republics or have a parliamentary system of government.

In what way, then, are such nations democratic? How can nations that are not direct democracies still be democratic nations?

The answer is that they have a democratic political process. They enjoy freedom of political speech and a ‘democratic’ distribution of further rights pertaining to participation in the political process.

As given in the Constitution of the U.S., those rights are voting, running for elective office, petitioning the government (“for redress of grievances”), and peaceable assembly. (I, for one, have been unable to come up with any other form of participation in the political process that might exist.) Those rights are democratically distributed because there are — no longer — arbitrary restrictions regarding which citizens get to exercise those rights. Restrictions based on ‘race’ (color of skin), gender, etc. have been rescinded. The only restriction left is age. That restriction is not arbitrary because it is universally applicable and universally applied. [Whether any given nation’s democratic political process functions as intended is a separate issue.]

Besides the political process, the economy is the other process integral to any society. That points to a weakness in Giles’s analytical paradigm. People can be in favor of either “circulating” or “concentrating” economic power and at the same time in favor of doing the same or the opposite with political power.

Giles makes the case that the left seeks to ‘circulate’ economic power more widely — at a minimum, seeking to ensure that everyone has ‘enough’— whereas the right is at the least indifferent to the ‘concentration’ of economic power, even to the point of some members of society not having a basic material sufficiency.

One problem that arises in Giles’’s analysis is that people on the right are not (necessarily) indifferent to whether people in general have enough. There are at least two positions available to them.

One position people on the right can and do advance is that attempts to use government to achieve a ‘better’ distribution of material well-being actually makes things worse. For one thing, they argue, funding such programs, whether through taxation or public debt, diminishes the performance of the economy, meaning there is less total income available than there would otherwise be. All people, they can argue, would be better off in a more dynamic economy. Moreover, some argue, the programs intended to help people end up creating generations of people who are culturally ill-equipped to do well in a market-based economy.

The other position available to people on the right is that justice is the most important thing and that all outcomes in the economy are just so long as the process generating those outcomes is a just process. A just economy, they say, is a market-based economy. The more purely market-based it is, the more just it is; any intervention of any kind in the economy by government diminishes the justness of the economy. For people espousing that position, being poor, even destitute, is not the worst thing: living in a society that is not as just as it could be is worse than that.

It so happens that democracy itself is such a process. Being a just process, any outcome generated within it (that is not the product of violations of the rules of the process) is just. Being just, that outcome is presumed to be respected by all citizens.

We do see that within the economic context another analytical paradigm regarding left and right emerges. For the left, economic outcomes pertaining to individuals determine the economic justness of a society. For the right, having a just economic process determines the economic justness of a society, outcomes for individuals notwithstanding.

In the real world of American politics, for both the left and the right there is a real danger that economic and other issues are becoming more important than is the existence of a democratic process itself as a means of deciding societal concerns. The right accuses the left of seeking to stifle free political speech for people on the right. The left accuses the right of seeking to stifle voting by people on the left. Both accuse the other side of lying, cheating, misrepresenting, etc., all of which are violations of the rules for a democratic political process.

The political process is the process of effecting choices for the community as a whole. The existence of a just — democratic — political process is the most important thing. Without it, there can be no such thing as a just society. Anyone who is not committed to the survival of a democratic political process above all other political concerns cannot claim to be on the side of justice.