Left and Right

by Russ Roberts on November 3, 2005

in Politics

I was on Kudlow and Company last night talking about oil profits and government regulation of the oil industry.  I was introduced as "right of center."  The other guest, Jamie Court, a self-described consumer advocate, was introduced as "left of center."  It wasn’t the time or place to discuss labels, but when I’m labeled as right of center, I usually respond, no, I’m a classical liberal.  Here’s the opening remark from Jamie Court, the "liberal":

Well, as a populist, what I favor is making sure we have enough
refinery capacity to meet demand. And over the last 20 years, we’ve seen demand
for refined supply go up 30 percent and supply–refined supply domestically go
up 10 percent. We haven’t had a refinery built since 1976 in the United States
of America. So what I favor is supply-side regulation, meaning that the
Department of Energy, whoever controls it in the executive branch, can tell oil
companies when they need to increase refining capacity to meet demand. They can
stop oil companies from exporting refined product away from areas in need if
there isn’t enough supply to meet demand.

Court sees the lack of refining capacity as a collusive plan to hold back supply and jack up prices.  How would Court fix the problem?  He wants to take a serious step toward nationalizing the oil supply of the United States.  He wants the government to decide how much oil is produced and refined.  Few seem to find it bizarre that this viewpoint is associated with left-of-center.  It could easily be associated with a right-of-center fascist movement.  I guess the difference is that Court, as a populist, would expect the decisions about the oil industry served the people, whatever that means.  Has there even been a government that controlled a nation’s oil supply that served the people in any sense of the phrase?

The rhetorical distinction we should be pushing is centralized vs. decentralized.  Classical liberals favor the decentralization of power and the enhancement of individual freedom.  The other side (statists or some other term of your choosing) favor enhancing the power of the government.  People on the left romanticize that expansion of power by saying it will serve the people.  People on the right romanticize that expansion of power by saying it will serve the people.  But has there ever been a powerful government that served the people?

There’s really no difference between Cuba and North Korea in terms of how people are treated that is related to their leaders’ left-ness or right-ness.  The only difference is the words that come out of the mouths of the leaders.  But once power is centralized, what does it matter whether the leader is called a leftist or a rightist?

Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that modern day left of center folks think that corporations run America via their influence on the government.  If you believe that, why would you want government to be more powerful?  If corporations control the political process, why wouldn’t you be on my side, reducing the power of government?

Part of the answer is here.

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