Should We Label Opponents “Leftists” or “Rightists”?!

Mark Skousen

Mark Skousen, Ph. D., is a professional economist, investment expert, university professor, and author of more than 25 books.

“He who controls the labels wins!” — Larry Abraham

I failed to convince the full crowd of libertarians at the Soho Forum; Gene Epstein’s stinging litany of criticisms of Adam Smith seemed to carry the day.

But one comment I made seemed to resonate with many in the audience. When Mr. Epstein called Harvard economist and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen a “left winger,” I objected to this form of character assassination. In today’s divided world, journalists and media are quick to label someone as a “leftist” or “right wing extremist” in an effort to demonize them and their position. It is especially prevalent on Fox News, MSNBC and on the front page of the New York Times.

I object to such political pigeon-holing and smear tactics. If we are truly individualists, why don’t we treat every person as an individual who has opinions that may differ from others.

Take Amartya Sen, for example. Sure, he may have views that are not libertarian, but then again, he has written extensively on the economics of famines, and has argued that there has never been a serious famine in a country — even an impoverished one — with a democratic government and a free press. That sounds pretty libertarian to me.

When someone is labeled, thinking stops and name-calling begins.

At FreedomFest, we encourage open dialogue without labels and treat everyone with dignity. Our debates are always formal and civil, so that the debaters avoid talking over each other or yelling. Two years ago, we had Paul Krugman come to FreedomFest to debate Steve Moore. He was impressed by how well he was treated by our audience.

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Lin Yutang, the great Chinese philosopher for the 20th century, wrote in “The Importance of Living” how much he disliked the popular trend of sorting people into groups and classes. “We no longer think of a man as a man, but as a cog in a wheel, a member of a union or a class, a ‘capitalist’ to be denounced, or a ‘worker’ to be regarded as a comrade… We are no longer individuals, no longer men, but only classes.”

When you use “left” and “right,” it implies some kind of equality. But are they equal? In the political spectrum, Adam Smith might be labeled a “right winger,” while Karl Marx would be a “left winger.” Using the standard spectrum, both are viewed as extremes, and John Maynard Keynes, advocate of big government and the welfare state, appears in the “moderate” middle.
I prefer the “Totem Pole” approach in my book, “the Making of Modern Economics,” with Adam Smith at the top, Keynes in the middle, and Marx the low man on the totem pole. That ranking fits better with the Economic Freedom Index. Countries that have adopted a limited government approach have grown the fastest, followed by the welfare states, and the slowest growers have been the totalitarian regimes.

Ronald Reagan said it best in his famous 1964 address: “There is no left or right, only up or down.”

I encourage all speakers and journalists to eliminate the misguided labeling of “left” and “right.”

I also never refer to the enemies of liberty as “liberals” or “progressives.” I consider myself a liberal and a progressive… for liberty!

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Economist Dr. Mark Skousen offers a defense of Adam Smith and free markets.

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