I’ve had a few brushes recently with people who’ve shifted, politically, from positions well to my left to positions well to my right. There’s some useful discussion (and some not so useful) of this and related phenomena in this Crooked Timber comments thread following up a post by Chris Bertram about Nick Cohen, a recent exemplar of the left-right shift. I’m taking points from various commenters with whom I agreed, without acknowledging them: read the thread and you can see who has said what.

A couple of things have struck me about this process. One is that, even though the shift from radical left to neoconservativism or neoliberalism is rarely instantaneous, and appears in some ways to be a smooth transition, there doesn’t usually seem to be any intermediate stage at which people in this process hold a position similar to my own (social democratic in domestic policy, internationalist in foreign policy and reluctant to support war except as a last resort). Rather, what seems to happen is that leftist modes of critique are used, increasingly, to defend rightwing policy positions.

An obvious example is the way in which ex-Marxists seize on largely incoherent notions of ‘the new class’ and ‘elites’ (typically defined in cultural terms rather than with any analysis of economic or political power) as a way of attacking their former allies. Eventually, this kind of thing is often abandoned in favour of traditional conservative or free-market rhetoric, but by this time, the shift in political position is usually complete.

The other is that, although people change their opinions, they generally don’t change the confidence with which they express them or their attitudes to those who disagree. If they were thoughtful and sceptical as leftists, they generally remain so. If they regarded all who disagreed with their leftwing shibboleths as fools or knaves, they will take exactly the same view of those who disagree with them when they begin spouting rightwing shibboleths instead.

This is disappointing in two respects. First, having been (on your own assessment) badly wrong once, ought to inculcate some sense that it is possible you might be wrong again. I don’t think this ought to reduce you to agnostic inertia, but it’s surely a good reason for humility[1].

This ought to be true collectively rather than individually. I’m always stunned when people (particularly those old enough to remember the postwar boom) advance free-market economic arguments with the air of someone stating matters of scientifically proven fact. The same arguments were regarded as hopelessly exploded fallacies in the heyday of Keynesianism, refuted not only in theoretical terms but by the brute fact of the Great Depression. Experience since the 1970s suggested that Keynesians were premature in their triumph, but this ought to have produced humility about the limits of economic knowledge rather than new round of triumphalism from the neoliberal side.

Second, while the left may not have the winning argument on every issue, there are plenty of left arguments that are strong enough that the right typically ignores them rather than confronting them head-on. For example, anyone who’s looked hard at a left analysis of the way the media stereotype groups like the unemployed ought to be immune to simple-minded claims about leftwing media bias (Keith Windschuttle’s book Unemployment was very good on this point). Yet lots of ex-leftists seem to forget things they once knew, and espouse arguments they could formerly refute. (The same is true, in reverse, I’m sure, but I haven’t seen so many examples of the process).

fn1. I know I don’t always practice what I preach in this respect, and some modes of argument like opinion columns don’t allow for equivocation, but I do try to acknowledge that there are people who’ve thought carefully and well about the issue and come to the opposite conclusion.

UpdateJason Soon has more and points to an earlier piece by Paul Norton

130 thoughts on “Converts

  1. Homer, the Sydney Anglicans may have disagreed with Howard on the three issues named, but I’d be surprised if many voted Labor at the last election (or any).

    Any attempt to reduce people’s complex political views to a left-right axis will necessarily be simplistic, but I think that how people vote is the single most important test, though not the only one. To some extent it expresses where they, not necessarily consiously, see themselves on that axis.

    The Sydney Anglicans disagree with Howard on a number of things, but consider them less important than the issues where they agree, so they give him their vote (probably after Family First and the Christian Democrats). That indicates a broadly right-wing position to me.

  2. This thread’s getting so long in the tooth I feel that I should start with an old Ugly Dave Gray joke . . .

    Anyway, Rob wrote (August 11th, 2005 at 9:11 am):

    “[Paul] you’re reading something into my comment that I certainly never intended. It doesn’t (or shouldn’t) connote anything of the kind, just the cold laws of labour economics. I said it was morally impossible to argue they should not have been paid at the same rate as Europeans.”

    Rob, I’m unconvinced by your “cold laws of labour economics” argument. While such a view is certainly widely held – viz that the pastoralists would never have acted economically irrationally, in sacking (black) workers who were at least as good as their (white) replacements – it ignores the exogenous and longer-term factors at work in the pastoralists’ decisions, some of which I have alluded to. I certainly didn’t mean to connote, in my earlier comment, that you were racist (and if I did so connote, then I duly apologise and retract).

    What I was trying to say is that there is a fair bit of literature on just how good Indigenous pastoral workers were at doing their jobs, even in the slave labour days. Of course, such literature sits very awkwardly with any endogenous/law-of-economics explanation on why they were peremptorily sacked upon the arrival of “equal” (actually *any*, unless you count basic provisions in kind) pay. So either this literature (mainly Indigenous oral histories) is a fabrication, or there were indeed exogenous/longer-term factors at work that, in this case, distorted the usual iron laws of economics.

  3. The Left has lost a couple of its great icons in recent decades – the Soviet Union is dead, buried and generally unmourned; state ownership of industry is widely discredited.

    However I believe this is a source of strength as much as of weakness – the Right has lost much of the pragmatism that defined it (at least in Australia and the US) in the 60’s and 70’s. The Right seems increasingly like the left of the 1970s – doctrinaire; riven by internal ideological divisions and unwilling to subject its ideas to empirical tests.

  4. Gordon, yes, of course there’s a clear distinction between nationalist chauvinism and solidarity. I’m not sure it’s slippery.

    Andrew, Marxism as a political practice – yes, you’re right. I was talking about scientific analysis, critique of society.

  5. Political Tipping Points

    I didn’t have time over the last week to contribute to the very interesting comments threads on Quiggin and Catallaxy about the oft-noted phenomenon of those who once held strong left views ending up some time later as holding strong right wing …

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