Anti-Wealth and Proud

Joe Miller has commented previously on the distinction between liberals and leftists. In his comment section I proposed a litmus test to discern them: ask them their opinion of Adam Smith. Liberals will generally have a positive view of him, leftists will not. But this is far too philosophical and geared toward the intellectual wings of each faction, so I now propose another demarcation line with broader applicability: liberals are anti-poverty, while leftists are anti-wealth.

Exhibit A: The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, completely pointlessly, stages a highly obnoxious protest in the wealthy area of Rosedale, which they dubbed -- and now would be a good time to swallow if you're drinking something -- the "We've Come to Collect our Money Night March on Rosedale". No, this is not a joke. Such choice phrases could be heard as: "No one should have heated floors when people are sleeping outside."* (HT: Chris Selley.)

Exhibit B: Quoth a rather touched commentor at the HuffPo:

... economy here in Alberta is absolutely nuts insane rich. Starting wages for Macdonalds in Ft.MacMurry are $ 14 to $17 per hour!!!! 500 new jobs are posted for Edmonton every day, most with starting wages for labouring at 12 to 18 dollars an hour.

Now, a liberal would be thinking: "Wow, that's great!" Not so, our leftist specimen here. You see, this is actually a terrible thing because Alberta's booming economy is largely due to (horrors) people buying and using its oil. These myopic fools may be enjoying their fabulous wealth now, but they'll be sorry when the apocalypse (i.e. global warming) comes! (HT: the permalink-challenged Cosh.)

Whatever disagreements I may have with fellow liberals like Joe or Brad DeLong are mere quibbles over details in comparison to the vast ideological gulf that seperates me from the universe that leftists inhabit. It is a frightening place to visit, let alone live.

*I cannot better the remarks of Martin Dwyer, the Rosedale shopkeeper quoted in the article: "I don't care what the cause. People who target other individuals are wankers, total wankers. Sod them sideways with a screwdriver."

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“No one should have heated

“No one should have heated floors when people are sleeping outside.”

That might be a good phrase for a litmus test to discern leftists, liberals, and hard libertarians: a leftist will agree, a liberal will switch it ("no one should have to sleep outside when people have heated floors"), and a hard libertarian will say "get off my land before I shoot you."

Spot on. Too bad that this

Spot on.

Too bad that this wasn't in the print news, but when the Toronto's local TV newschannel interviewed the OCAP protestors, one marcher happily said to the camera that they are marching in Rosedale so that rich people learn to understand that they are also vulnerable and can become targets.

I hope that at least some viewers' eyes opened at that point to the violent and envious reality of leftism. The Baader-Meinhof group is not just a thing of the past, but when leftists necessarily become more desperate and irrelevant, we will see its reemergence in many forms.

"They can't play the fool,"

"They can't play the fool," said artist Scott Mackay. "We're in their backyard."

Translation: "I just can't financially support myself on my works of 'art' in an awful free market. I just don't earn enough money writing poetry and painting watercolors while listening to my Phish records in my loft. So I'm here to force these greedy doctors, engineers and business owners to pay their share to me."

“No one should have heated

“No one should have heated floors when people are sleeping outside.”

I assume that the protestors are foregoing heat until this is addressed?

What's interesting to me is

What's interesting to me is how recent a development this is. If today's leftists talked to George Orwell, Eugene Debs, or Clement Atlee their first reaction would probably be to punch that leftist in the face. It used to be that leftists--especially socialists and Marxists--loved industry; they just wanted it to be controlled by the state. Now, it seems that leftists would prefer us all to devolve to a hunter/gather (minus the hunter part) mode of existence. Perhpas, for egotist reasons, I should keep this to myself, but there are several books waiting to be written about this transformation. (Actually, I suppose that several books have been wrriten on this subject, but I don't of any really good ones. However, I'm quite open to reccomendations.)

Matt, If your dividing line


If your dividing line between "liberals" and the "left" wouldn't count (just to pick a couple examples) Pierre Joseph Proudhon or Karl Marx or Leon Trotsky or Ellen Willis or Noam Chomsky as a leftist, then maybe your attempt at a definition is ill considered, and ought to be revised. That is, if you mean for "left" to be a term of analysis and criticism that applies to real people over the past several decades, rather than a merely polemical term for whoever you find distastefully envious at the moment.

I'm confused, Charles. I

I'm confused, Charles. I don't know a thing about Willis, but how exactly would the rest not qualify, given that they were all against private property and espoused an enduring enmity toward the wealthy?

From my personal experience,

From my personal experience, people on the extereme left are an odd bunch. They'll decry the facism of the neo-cons and then call for socialism. It's rather ironic that they'll decry statism and then call for statism. It's definitely something to see first hand. You'll definitely shake your head and probably want to shake someone.

I suppose it's a good thing I'm not right or left of center but north of center.

Matt, If you want to claim


If you want to claim that leftists are all anti-propertarian and liberals aren't, I think you're mistaken (for some reasons I'll mention below). But whether that claim is mistaken or not, being opposed to private property is not the same thing as being opposed to wealth per se. The technically correct term for what you're trying to capture is "communist," not "leftist."

There are leftists out there who have been opposed to wealth as such, or who claimed to view wealth as such as morally corrosive. (Tolstoy, in his old age, claimed to be one such thinker; although the preferences manifest in his actions were rather different from the preferences expressed in his writing.) But most of the thinkers identified as paradigmatic leftists didn't think this or anything like it. They have usually thought that material wealth (comfort, health, good food, rewarding work, enjoyable leisure, etc.) was a good thing and professed a desire that everybody should have it as far as it's possible.

It's true that Marx and Trotsky and Chomsky oppose private property, or at least private property in land and the means of production. But they don't oppose wealth. Their complaint against private property is that they (wrongly) think that it stands in the way of ensuring wealth for everybody and (wrongly) conclude that forcible collectivization of land and the means of production is a just way to solve this alleged problem. The idea is that this would end the artificial scarcity allegedly endemic to capitalist forms of production, and bring about an era of unprecedented prosperity.

As for Proudhon, he was not against private property. He was against one conception of private property based on grants of state privilege, and in favor of another based on possession and use. Benjamin Tucker, to take another example, also defended private property (while condemning state-granted monopoly).

And as for whether or not somebody has "enmity" against the actually existing wealthy, well, who cares? I take it that the issue here is philosophical principles, not loyalty or affection towards any particular group of people.

Right or wrong, all the folks I named, when they expressed enmity towards wealthy people, expressed it not because they were wealthy, but because they concluded that those people obtained their wealth illicitly, and did so in a way that unfairly hindered other people from gaining wealth. Depending on a thinker, their conclusion may be wise or foolish (I think Proudhon's understanding of matters was much sounder than Marx's), but in either case they aren't coming down on wealth as such, just on what they (rightly or wrongly) regard as wealth acquired through injustice.

Rad Geek, your points are

Rad Geek, your points are fairly accurate. The point that is being made, though, is that the typical anti-capitalist (that's probably more accurate than leftist) today is against wealth in general.

"I take it that the issue

"I take it that the issue here is philosophical principles, not loyalty or affection towards any particular group of people."

Then you take it wrongly, given that I explicitly was shooting for something less aridly philosophical; this litmus test is more geared toward operational attitudes. Does someone seem motivated more by sincere desire to see everyone do well, or are they motivated more by resentment of the wealthy? (A related test might be to ask whether they basically see all of society as "in this together" or if they frame everything in terms of oppressors vs oppressed.) It's intended to be more anthropological than philosophical.

Also, as Eric points out, this was composed with modern political landscapes in mind, so applying it to past eras may not yield coherent mapping.

Matt, Let me try to put the


Let me try to put the point in a less "arid" way by not mentioning the word "philosophical."

Enmity towards people who are wealthy and opposition to wealth as such are two different things and need to be distinguished if you want to offer any kind of useful characterization of people's reasons for action.

There are lots of reasons that you might feel enmity towards people who are wealthy today. It might be because you have some kind of problem with wealth itself. On the other hand, it might be because you think there's nothing wrong with wealth but there is something wrong with the way most people come by it. You may remember that Adam Smith, just to take one example, often wrote quite harshly of the wealthy people of his own day, because he thought that many of them came by their wealth dishonestly (through feudal privilege and mercantilist political patronage). It is perfectly possible, and probably even wise, to criticize how many people in our current state-dominated, cartelized, subsidized, hyperregulated business environment come by their wealth, without having any problem with wealth itself or the idea of people having it. If that makes you "anti-wealth," in the sense you're trying to push, well, then what's wrong with being "anti-wealth?"

Matt: A related test might be to ask whether they basically see all of society as "in this together" or if they frame everything in terms of oppressors vs oppressed.

Are you claiming here that any claim to the effect that one social class oppresses another reflects "resentment" of the people identified as oppressors? Or do you mean to make some more limited claim?

Matt: ... this was composed with modern political landscapes in mind, so applying it to past eras may not yield coherent mapping.

Any "mapping" that doesn't count Marx or Proudhon as a leftist is, I'd submit, a bad mapping, regardless of what you were aiming at. The term has a perfectly good meaning already, which includes a bunch of people from the past couple centuries in addition to OCAP or some dude writing comments on Arianna Huffington's website, and if you meant to specifically gripe about ascetics or the envious or player-haters or whatever then you should probably find a term that better matches what it is you want to discuss.

In summary,

In summary, multi-dimensional terms like "liberal" and "leftist" have little clear or consistent meaning, and trying to divine one results in a defintion only you will know.

I tend to think of "leftism"

I tend to think of "leftism" as a more prescriptive view of how people and institutions should be arranged. Whereas "liberalism" is sort of attitudinal - is one laid back, tolerant and open minded?
What Cornelius says on this on point.

Cornelius, Agreed. I wasn't


Agreed. I wasn't trying at any comprehensive definition, just shooting for a rough-and-ready way of teasing out an important difference between individuals' political attitudes and assigning them (nominalistically) to broad categories. Naturally, I make no claims to exhaustiveness of description.


If you want to be a terminological stickler, then be my guest. But I have to emphasize that I'm not so much interested here in analysis of explicit propositions but rather the messier psychological attitudes that motivate people. On the contrary, I think that "if you want to offer any kind of useful characterization of people’s reasons for action" then you can't rely too much on the methods of analytical philosophy, because outside a small number of intellectuals they don't have much direct relevance.

An analogy to religion may be apt: you're talking theology, I'm looking at the actual praxis of nominal believers. These two things are not perfectly correlated, to put it mildly.