The soft left by mattsteinglass
June 24, 2009, 2:23 am
Filed under: Conservatism

Hilzoy had an interesting post responding to Andy McCarthy’s weird accusations the other day that Obama is a “man of the hard left” who feels more comfortable with moralistic dictatorships than with freedom. Without getting into McCarthy’s thing, the part of Hilzoy’s response that interested me was a query: who exactly are these leftists McCarthy is talking about?

I have spent a lot of time in places where one might suppose the Hard Left might be found. I mean, I grew up in the Kremlin on the Charles, for heaven’s sake. Moreover, I know some people who are fairly far to the left. And yet I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone in this country who even remotely resembles McCarthy’s “Hard Left”.

…With these possible exceptions [two people she knew in the ’70s and ’80s], none of the people I have known in this country, in a long life of knowing leftists, has been “fine with dictatorship”. None of them has the slightest interest in the “suppression of freedom”, or “intrusiveness in all aspects of life”. …So here’s my question: have I just been hanging out in the wrong places? Are there, in fact, any substantial numbers of “Hard Leftists”, as Andy McCarthy uses that term — not just the handful of surviving Stalinists that I’m sure exist somewhere in the US, but an appreciable number of people who are “fine with dictatorship”?

I actually have met some American leftists who are “fine with dictatorship”. But only outside the US, and only in the narrow sense that they think cultural and historical differences excuse authoritarian government for other countries — not for the US. I’ve met leftists in Africa who thought colonialism excused dictatorial governments there, and leftists in East Asia who think Confucian cultures don’t merge well with multiparty democracy. But here’s the thing: in each of these settings, I’ve met even more rightists who were “fine with dictatorship”. For every old hippy in Africa who thinks white people have no right to criticize African leaders, there are five right-wing Western businessmen who think Africans are incapable of stable democratic government and prefer to deal with dictators. For every left-wing multiculturalist in East Asia who thinks single-party states are better suited to the Confucian mentality, there are five right-wing Western businessmen who think the same thing.


6 Comments so far
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I have to say that I am yet to meet one right-winger who is okay with the Chinese government’s continued rule, and plenty of (almost entirely US) left-wingers who believed that China is not ready for democracy. However, I also have to say that I have found right wingers more likely to look down upon the locals in a way not dissimilar to that described.

Comment by FOARP

I’m actually pretty surprised by that, FOARP. I’ve met lots of businesspeople who have this attitude in VN. In particular real-estate developers seem to prefer to have as little popular input on land-use decisions as possible. They complain about the arbitrariness of government and lack of rule of law, but often the complaint boils down to “we bribed Official X and he turned out not to be the right guy to bribe”. And many of them celebrate how easy it is to “get things done” in East Asia in contrast to Europe or the US, where “get things done” ultimately translates as “circumvent regulations and popular input through relationships with powerful officials”.

Comment by mattsteinglass

@Matt – I am yet to meet one person who will actually admit to the actual payment of bribes in the last ten years or so. This is not to say it doesn’t happen, but the nearest I can come is one guy who had a ‘standards inspection’ forced on him who asked for substantial ‘expenses’ without giving receipts. You can read the whole thing here:

However, come to think of it, there is one guy whose advice to people on how to protect their IPR in China includes paying off the police to hassle commercial opposition. Thing is, he’s been discredited ever since he was outed as having faking interviews with Chinese officials and claiming qualifications he didn’t have – although it was only spotted when an ‘interview’ with a banking official caused a fluctuation in the value of the RMB.

Once again, I’m not saying that expats in China aren’t involved in bribing officials – but any man who brags to you (I was about to change that ‘man’ to ‘person’, but it is only men) about having bribed this or that official, or being able to do such-and-such illegal activity due to their ‘relation’ with local officials, is either lying to you or is a fool. The 90’s was the ‘heyday’ for such activities, but the realisation that paying bribes means that you are potentially bound into the same kind of trap as the Sinosceptic unwillingly was above has cooled much of the enthusiasm for this kind of legal laxness. This isn’t to say that plenty of people, myself included, do not appreciate living in countries where laws covering city planning, zoning, trading hours etc. are either non-existent or not enforced – who wouldn’t like to live somewhere where they can eat freshly barbecued chicken cooked on the street right outside where they live at any time of the day?

However, I simply haven’t met anyone for whom this enthusiasm for poor/non-existent law enforcement translates into enthusiasm for the government. Perhaps they exist amongst what might be called the ‘flying visit’ expats, but not among those who I know who actually live in China. However, the people I associate with are self-selecting and not necessarily a representative sample.

Comment by FOARP

Here’s my experience: some people will complain to you that they are shut out of projects because they won’t pay the bribe demanded by officials simply to arrange an initial meeting. Then you hear about the people who actually are bidding on that project. Interesting, how did they get the meeting? Then one company wins the bid, or gets approval, and the project seems to be going forward. Then at some point the project is suddenly stopped, and it’s revealed that it would have violated a series of regulations. Why was it allowed to go forward when it violated regulations? And then someone from the company that won the project complains that they were assured by the officials they were dealing with that everything was OK; obviously there were technical legal violations, but that’s because the law is so confused and ill-applied that there are always technical violations. Who was this official they were dealing with? Why did that official approve the project despite the violations? What kind of house does that official live in, and what kind of car does he drive? I think we all understand what’s going on here.

Comment by mattsteinglass

I should say that I don’t mean to disparage businesspeople as a class or anything like that. In many circumstances foreign businesses have been the force pushing through transparent and non-corrupt systems because predictability and the rule of law are in businesses’ interests. But in many other cases — labor law and land use regs are the first that come to mind — many businesses often find the messy business of public input to be a nuisance.

That said, I loves me some sidewalk barbecued chicken. Unfortunately when Hanoi city authorities do decide to do something about hygiene, the approach is too often “get rid of the street vendors” rather than “inspect and license the street vendors”.

Comment by mattsteinglass

@Matt – Think that last comment may have been blocked by the spam filter because of the links, can you check?

Comment by FOARP

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