I hate being called a conservative. Few things annoy me more than responses to my columns that label me a conservative and my views “right-wing.“ Most of what I believe in runs contrary to both parties. I support free trade and ending subsidies to oil companies. I support unhampered free markets and unlimited civil liberties. I support ending the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs and our country’s wars abroad. Most people today are locked in to the conservative vs. liberal paradigm of political choices and simply can‘t conceive of another direction. But these people are confused about what left and right actually mean.

The terms left and right as political distinctions came about in the French legislature during the French Revolution. The side on which legislatures would sit represented their affiliation with the king of France, with those on the right moderately supporting the regime and those on the left opposing it. On the left were, broadly speaking, two types of thinkers – the socialists and the classical liberals or modern-day libertarians.

The key, uniting feature of leftism is that it is centered around a philosophy and seeks to make the world reflect that philosophy. The socialists, for their part, sought to end the institution of private property and replace it with communal ownership. The classical liberals wanted to enhance individual freedoms through free markets and personal liberties.

To be on the left means that one prefers to see the world as it ought to be rather than as it is. This sets the stage for a revolution in permanence, or a continuing political movement toward the ideal. The idea of a permanent revolution is common among the beliefs of other leftists, such as Marxists, socialists and communists. The idea of complete self-ownership, the key uniting feature to classical liberal and libertarian thought, was perhaps best articulated by Lord Acton, a British statesman of the 19th century: “Liberalism is essentially revolutionary. Facts must yield to ideas. Peaceably and patiently if possible. Violently if not.”

The right, on the other hand, is simply a reaction to these new political philosophies and a longing for the restoration of the old order. The right represents the last dying elements of serfdom, theocracy and rule by elites. As for our current political dichotomy, most politicians, whether Democrat or Republican, are on the right. They seek to keep their positions of power while nominally supporting civil liberties or free markets but urging pragmatism to stymie any leftist cries for revolution

In this proper context, I am proud to be a leftist. I am a liberal: I believe that each person is sovereign only unto himself, that each person owns himself and can act according to his wishes as long as he does not intervene in the rights of others to do the same.

Unfortunately, neither political party has been even close to espousing this philosophy in the last decade. President George W. Bush imposed trade barriers on steel early in his first term and began the process of “stabilizing” the financial system by giving loads of money to Goldman Sachs, an entity that just so happened to have influence in the Department of the Treasury. And today, conservatives have been swept up by a tide of false populism led by Sarah Palin that offers no real change in direction for our country. At best, her vision of the future is a mix between whatever World War II special she happened to catch last night and a Norman Rockwell calendar.

But the Democrats are no better. Although Bush added mounts to the deficit, fought pointless wars and added Medicare entitlements that cost $15 trillion as unfunded liabilities, President Barack Obama has taken the Bush blueprint and run wild with it. His plans are adding trillions of dollars to the national debt. And regardless of which party is in charge, the U.S.’s foreign policy remains interventionist.

Washington, D.C. is right-winged. It is full of politicians who —like the French legislators who sat on the right and supported the king — work to maintain the status quo. They do this by bailing out their rich financial friends while keeping powerful special interest groups happy.

I am not a conservative. Those who support the modern Democratic and Republican parties are the conservatives.

Vincent Patsy can be reached at vapatsy@umich.edu.

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