A Beginner’s Guide to the Left

Introduction

Recent years have brought a sharp uptick in the number of people interested in the policies and ideas of the political left. In order to clarify some basic points of confusion, and provide answers to some frequently asked questions, this short primer has been prepared. I encourage the reader to provide feedback if they feel that anything useful has been omitted. As always, all sources are listed at the end.

Question #1: What’s Wrong With Capitalism?

In his 1936 book The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, the famed economist John Maynard Keynes noted that the main problems of laissez-faire capitalism are “its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes.” History has largely validated his words, as unemployment continues to plague society, and inequality has skyrocketed to levels not seen since the Great Depression. This trend towards highly inequitable growth has amounted to a massive upward-redistribution of wealth, as top incomes have soared, while for those in the bottom-half, “growth has been non-existent for a generation.” Indeed, by some measures, the living standards of the very poorest have actually declined in recent years, while according to the Urban Institute, “nearly 40 percent of adults report that they or their families had trouble meeting at least one basic need” in 2017. As the old adage goes, “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.”

To Keynes’ original list, we may wish to add systemic instability (as capitalism repeatedly falls prey to the boom and bust cycle), as well as a tendency to concentrate political power in the hands of a tiny elite. While we are continuously told that free-market economics are compatible with (and possibly even essential to) political democracy, the evidence strongly contradicts this point. Let’s take the United States as our example; according to a study from Princeton University, “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” As the study puts it:

We believe that if policy-making is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.

Similarly, a 2020 study, published in the Social Science Quarterly, found that “the affluent have substantial influence over policy making while average Americans have little to no influence.” This leads to widespread instability and political unrest, as 56% of the world’s people now feel that capitalism does “more harm than good in the world.” In addition, 58% of the world’s people are “dissatisfied” with how democracy is functioning in their country.

Question #2: Why is Inequality a Bad Thing?

Inequality is a problem because it has demonstrable negative effects on society-at-large. These include worse health outcomes (including shorter life expectancy, higher general mortality, and higher rates of depression and mental illness), reduced social mobility (the so-called “Great Gatsby Curve”), slower income growth for the poor, lower levels of happiness (an effect that extends throughout society), and higher rates of violent crime.

There is even some evidence that inequality may be harmful to overall economic growth, though this point is more controversial. A 2014 study from the OECD found that “income inequality has a negative and statistically significant impact on subsequent growth,” while a 2015 paper from the IMF found that “increasing the income share of the poor and the middle class actually increases growth while a rising income share of the top 20 percent results in lower growth — that is, when the rich get richer, benefits do not trickle down.” These findings have been corroborated by other studies (see here and here), though they remain hotly contested.

Question #3: But Don’t the Rich Benefit All of Us?

Not particularly, no. The idea that the rich will use their wealth for the benefit of society as a whole is often used to justify slashing their taxes and handing them more and more power over the rest of us; however, the evidence indicates that this view is misguided. For one thing, allowing the rich to get richer does not appear to benefit the economy. A 2020 study from the London School of Economics examined the impact of cutting taxes for the wealthy (using data from 18 OECD countries), with the following results:

We find that major reforms reducing taxes on the rich lead to higher income inequality as measured by the top 1% share of pre-tax national income. The effect remains stable in the medium term. In contrast, such reforms do not have any significant effect on economic growth and unemployment.

In other words, such policies increase inequality, without boosting growth or reducing unemployment. Similarly, a 2017 paper from the NBER found that cutting taxes for the rich has little-to-no positive impact on employment, while cutting taxes for working and middle-class people has a substantial positive impact. The true “job creators” of society are workers and consumers, not the rich.

Question #4: So What Do We Do About This?

It is important to remember that the political left is a very broad thing, encompassing many different schools of thought (including Marxists, social democrats, anarchists, and democratic socialists). These different factions obviously have very different overall policy recommendations, with some promoting social revolution, and others favoring more moderate reform. However, in spite of these differences, there are some points of general agreement.

For one thing, virtually all leftists agree that social welfare programs should be greatly expanded. Empirical evidence strongly supports the claim that welfare programs reduce poverty, with some going so far as to label them “the primary causal influence on national levels of poverty.” Welfare state generosity is directly corelated with lower poverty among OECD nations, and there is strong evidence that the United States’ disadvantage in life expectancy is related to its weak welfare state. This indicates that stronger social programs would greatly increase life expectancy. Contrary to popular belief, the welfare state also greatly reduces crime, while more generous welfare spending is associated with higher average life satisfaction among the population. To quote the linked study:

We thus echo Einstein by concluding that socialism (at least as represented by its social democratic incarnation) provides what is perhaps our best hope for improving the human condition, in so far as we agree that making “life as satisfying as possible” is the appropriate standard of evaluation.

In addition, leftists generally agree that labor unions should be significantly strengthened. Studies suggest that unions are associated with higher wages and productivity, reduced workplace fatalities, and lower rates of suicide and drug overdose. Unions also greatly reduce income inequality, improve political representation for workers, and raise the political consciousness of their members.

Focusing in on the United States, leftists support the adoption of a single-payer healthcare system, which studies suggest would save tens of thousands of lives every year, while greatly reducing healthcare spending. The current American healthcare system is “inefficient, unaffordable, unsustainable, and inaccessible to many,” and as such, it must be replaced.

We also generally support a strong increase in the minimum wage, which evidence suggests would substantially raise incomes, reduce poverty, improve both physical and mental health, and reduce inequality, with little-to-no impact on unemployment and cost of living. There are, of course, many other policies advocated by those on the political left, but these are some points of general agreement.

Conclusion

I hope that this primer has proved useful in answering some basic questions, and providing some much-needed clarification on basic points of leftist ideology. If the reader has noticed any problems or omissions, I encourage them to leave a comment and point them out.

Sources

Writing on politics, economics, etc.