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It seems possible to argue for many policies from either perspective. For example, you could argue against war from a left perspective by calling it imperialism and full of human rights violations. But you could also argue against war from a right perspective by pointing out how the military-industrial complex takes advantage of a large government to milk the populace for cash. Or with the covid relief bill, left-wing supporters may want to put most funds into direct deposits to average citizens because that seems to directly help people. Right-wing supporters may argue for the same thing because a large, complex system deciding who gets relief is vulnerable to lobbying and litigation effectively siphoning that relief to the highest bidder. So how is it decided if a policy is left or right?

These are just examples, I am interested in the subject in general. I have seen other questions asking about how left and right people are defined, but I don't think this is a duplicate as it is about policy.

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  • Related question: Beyond left and right.
    – Philipp
    Dec 27 '20 at 13:10
  • It is worth looking at This column by Pournelle in which he says that the current right/left distinction is not useful, and proposes a 2-dimension classification for classifying political philosophies and groups. I don't say it is ultimate truth, but it gets one thinking about better ways to classify. Dec 28 '20 at 23:56
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You don't need to decide. A party doesn't think "hmm we're a left wing party and even though we think this particular policy is a good idea, our analysis shows it to be officially right wing, so we will oppose it."

Instead there are policies that tend to go together, for example (in the USA) single-payer health care and gun control. By "go together" I don't mean that they have been analysed as being "left wing", but merely that people who support one tend to support the other. This lets us identify a group of "single-payer-healthcare-and-gun-control" supporting people, and call them "Left"

THe names "left" and "right" are purely historical. By the original definitions nearly all Americans are strongly "left wing" as the "right wing" was the group that supported monarchy and opposed republicanism in France.

So to find if a policy is left wing or right wing, find out who supports it. If it is supported by left wing people, then it is a left wing policy.

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  • 2
    Are you sure nearly all Americans would oppose a Trump monarchy?
    – user253751
    Dec 28 '20 at 15:30
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The short answer is: "By public consensus."

An important thing to note here is that there is no legal or scientific definition for right-wing or left-wing policy. These are labels given by popular consensus which evolved out of necessity for people to articulate where they stand relative to each other.

Think of it like describing temperature. The word "hot" or "cold" doesn't have any meaning by themselves, they are only understood in relation to its surrounding temperature. Yet, people still need these words to describe how they experience the environment.

More often than not, you will find that the nature of the policies themselves don't matter as much as the people pushing those policies. Let's look at some examples.

In 2020, environmental policies are considered to be a distinctively left-wing agenda in the United States. The Democratic Party (center-left) are much more concerned about climate change and reducing pollution in the environment. However, that was not the case during the time of Republican (center-right) President Richard Nixon, who enacted the very same environmental laws that were considered to be bipartisan in his time.

In the above example, the environmental polices themselves have not changed. What changed was the political context around it.

We really cannot go deeper into this topic without mentioning the concept of Overton Window, which beautifully describes why certain policies receive different labels as the political context changes.

To further illustrate this concept, you can also observe how different political ecosystems compare to each other. In the United States, universal healthcare is considered to be a left-wing policy, but in Europe, it is more of a bipartisan issue (if it's an issue at all).

In short, to understand which policies are "right-wing" or "left-wing", don't just look at the policies themselves, instead, look at who is pushing for them, because that's how the labels are ascribed.

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There is no such thing as a right wing policy or a left wing policy in the abstract. Right wing and left wing are always relative terms to cluster political actors relative to each other.

For example, in 1950, favoring legalizing interracial marriage in the U.S. nationwide was a ultra-left wing policy that even civil rights leaders weren't willing to press for actively. But, in 1990, even very far right former segregationist politicians took the national legality of interracial marriages in the U.S. as a established and uncontroversial policy principle.

Likewise, in 1700 in England, a policy of prohibiting capital punishment for robbery was a far left policy, while in 1970 in England, even the far right would embrace such a policy.

The relative left wing and right wing political dispositions of geographic regions, and of individual with certain genetic predispositions to think in a particular way are quite stable, but the way a particular policy fits into those dispositions is a product of history and circumstances and varies based upon context.

Policies can be rank ordered with respect to absolute extremes, but any metric evaluating how much further to the left or right one policy is relative to another is an intersubjective determination rather than an objective one.

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You're conflating a lot of issues (the idea of war with a military industrial complex supplying the war munitions, for example). And generalizing individual issues out of context is not helpful either. In fact, it can be misleading. All issues have context, for the world is complex and the reasons and motives behind policies reflect that fact. It is far too easy to over simplify this broad question with a universal answer. Nevertheless, we can make some generalizations about the left and right that can help us determine if a political party may support or reject a particular policy.

The left bases their policy positions on issues of social and economic justice and the promotion of a participatory democracy. They see a market economy, particularly one that is deregulated, as unjust and destructive to human progress and the environment and a non-participatory democracy as regressive. After all, it's hard to cheer for a system when 3 men in the US own more wealth, and hence have astronomically more power, than 170 million Americans, while countries that have elected more progressive governments have produced more egalitarian societies, such as those in Scandinavia.

The right tends to be reactionary to maintain the status quo of capitalist production and power. In the last 40 years, many right wing governments have been quite regressive, rolling back economic and social and environmental gains and undermining the principles of democracy. They argue that corporations in unfettered markets best serve the interests of a society: "what is good for GM is good for America". In other words, keep government out of the economy, despite over half a century of research showing that the public sector can deliver many services more cost effectively. There's a good reason why countries turn to socialist principles during a crisis, like war or a pandemic. Competition is destructive.

Btw, the US is a corporatocracy, not a democracy. It does not have a left wing national party to speak of, as you would commonly see in many countries of Europe. They have two corporate parties who serve the interests of their financial backers, the corporate class, fighting over the spoils of the economy, who, to answer your question, enact reformist/right-wing policies to avoid catastrophe during a crisis, rather than address the roots of the problem, gross inequality.

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