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If I am not mistaken, classical liberalism, among which economic liberalism (laissez-faire), was at the beginning supported by the left. The right on the other hand, was for the maintenance of the old-regime order, that is, the King and the Church.

But now, at least roughly, being in the U.S, in England, or in France, economic liberalism (laissez-faire) supporting has moved to the right (which is still nonetheless conservative, with a defense of traditional values, especially religious ones (Catholicism in France and Protestantism in the U.S.)). I find it even more confounding in the case of the historically catholic France, given that catholicism has a tendency to disdain money and commerce.

I wonder why is that.

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    classical liberalism, among which free-market capitalism, was at the beginning supported by left. I think that is very much something you need to substantiate. What period/events do you have in mind to support this claim? and how did "left and right" figure at the "birth" of capitalism, ie. Adam Smith, the East India Company, 17th C and 18C. When the "left" and "right" term only came into being as part of the French revolution, later, late 18th C. Jul 9, 2023 at 1:42
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    It should be noted that the earliest advocates for capitalism were not in favor of free markets as such. Smith and Mill, for example, advocated for an expansive welfare state. The free market fundamentalism that I think you're talking about came later and has almost always been associated with the politics of the right. Jul 9, 2023 at 4:37
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    The UK didn't have universal male suffrage till 1918, while France got it in 1848. So if you equate the left with working-class males, what they believed didn't matter in the days of Adam Smith.
    – Stuart F
    Jul 14, 2023 at 15:53
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    @StuartF The living standards improvement and the ideas of equality brought by Adam Smith & co created the conditions for having all the positive societal changes of the next centuries.
    – Starckman
    Jul 15, 2023 at 2:58
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    I am not aware of free-market capitalism being supported by the left originally. The political left and right (termed as such) originally came from the French Revolution where the Jacobins were not particularly free-market, more socialist. The Girondins would be considered to be liberal (bourgeois) as distinguished from left (working-class) back when 'liberalism' had no great association with 'leftism' beyond sitting on the physical left.
    – user84614
    Oct 17, 2023 at 2:19

4 Answers 4

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At the height of the Classical Liberal era (16th to 17th centuries), the main sociopolitical conflict was between the propertied middle/upper class commoners (wealthy producers, traders, and financiers) and the aristocracy (titled land-holders primarily engaged in agriculture) which exploited the wealth of commoners for its own gain. Capitalism came to the fore as a justification for the (property) rights of the former group, and was envisioned as a tool for structuring a society without hereditary political power structures.

By the 19th century, aristocracies had lost most of their sociopolitical power, which had transferred over to industrialists, commercial entities, international trade companies, and similar people and organizations that we largely classify as 'capitalist'. This inverted the situation: capitalists were now the power structure exploiting the work of unpropertied individuals — be they slaves, indentured servants, indigenous peoples, or common laborers — for the profit of capitalists. So 19th century philosophers began to see capitalism as the oppressive enemy that needed to be overturned so that regular people could enjoy the fruits of Liberty; the same fruits of Liberty that commoner philosophers of two centuries earlier had sought through capitalism.

As Martin Luther King Jr said, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." 17th century Liberal philosophers didn't really promote egalitarianism in the modern sense, and there was a good bit of debate at the time over whether unpropertied commoners — who were poorly educated, and low in social standing — should be allowed more than a token influence in governance. This is why (for example) the US constitution instituted the electoral college, which was intended to be an elite body that could overrule bad presidential choices made by the ignorant and unruly masses. By the 19th century, literacy rates in European and Anglophone nations had increased dramatically, and the casual brutality of industrialists and capitalists had stripped away the facade that wealth implies moral or intellectual virtues. Modern egalitarianism became conceivable, and rose in moral stature in comparison to the unconstrained (and often untutored) individualism of industrial capitalists. It isn't that capitalism itself changed valence from Left to Right, but that capitalists went from revolutionaries fighting for their intrinsic rights to tyrants trying to assert their power and privilege over other people's rights.

The more things change, the more they stay the same...

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Politics Meta, or in Politics Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Philipp
    Jul 18, 2023 at 15:03
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The terms don’t mean what you think they mean

The origin of a political left and right come from the Estates General during the French Revolution when the revolutionaries sat to the president’s left and the supporters of the Ancien Regime sat to his right - with much movement between them as the politics of the day changed.

So the left is the “radical” wing that wants large change to the existing social order and the right is the “conservative” wing that wants little or no change. The society of the 21st century is radically different from that of the 18th - the things that conservatives want to conserve now would have been unbelievably radical then - too radical even for the radicals.

So, its not that free-market capitalism has changed, its that it was originally a radical position - a left position, and now it is the status quo - a right position.

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  • Isn't most of your answer covered by the first paragraph in the question? What's different?
    – Rob Grant
    Jul 11, 2023 at 15:57
  • I think this is a good answer. That the reason why it has changed is because the Left is about change, any change. while the right is about keeping things the way they are. Once something becomes 'traditional' the right wing supports it while the left wing rejects it.
    – Questor
    Jul 11, 2023 at 17:01
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    @Questor not exactly - the left still supports universal suffrage even once that was obtained. And the right doesn’t want to abolish it.
    – Dale M
    Jul 11, 2023 at 18:57
  • Yeah... that's true enough. The left isn't for abolishing everything that is has become 'traditional'. My comment has more to do with how the left went from supporting the abolishment of Jim Crows laws and "Separate is not equal" to "We need to have sperate places for minorities", which seems like a reversal to me...
    – Questor
    Jul 11, 2023 at 19:25
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    @DaleM The right doesn't openly admit to wanting to abolish universal suffrage, but they very much favour measures that have the effect of reducing the suffrage of groups that lean left
    – Caleth
    Oct 12, 2023 at 13:32
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Similar to what was said above, left-wing and right-wing are vague terms.

. The thing with left-wing and right-wing are very general terms with various loose meanings. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica Dictionary, the definition of right-wing is "part of a political group that consists of people who support conservative or traditional ideas and policies" and left-wing is "part of a political group that consists of people who support liberal or socialist ideas and policies". - One of my previous answers

The idea of capitalism - an economic system in which private actors own and control property in accord with their interests - has been around before the left-wing/right-wing dichotomy that started with the French Revolution. However, while plenty of left-wing ideas like mutualism and democratic confederalism meet the basic definition of capitalism, it kind of became more popular when Marxist communism became more popular among many people who identify as left-wing. For those who don't know, communism wishes to remove market economics from society and so capitalism became more associated with right-wing politics in common vernacular as certain left-wing ideologies that reject market economies became more popular.

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The era when capitalism was considered a radical idea, precedes considerably the conventional categorisation of politics into "left" and "right".

Even today, categorising politics into "left" and "right" is not an exact science. The words often have only a contextual meaning, not an absolute political definition.

The left has typically been associated with radicalism, but these days it's more often associated with "bring back"-style politics. Bring back full employment, social security, universal healthcare, decent housing, rent controls, and so on. Not a very radical realm, really.

Meanwhile, the so-called radical right who promote free markets, have introduced policies that have eroded the economic power and worker skills of Western nations and even crashed the birth rate itself - radical by any view, but neither these radicals nor their opponents are willing to deem their politics "left-wing", since it so clearly assaults the interests of the settled masses.

And there are many other political questions on which nobody seems to agree which wing they belong to.

The confused nature of these categories, then, renders hopeless any attempt to apply them to the past, since it is hopeless to apply them even to the present in an abstract way (i.e. in a way not steeped in our tacit understanding of our own current political context).

Also, back when Parliament was duking it out with Charles I for example - largely regarded as one of the earlier battles of the "old regime" versus capitalist reform - only the rich were represented on either side.

The political interests of the masses in that era were often expressed only through riot and violence, or the implied threat of it, with very little necessarily discussed or committed to the written word, so that the conflict between Charles I and Parliament should largely be seen as a fissure on the right of politics - a fissure amongst competing powerful classes - without significant representation of the masses on one side or the other.

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    That third paragraph is just wrong. The Left is not associated with "bring back" universal healthcare (especially in countries which don't currently have it) and they are associated with racial equality and gender-equality, which were never around to be brought back. Jul 8, 2023 at 16:26
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – Questor
    Jul 11, 2023 at 18:35
  • I just deleted a lengthy debate about the effects of rent control on small landlords. This is at best tangentially relevant to this answer. Please familiarize yourself with the purposes of comments on Stack Exchange before you engage in lengthy comment debates.
    – Philipp
    Jul 18, 2023 at 15:12

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