The First Leftist

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This essay appeared in Essays on Liberty, (volume 1,
1952).

The first leftist would not be popular in America today. That is
true because the original leftists wanted to abolish government
controls over industry, trade, and the professions. They wanted
wages, prices, and profits to be determined by competition in a
free market, and not by government decree. They were pledged to
free their economy from government planning, and to remove the government-guaranteed
special privileges of guilds, unions, and associations whose members
were banded together to use the law to set the price of their labor
or capital or product above what it would be in a free market.

 

 

Anne
Robert Jacques Turgot (1727–1781)
$15
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The first leftists were a group of newly elected representatives
to the National Constituent Assembly at the beginning of the French
Revolution in 1789. They were labeled "leftists" merely
because they happened to sit on the left side in the French Assembly.

The legislators who sat on the right side were referred to as the
party of the Right, or rightists. The rightists or "reactionaries"
stood for a highly centralized national government, special laws
and privileges for unions and various other groups and classes,
government economic monopolies in various necessities of life, and
a continuation of government controls over prices, production, and
distribution.

Early American Ideals

The ideals of the party of the Left were based largely on the spirit
and principles of our own American Constitution. Those first French
leftists stood for individual freedom of choice and personal responsibility
for one’s own welfare. Their goal was a peaceful and legal limitation
of the powers of the central government, a restoration of local
self-government, an independent judiciary, and the abolition of
special privileges.

Those leftists, holding a slim majority in the two years’ existence
of the National Constituent Assembly, did a remarkable job. They
limited the extreme powers of the central government. They removed
special privileges that the government had granted to various groups
and persons. Their idea of personal liberty with absolute equality
before the law for all persons was rapidly becoming a reality. But
before the program of those first leftists was completed, a violent
minority from their own ranks – the revolutionary Jacobins
– grasped the power of government and began their reign of
terror and tyranny.


 

Claude
Frdric Bastiat (1801–1850)
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That development seems to have risen from this little-understood
and dangerously deceptive arrangement: two groups of persons with
entirely different motives may sometimes find themselves allied
in what appears to be a common cause. As proof that this danger
is not understood even today, we need only examine the results of
our own "common cause" alliances with various dictators
against various other dictators. So it was among the leftists in
France in 1789. The larger faction wanted to limit the powers of
government; the leaders of the other group wanted to overthrow the
existing rulers and grasp the power themselves.

Separation Of Powers

The majority of the original party of the Left had been opposed
to concentrated power regardless of who exercised it. But the violent
revolutionists in their midst, led by Robespierre, Danton, and Marat,
were opposed to concentrated power only so long as someone else
exercised it. Robespierre, who represented himself as spokesman
for the people, first said that the division of the powers of government
was a good thing when it diminished the authority of the king. But
when Robespierre himself became the leader, he claimed that the
division of the powers of government would be a bad thing now that
the power belonged "to the people."

Thus, in the name of the people, the ideas of the original leftists
were rejected. For all practical purposes, local self-government
disappeared completely, the independence of the judiciary was destroyed,
and the new leaders became supreme. The program of the first party
of the Left was dead.

Most of the original leftists protested. So they too were soon
repudiated in the general terror that was called liberty. But since
the name leftist had become identified with the struggle
of the individual against the tyranny of government, the new tyrants
continued to use that good name for their own purposes. This was
a complete perversion of its former meaning. Thus was born what
should properly be called the new and second Left.

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the rest of the article

May
29, 2009

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