• 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)
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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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    May
    29, 2009

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