Will The Real Left Please Stand Up

January 3, 2013

Government, Politics

National Assembly

Both Left and Right generally treat working people with disdain, relying on the elites in universities, the media, think tanks and government agencies to tell them what working people need.  Since it is thought that the masses are unable to understand and act for themselves on complex issues such as health, economics or education, these things are decided for them with predictably sub-optimal results.

The origin of Left and Right wing politics goes back to the National Assembly in pre-revolutionary France. Inside the chamber where the National Assembly met, members of the Third Estate (the revolutionaries) sat on the left side and members of the First Estate (the nobility) sat on the right. Thus, the left wing of the room was more liberal, and the right wing was more conservative. The Right, whether it consisted of aristocratic, religious, corporate or monied elites, has always attempted to manipulate, control and exploit working people for its benefit. The behavior of the Left has been more inconsistent, as there was at least one period in history when it genuinely seemed to represent the interests of the masses. However, it was a very different Left than we have today.

In the early 19th century the Left wing radicals and progressives in Britain were classical liberals and they dominated politics until the First World War. Classical liberals were the party of hope, radicalism, and revolution in the Western World. They believed in individualism, liberty, equal rights and a free economy with minimal government interference. In the 19th century similar ideas were popular in the United States, but they manifested themselves through the Jeffersonian, Democratic-Republican and Jacksonian movements. On both sides of the Atlantic these ideas were popular because they had inspired the French and American revolutions that had split apart both feudalism and mercantilism, and freed individuals from the shackles of monopolies, caste privileges and exploitative wars.

In the 19th century classical liberal ideas continued to produce genuine mass movements such as the campaign to repeal the Corn Laws, which had been imposed on England in 1815 to preserve the abnormally high profits made by the landed aristocracy during the Napoleonic War. The abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846 marked the successful culmination of the Anti-Corn League’s work in mobilizing working people against protectionism, which harmed the interests of the masses by inflating the cost of bread. In the United States, two of the most successful mass movements of the 19th century were the abolitionist movement, spearheaded by classical liberals such as William Lloyd Garrison, and the ‘homesteading’ land reform movement that grew under the stewardship of the classical liberal, George Henry Evans. The latter movement is less well known. When Evans began his crusade in 1829, he had the support of his friends and only a few newspapers in New York. However,  by 1850, more than 600 of the approximately 2,000 papers that were published in the United States, supported land reform. In 1862, the first of the homestead laws were passed by Congress providing that any citizen who was either 21 or the head of a family could acquire title to a 160 acre parcel of federal public land. Eventually, up to 10 percent of all lands in the United States would pass into individual hands as a result of this legislation.

Classical liberal theory has always been suspicious of the elites and much more willing to trust ordinary working people. For example, the 19th century classical liberal legal theorist Lysander Spooner, argued for consistent use of jury nullification. Jury nullification occurs when a jury returns a verdict of “Not Guilty” despite its belief that the defendant is guilty of the violation charged.  The jury in effect nullifies a law that it believes is either immoral or wrongly applied to the defendant whose fate they are charged with deciding. Jury nullification evolved to make community opinion a bulwark against state oppression. For example, it was used in the pre-Civil War era when northern juries sometimes refused to convict for violations of the Fugitive Slave Act because jurors felt the laws to be unjust. Today, juries are routinely not informed about their rights in this matter but despite this, jury nullification is still sometimes used to good effect.

Classical liberals such as H. L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock continued to be regarded as ‘Men of the Left’ through the 1920’s because they opposed war, militarism, Prohibition, the repression of civil liberties and most importantly, a government which allied itself with big business in a network of special privileges. However, with the advent of the New Deal the definition of left wing made a volte-face. But that’s another post.


“It is manifest, therefore, that the jury must judge of and try the whole case, and every part and parcel of the case, free of any dictation or authority on the part of the government. They must judge of the existence of the law; of the true exposition of the law; of the justice of the law; and of the admissibility and weight of all the evidence offered; otherwise the government will have everything its own way; the jury will be mere puppets in the hands of the government; and the trial will be, in reality, a trial by the government, and not a “trial by the country.” By such trials the government will determine its own powers over the people, instead of the people’s determining their own liberties against the government; and it will be an entire delusion to talk, as for centuries we have done, of the trial by jury, as a “palladium of liberty,” or as any protection to the people against the oppression and tyranny of the government.”

Lysander Spooner, Essay on the Trial By Jury, 1852

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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24 Comments on “Will The Real Left Please Stand Up”

  1. sally1137 Says:

    Very thought provoking. Especially since I received a jury notice last week. I’ll be doing more research. Thanks.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you. Good luck with the jury nullification. Most judges are very antagonistic to anyone bringing up the subject.


    • aurorawatcherak Says:

      google Fully Informed Jury Association

      Jury nullification was common practice in the United States until the early 20th century. About 1895, there was a Supreme Court decision that said judges didn’t have to inform juries that they could nullify the law by hanging the jury. Since then, most states have taken that to mean that it’s against the law for juries to rule on the law.

      That Supreme Court has, of course, been wrong in the past. Dred Scott come to mind because that decision led to a lot of jury nullifications in cases involving northerners who didn’t return runaway slaves.

      Juries are not just there to rubberstamp the State’s decision to lock someone up. Please do consider when you’re serving your duty that in many cases, the prosecutor, the judge and sometimes even the defense attorney works for the state. There’s nobody on the defendant’s side in reality, if the jury isn’t willing to be.


      • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

        Thank you for this interesting and informative comment. In retrospect I think the subject of jury nullification merits a post on it own.


      • sally1137 Says:

        aurorawatcherak: Thanks for that analysis and history. Very useful information. In southern Iowa we are most likely to have B&E, DUI, or meth cases, but if things stay on the path they’re on, we may well be ruling on Second Amendment cases, were the defendants to survive long enough to see due process.

        In that event, Jury nullification would be a patriotic act.


  2. A gripping life Says:

    I didn’t realize that left and right wing politics dated back to pre-revolutionary France. Very interesting.


  3. NicoLite Великий Says:

    It is frustrating to see how little those in charge know and seem to care about those whom their decisions affect. Even in a federalistic structure, which is supposed to enable politicians closer to the basis to make effective decisions, you still get the feeling you’re trying to talk to someone who is passing by on an airplane a couple of hundred feet above the hill you’re standing on


  4. becwillmylife Says:

    I know our judicial system isn’t perfect, but this post reminds me of yet another reason why I’m glad to reside in the United States. We are innocent until proven guilty by a panel of our peers unlike some countries where you are guilty until proven innocent.
    I enjoyed the history of the left and right wing politics. Interesting how the far left and far right still manipulate our government while the bulk of mainstream appears to be moderate.


  5. Robert-preneur Says:

    Great post Malcolm. Fraternity and Equality! Then you end up with Robespierre and Napoleon.

    Did you ever read “The Dark Side of the Left” by Richard Ellis, a liberal political scientist? The subtitle is “illiberal egalitarianism in America.” Ellis traces the history of various radical egalitarian, utopian groups going back pre-Civil War. He demonstrates how such groups always end up as dictatorial, cults of personality.

    It seems to me that statists will always have the advantage in defining the terms of the debate since they will always have more influence on the media and education. So “liberal” is absconded by progressives and classical liberals are now “conservatives” clinging to the defunct philosophies of dead white founders.

    I wonder what labels we’ll be using 100 years from now?
    Have a great weekend Malcolm!


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Robert, thank you for the book suggestion. I would have immediately downloaded it but there’s no Kindle edition. Interesting to read the reviews. Ellis supports numerous ‘progressive’ causes but writes about how the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Somehow, while pursuing these goals, people transition from liberalism to illiberalism. Sounds a good read. I don’t think it inevitable that statists will always have more influence in the media and education. However, it will remain true as long as government money continues to flow in these directions. Wasn’t it Willie Sutton, the bank robber, who said “I go where the money is and I go there often.”


  6. Warren Gibson Says:

    Excellent point about respect for working people. Something for me to ponder today as I was on my stepladder, painting. At the risk of sounding like a Maoist, I say it’s a good idea for intellectuals, or anyone with an able body, to get their hands dirty now and then.


  7. Jon Sharp Says:

    Great post. It is indeed a tragedy that the term “liberal” has been manipulated by the right to such an extent that it has become a toxic notion and abandoned by the left leaving only the rather fringe-like libertarians to keep the flame alight. Yet constitutional liberalism underpinned the rise of western democracies and is an important concept to keep in the center of public discourse. Thanks Malcolm.
    PS: Great book on this subject describing its historical origins is “The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad” by Fareed Zakaria


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Jon, thank you. I checked out the reviews of Zakaria’s book and while I agree with his (and Toqueville’s) central thesis that “unregulated democracy undermines liberty and the rule of law” I am not sure that his solution of appealing to the elites to save us from ourselves is going to work this time around. I have not read the book so please forgive me if I have misunderstood his argument.


  8. aurorawatcherak Says:

    At the foundation, we have a great system, but we’re lying to ourselves if we think we’re living in the United States that our founders established. I’ve sat on juries where there were members who said, openly, that the defendant had to be guilty because they were arrested and charged. And, they voted their conscience when the time came. Some of the jury voted with them and some of us voted with the evidence. The juror wouldn’t change her mind and eventually we hung the jury 10-2. The evidence didn’t support a guilty verdict, but two people kept coming back to — well, then how come they were arrested?

    I’ve also sat on a jury where the law was completely wrong, where the federal government was trying to dictate to an Alaskan villager how to live his life according to rules that I’m not sure even make sense in New York City but sure don’t make sense in Kenny Lake, Alaska. Half the jury agreed that one size does not fit all and we nullified the law. The other half said “Well, if the federal government says it’s the law, then it’s the law.” Interestingly enough, the case was on its second go-around because the previous jury apparently had the same issue.

    More and more, we the people are being ignored by the political class that assumes we’re not smart enough to make fully informed decisions and, increasingly, we’re going to have to fall back on what worked for previous generations — nullification and, ultimately, non-violent civil disobedience. There are lines the government should not cross, but they’re way over the line these days and pushing further all the time. The people are the only brake on the government, if we’re willing to accept our responsibility as the source of governance. If we aren’t … well, goodbye liberty.


  9. campfirememories Says:

    I can’t wait to read your follow up post because I think I know where you are going here. There has been a shift… Thank you for all these thought provoking posts and the ensuing dialogue.


  10. Gregoryno6 Says:

    In his book What’s Left? Nick Cohen picks up the story more or less where at the point where you leave it, Malcolm. As you say it’s a very different left today.
    The most piercing criticism of the left often comes from those who stand – or, more often, stood – on that side of the line. Cohen would still consider himself a leftist, and I imagine Christopher Hitchens felt the same. In the same group I would place Pat Condell and Pascal Bruckner.
    Hell, even Thomas Sowell admits he was a Marxist in his younger days!


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you for this great comment. I had never heard of Nick Cohen or Pat Condell before. Nick Cohen’s book looks interesting and I look forward to watching some Pat Condell YouTube videos. Interesting that you mention Thomas Sowell. With all his libertarian ideas he stills sees himself on the Right supporting the likes of Newt Gingrich, whereas the true and historical placement of libertarian oriented ideas is on the Left, the party of radicalism and revolution against monopolistic privileges and vested interests. The Right has always been the enemy of liberty.



  1. Liberty 01/05/2013 (a.m.) « Liberty in the Breach - January 4, 2013

    […] Will The Real Left Please Stand Up | Malcolm’s Corner […]

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