Left-wing versus right-wing policies, and their impact on the determinants of wellbeing
The impact of politics on wellbeing has perennially been a topic of some debate in society,
and has more recently been a focus of concern in academia too. The current chapter considers
this academic literature, drawing it together under the proposed rubric of ‘positive politics,’
defined as the study of the impact of political policies and processes upon wellbeing. The aim
of this chapter, and of positive politics generally, is to encourage the use of wellbeing
research to inform: (a) politicians and policy makers (with regard to policy making); and (b)
citizens (with regard to democratic choices). To do this, the chapter offers a set of orienting
analyses concerning the differences between left-wing and right-wing political perspectives.
Rather than presenting left versus right as a unidimensional spectrum, the chapter suggests
that the left–right polarity plays out across multiple spectra. Twelve different spectra are
identified, three of which are constructed as overarching, with the remainder positioned as
subsidiary to these: attributions (encompassing justness and equality), locus of concern
(encompassing taxation, welfare, and institutional balance), and directionality (encompassing
religion, freedom, statehood, and immigration). The chapter explores the implications that
different perspectives on these twelve spectra have for wellbeing, thereby setting out an
agenda for further research into the impact of politics upon wellbeing.
Keywords: politics; policy; positive psychology; wellbeing; democracy.
This chapter introduces the notion of positive politics (PPol), namely, the study of the impact
of political policies and processes upon wellbeing
. PPol could be regarded as a new subfield
of the broader discipline of positive psychology, which has been described as ‘the science
and practice of improving wellbeing’ (Lomas, Hefferon, & Ivtzan, 2014, p. ix). Although
positive psychology initially tended to focus on psychological processes, recently the field
has sought to pay more attention to the socio-cultural dimensions of wellbeing, as seen in the
emergence of ‘positive social psychology’ (Lomas, 2015). This current chapter represents an
important development in this respect, recognising the influence that political processes have
on wellbeing. In setting out the general terrain of PPol, the chapter draws together literature
that has emerged over recent years across various disciplines—including economics, political
theory, and psychology—looking at the impact of political policy and processes on
wellbeing. The relevant literature is vast and somewhat diffuse. As such, it is beyond the
scope of this chapter to offer detailed analyses of the wellbeing impact of specific policies or
political parties. Rather, the chapter endeavours to step back and provide a set of orienting
analyses concerning the differences between left-wing (LW
) and right-wing (RW) political
perspectives, and to explore the implications that these different perspectives have for
Wellbeing is a multidimensional biopsychosocial construct, incorporating physical,
psychological, and social dimensions, defined as ‘a state of successful performance across the
life course integrating physical, cognitive and social-emotional function’ (Pollard &
Davidson, 2001, p. 10).
For stylistic convenience, the terms “LW” and “RW” are used both as adjectives (“left-
wing”, “right-wing”) and as nouns (“the left”, “the right”) throughout this chapter.
In introducing the notion of PPol, and in hopefully stimulating a PPol research agenda
over the years ahead, this chapter seeks to contribute towards what Wilkinson and Pickett
(2010) referred to as ‘evidenced-based politics,’ which in the case of PPol refers specifically
to research pertaining to wellbeing. Thus, the aim of this chapter, and of PPol generally, is to
encourage the use of wellbeing research to inform: (a) politicians and policy makers (with
regard to policy making); and (b) citizens (with regard to political choices).
In terms of informing politicians and policy makers, PPol thus incorporates, but is not
limited to, the question of whether governments should ‘legislate for happiness,’ i.e., design
policy with wellbeing considerations specifically in mind. The notion that ‘happiness
maximisation’ is a legitimate policy goal has a venerable pedigree, as exemplified by the
enlightenment philosophers, such as Thomas Paine (1790, p. 164), who stated that ‘Whatever
the form or Constitution of Government may be, it ought to have no other object than the
general happiness.’ Arguably, this aim is at least as compelling, and no more problematic, as
any of the other commonly articulated overarching goals of government, from economic
growth (Ayers, 2005) to ensuring national security (Verkuil, 2006). Indeed, in an opinion
poll, 85% of the British public agreed with the statement that ‘a government’s prime aim
should be achieving the greatest happiness of the people, not the greatest wealth’ (BBC,
Some governments have indeed embraced this utilitarian ideal, most famously
Bhutan, which in 1972 started to replace Gross Domestic Product (GDP) with Gross National
Happiness (GNH) as their gauge of societal progress (Ura, 2008). GNH assesses societal
wellbeing (by canvassing citizens) across nine domains: psychological wellbeing; time use;
community vitality; cultural diversity and resilience; ecological diversity and resilience;
health; education; living standards; and good governance. Assessments of GNH are then used
by the Gross National Happiness Commission to inform policy decisions in the kingdom. In a
less ambitious way, other countries are exploring wellbeing as a potential policy issue. For
example, since 2011 the UK Office for National Statistics (2011) has gathered wellbeing data
in its annual survey (disseminated to 200,000 people), with the purpose of creating a
‘National Well-Being Index,’ which the Prime Minister, David Cameron, suggested would be
used to help guide policy decisions (Bache & Reardon, 2013).
However, arguments have been articulated against the idea that government should
legislate for wellbeing (Duncan, 2010), including: (a) that ‘happiness’ is ill-defined and
poorly understood, meaning that governments may promote its shallower forms (e.g.,
consumerism) at the expense of more fulfilling varieties; and (b) that the ‘greatest happiness’
of the majority might be achieved through a perverse utilitarian calculation in which it occurs
at the expense of a minority of the population, thereby violating moral and ethical principles.
In response to such arguments, there have been intriguing attempts to reconcile a wellbeing
political agenda with concerns about political paternalism, such as Thaler and Sunstein’s
(2003) concept of ‘libertarian paternalism.’ This aims to encourage adaptive behaviours
(hence the paternalism); crucially, though, this is done without coercion (hence the
libertarianism), but rather by configuring the ‘choice architecture’ in ways that make the
‘right’ choice more likely, such as default enrolment (opt-out) for pension schemes.
Nevertheless, even if wellbeing is deemed an illegitimate policy goal for government,
there would still be merit in the second aim of the chapter, i.e., informing citizens of possible
wellbeing implications of particular political positions. That is, whether or not governments
specifically legislate for happiness, PPol addresses the broader point that their policies
necessarily and inevitably do impact upon the wellbeing of the citizenry anyway (Radcliff,
2001). PPol thus aims to explore the ways in which this occurs, analysing the wellbeing
implications of various political positions and policies. Such information can then play a vital
role in the democratic process (for those who enjoy such a system), as even if governments
are not concerned with promoting wellbeing per se, the citizenry may well be (as per the
BBC statistic above). An evidence-based appreciation of the potential impact of policies upon
wellbeing would then be a useful resource for citizens in deciding how to use their vote.
So, what type of analyses does PPol encompass? It includes attempts to assess the
quality of government, since this reliably affects the wellbeing of citizens (Ott, 2010). For
instance, the World Bank measures the quality of governance of countries on six indices:
voice and accountability; stability; effectiveness; regulatory framework; rule of law; and
control of corruption (Kaufmann, Kraay, & Zoido-Lobatón, 1999). These processes matter
for wellbeing: in a comparative analysis of 127 nations, the correlation between technical
quality and happiness was a huge +.75, while between democratic quality and happiness it
was +.60 (Ott, 2010). Thus, as Duncan (2010, p. 165) puts it, a greater quality of life is
enjoyed by communities with ‘effective social and political institutions.’ However, while
assessments of the quality of governance is an important aspect of PPol, this chapter takes a
different emphasis, exploring the differences between left-wing (LW) and right-wing (RW)
, and on the implications that these perspectives have for wellbeing.
The terms LW and RW originated during the French Revolution, where they referred to the
seating arrangements in the French National Assembly (Fukuyama, 2011). People seated to
the right were in favour of preserving the institutions of the monarchist Ancien Régime,
whereas those on the left supported radical change towards a secular republic. These terms
will be used here, rather than labels such as conservative versus liberal, since ‘liberalism’ can
hold different meanings; for instance, it is used in Europe by the left to chastise the right for
faith in the free market, and in the USA by the right to criticise the left for their apparent
socialist leanings (Nagel, 2003).
Building on the work of scholars such as Brinkley (1994) and Carney, Jost, Gosling,
and Potter (2008), this chapter contends that rather than LW–RW being a unidimensional
spectrum, the LW–RW polarity plays out on multiple spectra. So, what are these spectra?
Following the pioneering work of Free and Cantril (1967), scholars have differentiated
between ‘symbolic’ and ‘operational’ features of political ideology. The former refer to
‘general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories’ that tend to be classified by
observers as either left or right, whereas the latter concerns more ‘specific, concrete, issue-
based opinions’ that likewise tend to be associated with each particular wing (Jost, Federico,
& Napier, 2009, p. 312). Thus, there are symbolic spectra, i.e., underlying philosophical
perspectives that help to create the LW–RW polarity, such as the importance of equality.
Then there are operational spectra, which reflect the way these philosophical perspectives are
manifested in policy, such as taxation. For this chapter, 12 spectra have been identified, as
outlined in Figure 1 below. To bring conceptual order to this figure, three overarching
symbolic spectra (in bold) have been identified, with the remaining nine (a mix of symbolic
and operational) positioned as subsidiary spectra embedded within these.
Situational Attributions Dispositional
Unjust Just world? Just
Unacceptable Inequality Acceptable
Collective Locus of Concern Individual
High Taxation Low
Strong Welfare Weak
Public Institutional balance Private
Innovation Directionality Tradition
Secular Religion Pro-religion
Moral Freedom Economic
Internationalism Statehood Nationalism
Figure 1: The main political spectra, and relevant LW–RW differences
These spectra can be used to situate particular political parties, with LW parties
tending towards the left on the spectra, and RW parties towards the right. That said, the
nuance provided by this idea of multiple spectra is that idiosyncrasies may occur, e.g., when
an ostensibly RW party or voter skews to the left on a particular spectrum. For example, in
the 1950s the RW Winston Churchill was found advocating passionately for trade unionism,
calling the unions ‘pillars of our British society’ (Jones, 2015). Moreover, the multiple
spectra idea allows us to appreciate the ‘broad range of ideas, impulses, and constituencies’
that constitute LW and RW positions (Brinkley, 1994, p. 414). Indeed, as Brinkley elucidates,
LW and RW are not ideologies with ‘a secure and consistent internal structure,’ but a ‘cluster
of related (and sometimes unrelated) ideas’—sometimes even ‘conflicting [and] incompatible
impulses’—that have come to be associated with LW and RW perspectives respectively.
Furthermore, the multiple spectra idea allows for new political configurations, such as when
parties attempt to occupy the centre ground by triangulating between left and right on
particular spectra, such as the ‘Third Way’ approach of some ostensibly LW parties with
respect to privatization (Driver & Martell, 2000). With that in mind, we turn to the spectra
themselves, considering these in turn, and drawing on empirical research to examine their
relevance for wellbeing.
Attributions (Dispositional vs. Situationist)
We begin with a symbolic spectrum, namely, attributions (Heider, 1958), defined as ‘causal
explanations about the social world’ (Crandall & Reser, 2005, p. 84). Although perhaps not
the most common way to differentiate LW and RW ideas, it is arguably one of the most
important, since it provides the philosophical foundation for operational spectra such as
taxation and welfare (Benforado, Hanson, & Lane, 2011). As Lane (1962, p. 318) put it, ‘At
the roots of every ideology there are premises about the nature of causation, the agents of
causation, [and] the appropriate ways for explaining complex events.’ Attributions cover all
aspects of human behaviour, but with respect to political ideologies, the key questions is, who
or what is responsible for individual failure or success? Essentially, a RW perspective lays
the blame or credit with the person themselves, whereas a LW perspective is more likely to
attribute the cause to the society in which the person is situated. Benforado et al. referred to
these two perspectives respectively as the ‘dispositional approach’ (attributing outcomes to
individual factors like character and personal choice) and the ‘situationist approach’
(attributing outcomes to systemic socio-cultural factors). Or rather, Benforado et al.
suggested that all people have a tendency towards making dispositional attributions (known
as the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’; Ross, 1977), but people on the right are more likely
to do so, with those on the left more willing to cede a role to situational factors.
For instance, studies have suggested that RW people are more likely to make
dispositional attributions for outcomes such as unemployment (e.g., the unemployed are not
trying hard enough to find work), rather than conceding situationist explanations (e.g., there
are insufficient employment opportunities) (Feather, 1985). Consequently, implicit within
this attributional spectrum is what might be called a ‘natural justice’ spectrum (Benabou &
Tirole, 2005). Research shows that, given their leanings towards a dispositional perspective,
RW people are more likely to uphold a belief in a ‘just world,’ or the idea that on the whole
people get what they deserve, since outcomes derive from personal choices/actions (Zucker
& Weiner, 1993). As commentator Polly Toynbee (2015) puts it, RW narratives of
phenomena such as poverty tend to blame the poor themselves, viewing it as a ‘just’ outcome
of dysfunctional personal factors such as ‘worklessness, family breakdown, bad parenting,
drink and drug addiction, irresponsible debt, crime and lack of aspiration’ (para. 1) and so on.
Conversely, given its greater recognition of situational factors, the left is more likely to view
the world as unjust, i.e., people experience outcomes (either success or failure) that they did
not cause or merit.
Another subsidiary spectrum concerns the acceptance or rejection of societal
inequality. The right tends to be more accepting of inequality, with concern with equality a
prerogative of the left (Carney et al., 2008). RW acceptance of inequality follows logically
from its belief in a just world, together with its concern with the individual (see below),
which combine to generate an ideology of competition and meritocratic reward that has been
described as ‘Social Darwinism’ (Leyva, 2009). In this narrative, people compete for social
(and sexual) advantage (Singer, 1999), and should be able to reap the rewards of success in
this regard. This symbolic spectrum of equality has concrete manifestations in operational
spectra, such as welfare and taxation. As discussed in the next section, greater acceptance of
inequality implies less inclination on the part of RW parties to implement policies that would
ameliorate inequality, such as progressive taxation (Campbell & Pedersen, 2001).
Interestingly, here we see an appeal to different notions of fairness by left and right
(Cappelen, Hole, Sørensen, & Tungodden, 2005): from a LW perspective, since the world is
unjust, and thus inequality unacceptable, the ‘fair’ course of action is to correct this (e.g.,
through taxation); conversely, from a RW stance, if the world is just, and so inequality
acceptable (i.e., ‘natural’), then efforts to redress this are perceived as taking away people’s
legitimate rewards, and are therefore unfair. Indeed, from a ‘system-justification theory’
perspective (Jost & Banaji, 1994), RW discourses around the value of ‘competition’ are
promulgated precisely to justify and rationalise current social, economic, and political
arrangements that are pervaded by inequality (Jost, Nosek, & Gosling, 2008).
From a PPol perspective, the key question is, what are the wellbeing outcomes of
making dispositional versus situationist attributions (and related spectra around justness and
equality)? In one sense, given the foundational role of this first spectrum, this whole chapter
is addressing this question. That is, operational spectra, such as welfare policies, tend to be
driven by this causal spectrum, since one’s solutions to a problem (e.g., unemployment)
depend upon one’s theories of the cause of the problem (e.g., whether it is the fault of the
unemployed themselves or of society). As such, this question will be revisited in various
ways throughout the chapter. Nevertheless, we can also touch on a few salient points here.
In general, many (though not all) theorists contend that the situationist perspective is
more conducive to societal wellbeing, not least because it is arguably more accurate. As
Benforado et al. (2011, p. 299) put it, ‘we are actually moved significantly more by our
situations… than we are by disposition-based choice.’ For example, in the UK, over half of
the 13 million people classed as living in poverty (surviving on less than 60% of the median
income) are from working families (MacInnes, Aldridge, Bushe, Kenway, & Tinson, 2013).
Thus, much of this poverty is not attributable to some dispositional character flaw of the poor
that renders them unable or unwilling to work, but rather stems from situational factors like
systemic low pay and lack of secure full-time positions. That is not to say that dispositional
factors do not play a role in outcomes such as poverty. For instance, Danziger et al. (2000)
surveyed single mothers in Michigan who were in receipt of welfare; of these, 30.1% had less
than high school education (against 12.7% nationally), 47.3% had no car (7.6% nationally),
26.7% had major depressive disorder (12.9% nationally), and 3.3% had drug dependency
(1.9% nationally), although interestingly these mothers had a lower level of alcohol
dependency than women nationally (2.7% versus 3.7%). No doubt, if one were
dispositionally minded, these barriers to work could be seen as the fault of the mothers
themselves. However, from a situationist perspective, these individual barriers have complex
situationist socio-cultural explanations too. For example, these barriers are far more likely to
be suffered by those belonging to ethnic minorities (Platt, 2002); since the idea that
minorities are somehow dispositionally inferior has been thoroughly discredited (Montagu,
1999), this must therefore be a systemic, situationist issue.
However, the recognition that many social problems are systemic in nature and
situational in cause does not preclude the possibility that some people may also have
dispositional issues that might be usefully addressed. For instance, interventions to enhance
self-efficacy among unemployed people have been found to enhance their job seeking
activity and success (Eden & Aviram, 1993). There is also an argument that situationist
attributions can be disempowering for people in disadvantageous situations, since it can
foster the belief that they lack the self-efficacy to improve their lot. For instance, Martin
Seligman lamented the prevalence of this type of discourse, saying that ‘when things go
wrong, we have a culture which supports the belief that this was done to you by some larger
force, as opposed to, you brought it on yourself by your character and your decisions’ (cited
in Ehrenreich, 2010, p. 169). Indeed, recent research has suggested that the RW tendency
towards dispositional attributions means that RW people are more likely to believe in free
will; moreover, such a belief is associated with greater self-control, which is an important
component of wellbeing (Clarkson et al., 2015). As such, while recognising the validity of
situationist attributions, it may also be helpful to foster a degree of dispositional thinking in
people, at least to the extent that it empowers them to take responsibility for aspects of life
that they do have control over.
Locus of Concern (Individual vs. Collective)
The second overarching spectrum involves what might be called a ‘locus of concern’: here
we see a tension between the notion that people have a responsibility towards some collective
common good, against the idea that people are (or should be) just focused on their own
prosperity. This intersects with the first spectrum: just as the LW assigns causality to socio-
cultural factors, so do they tend to be concerned with improving society as a way of bettering
people’s lives; likewise, just as the RW tend to blame or reward individuals for their fate, so
too do they believe that people need to fight to obtain the best life they can for themselves.
The latter perspective is perhaps most famously encapsulated in Margaret Thatcher’s remark
that ‘there is no such thing as society…It’s our duty to look after ourselves.’
One way of conceptualising this difference in concern is through the distinction
between collectivism and individualism. This distinction was originally developed to reflect
cultural differences, with Western societies being conceived of as individualist and Eastern
cultures as collectivist (Hofstede, 1980). People in the former are regarded as more likely to
construe themselves as autonomous atomistic units, and those in the latter as placing greater
priority on their location within socio-cultural networks (Markus & Kitayama, 1991;
Triandis, 2001). However, the distinction has also been usefully applied to political
affiliations, where the left tends towards a more collectivist perspective, and the right towards
an individualist one (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002). Indeed, one of the reasons that some
Eastern cultures tend to be portrayed as collectivist is because they have recently tended
towards more LW political expressions, such as socialism and communism (Moody, 1996),
though of course these political ideologies post-date collectivism per se (and thus are a
specific manifestation of it).
This symbolic individual-collectivist distinction then manifests itself in operational
spectra, including taxation (high vs. low), welfare (strong vs. weak), and institutional balance
(public vs. private). Regarding taxation and welfare, given their concern with the wellbeing
of the collective, the left tends towards high levels of taxation and a strong welfare state
(Olafsdottir, 2007). These usually go hand in hand (high taxes pay for welfare provisions),
and are both systemic mechanisms for addressing the two spectra highlighted above (a
perceived unjust world and a concomitant rejection of inequality). That is, progressive
taxation of the wealthiest in society enables some of their accumulated advantages to be
‘transferred’ to the poorest (Ono & Lee, 2010), helping to ‘equalize’ outcomes (pertaining to
wellbeing, security, opportunity, etc.). Conversely, being more focused on the individual, and
less concerned with ‘correcting’ perceived inequality, the RW tend to favour low taxes and a
weak welfare state (Messner & Rosenfeld, 1997). Indeed, in seeing the world is just, the RW
are likely to view efforts to level the societal playing field through mechanisms like taxation
as ‘unfair,’ since these are deemed to upset a ‘natural’ meritocracy (Cappelen et al., 2005).
A third subsidiary spectrum is that of institutional balance, i.e., public versus private
(Messner, Thome, & Rosenfeld, 2008). For LW people, given their tendency towards
collectivism, there is a corresponding emphasis on the collective public ownership of
property, goods and services. Conversely, for RW people, given their prioritisation of the
individual, there is a drive towards allowing these goods to be owned by individuals or non-
state organisations (such as corporations, social enterprises, or public-private partnerships). In
considering this notion of institutional balance, this of course introduces a hugely important
element into the discussion here: economics, and the role of the free market. Of course,
nearly all governments have some relationship with ‘the market’ (possibly excepting purely
communist nations), since this is the primary mechanism through which goods and services
are traded and delivered (Radcliff, 2001). However, there are considerable differences in the
type of institutional balances struck between the state and the market (Messner et al., 2008).
The LW is more likely to aim to prevent certain goods and services from being entirely at the
‘mercy’ of the market, preferring where possible to retain collective (i.e., state) ownership of
public services. Conversely, as one moves towards the RW, there is increasing enthusiasm for
such services to be owned privately and used to generate profit (Barnett, 2005). Indeed, the
neoliberal paradigm (Friedman, 1951) that currently dominates much of the Western World
as the ‘Washington Consensus’ advocates for laissez-faire capitalism, in which markets
should be ‘unfettered’ by state regulation, and companies free to maximise profits (Duggan,
2012). Moreover, such is dominance of the neoliberal model, governments are now perceived
as relatively powerless. For example, asked to comment in 2007 on the upcoming US
election, the former head of the US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan said, ‘It hardly makes
any difference who will be the next president. The world is governed by market forces’ (cited
in Chakrabortty, 2015).
Again, the key question from a PPol perspective is the implication that these spectra
have for wellbeing. The literature in this respect is vast, and as such this section can only
offer the briefest of overviews. For a start, there is an extensive literature on the relative
impact upon wellbeing of collectivist versus individualist cultures. For instance, a crucial
aspect of wellbeing is social capital (Bourdieu, 1986). Almost by definition, there are higher
levels of social capital in collectivist cultures (Putnam, 1995), which would argue in favour of
the LW perspective here. That said, there are some counterintuitive trends; e.g., more
individualistic societies score higher on generalised trust, as although people might be less
closely enmeshed within an in-group, they thus have greater interaction with people across
the social spectrum (Hofstede, 2001). There are also higher levels of civic engagement in
political activity in individualist countries, since as people become more autonomous and
liberated from social bonds, they are more dependent on societal structures (e.g., healthcare
systems) for their wellbeing. Moreover, in collectivist cultures, wellbeing is also more
dependent upon one meeting socially-approved group norms, which can have negative
implications, such as a trade-off between freedom/authenticity and fitting in (Suh, Diener,
Oishi, & Triandis, 1998).
We can also consider the wellbeing implications of the subsidiary spectra here:
taxation, welfare provision, and public–private balance. A comprehensive series of analyses
by Wilkinson and Pickett (2010) suggested that inequality is profoundly corrosive for society:
across multiple indices, from mortality to prison population, the more unequal a country (or a
region within a country), the worse it fares against other countries (or other regions within the
country). Various explanations for this are evoked, foremost among which is that inequalities
erode social capital, the absence of which generates social disharmony and individual distress
(including for people at the top) (Elgar, 2010). The issue of inequality intersects with the
institutional balance spectrum, since privatization, and the neoliberal economic model that
facilitates it, tends to exacerbate inequality (Birdsall & Nellis, 2003). To give just one
example, without a public health service, there are more likely to be considerable disparities
between rich and poor segments of the population, both in terms of health (the former will
receive better healthcare) and expenditure (the latter will spend a higher percentage of their
income on healthcare costs) (Blumenthal & Hsiao, 2005).
Given these points, a wealth of literature has emerged on the benefits to collective
wellbeing of high taxation and a strong welfare state (Griffith, 2004). Firstly, league tables of
national happiness consistently place the Scandinavian nations at/near the top, a pattern
which scholars have partly attributed to the strength of the welfare state (Rothstein, 2010),
and to the high levels of taxation that mitigate the corrosive effects of inequality that can
often be found in countries that are comparably wealthy but have relatively lower levels of
wellbeing, such as the UK and the USA (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010). For example, Messner
and Rosenfeld (1997) suggest that a strong welfare state is associated with a reduction in
crime. Drawing on Esping-Andersen’s (1990) ‘institutional-anomie theory’ of crime,
Messner and Rosenfeld (1997) observed that homicide levels are inversely correlated with the
‘decommodification’ of labour, i.e., with ‘empowerment of the citizenry against the forces of
the market’ (p. 1394) through ‘the granting of services and resources to citizens as a matter of
right’ (p. 1395). Essentially, the argument is that the more that people rely on the market for
sustenance and support, and lack an adequate social safety net to support them, the more
precarious their situation and the more liable they are to act in anti-social ways to secure
necessary provisions. That being said, this hypothesis has been complicated by observations
that crime overall has recently been falling in many nations, even while welfare provision has
been cut due to austerity policies (UK Office for National Statistics, 2015), showing that
there is not a simple linear trend between crime and welfare levels.
High levels of taxation have been linked to overall wellbeing through various
mechanisms (Akay et al., 2012), including: (a) better provision or quality of public goods
(Luechinger & Raschky, 2009); (b) insurance through the social security system, and/or
greater redistribution of wealth (Alesina & Angeletos, 2005); (c) ‘tax morale,’ i.e., wellbeing
from fiscal honesty and law compliance (Lubian & Zarri, 2011); and (d) prosocial feelings of
citizenship from contributing to the common good (Frey & Stutzer, 2000). While not all
scholars agree that a strong welfare state or high taxes are necessarily conducive to wellbeing
(e.g., Veenhoven, 2000), a majority of scholars appear to agree that they are.
Directionality (Tradition vs. Innovation)
A third key overarching spectrum might be referred to as ‘directionality.’ Essentially, this is a
temporal spectrum pertaining to where ‘the good’ is located. For the LW, this is in the future,
and the task is to progress towards this by refashioning society in innovative ways; for the
RW, it is in the past, and the task is to prevent it from being eroded by upholding tradition
(Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009). Another way of looking at this spectrum is through the
prism of optimism–pessimism regarding human nature. As Sowell (2002) outlines, the LW
tends towards optimism concerning the possibility of human perfectibility, and holds an
‘unconstrained vision’ in which people should be emboldened to pursue their own personal
development. Conversely, the RW takes a more pessimistic stance, viewing human nature as
inherently selfish and imperfectible; the RW therefore promulgates a ‘constrained vision,’ in
which people require the constraints of tradition and authority in order to cohere civilly.
These different ‘visions’ are reflected in personality assessments (McCrae, 1996),
where people on the left are more open to new experiences, novelty and change, whereas
those on the right show preferences for familiarity, predictability, and preservation of the
status quo (Carney et al., 2008). These visions are also reflected in moral judgments, where,
as per ‘moral foundations theory’ (Haidt & Joseph, 2004), LW and RW tend to emphasise
different moral intuitions when reflecting on the ethics of actions. Whereas the left are more
likely to cite the importance of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity, the right show greater
concern for ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity (Graham et al., 2009).
As with the other main spectra above, this spectrum also enfolds subsidiary spectra,
pertaining to religion, freedom, statehood, and immigration. First, the RW tends to be more
religious, and moreover, is associated with more traditional, conservative forms of religion,
as evinced by the emergence of movements such as the ‘New Christian Right’ in the USA
(Lienesch, 1982). Conversely, the LW is aligned with secularist movements (Fukuyama,
2011), and when it does assert religiosity, tends towards its more progressive, liberal forms,
as seen in the ‘liberation theology’ movements in Latin America (Smith, 1991). Connecting
political orientation to religious tendencies opens up another avenue of enquiry in PPol, since
there is a wealth of literature connecting religion to wellbeing via multiple routes (Ellison &
Levin, 1998), including social capital (Smidt, 2003), meaning in life (Park, 2005), and health
behaviours (Levin & Vanderpool, 1991). To the extent, then, that religiosity has a greater
association with the RW, this could be seen as a wellbeing factor in favour of the right. There
are counter-factors to consider though; for example, traditional religions can censure those
who contravene their norms, as seen in the tendency for religions to contain homophobic
elements (Clarke, Brown, & Hochstein, 1989). This can be problematic vis-à-vis freedom of
expression (as discussed next paragraph), and can be particularly difficult for the victims of
such censure in the case of non-secularized countries (Ilkkaracan, 2012).
Thus the tension between tradition and innovation impacts upon the subsidiary issue
of freedom, and whether it is facilitated or restricted. Here, the picture is somewhat complex,
since at issue is the type of freedom that is at stake. For instance, the RW is often associated
with economic freedom, such as the ability to buy and sell goods on the free market without
state interference, hence the name neoliberalism (Duggan, 2012). Indeed, the ‘father’ of
neoliberalism, Friedrich Hayek (1944), saw privation of economic freedom as the ‘Road to
Serfdom,’ i.e., the gateway to the horrors of totalitarianism. As such, the RW tend to be more
vocal in asserting economic rights, like the right to retain one’s earnings (rather than having
levies imposed through taxation) (Esposito & Finley, 2014). Conversely, the LW is more
willing to limit economic freedom, such as restricting the privatisation of public services
(Messner et al., 2008). However, the situation is arguably reversed when it comes to what we
might call ‘moral freedom’ (Morriston, 2000), i.e., the freedom to decide what is morally
right and to act accordingly. Here, the RW association with tradition and religion, and its
emphasis on ‘traditional family values’ (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003), means
that it places significant restrictions on the way people use their bodies, including the
regulation of sexuality (Weeks, 2014) and reproductive rights (Sánchez Fuentes, Paine, &
Elliott-Buettner, 2008). Conversely, the left grants more leeway to sexual freedom, from
abortion rights to the ability to enter homosexual unions (Heath, 2013), as well as civil
liberties more generally (Cohrs, Kielmann, Maes, & Moschner, 2005).
The other two spectra are somewhat overlapping, and both pertain to perspectives on
how the nation engages with other nations. First, there is the tension between nationalism and
internationalism. Here, the RW proclivity for tradition expresses itself in a tendency towards
a valorisation of the nation state—even if such states are modern constructs (Meyer, Boli,
Thomas, & Ramirez, 1997)—accompanied by concomitant preferences for a degree of
isolationism (Betz, 1993). Conversely, LW openness to change has found its expression in a
greater willingness to engage in internationalist projects; this is highlighted in recent decades
by intergovernmental projects such as the European Union, which has generally (but not
exclusively) tended to be driven by LW parties and resisted by RW ones (Hooghe, Marks, &
Wilson, 2002), though of course, this generalisation is complicated by regional tensions and
This tension between isolationism and openness has likewise played out in conflicting
stances towards immigration. RW parties tend to react against immigration as a perceived
threat, e.g., changing the traditional ‘character’ of the nation (Hooghe et al., 2002).
Conversely, the left has tended to be more accepting of immigration, and even welcoming of
it, seeing virtue and benefits in multiculturalism and diversity (Giroux, 1995). However, as
with all the spectra considered here, these tendencies have been complicated by pressure
exerted by the other spectra. For instance, influenced by economic considerations some RW
parties (or factions within parties) have been in favour of immigration because of its potential
to drive down labour costs (Freeman & Birrell, 2001). The tension between nationalism and
internationalism also has implications for conflict, with RW parties on the whole being more
willing to engage in military action to defend the national interests, whereas LW parties tend
to lean towards internationalism, as reflected in their preferences—by no means universal, of
course—for resolving conflicts through intergovernmental dialogue (Russett, 1990).
These tensions between nationalism and internationalism, and related issues such as
immigration, are among the most pressing political concerns many countries face today, and
have huge implications for wellbeing. The accelerating forces of globalisation mean that
economic and geopolitical changes are occurring at an unprecedented rate, an age of flux that
is highly turbulent and destabilising—one which Bauman (2013) refers to as ‘liquid
modernity.’ Such changes can lead to breakdown in cooperation and civil relationships both
within and between nations. Take, for example, the resurgence of extreme RW parties in
Europe in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash; as Lee (2013) puts it, the ‘beast’ of
fascism has ‘re-awakened’ in ways that were not thought possible in a continent that had put
such intergovernmental efforts into preventing its re-emergence. Faced with difficult
economic times, far right parties are adept at finding enemies to blame, both within (e.g.,
immigrants) and without (e.g., other countries). Such scapegoating creates a dangerous
political climate, fomenting anger and aggression both within and between countries. The
causes of and solutions to such issues are hugely complex, and one should be wary of easy
answers. However, we can arguably learn from recent history, particularly how the world
recovered from the existential horrors of the Second World War through an unprecedented
building of international relationships and institutions; such efforts not only helped heal the
deep wounds of the war, but ushered in an age of relative (if inconsistent and insecure)
prosperity and peace (Doyle & Sambanis, 2006).
This chapter has sought to introduce the idea of PPol, which aims to use research on
wellbeing to inform politicians and policy makers (with respect to policy making) and
citizens (in terms of democratic choices). In doing so, the chapter sought to bring together
extant empirical research connecting wellbeing to political perspectives and policies. As a
route into this vast field of enquiry, the chapter focused on the differences between LW and
RW political stances, and on the implications for wellbeing of their respective differences.
Moreover, the chapter offered a relatively novel way of conceptualising and assessing
political differences (influenced by theorists such as Carney et al., 2008), suggesting that LW
and RW are not simply poles of a unidimensional spectrum, but instead are the respective
poles of multiple spectra. Here, 12 main spectra were identified. However, this list is not
necessarily exhaustive. For instance, excluded here for reasons of space was a spectrum
pertaining to the environment, where the LW tends to be more pro-environment and the RW
more laissez-faire (e.g., denying the importance of environmental issues, and/or preferring
market-based solutions to governmental intervention) (Neumayer, 2004).
A further innovation was to bring order to the spectra by identifying key overarching
symbolic spectra, and positioning the other spectra as subsidiary to these. The overarching
spectrum of ‘attributions’ (LW situational vs. RW dispositional) enfolded the question of the
justness of the world (LW unjust vs. RW just), and whether inequality is acceptable (LW
unacceptable vs. RW acceptable). The overarching spectrum of ‘locus of concern’ (LW
collective vs. RW individual) encompassed operational spectra such as taxation (LW high vs.
RW low), welfare (LW strong vs. RW weak) and institutional balance (LW public vs. RW
private). Finally, the overarching spectrum of ‘directionality’ (LW innovation vs. RW
tradition) included religion (LW secular vs. RW pro-religion), types of freedom (LW moral
vs. RW economic), statehood (LW internationalism vs. RW nationalism) and immigration
(LW pro vs. RW anti). This schema is flexible enough to include additional spectra. For
instance, the environmental spectrum could be positioned within locus of concern, where LW
environmentalism is a natural extension of their concern with the collective realm.
The notion of multiple spectra is valuable, as we can appreciate that neither people
nor political parties are uniformly LW or RW (i.e., cleaving to either the LW or RW stance on
all 12 spectra). This can help us make sense of seeming paradoxes in the policies of political
parties and in voter behaviour. Such puzzles can arise for various reasons. One spectrum can
trump another, leading to conventional stances on the latter spectrum being disregarded. For
instance, while the RW parties are considered bastions of tradition, they have also become
radical in refashioning the State. In the UK, for example, the Conservative government has
sought to bring in extensive reforms, such as effective privatization of healthcare (Powell &
Miller, 2014). Given that the National Health Service (NHS) was recently voted as the UK’s
most cherished institution (Jolley, 2013), in pioneering new forms of privatized healthcare
provision, the Conservatives could be said to be acting against tradition. However, this
apparent counterintuitive stance can be explained by the recognition that on the spectrum of
institutional balance, the Conservatives are indeed acting in accordance with RW tendencies,
namely privatization, which has taken preference over concern for tradition.
In a related way, the multiple spectra can also embrace the idea that people do not
uniformly leave to the LW or RW on all spectra. For instance, Thomas Friedman (2006)
recently differentiated Americans not along traditional LW and RW lines (i.e., Democrats
and Republicans) but into what he referred to as the ‘Wall’ party and the ‘Web’ party.
Consequently, people who identify with these parties may be seen as having a mixture of RW
and LW learnings. For example, those belonging to the ‘Web’ party might embrace RW
elements, such as an openness towards private enterprise and economic freedom, and at the
same time value LW tendencies such as an openness to cultural diversity and social
nonconformity. The notion of multiple spectra can also explain why people can appear to
vote against their own interests. For instance, it is often observed that poorer sectors of
society might be better served by LW parties that promise a strong welfare state, and yet still
often vote for RW parties committed to dismantling it (Gelman, 2009). However, while such
voters may well be aware of the value of the welfare state, they may have greater loyalties
(e.g., to tradition, religion, or economic freedom) that trump this concern.
Thus, this model of multiple spectra is hopefully a useful model for understanding
political differences generally, as highlighted above. More specifically, it has been used here
to introduce the idea of PPol, and to show how political policies and processes might impact
on wellbeing. In so doing, this chapter has only been able to give the briefest glimpse of the
wealth of literature that exists connecting political factors to wellbeing. The author was aware
of the selectivity involved in choosing which literature to cite. Moreover, from a reflexivity
perspective (Cutcliffe, 2003), it is possible that the author’s own LW leanings influenced the
choice of research and interpretation of the findings. That is, despite trying to maintain an
even-handed perspective, it is conceivable and perhaps even inevitable that some personal
bias crept into the proceedings. However, any one chapter is bound to be limited and partial.
This does not detract from the broader aim of the chapter, which aside from introducing the
notion of PPol, is to stimulate a future PPol research agenda, enabling more informed policy
makers and empowering more aware citizens.
What might such an agenda look like? Broadly speaking, any research on possible
wellbeing implications of political policy and processes would fall within the compass of
PPol. More specifically though, the notion here of multiple spectra offers some specific ideas
for future empirical work. For instance, for each of the spectra, it is not inconceivable that
research may be able to identify an ‘optimal point’ somewhere along the spectrum, a sweet
spot that is of most benefit to wellbeing in general terms (i.e., notwithstanding specific local
factors). Such work has already been conducted with respect to taxation, e.g., identifying the
point at which tax is maximally conducive to societal wellbeing without being so high that it
provides disincentives for people to work or remain in the country as taxpayers (Oishi,
Schimmack, & Diener, 2012). It is possible that similar optimal points could be found for the
other spectra. It would then perhaps not be too bold to hope that, in the near future, all
political parties might avail themselves of such research, and use it to design and calibrate
their policies accordingly. It is likewise possible that voters may also draw on such research,
exercising their democratic rights based on awareness and consideration of these evidence-
based policies. In such a way, we may hopefully evolve systems of governance that are better
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