In Box

Where Left Means Right

What happens when political parties trend in the other direction?

Ever since rival factions arranged themselves on opposite sides of a meeting hall during the French Revolution, the political meanings of the terms "left" and "right" have been pretty constant. Left-wingers everywhere like high taxes, big government, and social change. Right-wingers prefer low taxes, small government, and free markets.

Except when they don't.

Margit Tavits of Washington University and Natalia Letki of the University of Warsaw studied political parties in post-communist Eastern Europe for a recent article in the American Political Science Review and discovered a peculiar reversal. They argue that, across 13 of these countries, leftists have gone right, establishing their democratic and capitalist bona fides by pursuing pro-market policies, while right-wing parties have done the opposite, bulking up spending to win over swing voters.

For instance, Hungary's first post-communist government increased government spending. It fell to the Socialists to implement austerity measures and revive the country's economy in the early 1990s. In Poland, Social Democrats were firm supporters of controversial "shock therapy" privatization policies that fast-tracked economic liberalization. In both cases, voters didn't seem to feel betrayed by the change in direction, reelecting the flip-flopping parties multiple times over the following years.

Is this just an Eastern European thing? It's unclear, but the research certainly suggests that left and right may simply no longer be useful. Do Arkansas evangelical Mike Huckabee and Berlin eurocrat Angela Merkel really represent the same strain of political thought? Are Nepal's Maoists just further along the ideological spectrum from Britain's New Labour? Perhaps we need to start looking in more than two directions.

Clockwise from left: Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images; Michael Gottschalk/AFP/Getty Images; Alex Wong/Getty Images; Matt Cardy/Getty Images; Mark Wilson/Getty Images; Toru Yamanaka/Getty Images

In Box

Epiphanies from Nathan Myhrvold

A theoretical physicist who spent 14 years as Bill Gates's ideas guru at Microsoft, Nathan Myhrvold might seem an odd candidate to take up the fight against malaria, long combated with technology no more advanced than bed nets and quinine. Here, he explains why geek power might be exactly what's needed to tackle the scourges of the developing world.

Most of what technologists do is to push technology forward, which is a wonderful thing -- I love it -- but it's also about making toys for rich people. We wanted to do some stuff that would really have an impact in the developing world. The most dramatic intervention is we've built this machine that tracks mosquitoes in the sky and shoots them with lasers. Which sounds like a science-fiction fantasy. We thought it was, initially, but damn, we built the thing and it works.

Part of being an inventor is that you have to have a thick skin. There were people who were skeptical a few years ago who argued, "You'll never build that laser thing," but now they're saying, "It won't work in Africa, and at best you'll put it around Disney World to kill the mosquitoes there." Hey, that's not so bad! If we can kill mosquitoes in volume with this thing, then I'll count it as a partial victory.

If one out of 100 malaria ideas succeeds, I'm going to count that as a success, not as 99 failures. That's the magic of ideas; that's the magic of any kind of intellectual creation. The amount of intellectual effort required to write a poem or an article is totally out of proportion to the success of that poem or article. The success of great journalism is vastly out of proportion to the small effort of writing it. Meanwhile, you can work like crazy on something and have no impact. There's nothing fair about it. But our job is to exploit the unfairness in one direction. A good idea can totally change the world.

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello for FP