The imaginary political spectrum

We talk about political ideas and proposals in terms of an imaginary spectrum.  Politicians are leftist, rightist or centrists.  But what does that mean?  Self-described left-wingers generally see themselves as champions of poor oppressed people against their enemies.  Self-described right-wingers generally see themselves as defenders of traditional moral values against their enemies.

A Tea Party supporter once explained to me that the Right consists of the champions of individual liberty against governmental authority.  By this definition, Hitler was on the Left, and people such as President Obama and myself, although not Nazis, were closer to Hitler on the spectrum than the Tea Party leaders.  But the American Civil Liberties Union champions individual civil liberties against government authority.  Is it then a right-wing organization?

The so-called Nolan Chart addresses this complexity.  Libertarians see self-described liberals on the left as defenders of personal liberty and self-described conservatives on the right as defenders of economic liberty.  But libertarians think that they alone are consistent defenders of liberty in all aspects.

Click on Nolan Chart Survey for a quiz that will show you your place on the Nolan chart.

Click on The Wheel of Politics for another libertarian-centric chart, this one a hexagon showing libertarianism in relation to progressivism and conservatism.  Libertarians go in more for this kind of political taxonomy because, in my opinion, they see politics more as a conflict of ideas while liberals see it more as a conflict of interests and conservatives as a conflict of values.

The SF writer Jerry Pournelle produced a chart placing political ideologies along two axes – statism versus liberty, and rationality vs. irrationality.

This explains how Nazis and Communists can be so alike, yet so opposed to each other.  Rationalism in this case does not refer to what people really are, but how they think of themselves.  Communists thought of Marxism-Leninism as the only scientific philosophy; the Nazis glorified instinct and despised intellectuality.

 Click on The Pournelle Political Axes for Jerry Pournelle’s explanation of his chart.

But this way of looking at things leaves out an important dimension, which is captured on a chart, shown below, created by political scientist Daniel Chirot.

Click to enlarge

This explains why the heroes in Jerry Pournelle’s stories are sometimes libertarian entrepreneurs and sometimes fascistic (in my view) military commanders, and why anarchists sometimes feel closer to Communists than libertarians.  Although libertarians and fascists are on opposite sides in their beliefs about state power, they are at the same edge in their belief about equality.  The same with anarchists and Communists.

Click on The Political Compass for a quiz based on Daniel Chirot’s chart.

Not everybody sees political ideas as a spectrum.  The chart below, which is found on the Information Is Beautiful web site, sees left and right as two clearly distinguishable and intellectually coherent ways of seeing the world.

Double click to enlarge

Click on The Left and the Right for a different division, but also with an argument that the division into left and right reflects a basic dichotomy in human thought.

If I were to make a chart of political taxonomy, it would be in the form of a triangle, with the points representing classic liberals, who believe in individual rights; classic conservatives, who believe in maintaining the moral foundations of society; and classic socialists, who believe in equality, democracy and social justice.

My political philosophy, in those terms, would be a combination of all three.  A society has to have moral foundations if it is to exist at all.  I advocate individual rights to the extent that they are consistent with the moral foundations of society, and social justice to the extent that it is consistent with basic individual rights.

In some ways I am a progressive, who wants to create new good things.  In other ways, I am a conservative, who wants to preserve existing good things.

For me, Left and Right are a matter of feeling than of thinking.  People on the Left identify with the underdog, or claim that they do.  People on the Right identify with the top dog.  When I saw the video of the Rodney King beating, I identified with the man on the ground being beaten.  When right-wingers view that video, I think they identify with police officers having to deal with a dangerous black man.

I don’t think either attitude is automatically correct.  It depends on the situation.  We need both respect for authority and sympathy for those subject to authority.  Without the one, society collapses into chaos and crime.  Without the other, authority becomes tyranny.

Click on Why I call myself a liberal for some of my earlier thoughts on this.

All this is kind of interesting, but not a good basis for forming an opinion about politicians and policies.  To label a politician “left,” “right” or “center” tells you nothing about the politician’s position or policies, only where the politician stands in relation to something else.  What is important is not the label, but the specifics of what the politician is trying to do, has done and the results.

[Added 11/8/11]  Here’s another chart, placing the candidates in the 2008 elections.

“Left” and “right are not defined on this chart, but if you define “left” as favoring equality and the underdog and “right” as favoring inequality and the top dog, I think the right-left placements are accurate enough.  Barack Obama, the friend of Wall Street and the “reformer” of Social Security and Medicare, belongs in the authoritarian right.  I would put Bob Barr much further down in the libertarian direction and John McCain somewhat further down in the libertarian direction, however.

It is interesting that the libertarian-right and authoritarian-left quadrants are empty.  I don’t think this is true in the current election.  Ron Paul is very much in the libertarian-right quadrant.  I would put Mitt Romney and Rick Perry both in the authoritarian-right quadrant, but Perry closer to the corner and Romney down toward the center with Obama.

I can’t pretend this means much, but it is interesting.  Any other opinions as to where candidates belong?  Any other ways ways of charting where they stand?

[Added 1/8/12]  Here’s a political ideology diagram from Mother Jones with four categories – left, right, libertarian and Ron Paul

[Added 2/19/12]

Here are two libertarian-centric charts from the Wheel of Politics link above.

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