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November 26, 2005

A Better Political Spectrum

by Eric

Let’s talk about a better way to understand politics than the current conservative/center/liberal spectrum, which really is simplistic, contradictory and disguises some things that are very important in Western political thought. The current spectrum that most people accept looks something like this (this is almost exactly what my high school American Govt teacher drew on the board, IIRC):

Just about the first problem we see is that as you slide from the Center to either the Right or Left you start approaching totalitarian forms of government. And, unless you happen to be either a Fascist or a Communist, you can see fairly easily that there is very little difference in practical purposes between the two extremes. Either this is very cynical and pessimistic and we are doomed to extremism no matter what or it is not realistic. So, let’s quickly define a few terms and then start down the road of what a more realistic and understandable political spectrum would look like.

Capitalism – complete free market economics, no government intervention whatsoever. Adam Smith rules, citizens are 100% responsible for providing for themselves.
Socialism – The government controls the means of production and provides 100% for the welfare of the citizens.
Anarchy – All political power resides with the individual, they decide what power, if any, they will grant to a government.
Totalitarian – All political power resides with the government or group, they decide what rights and privileges, if any, they will grant to an individual.

The reason that I used the extremes is that each of those extremes represents the end of a continuum. So, there are two main continuums present in the political debate in the West, but we rarely separate them, which is a mistake. One continuum is economics, the other is political power. It looks like this:

We often confuse a person’s economic beliefs with their beliefs on political power. We also, often, fail to understand that one of these influences the other. To really understand where someone’s political beliefs fall, what we need to do is create a graph or a matrix. Leave the socialism/capitalism line horizontal. Now draw a vertical line and put anarchy at the bottom and totalitarian at the top. Like this:

First, everything on the socialist half is the “Left”, even if your belief in socialism is very mild, like LBJ or FDR, who were most accurately described, using modern political terms, as democratic socialists. Everything on the capitalist half is the “Right”, even if your tendency towards free market is very mild, like John Kerry, who is a Keynesian, in economic terms, meaning he believes that government intervention can influence the economy for the better, especially government spending.

Now, let’s put some folks in whose political views are fairly well understood in either modern times or historically. I think this will start to illustrate what I’m getting at.

Just about the first thing we notice is that the mainstream of modern American politics is a very narrow part of the spectrum. The second thing we see is that from roughly 1933 to 1980 the spectrum in this country was much further to the Left than now. The bounds are FDR at one end and Ronald Reagan at the other end, each of whom managed to completely refocus the political debate in this country. The third important thing to notice is that there is a fairly dramatic shift from the traditional American Liberal philosophy (Jefferson, et al) and that is bounded by Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.

Evaluate where you stand using this matrix, you may come to some interesting realizations if you do. The reason that you want to do something really doesn’t matter. You may want welfare to empower individuals and think that means you are an individualist. But the fact is that you still want something that is on the socialist side of the economic line. Here’s some examples, starting with individualism first:

These are things you want if you are above the line and tending to totalitarianism:

  • Gun control
  • Centrally administered education standards
  • Conscription
  • Regulation of social behavior (e.g. smoking)
  • Increased police powers (e.g. reduced or no limits on legal searches)
  • Government censorship

These are things you want if you are below the line and tending to anarchy:

  • No gun control
  • decentralized education
  • no standing army, or very small standing army
  • No government regulation of social behavior, neither promoting nor prohibiting
  • Limits on police powers
  • Free speech

These are things you want if you are right of the line and tending to capitalism:

  • No government regulation of the marketplace
  • Limited or no taxation
  • No government sponsored welfare
  • Charity based welfare
  • No trade barriers
  • No government regulation of the employment market
  • Private ownership of property and the means of production

These are things you want if you are left of the line and tending to socialism:

  • Government regulated marketplace
  • Taxation to enable government spending/activity
  • Government welfare
  • Trade barriers to protect internal market
  • Government controlled employment market
  • Limitations on ownership of property and means of production

So, ask yourself how you feel about these things and then place yourself accordingly. You may be surprised. Then evaluate politicians by their platform instead of their speeches and place them accordingly. Then support the ones who support what you believe in.

Sadly, since I sit about in the same position as Jefferson there really is no one in the mainstream of American politics that represents me. Were you able to vote for someone whose political position was similar to yours?

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8 Comments

  1. Although I like your chart, I think you were way too generous with George Bush. He should be much more to the left than you put him, especially with his support of high tariffs, incredibly inflating budgets, and subsidies to “faith-based” charities.

    Comment by Francois Tremblay — November 27, 2005 @ 8:22 am
  2. How much of that, especially the budgets, is due to Congress, rather than Bush? I actually think, economically, he should just be stuck where the current Congress is, since he appears to just float with them.

    Comment by Eric — November 27, 2005 @ 8:27 am
  3. I notice one thing, if I’m reading your chart right, John Kerry is closer to our political beliefs than George W. Bush.

    Comment by Kevin — November 27, 2005 @ 9:33 am
  4. John Kerry is mildly less authoritarian than George Bush. But quite a bit more socialist.

    Comment by Eric — November 27, 2005 @ 9:36 am
  5. This idea is also explored through a questionaire on the website politicalcompass.org Libertarians are certainly a good example of the inadequacies of the traditional left/right line…

    I have to say that in this context, your definition of socialism as “The government controls the means of production and provides 100% for the welfare of the citizens” seems a bit problematic. Surely the concept up ‘government’ is one that properly belongs on the y axis? An example would be a left-wing anarchist, hardly committed to capitalism, but equally hostile to governments. Just a thought….

    Comment by Paul — December 4, 2005 @ 2:49 am
  6. Interestingly, I notice that Political Compass puts Hitler slightly to the right of centre on the economic scale, whereas you place him slightly to the left. From my limited knowledge, I would have thought that the right would be his appropriate place – despite being called the “National Socialists” I seem to remember that Hitler’s economic policies were broadly Keynesian, that is state-sponsored capitalism. While hostile to big-business, I don’t think (again, could be wrong) that Hitler was actually particularly hostile to capitalism itself.

    Comment by Paul — December 4, 2005 @ 2:57 am
  7. Paul, the economic axis extreme that I labeled socialism could be restated as “The means of production and welfare of the individual is 100% controlled, and provided for, by the collective group”. The extreme opposite of capitalism is socialism, whether it is a government or kibbutz doesn’t matter.

    As for Hitler, he goes slightly to the left. He ultimately wanted government in charge of what the corporations did. He, Benito Mussolini and Franklin Roosevelt, in fact, had remarkably similiar economic approaches, policies and views. See this post for some insight into it. If you place FDR slightly to the left of center economically, then you have to do the same with Hitler. Bear in mind, of course, that I’m extending the spectrum on economics far beyond the very narrow band occupied in American politics also.

    Comment by Eric — December 4, 2005 @ 9:15 am
  8. The political systems spectrum should run from anarchy on one extreme to totalitarian on the opposite extreme with democracy between those two. A political system is defined as “the means by which authoritative decisions are made.” In a state of anarchy there is no means of making authoritative decisions(or, they can’t be enforced). In a totalitarian system there is: 1) one person(or a small group) making authorative decisions 2) terroristic police control 3) in many cases, an official ideology. In a democratic political system: 1) majority rules through open procedures 2) the minority has certain inalienable rights(freedoms such as: freedom of expression, freedom of religion, life, freedom of beliefs, fair public trials, privacy, freedom of movement and possibly others).
    The individualism label is a bias of the classical liberal ideology(private ownership of property,individualism, competitive, limited government). It is possible to have individualism on one extreme of a spectrum related to anthropological precepts(with collectivism at the opposite end).
    BTW, here in the US, the classical liberal ideology is so dominent that we don’t know we have an ideology of classical liberalism. Instead we think of our values as being “human nature”, the “truth”, the “only way”, and the way “God intended”.

    Comment by Ron — December 17, 2005 @ 9:36 am

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