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June 16, 2008

Monday Open Thread: Defining Terms

by Brad Warbiany

I am sometimes a stickler for nomenclature. People bandy about terms like “marxist”, “fascist”, “right-wing”, “left-wing”, and the like, often with very little understanding of what they mean.

I was reading one of the posts by Eric, the original founder of The Liberty Papers, and decided to lift an image from that post regarding a two-axis political spectrum:

Notice that on the capitalism/socialism, Marx is over in the same area as Lenin and Stalin. Yet on the totalitarianism/individualism spectrum, he’s in the same area as Patrick Henry. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of the works of someone like Marx; he’s far closer to anarcho-socialism than he is to totalitarianism in a Stalinist sense.

Perhaps something to remember the next time you call someone like Hillary a Marxist. She’s probably more of a Leninist, or perhaps a Rooseveltist. Obama would probably be closer to a Nader or a true Marxist. And McCain would likely fit on the same vertical axis equal to or north of FDR, but horizontally probably in the same area as Clinton.

Just some thoughts for your Monday morning… Discuss.


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25 Comments

  1. I’m surprised to see Franklin closer to Individualism than is Jefferson.

    Comment by Peter Orvetti — June 16, 2008 @ 5:04 am
  2. It’s funny, I was discussing this with an engineer friend of mine about a month ago, I’d showed him the Nolan Chart and he noted that probably the best structure for doing political alignments would be a sphere with totalitarianism on one pole, individualism on the other, and all other philosophies falling somewhere in between. He felt a two-dimensional structure was too limited.

    Comment by UCrawford — June 16, 2008 @ 5:57 am
  3. That diagram seems awfully kind to certain people with its placement. I’d move Lincoln, Reagan and Bush all further towards Totalitarianism than they are now. I’d move Roosevelt farther left and up also. Honestly, think about FDR’s legacy.

    Comment by Ben — June 16, 2008 @ 7:17 am
  4. Yeah, I’ve seen it depicted in three dimensions and I think even four dimensions at one point.

    My focus is always education, though, so I don’t worry about the third yet. We have our work cut out for us already with the second dimension and the third would only make it harder for most people to comprehend the second.

    And really, the second dimension is the only one necessary to understand how flawed our current processes are.

    Comment by Jeff Molby — June 16, 2008 @ 7:18 am
  5. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of the works of someone like Marx; he’s far closer to anarcho-socialism than he is to totalitarianism in a Stalinist sense.

    But didn’t Hayek’s Serfdom demonstrate that Stalinism is the inevitable result of pursuing Marxism? Or are we just giving him the benefit of the doubt that he could implement his ideas perfectly?

    Comment by Jeff Molby — June 16, 2008 @ 7:22 am
  6. Jeff, Not really. Marxism and socialism are different things. If you closely read Marx, you will realize that what he envisioned was much closer to an anarchic society than to one with an awful lot of government planning. IIRC, his ultmate vision was for a society that required no government at all. Also- keep in mind that Hayek was himself in favor of social safety nets.

    Regardless, I think Brad’s characterization of Obama is both too harsh on the economic side of the equation and too kind on the personal liberties side of the equation. On the economic side of things, he is far better than Hillary would have been, and certainly more pro-free market than a Ralph Nader (who is way too close to the center on this graph on economic issues- he really ought to be close to Marx).
    There are some other definite problems I have with the graph – GWB is nowhere near as pro-free market as this would suggest, nor is he better on personal freedoms than Bill Clinton was.
    Keep in mind that Obama’s truly anti-market rhetoric occured at a time when Hillary was doing everything she could to paint him as a free market elitist (remember the Goolsbee flap?). Now that he no longer has to pander to the Hillary Clinton totalitarians, he’s brought back a lot of his comparatively pro-market rhetoric (look at his speech last week for an example).
    Obama is in reality probably about at the John Kerry level on the economic side of the equation, and maybe somewhere between Lincoln and Washington on the individualism axis.

    Comment by Mark — June 16, 2008 @ 7:52 am
  7. Jeff,

    Marx was a theorist, and believed that once state socialism was established, the state would “wither away” and a new era of humanity would be achieved. He saw capitalism as the in-between between feudalism and socialism. He actually saw socialism as a natural next step, and didn’t think it would require the state to enforce.

    He was wrong, of course, as Hayek showed. The power inherent in state socialism, once established, doesn’t wither away. But it’s important to correctly characterize your opponent’s position when combating it, or else you’re destined for a line of strawmen.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — June 16, 2008 @ 9:03 am
  8. That’s cool, Brad, but is it still valid to place him in the lower left quandrant, even though it exists only in theory?

    Comment by Jeff Molby — June 16, 2008 @ 9:11 am
  9. P.S. Something’s wrong with your “Recent Comments” section

    Comment by Jeff Molby — June 16, 2008 @ 9:12 am
  10. Jeff,

    Where would you place Adam Smith? After all, he was a theorist, not a politician.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — June 16, 2008 @ 9:47 am
  11. Mark,

    You’re likely more attuned to Obama’s platform than I am, so I can’t necessarily dispute your placement.

    I do agree with your account of GWB, as well. I think this graph was created a few years ago, before we realized how horrendous he was.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — June 16, 2008 @ 9:55 am
  12. Brad:
    It’s not an issue of his platform so much as it’s an issue of predicting how he would actually govern. I just think the accusations of “Marxist” or “Leninist” are thrown around far too easily and with far too little evidence. The idea that the modern American “Left” is primarily a bunch of hard left Marxists and socialists is simply untrue and evidence-free. To be sure, in the days of FDR and LBJ, they were most certainly pretty strongly socialist. But the Dem Party has changed somewhat over the years (keep in mind that it was Jimmy Carter of all people who first started economic deregulation.
    In any event, I think your post does an important service by bringing out that there are a lot of differences even amongst Democrats on the Nolan Chart, and that terms like “Stalinist,” “Marxist,” etc. are bandied about way too easily and without any real understanding of their meaning. Which is really the more important issue as far as I’m concerned.

    Comment by Mark — June 16, 2008 @ 10:34 am
  13. why the hell is Reagan where he is? lawlz. the guy was the model of MI complex expansion as well as a pioneer of the War on Drugz.

    Comment by oilnwater — June 16, 2008 @ 11:48 am
  14. The Political Compass (http://www.politicalcompass.org/ ) presents a two-dimensional chart similar to this one. You’d probably like to check it out and take their test placing you on it.

    So far as Marx goes, he’s a slippery character, not only because he kept changing his positions, but because his best-known system involves more than one step: first the establishment of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, the stage between capitalism and socialism/communism, which will be quite statist, then the withering away of the state (uh-huh), and finally the stateless, communist society. (Also note that in response to the Paris Commune he seems to have started to believe that the transition to socialism/communism would be much more direct.)

    Comment by Dan Clore — June 16, 2008 @ 12:09 pm
  15. Dan,

    I took the Political Compass test and came out at almost exactly the same spot as Milton Friedman. However I thought a lot of those questions were guilty of the fallacy of the excluded middle (and a definite note of anti-corporate bias) in the questions asked and their possible answers, so I’m not really sure how accurate that was. For example, I’m of the opinion that companies should not be heavily regulated by the government and I don’t think they have a “duty” to do things for “the good of humanity” instead of themselves, but not to the point where I think they should be able to do whatever they want (i.e. engaging in theft or defrauding their customers) so I’ll concede that some level of regulation is probably necessary. I didn’t feel that subtlety was caught in the questions dealing with that particular topic. The Q & A came off as fairly either-or even though they gave two variations on the yes-no answers.

    Comment by UCrawford — June 16, 2008 @ 12:55 pm
  16. Dan,

    I’m aware of the compass. I fit +7.88 on the economic scale, and -6.21 on the social scale as of the last time I took the test.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — June 16, 2008 @ 2:15 pm
  17. I just finished the political compass test as well. I scored +8.62 on the economic scale and -6.15. My views have certainly moved to a more libertarian/anarchist direction since the first time I took the test a few years ago (even more libertarian than Milton Friedman? How is that possible?). This doesn’t surprise me though because I have decidedly less trust in the government and government institutions than I did just a few years ago.

    I do agree with U.C.’s opinion about the tests limitations though (but all tests like this have limitations; it’s far more comprehensive than the Nolan Quiz).

    Comment by Stephen Littau — June 16, 2008 @ 4:15 pm
  18. For those of you who think Obama is not such a bad candidate in terms of liberty, and suggest that Hilary would be worse because of her commitment to universal socialised health, you’d better re-think what you’ve been saying.

    Now that Al Gore is giving Obama his approval and the two seem to be teaming up, its clear that Obama is going to campaign on an environmental and anti big-business platform and eventually implement a full-scale command economy. These guys want living standards and population brought back to 1930s levels, and they mean it.

    Comment by Jono — June 16, 2008 @ 9:53 pm
  19. I scored a +6.35 on the economic scale (I think- might have been a little higher) and a -6.78 on the social scale. I was just about equal to Milton Friedman on economics, and more libertarian than just about anyone on the social side.

    In any event, for those who want to call Obama a Marxist, etc. I would suggest looking at where the Political Compass actually places him on the scale.
    http://www.politicalcompass.org/usprimaries2008

    Comment by Mark — June 17, 2008 @ 7:06 am
  20. I’d move Roosevelt farther left and up also. Honestly, think about FDR’s legacy.

    Are we judging people by the intent behind their actions or by the consequences of their actions?

    his ultmate vision was for a society that required no government at all.

    Admittedly, I’ve not read Marx. Is his vision for society something akin to what many smaller Native American tribes had, where each family looked after each other family, if only for no other reason than for survival?

    Keep in mind that Obama’s truly anti-market rhetoric occured at a time when Hillary was doing everything she could to paint him as a free market elitist (remember the Goolsbee flap?). Now that he no longer has to pander to the Hillary Clinton totalitarians, he’s brought back a lot of his comparatively pro-market rhetoric (look at his speech last week for an example).

    Only time will tell. How can anyone be sure whether his Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde persona is the real him?

    Comment by Justin Bowen — June 17, 2008 @ 9:24 am
  21. Justin:
    The main reason I suspect Obama would be relatively pro-free market as President is from his relationships with a lot of people at the University of Chicago, all of whom describe someone who is willing to really listen to opposing viewpoints and absorb some of those points.
    Regardless, I still vastly prefer Barr, and will be voting for him. My point is just to dispel the idea that Obama is some kind of Marxist/Stalinist bogeyman – he’s not, and it’s difficult to see how he would be significantly different from, say, Bill Clinton on economic issues as President.

    Comment by Mark — June 17, 2008 @ 10:06 am
  22. The main reason I suspect Obama would be relatively pro-free market as President is from his relationships with a lot of people at the University of Chicago, all of whom describe someone who is willing to really listen to opposing viewpoints and absorb some of those points.

    Fair enough. I, however, would still never vote for him or McCain. He’s still too far left for my tastes.

    Comment by Justin Bowen — June 17, 2008 @ 3:13 pm
  23. Justin:
    That is a perfectly rational position – and one that I happen to hold myself at this moment, at least as long as Bob Barr is on the ballot. But as between McCain and Obama, I will be rooting for Obama. Ultimately, as I’ve said before, I think Obama may wind up pushing the Dem Party in a somewhat more libertarian direction just the Republicans become increasingly statist. But that doesn’t mean that Obama necessarily WILL do that, and I certainly don’t think he’s yet at the point where I could vote for him other than as a “lesser of two evils”; since there is an actual third choice IMHO this year, I won’t be voting for Obama. But I am hopeful that if he wins, after a few years he will in fact move the Dem Party in a less statist direction.

    Comment by Mark — June 17, 2008 @ 6:47 pm
  24. There are other economic systems besides capitalism and socialism. Subsistence farming, hunting & gathering, and free trade among the self-employed are neither. Not to put too fine a point on it, but before about 1700 the world had never had either one, and humanity was already 200,000 years old.

    Frankly, I don’t consider myself either one, because I couldn’t give a damn who owns the means of production as long as the Lockean rules are followed.

    Hey, Dan Clore, welcome from the bowels of Usenet. You’ll find Constantinople at Distributed Republic. Jim Donald and G*rd*n are AWOL, I think. I haven’t seen Ron Allen either, thankfully.

    Comment by Joshua Holmes — June 17, 2008 @ 7:08 pm
  25. So, as the guy who created this, bear a couple of things in mind. I didn’t do any sort of statistical scoring, nor did I have a very accurate diagramming tool. Further, we could debate my placement by millimeters all day long, but I think the general placement is reasonable.

    More importantly, as someone pointed out earlier in the comments, this is about education. This graph (and my earlier attempts at better ways to explain politics) were about better depicting things, not about perfect placement of people on graphs.

    As usual, libertarian folks are so busy nitpicking fine points …..

    Comment by Eric — June 18, 2008 @ 4:38 pm

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