The Hazards of Political Belief Spectrums

The graphic above is from a discussion on a UK website called The Student Room. Chicago Fog believes this is a good representation of the parameters of political beliefs reflected in contemporary society: communism on one end and fascism on the other. Clearly, the maker of the spectrum must be from Canada, but this graphic could be applied to any democracy. (Chicago Fog’s only other comment on that graphic would be the Republican party belongs far closer to the Democrats than “Nazi” Germany. President Bush was one of the worst recent U.S. Presidents, but he does not deserve to be pictured next to Hitler. That’s just ridiculous.)

The traditional spectrum shows us the limits of left-right thinking. There’s an entire world of political philosophy outside of that continuum. The greatest flaw in the political continuum treats government as a priori.

Better political spectrums add multiple dimensions (see below). There’s more depth which gives more options, with what I assume rates freedom versus authority on the y axis and group equality versus individualism on the x-axis. 

Again, one can quibble with the distances between labels on the spectrum, but this graphic seems to do a better job at capturing the diversity of political views. The addition of “Fundamentalism” adds a theocratic dynamic, parallel to the total state of communism and fascism. Most objectionable is this graphic’s perfect square and Cartesian grid lines, as if there are neat and measurable distances between these beliefs. If we really wanted to map the ideological distances between these systems, the resulting shape would probably be amoeba-like.

The whole undertaking of categorizing myriad belief systems, political parties, and historical leaders across in a framework based upon two (or four, or six) concepts is problematic. It’s a complex mapping problem, so any solution is bound to be messy. More troublesome is these “maps” seem to always have a narrative embedded in them. 

Why is this important? For one thing, if you look at enough of these spectrums, you start to see many are designed in a way that reveals a favored political opinion, leading the witness to a so-called correct position. Other beliefs deemed unworthy are entirely ignored. The politics of the spectrum designer are found safely in the middle: in the photo at the top of this post, it is “Democrats” and “Canada” and in the spectrum pictured above, it is “Liberalism”. Like the porridge Goldilocks chooses, the position they want you to land on is “just right” so to be far enough away from Satanic Hitler or those cultish-sounding scary words that must be for crazies. Spectrums want us to be in the liberal-democratic center, never too far to the left or the right, and place the existence of the state at a central point when measuring other political beliefs and then labeling what is considered extreme. 

Spectrums are pregnant with those labels, sometimes stated and sometimes implied. When labeling occurs minds shut off. Upon mention of anarcho-capitalism, the typical person will have no idea what it means. After all, both words have negative connotations. Some would associate a voluntary society with nihilism or primitivism, no one in charge to prevent chaos. Others would jump to some vision of plutocracy where corporate interests rule, like the dystopian future imagined in the sci-fi TV show Continuum. One can see the labels being dealt like cards as people reason by analogy. But when a person sees anarcho-capitalism on the very edge of the spectrum–the outlier, the freak–they are being told what they must think about it. 

So you should ignore the spectrums and focus on the ideas themselves. Find the essence of these systems: what do their societies look like, how does the political ideology impact culture? I think a simple sentence could be used to express the essence of each ideology. For example Murray Rothbard in his book Society and State wrote,  “I define anarchist society as one where there is no legal possibility for coercive aggression against the person or property of any individual.” Contrast Rothbard’s elegant sentence with the clumsy libertarian (and Libertarian Party) shorthand of being “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” This is an attempt to find the coveted middle position, the beliefs that are “just right”–not too hot, not too cold, not too freewheeling, not too collectivist. 

“Fiscally conservative” is a Republican term, and has devolved to nonsense that favors debt financing over revenue spending from taxes–because taxes have to be cut no matter what, which is not a conservative position by any means. Historically Republicans are just as prone to support huge government spending for wealth redistribution (beyond social safety net, the party supports entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare) and enormous military budgets. Using the term “fiscally conservative” conflates the libertarian with the Republican, as if the philosophy was all about a desire for lower taxes and only cutting spending on easy targets like PBS/NPR, the National Endowment for the Arts, “welfare,” and “foreign aid.” There are critical differences between Republicanism and true libertarianism so we should never be caught using a term like “fiscal conservative” because, in the end, we are not pushing for legislative changes at the margin to lower taxes or pull back government interference in the free market; rather, we espouse a political philosophy that favors human liberty and self-direction, free exchange, and private ownership.

“Socially liberal” is equally wrought with problems. Using that term puts you in the leftist trap that sorted and ranked human liberty in a menu of preferences, as if every person alive and who will ever live has the same set of beliefs and desires for life. Thus freedoms associated with commerce and ownership of property are not deemed as important as so-called political freedoms (free expression, religious freedom, due process, etc.). So the libertarian will proclaim support for “economic freedom” and fall into a rhetorical trap. The conversation has to be about personal liberty and the ability for a person to self-actualize during his or her finite lifetime. What could be more central to someone’s life than what they do with their time and energy? The current statist cultural and legal order is not concerned how a person applies their time and energy in a pursuit that enables them to earn a living, takes part in exchanges of goods and services with others, and holds ownership over the money and property gained in such pursuits. People have free will and agency, and should have the moral capacity to own the outcomes life presents to them, good and bad–even when they are victims of bad luck or the force and fraud of others. The point is we all work for a living, navigate commerce, and manage our finances and property, so the vast majority of us are more active in so-called “economic activities” on any given day than “political” ones. And to each her own: some may gain meaning through spiritualism, others through community service, others in academia, others in the creative arts; but nearly everyone will work, participate in an economy, and have personal possessions, and many of those people will feel they derive deep meaning from those activities. The professional, the tradesperson, the entrepreneur are just as worthy pursuits as any other, and arguably more worthy because they perpetuate an economy in which anyone can participate and benefit. That is not to take some demented neoconservative position that political freedoms need to be checked so that the nation state may have a powerful economy, in which we can all be good consumers and employees. 

We ought not spend any time arguing over the shape and design of political belief spectrums as nearly all seem to express a bias for statism, employ broken terminologies, and perpetuate the crazed tribalism of contemporary political discourse. It is far better to explore the essence of each ideology, and in doing so discover the appeal (or lack of appeal) and fit (or conflict) with your individual politics. 

Copyright © Chicago Fog: 2007-2020


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