Two axes for the left-right political spectrum

Ubiquitously, people use the left-right spectrum to sort people, political parties, and governments according to their political views. Like any model, it has its simplifications. At the same time, it is useful enough to be worth retaining.

That being said, this categorization can conceal important axes of disagreement. Not everyone on ‘the left’ or ‘the right’ agrees. For example, this is demonstrated by the vast differences between libertarians (generally considered right wing) and social conservatives. The former want to legalize drugs, allow gay marriage, and let people have whatever kind of sex they want. The latter sometimes want to lie to children to prevent sex and drug use, use scripture as inspiration for law, and preserve existing power structures.

One more complex model that I think is useful takes two considerations into account:

  • How necessary do you think government is? Can it be beneficial?
  • How important are an individual’s own values, compared to those of their community?

On one axis, there is the range of views from ‘government is beneficial and absolutely essential’ to ‘government is harmful and not needed.’ On the other is an axis from ‘individuals should be free to live however they want’ to ‘people should live according to an external moral code’.

All combinations are possible. Anarchists agree that government is not needed and probably harmful, but disagree about whether we should all follow a particular ethical framework and, if so, what the framework should resemble. Some anarchists assume that – freed from government – people would probably arrange themselves into communistic little autonomous communities. Others prefer rather more militant notions of what anarchism might involve.

People of all political stripes disagree about the extent to which traditional or religious values should motivate how people behave, as well as the degree to which they are embedded in law. For instance, some people would like government to enforce morality by treating adultery as a criminal offence, or by criminalizing abortion, or by restricting the use of climate damaging fuels, or by forbidding companies from bribing public officials, etc, etc.

Of course, there is a big difference between enforcing ‘harm principle’ ethics, where only actions that damage unconsenting bystanders are restricted, and a more open-ended enforcement of morality by government. For people deeply concerned about how one person doing what they wish can prevent others from having the same freedom, government is often seen as an essential mechanism for preserving the overall liberty of everyone.

One element that is not well captured in this model is the range of different moral codes people want to see applied. These include everything from ‘traditional family values’ to various forms of religious fundamentalism to non-religious but dogmatic social philosophies like Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.

Still, I think this framework has some use, when it comes to understanding the range of political views that exist.

[Aside] To clarify my own view, I naturally recognize that governments can be extremely harmful: even oppressive to the point of murderousness. That being said, I think they are necessary because of how interconnected the world has become and, at their best, can do enormous good.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

25 thoughts on “Two axes for the left-right political spectrum”

  1. Libertarians have been using the Nolan Chart above for forty years now along with their push-polling “world’s smallest political quiz” in an attempt to convince everyone that they are really libertarians. (They usually tilt the chart on its point such that libertarians, the bottom left in your chart, are of course on the pinnacle.)

    You are right, the axes are too simplisitic. For instance, I place a high value on morality; but my morality includes the autonomy of individuals over the control of their body. As such I oppose restrictions on abortion and support doctor-assisted suicide. Most conservatives down here would view that as abhorrently immoral.

  2. Libertarians have been using the Nolan Chart above for forty years now along with their push-polling “world’s smallest political quiz” in an attempt to convince everyone that they are really libertarians. (They usually tilt the chart on its point such that libertarians, the bottom left in your chart, are of course on the pinnacle.)

    You are right, the axes are too simplistic. For instance, I place a high value on morality; but my morality includes the autonomy of individuals over the control of their body. As such I oppose restrictions on abortion and support doctor-assisted suicide. Most conservatives down here would view that as abhorrently immoral.

  3. I can’t recall having heard of the Nolan Chart before, but it seems to be different from my categorization. The axes on it are ‘personal freedom’ and ‘economic freedom.’ And it doesn’t say anything directly about how important government is.

    Some people see government as an essential guarantor of both personal and economic freedom, after all. In the latter case, the status is justified by things like securities regulations that make financial crises less frequent and severe, hopefully. Also, anti-monopoly actions.

  4. Economic freedom is a stand in for the importance of government because, in the libertarian mindset, all taxation is theft and therefore a larger government limits your economic freedom. That’s there reasoning, not mine. No, I still haven’t heard a good explanation of why taxation is theft if I agree to be taxed.

    Libertarians like to use the word “freedom” in their chart because, well who would say they are against freedom? This pushes most people toward the libertarian quadrant on their chart. Labeling the axes in a more neutral way, as you have, gives a more accurate assessment.

    By the way, I would probably place myself where you are on the abscissa axis, but closer to the center of the ordinate axis. I think government should be limited but if it is going to provide services, it should own that role. I really don’t like the quasi-governmental agencies, privatized governmental services, and private/public sector competition that has been increasingly popular in the states over the past few decades. For example, there is a reason private schools can do things cheaper than public schools: they don’t have a mandate to provide services to all school aged children living in their environs. I too could run a successful school if I could pick and choose my students, and not be required to provide transportation, free/reduced breakfast and lunches, special education, etc.

  5. The private school point raises an important related issue: the extent to which it is permissible for the richer members of a society to opt-out of default government services in favour of private alternatives they consider superior.

    Arguably, allowing things like private health care and education is doubly problematic. First, it means that some people get access to a higher quality of service than others (which people may or may not find objectionable, depending on moral reasoning and intuitions). Secondly, if the more influential members of society abandon the public system, it may end up worse off due to their lack of attention. If the middle class is all paying for private schools, why would they be willing to pay higher local taxes or volunteer their time to improve the public system?

  6. Anarchists do not believe government “is not needed”. That’s equivalent to saying doing things together is “not needed”. What’s crucial is – how should governing happen? Should it respect the basic nature of humans as creative and free beings? Or, should it be basically Hobbesian?

  7. I don’t understand the desire to use charts like this. I suppose it gives people the sense they understand the “political spectrum”, when actually it allows them to pass over what’s essential to all the political positions mentioned within.

  8. This is a weird chart. It puts the Harm Principle on the left as the only acceptable moral framework. Then it banishes all other moral frameworks to the right side, without discriminating between them.

    Why give such primacy to the Harm Principle? Because it is a kind of moral minimum?

  9. I don’t understand the desire to use charts like this.

    I think they have value insofar as they make people open up some terms they generally take for granted: like those based around the assumption that the left-right spectrum is a real thing. In truth, it is just another form of shorthand: imperfect and artificial.

    Why give such primacy to the Harm Principle? Because it is a kind of moral minimum?

    That is certainly a plausible-seeming justification. Assuming we don’t want to map completely amoral political perspectives, it seems sensible to distinguish across an axis moral theories that call upon people above all to avoid infringing on the rights of others on one side with more fulsome philosophies on the other side.

  10. I place myself near you as well though perhaps a bit more to the right on the x-axis and a bit lower on the y-axis, gravitating more towards the middle.

    Though one could argue that the y axis and x axis are both stand ins for things that limit your freedoms, just one is based around codified laws and the other superstition and tradition. In the end they both put restrictions on you. Perhaps that is because our current system of laws and government evolved from our moral values.

  11. The primacy of the harm principle basically assumes liberalism to be the only moral framework. It forces any other moral framework to translate itself into the language of individualism.

    But, that’s what liberals do anyway. The chart is nothing revolutionary.

    “Once I was young and impulsive
    I wore every conceivable pin
    I went to the socialist meetings
    even learned all the old union hymns
    but now I am older and wiser
    and that’s why I’m turning you in”

  12. Whether you are a liberal or not, I think the Harm Principle is a good moral minimum. Some other moral theories argue that our moral duties extend beyond not infringing on the legitimate rights and freedoms of others.

    I don’t think there is a credible moral theory that grants people freedom to do whatever they like, regardless of whether it harms others.

  13. I brought up a meta-ethical point about the individualist framework, and you’ve interpreted it as a normative claim about different ethical positions. What might be wrong with that?

  14. You don’t need to ‘translate’ anything. Do you think there is a credible moral framework that doesn’t have the harm principle implicitly embedded within it?

  15. “Koch married Mary Robinson, the daughter of a Missouri physician, and they had four sons: Freddie, Charles, and twins, David and William. John Damgard, the president of the Futures Industry Association, was David’s schoolmate and friend. He recalled that Fred Koch was “a real John Wayne type.” Koch emphasized rugged pursuits, taking his sons big-game hunting in Africa, and requiring them to do farm labor at the family ranch. The Kochs lived in a stone mansion on a large compound across from Wichita’s country club; in the summer, the boys could hear their friends splashing in the pool, but they were not allowed to join them. “By instilling a work ethic in me at an early age, my father did me a big favor, although it didn’t seem like a favor back then,” Charles has written. “By the time I was eight, he made sure work occupied most of my spare time.” David Koch recalled that his father also indoctrinated the boys politically. “He was constantly speaking to us children about what was wrong with government,” he told Brian Doherty, an editor of the libertarian magazine Reason, and the author of “Radicals for Capitalism,” a 2007 history of the libertarian movement. “It’s something I grew up with—a fundamental point of view that big government was bad, and imposition of government controls on our lives and economic fortunes was not good.”

    DiZerega, who has lost touch with Charles, eventually abandoned right-wing views, and became a political-science professor. He credits Charles with opening his mind to political philosophy, which set him on the path to academia; Charles is one of three people to whom he dedicated his first book. But diZerega believes that the Koch brothers have followed a wayward intellectual trajectory, transferring their father’s paranoia about Soviet Communism to a distrust of the U.S. government, and seeing its expansion, beginning with the New Deal, as a tyrannical threat to freedom. In an essay, posted on Beliefnet, diZerega writes, “As state socialism failed . . . the target for many within these organizations shifted to any kind of regulation at all. ‘Socialism’ kept being defined downwards.””

  16. Wait a minute, I think government is necessary – it’s called cooperation, doing things together. And, I think people should live according to a moral code which is not limited to not committing direct harms against others. For instance, I think “tolerance” is a form of liberal racism – and by working together (i.e. governing) we should try to engender real respect and understanding between groups, not merely “tolerance” of people one “disagrees” with.

    That make me a fascist? I thought I was a libertarian socialist?

  17. Government is more than just cooperation – by necessity, it requires a lot of compulsion. Not a lot of people pay taxes or go to jail completely voluntarily.

  18. What’s new and most distinctive about the Tea Party is its streak of anarchism—its antagonism toward any authority, its belligerent style of self-expression, and its lack of any coherent program or alternative to the policies it condemns.

    In this sense, you might think of the Tea Party as the Right’s version of the 1960s New Left. It’s an unorganized and unorganizable community of people coming together to assert their individualism and subvert the established order. But where the New Left was young and looked forward to a new Aquarian age, the Tea Party is old and looks backward to a capitalist-constitutionalist paradise that, needless to say, never existed. The strongest note in its tannic brew is nostalgia. Tea Partiers are constantly talking about “restoring honor,” getting back to America’s roots, and “taking back” their country.

    How far back to take it is one of the questions that divides the movement into segments. The tricorn hats and powder horns carried by Revolutionary re-enactors point to the most extreme libertarian view: a Constitutional fundamentalism that would limit the federal government to the exercise of enumerated powers. The Roanoke Tea Party, for example, proposes a “Freedom for Virginians Act,” that would empower the state to invalidate laws it deems unconstitutional. It’s been settled business that you can’t do this since the Supreme Court decided McCullough v. Maryland in 1819. Beck, a century more modern, feeds his audience quack history that blames the fall from grace on the Progressive Era, when Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson introduced socialism into the American bloodstream. “

  19. “Though they sound nearly identical, there’s a significant distinction between the Palin and the McCain definitions. Palin’s definition says elitists are those who think they’re better than other people—a category in which by Election Day, on the evidence of her autobiography, included many of the people working for her own campaign. Palin is raw with the disrespect she feels and takes offense at being condescended to by people who, she thinks, think they are better than she is. Her anti-elitism takes the part of all Americans who feel similarly snubbed, and not necessarily in the context of politics. This version is a synonym for social snobbery, with the wrinkle that it’s not based on family, ethnicity, or wealth, but rather on the status that in contemporary American society is largely conferred by academic institutions.

    McCain, by contrast, defined elitism not as believing you are better than other people but believing that you know better than other people. This is Rand Paul’s point about liberals: “They think they can tell us what to do and that most Americans aren’t smart enough to take care of themselves,” he said in his recent rant against the lower-Manhattan mosque. (So much for libertarianism.) “And I think that’s a really arrogant approach to the American people.” It also seems to be what Newt Gingrich has in mind when he pops off about “government of the elites by the elites for the elites.” In the McCain-Paul-Gingrich usage, an elitist is someone who thinks the opinion of a minority should sometimes prevail over the opinion of a majority.

    It is easy to grasp the political resonance of both definitions. Palin’s umbrage at liberals who act superior to conservatives plays upon the American ideal of social equality. In a meritocratic society, rejection can bring an even worse sting than under an aristocratic or hereditary one, because those who are less successful can’t blame outcomes on the arbitrariness of the system. Palin’s posture of victimization is a response to this sense of exclusion. The irony is that she assumes this posture in the service of policies whose effect is to deepen the inequalities of American life. “

  20. I don’t know about you, but my heart sank when I read about Jon Stewart’s Million Moderate March planned for the National Mall next weekend. My heart sank further when I learned that liberal groups, lacking any better ideas, have decided to take this endeavor seriously. It’s bad enough that the only way to drum up enthusiasm for a Rally To Restore Sanity is to make it into a TV comedian’s joke. But it’s far worse that the “moderates” in attendance will have been bused in by Arianna Huffington and organized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

    This is how words, and then ideas, vanish from our political lexicon: Whatever connotations it once had, the word moderate has now come to mean liberal or even left-wing in American politics. It has been a long time since moderate Republicans were regarded as important, centrist assets by their party. Nowadays, they are far more likely to be regarded as closet lefties and potential traitors. Moderate Democrats, meanwhile, no longer exist at all. In their place, we have “Conservative Democrats.” Nobody pays attention to them, either—unless, suddenly, one of them threatens to vote against the health care reform. And then he is vilified.

    There is no lack of interesting people in the political center. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg—one of the few popular incumbents in the country—has not only declared himself a centrist, he has launched a campaign of support for other centrists. He flies around the country endorsing both Democrats and Republicans who he thinks show the ability to compromise and who have the courage to depart from party orthodoxy on issues like gun control (he is in favor) or financial regulation (he is against). He nearly lost me when he inexplicably endorsed Harry Reid, but never mind.

  21. SIR – I take issue with your analysis of a missing middle. Although a structural deadlock between our parties is a real issue, the symmetry between left and right, as you would have it, is off the mark. For the past 40 years our national dialogue has skewed towards the increasingly stubborn right-wing; we now have a sorry state of affairs in which welfare is considered parasitical, a more graduated income tax is painted as Bolshevism, and something as obvious as national health care cannot even enter public debate.

    Yes, we need a good dose of pragmatism. But we already have a centre: it’s called the Democratic Party.

    Conor Gillies

  22. “The expectations outlined above posit that leftists and rightists organize their political environments in distinctive ways. More specifically, leftists bundle coherently their economic and social opinions because a pervasive left-wing idea, equality, affects both sets of opinions. The ideological environment is different for those on the right. There is nothing about free-market materialism that begets right-wing opinions about social morality. And there is little about religion that engenders right-wing opinions about taxation and social welfare. Indeed, neither free-market sup- port nor religion is likely to generate right-wing opinions about immigration and racial minorities. When it comes to economic and social issues, in effect, the overall hypothesis is that there is one left and multiple rights.

    To simplify somewhat, the notion of a single dimension of left0right disagreement is a decidedly left-wing idea. And the notion that economic and social issues belong to separate spheres of consideration is a decidedly right-wing idea.”

    Cochrane, Christopher. “Left/Right Ideology and Canadian Politics.” Canadian Journal of Political Science / Revue canadienne de science politique. 43:3 (September/septembre 2010) 583–605 doi:10.10170S0008423910000624

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *