Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Spectrums, Assumptions and The Political Compass

The left-right distinction is a well-worn feature of our political lexicon: a schema that finds its roots in revolutionary France and has since been abstracted out of context to typify politics tout-court.

A modern reader might reasonably wonder whether such a spectrum holds up considering the shades of left and right available to us. In our post-Reagan/Thatcher era the Right is torn between its roots in classical conservatism and the modern libertarianism that has attempted to replace it. The Left, similarly, is as fragmented in theory as it has been in practise. Consulting the conventional left-right dichotomy, we find anarchists and marxists in the same camp as liberals. While one might try to defend such a grouping on the grounds that a sliding scale could be plotted between communism and liberalism, this falls in to the trap of typifying socialism as "welfarism on steroids" while still failing to explain how anarchists tessellate with the left.

In response to such difficulties, alternative spectrums have been produced. In the late 60's David Nolan introduced a spectrum which simultaneously charted the  dimensions of economic and personal freedom: the most prolific iteration of which is "The Political Compass".

Pictured: The Political Compass (below left) and Nolan's chart (below right).

cartesian plane with horizontal left-right axis and vertical authoritarian-libertarian axis

While this twin-variable approach does help clear up the difference between libertarianism and conservativism, the underlying meta-theory is still lacking. Nolan's divide between economic and personal freedom reflects his own libertarian tendency to understand freedom from and freedom to as distinct categories - with the former taking moral primacy. Here freedom is reified and frustrated independently of one's economic means: your liberty can be obstructed by a tyrannical government but not by economic deprivation - this is only one way of understanding freedom.

Concurrently there is a problem as both The Political Compass' and Nolan assume that competing ideologies maintain converging ideas of what freedom and equality etc entail. Consider, for example, The Political Compass' analysis of anarchism:  

"The usual understanding of anarchism as a left wing ideology does not take into account the neo-liberal "anarchism" championed by the likes of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and America's Libertarian Party, which couples social Darwinian right-wing economics with liberal positions on most social issues."  - The Political Compass.

This places orthodox anarchism in the bottom left and "neo-liberal anarchism" in the bottom right. Such an approach misunderstands the disagreement between minarchists and anarchists as one over whether or not people should "share their stuff" and misses the fact that the two groups have very different ideas about what it means to be free. Libertarian leftists disagree with libertarian rightists because they do not consider the ideas of the libertarian right to be fit for promoting a fully "free" society - their economic differences inform their disagreements over the nature of libertarianism.

The problem facing any political spectrum then is the necessary assumption that political differences are mostly quantitative; which is troublesome considering that political questions are more often also about what a virtue is as well as how much of it we should have. Such spectrums, at best, chart the possibilities of pragmatic political alliance between various groupings but pedagogically do little to inform test-takers about how their beliefs relate to others.

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