The Political Spectrum Goes ‘Round and ‘Round
It started with an email exchange among the contributors to Anchor Rising. Somebody suggested that moderates are essentially liberals who “believe in economics.” That got my mind (when hungering for procrastination) to filling out the rest of a political spectrum, and it turned into the circle illustrated below.
As you can see, there are eight categories, six of them along the spectrum and two cutting across it. The spectrum circle is divide into Left and Right hemispheres, and the categories are divided into thirds by two vertical axes.
The basic determinant of Left or Right is whether one tends toward equivalence of morality with government or with culture. The important thing isn’t whether one believes that, for example, whatever the government dictates should be considered moral. Left libertarians would rail against such a conclusion. Rather, it’s about the way in which people in different groups think about these things.
A left libertarian thinks government ought to stay out of his life, but he thinks everybody ought to stay out of his life. Generally speaking, he would prefer that whatever impositions do exist should be written into the law, where there are codified rules for fighting it. Or perhaps he just thinks that government mandates are inherently moral impositions and, therefore, should be avoided. Not long ago, I heard a libertarian speak as if the Golden Rule is the source of all evil in our society, but the rules that he favored (property rights, notably), he thought to be justification for the government’s use of power to enforce.
The Left-Right question, in essence, is: To whatever degree authority of people over each other is legitimate, should the guidelines be written into the law, or should they be expressed through the interpersonal forces of voluntary social interactions? Very few people will have pure answers to that question, but one or the other option will ultimately prove to dominate; the culture may apply some pressure through the law, but it ultimately understands the authority to derive from the beliefs of the people who make up the society, not the conclusions of the people who control the government.
One of the two axes that define vertical placement is essentially a belief about human nature. Progressives and those on the far right tend to see humankind as able to be made perfect, whether that’s through social engineering (on the Left) or purging and racial purity (on the Right). The apotheosis of this belief is the totalitarian, wherein the dictators or ruling classes find themselves to be so infallible that they ought to be permitted to control every aspect of everybody’s lives. As the spectrum approaches this point, the distinction between government and culture breaks down, because the government is all.
The X marks on the vertical axes are meant to indicate that the spectrum continues on, but that there is some line that can be crossed after which the person will pick one side over the other. In the case of the left-hand line, the upper segment is a belief in the constancy of human nature and fallibility.
This doesn’t mean humanity cannot be improved or changed, but that it’s not possible to perfect it, and that any social system must take that reality into account. Ultimately, this is an underlying assumption of economics, which premises its studies of the causes and effects of human behavior on the principle that the results will be relatively consistent.
The other vertical axis concerns one’s emphasizing the individual over the community, or vice versa. Again, the spectrum is ultimately unbroken, but there is a line that can be crossed from libertarian to moderate, on the left, and to conservative, on the right. For instance, I would consider myself to be pretty much on the line that separates right libertarian from conservative, and it would be a matter of some difficulty for me to choose between the individual and the community in a final analysis. (I strike that balance through theology, more on which in a moment.) But I absolutely don’t think communal goods should be wrested from the individual without consent, nor that individualism oughtn’t be argued against when it threatens the society.
I’ve already heard the complicating consideration that some extreme libertarians and anarchists believe that here is a rational order to the society that they would prescribe, but it isn’t pushed through either government or culture. Some in this range (I’ll confess) seem mainly to take for granted the structures that have brought themselves advantage, but more intriguing in my context here is that moving away from the most complete joining of the notion of human fallibility with the notion of the primacy of the individual creates a straight, back-door line to totalitarianism in one of two ways: either the strongest person or group dominates the lawless field and controls by physical, political, or economic power, or the faith in the need to impose order on anarchic principles begets a rigid collection of rules for organized action.
Either way represents a deterioration and reversal of beliefs across the circle: The emphasis on the individual becomes belief in the individual’s perfectibility; the belief in human fallibility becomes a belief in the need for the community to set set the guidelines through culture or through law. That is to say that the Anarchist-Totalitarian axis is not at all stable as a matter of political theory or of personality.
My final word is on religion. I’d initially planned to superimpose a shape labeled “belief in God,” or something like that, but decided that it would necessarily be too complicated. What one believes about God makes all the difference. A progressive may take the existence of God as evidence that human beings were made to be perfected, and that their moral laws should be written into the civic law. A right libertarian might believe that God’s interaction with the individual is so personal and specific that any coercion risks interfering with that divine relationship.
In other words, a series of axes describing religious beliefs could probably be made to fit as another layer on this chart, but the principles behind it would be wholly distinct from questions of politics. Perhaps I’ll take that up next time I’m procrastinating on a three-day weekend.