Political Spectrums Part II: The Criteria

Justin Katz was understandably unhappy about my previous post. So in the interest of making him unhappier (joke, Mr. Katz, though probably one that contains the truth) I’ll engage with the criteria that he used to arrange his political chart.

The Left-Right Question

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.


So this is an interesting way of framing the Left-Right question. As I previously pointed out, the Left-Right question has historically been if power derives from a mandate of the people or the mandate of heaven. That was the debate during the French Revolution which settled it; power derives from the people (even Napoleon didn’t derive his power from the church, relying on the people as the backing of his empire). It took a while for the rest of the world to come around, but mostly today, there’s broad consensus that power is people-derived.

There’s a lot of little social contract issues hiding behind all this. But I think you would be hard-pressed to find someone who believes that authority doesn’t derive from the masses. Hard-core communists would say that power can only derive from the masses, and that the demise of the state is the logical outcome of the self-empowered people. Hard-core anarchists and libertarians wouldn’t be that far off. This is why many political spectrums frame this as to what extent should the state have control, rather than is power derived from the people or from the law; which might be a good parlor question, but is a false dichotomy. The people give power, the law manages that power.

The False Human Perfectibility vs. “Economics” Dichotomy

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.


This is why I said Mr. Katz has an agenda. He’s got two false beliefs: 1) that progressives believe in the perfectibility of humankind and 2) that economics doesn’t support progressive thought. Obviously progressives don’t believe that human beings are perfect (I shouldn’t have to tell you that) but the idea that somehow economics is a purely moderate or conservative pursuit is so patently false that it belies the nature of that social science. Economics is as imperfect as people. We have the financial collapse to prove to us how poorly economics works as a predictor of human behavior. If you ever hear someone say “no economist in the world would believe xxxx” you have my permission to slap them silly, because some economist right now is working to “prove” that’s how things work. Again, it’s clear that Mr. Katz is attempting to put progressives outside of the mainstream by suggesting they don’t believe in economics, and somehow connect with totalitarians on the right.

Mr. Katz seems to suggest that at some point, libertarians and anarchist align around anarchy and that progressives and far-right thinkers align around totalitarianism, regardless of the beliefs that brought them there. First, progressives aren’t equivalent of the far-right unless you think that loving democracy and hating it (respectively) are the same thing. Here’s former Vice-President of the United States Henry Wallace warning of the dangers of American fascism. It’s pretty clear that Wallace, who ran for the presidency under the banner of the Progressive Party, believes the antidote to far-right fascism is democracy.

The other issue is that Mr. Katz seems to think that totalitarian states can align based on a few salient features of their regimes. King Louis XVI was an absolute monarch, a totalitarian as we’d understand it today; who received his mandate to rule from God. He wouldn’t find much in common with Joseph Stalin, who received his mandate to rule explicitly by force, as the vanguard party, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had the right to ignore the people in favor of preparing them for communism (the end state where the state itself would cease to exist). Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini didn’t lose much love for Stalin; both were focused on building up their people; Hitler initially killed communists and socialists in Germany before moving on to Jews and Slavs; Mussolini was eventually executed by communist rebels. Merely because a regime has similar methods to another doesn’t make them best buds. Just as democracies don’t swoon over each other because they’re all democrats.

The Community vs. The Individual

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.


We’re back again in the social contract. John Locke and Thomas Hobbes couldn’t really agree over this (of course they were speaking at opposite ends of the English Civil War, so I suppose that’s understandable). But I suspect it would be difficult for anyone to choose between the individual and the community. I’ve always argued that we seek a more equal community so as to strengthen the liberty of the individual. My emphasis is on the individual, but the method works on the community. There’s no dividing line for that philosophy, the kind that sees equality and liberty as two sides of the same coin. I fully expect people to criticize that point of view, but it’s the one I hold. So how do you place that?

Look I understand that it’s useful to classify and divide and categorize different political thought and people. But that’s ultimately the problem I see. People are messy. We have at least three separate sciences for understanding why people do things the way they do, and each science has further schools of thought that are wholly at odds with the other schools of thought. Sometimes people take a position merely because the other side is so unpleasant they don’t want to be associated with it. How do you classify personal relations into political theory?

I once read a passage about doing qualitative interviews of people, and the author noted that people are usually unable to explain why they did something. That we seek order and patterns in chaos is a perfectly alright endeavor. But it’s an imperfect endeavor.

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A native-born Rhode Islander, educated in Providence Public Schools, went to college in North Carolina and a political junkie and pessimistic optimist.

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