Thursday, 13 May 2010

The Political Spectrum?

There's something about a lot of political discourse in the blogosphere that particularly irritates me: talk of 'the political spectrum', in particular use of the terms 'the left' and 'the right' by people of all sorts of political affiliation as both complimentary and pejorative terms.

The terms 'right-wing' and 'left-wing' have their origins in the French Revolution, where in the French Parliament, those who sat on the left generally supported the radical changes of the revolution, including the creation of a republic and secularisation; those who sat on the right supported preservation of the monarchy, aristocracy and the established church.

More recently the term left-wing has been used to describe ideologies as wide ranging as anarchism, social liberalism, social democracy, socialism and communism.  Similarly, right-wing has been applied to conservatives, reactionaries, aristocrats, monarchists and theocrats as well as those who support both free-market capitalism and some forms of nationalism.

The problem with this is that the terms are sufficiently vague so as to include such wide-ranging viewpoints that they are effectively rendered meaningless.  By the generally accepted definitions given above, anarchists for example, are both left and right-wing.

Rather than thinking in terms of a left-right political spectrum, it is probably more accurate to think in terms of a plain of political ideas, an idea perhaps best captured by the Nolan Chart.

There's an example of a Nolan Chart below.  This one has been rotated 45 degrees counter-clockwise so that the 'liberal' region is on the left and the 'conservative' region on the right.  If you like to think in terms of left and right-wing politics these correspond (very roughly) to the left and right sides of the diagram.

The x-axis (which runs along the lower right of the graph) represents economic freedom, whilst the y-axis (lower left) represents personal freedom.

An explanation of where some typical ideologies lie on the Nolan Chart:
  • Communism can be considered to span almost the entire length of the lower left side of the chart, spanning both the statist (authoritarian) and liberal regions.
  • Socialism lies next to communism, slightly further up and to the right on the chart.
  • Liberalism, as should be apparent, covers the liberal area of the chart.
  • Social Democracy sits in the middle of the liberal part of the graph.
  • Totalitarianism and Fascism lie at the extreme point of the statist (authoritarian) region, at the very bottom of the chart.
  • Conservatism and Christian Democracy lie in the conservative area.
  • Libertarianism, obviously, covers the libertarian region.
  • Anarchism sits at the extreme tip of the libertarian region, right at the top of the graph, with maximum economic and personal freedom.
  • The centrist region contains many mainstream politicians and parties, combining more moderate ideas from many different ideologies.
In case you were wondering, the little star on the chart is where I personally sit on this measure of political ideology (as a self-described 'liberal with libertarian tendencies' I was hardly surprised by this result).  If you want to find out where you lie, try out this quiz; it seems to me to be quite accurate, despite only containing 10 questions, some of which are not ideally worded.

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