Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A More Accurate Political Spectrum

People often have a mistaken view that fascism and communism are opposites, with modern conservatives and liberals somewhere in between.

Picture reference

This political spectrum has communism as being to the far left and fascism as being to the far right. The argument is that while liberals are more like communists, conservatives are more like fascists. Part of the confusion on this issue stems from the fact that this political spectrum is actually taught in colleges. However, it is completely false (and I'm certainly not the first to point this out).

The truth is, communism and fascism have more similarities than differences. Both communism and fascism are forms of government that involve little or no freedom of the people. Both forms of government trample on the innate inalienable rights of the people. They also have many other similarities such as unlimited patriotism/nationalism (the country matters more than individuals or their rights), government-controlled media, government control of industry and trade, and lots of pro-government propaganda. Are you seeing a trend here? Fascism and communism are just different forms of overbearing and bloated government. They aren’t opposites at all.

A better understanding of the political spectrum is to rank forms of government by the amount of freedom the people have (or, inversely, how big and powerful government is). So, on this scale we have anarchy on one side and totalitarian regimes (such as communism and fascism) on the other.
Picture reference
Obviously, while anarchy offers complete freedom and no government oversight at all, the people have no one to protect their rights except themselves. It is difficult to protect one's life and property all alone against the rest of the world. One must be constantly ready to fight (think of the Wild West where there was little or no government) and the weak are easily taken advantage of. Thus, people form governments in order to protect their own rights. Anarchy simply isn’t a viable way to live for long.

However, on the opposite extreme we have governments that trample on the rights of the people. In this scenario, the greatest threat to one's life and property is not a solitary criminal but one's own government run rampant and unchecked. A government with unlimited power is even more to be feared than no government at all. At least in the case of anarchy one might have a chance of staving off an attack from lone predators that wish to do harm. But an organized and powerful government is something that no one person can stop.

The question is, what form of government and what level of governmental power is the best balance? The goal is to protect the people's inalienable rights (that is why they need government, after all) in order to promote freedom, not infringe upon it. One must have enough government power to punish and deter evildoers (those that infringe upon the rights of others). However, one must have a small enough government that the government itself does not infringe upon the rights of the people. In other words, you want the balance where people's rights are best protected. Since government out of control is more greatly to be feared than anarchy, the best balance is to have the smallest possible government that can protect the rights of the people adequately. This is also the most efficient use of resources because the smaller the government, the smaller the number of government middlemen that must be paid.

As for modern conservatives and liberals, liberals tend to move toward greater government power and conservatives tend to move toward lesser government power. The only thing we need to determine is which side of that ideal balance of governmental power we are currently on in order to determine which political view is best. Should we move toward greater or lesser government power in order to reach that balance point?

In order to answer that question, we need to first ask, do we have enough government power to provide for the punishment and deterrence of crime and other forcible infringement of rights? In other words, is our government's power sufficient for its most basic and necessary tasks? I believe so. Of course, crime still exists (as it always will), but we do have a government that is capable of investigating and punishing it. And we have a government that is capable of defending from outside invasion by those who would take away the freedoms of the citizens. So while this aspect might need some adjustment in details, government definitely has enough power to fulfill its mission to protect the people's rights. If it is failing to do so effectively enough, it is not from lack of power, but from lack of efficiency.

So, next we need to ask, is our government getting too powerful, infringing upon the people's rights and liberties itself? Yes, we are beginning to see some signs of government abuse of power and infringement of the people's rights and liberties. Therefore, we need to move back toward a smaller and more limited government where the people's rights are more secure and there is greater freedom.


  1. Very clear and timely. Thanks for clarifying the grid. Makes a whole lot of sense. We should not shy from our conservatism because we are afraid of being called an almost-Nazi.

  2. This is a very good overview and perspective. Though I would disagree strongly that we are "beginning to see some signs of government abuse of power and infringement of the people's rights". It is clear to me that we are under a full-blown attack by the govt and the evidence is plentiful that govt abuses and infringements are happening NOW and at an accelerating pace.

  3. New reader, I came over from To Love Honor and Vacuum. Great post.

    A good book on the topic of modern political labels is Robert H. Bork's Slouching Towards Gomorrah. He defines Modern Liberalism vs. Classical Liberalism and Modern Conservatism.

    For example, I would say classical liberalism is about large government with the view that it is better for the government to take care of things. However, Bork defines classical liberalism as radical egalitarianism (the equality of outcomes rather than opportunities) and radical individualism (the drastic reduction of limits to personal gratification). This is what we see much more in our society now. Whereas, FDR was a classical liberal.

    I am really enjoying reading your blog. Thanks.

    1. Glad to have you! Thanks for the input and the book recommendation.

    2. FDR was a classical liberal? That is probably the most ludicrous thing I've read. Classical liberals were about small government and individual liberty, not a giant welfare state where government takes care of everyone. If this blog is where you get your information from, both you and the blogger should read actual books written by people who claim these titles. You'll quickly find your perception of these political leanings are wrong.

  4. You state (emphasis mine) "A better understanding of #the political spectrum# is to rank forms of government by the amount of freedom the people have (or, inversely, how big and powerful government is)."

    Setting aside the notion that there can ever be a single political spectrum which deserves the definite article you give it, the clearly underlying assumption is that there is an inevitable linkage between size and power of governments and their malevolence,
    and/or that governments will inevitably use their power to restrict the freedoms of the governed.

    Whether or not such linkages are easily supported by quoting selected instances, there are significant counterexamples, and the word 'inevitably' is clearly not applicable.

    So it seems to me that building this questionable assumption into any spectrum means it could equally well be labelled "Good" at one end, and "Evil" at the other.*

    And it's not (I hope) controversial to point out that such a spectrum is not a tool for understanding; it's a tool for persuading.

    We've used such false dichotomies since the dawn of recorded history mainly to foster or further political tribalism and/or fundamentalism, regardless of whether that is the purpose of this post.

    It may be that I am exposing a weakness in your argument which derives more from your need to render it digestible for a broad audience than from any tribal or fundamental agenda.

    I do think you raise some worthwhile and interesting points. It is horrifying that a pot-pourri hodge-podge spectrum like the one which heads your post could be presented on any platform other than political satire, (let alone at an institution which pretended to foster understanding), but it serves to starkly illustrate how radical positions on the extreme of any spectrum carry considerable risks and costs for our well-being, welfare and future prospects.

    And it's sobering to see how far most modern western democracies, as your "more accurate" spectrum shows, have moved towards the radical fringe where the outcomes for individuals so comprehensively trump the outcomes for society as a whole.

    Privileging the rights of individuals to the extent which has become commonplace would dictate that absolutely everyone in a city where there was an outbreak of (say) a new, more infectious but equally virulent strain of ebola would be entitled to flee to wherever they felt safe.
    To me that's a radical challenge to the continued existence of the species, in the name of what's best for individuals.

    The best outcome for society might be to seal off and incinerate the city and its occupants.
    That's more radical still, and differs from the previous solution in that everyone can recognise how radical it is.
    It could never happen, and yet, in terms of the greatest good for the greatest number, I don't think the "best outcome" label is hysterical.

    The polarisation of politics today means that many more nuanced challenges than super-ebola, such as the proto-pseudo-Caliphate in the Middle East, are treated as though they required this sort of radical thinking. It always starts with the assumption, in defiance both of history and of realistic analysis, that eradication is both necessary and possible.


    * It is also (in the traditional sense used in discussions of logic) "Begging the question".

    PPS: the 'Political spectrum' which heads the post would perhaps be more accurately termed a collection of increasingly radical dichotomies (in some cases, pseudo-dichotomies), arranged balancing each other, as if on a single beam.

    A spectrum is an analogue continuum, rather than a collection of discrete and disconnected categories.
    Loose use of language is inseparable, it seems to me, from loose thinking: the "spectrum" label leads a thinker to infer that monarchism is a step towards Nazism, and communism a step towards anarchism, both clearly ludicrous.

    1. You seem to misunderstand the label "spectrum." The political spectrum is merely a way to refer to the wide variety of political views and systems. One could classify these views or systems by left vs. right or one could classify them by the level of governmental power. I'm making an argument that classifying political systems by the amount of government power is a better way to understand types of government. There is certainly nothing about this classification system that suggests that one system of government turns into another. It's a way to rank systems of government on one of their attributes. So if there's any confusion on that, you've read it in yourself. No one else takes this classification system as you seem to.

      You also seem to think I am placing political systems on a spectrum with labels analogous to "good" and "bad" on opposite sides. If you actually read what I wrote, you would realize that I specifically pointed out that both extremes are bad. Neither anarchy nor totalitarian governments are good things. Both make it difficult for the rights of the individual to be protected. The best situation is somewhere in the middle with a government that has power to protect rights, and yet is limited enough not to take away the freedom of the people.

      --"Setting aside the notion that there can ever be a single political spectrum which deserves the definite article you give it, the clearly underlying assumption is that there is an inevitable linkage between size and power of governments and their malevolence, and/or that governments will inevitably use their power to restrict the freedoms of the governed."

      There is a linkage between government power (perhaps not size, in the sense of number of employees, but in amount of power) and the freedom of the people in that, above a certain level of power, government can only grow its power at the expense of the people's freedom. At such power levels, government can only gain more power in the lives of the people by removing their power over themselves. A government that is totalitarian (i.e. highly powerful and controlling) is a government where the people have no power to decide for themselves how they will work, what they will eat, what they will wear, where they will live (and other basic things that all people have a right to decide for themselves) because the state has complete control. That kind of government power to decide everything for the people only comes at the expense of the people's freedoms.

  5. Anarchism is NOT leftist slavery...your view that government is required for freedom is obviously blinded by your statist mentality. I guess individual responsibility us slavery while government dependency for security and welfare is freedom. Completely misguided.

    1. People everywhere have developed governments to protect their rights and punish evildoers. From chieftains to judges to sheriffs of the Old West, there have always been some sort of leaders in any community. Even a family clan headed by a patriarch is a government. Perhaps you only include large, overbearing states in your definition of "government" but that's a misguided view. Government, properly understood as authority that protects the people's rights and punishes evildoers, is an important aid to human freedom as long as it doesn't itself infringe upon the people's rights.

  6. Wow, you swapped the two on the far right and far left and added nazi to the right... although nazi stands for National Socialist Workers Party.
    As the further left you go you get more government... more and more and more till.. anarchy? which is no government?

    You suck at lying dude.

    1. It's a little unclear, but it looks like you might be critiquing the top diagram in the article, which I specifically said was false. The entire post was about how the top diagram is flawed.

  7. One thought is that the size of government is not the only factor in determining how much power it has over the people. The rule of law and equal protection under the law matter, but so does culture and the tendency of the people to be corrupt in the absence of authority. Not all people would be, and in certain cultures a smaller or larger portion of the people would choose to be corrupt ceteris paribus. This is one explanation for why some countries do well economically and some don’t, which is a question in the field of development economics. Not that individual or group corruption is the only abuse of governent power. Sometimes governments abuse power for a race or a party or what they would say is the sake of the nation. So the next time you’re just itching to interpret every legal issue against officials you don’t like as bad and every legal issue against officials you do like as good, you are being a big problem and contributing to a bigger problem, the psersonalizing of the law.

  8. Meant to say I had the good and bad switched in the text.

  9. Btw protecting people and their rights is not the only thing govts do. Free markets are amazing when incentives align, but there are well-established grossly inefficient failures that are bad enough that they are worth even the messy inefficient riskiness of government intervetion. Like antitrust. Monopolies are indeed worse than governement intervention in the economy. Another no-brainer example is the lack of longterm expensive invention that occurs in markets left on their own. That’s cause the inventor cannot recupe even a tiny bit of the invention’s total value. So we have patent regulations. Another is the well established fact that markets don’t handle public goods well. There is simple hundred-year-old theory about this and it has been verified empirically esp after computers came. No a “public good” is not some wishy washy term. It means a good that is non-rival and non-excludable. Another uncontroverrsial one is called a natural monopoly (not referring to the above monopolies). In a natural monopoly, the marginal cost (not just the average cost) is falling in quantity. This makes two or more firms come in and achieve a hugely inefficient outcome. One good example is bulk water supply. It’s inefficient to make and bury two or more mains, but that is exactly the natural market outcome. These exceptions are exceptions, but they exist and are so bad that they are worth govt intervention. Every country on earth corrects them, even the most conservative. Whether known or not, correcting glaring poor market outcomes based on simple solid theory and experience is part of the pact every country’s govt has with its people. More controversial is the agreement to help sick and orphaned and insane, etc. And social security, based on the idea that some people won’t even save that minimal level and we don’t want to wonder after the fact whether to let many elderly be homeless and starving. Govt interventions are usually either pretty well designed and minimalist, or they are corruption, or they are pure transfers of wealth like just mentioned to people laid off or sick etc etc.