Monday, January 14, 2008

Left, right, middle or none of the above?

If you are among the growing number of people who feel that the standard way of characterizing political stances as liberal, conservative, left-wing, right-wing and middle of the road is inadequate and confusing, you may be interested in a web site called The Political Compass. The authors of this web site argue convincingly that a more complex and nuanced way of characterizing political stances is needed.

The Political Compass is based on looking at two dimensions of political conviction. One dimension has to do with economic policy. Assigned to the x-axis of a standard Cartesian  type of graph, the left-of-center half of this line represents a willingness to have governmental control of the economy in the form of providing social safety nets such as social security and tax-subsidized universal health care, regulation of corporations, laws concerning minimum wages. The left-of-center half of the line, in other words, represents a tendency to favor communistic policies. The right-of-center half of the line, on the other hand, shows resistance to governmental regulation of the economy. The farther to the right one is on this axis, the more one favors economic neo-liberalism, that is, free markets.

The other dimension that the Political Compass recognizes is where one stands on the extent to which government should be allowed to regulate individual conduct. Assigned to the y-axis, the above-center half of the line represents a willingness to pass laws that criminalize the use of drugs, abortion, some sexual practices. Above-the-center positions also tend to emphasize law-and-order issues, punishment of miscreants rather than reform, a strong military, a willingness to abridge personal rights in the interests of national security. In short, above-center positions tend toward authoritarianism. The below-center positions, on the other hand, show a preference for individual rights and freedoms over national and other collectivist concerns. In other words, the farther one is situated along the y-axis, the more libertarian one's social philosophy is.

If one pictures the four quadrants made by a Cartesian graph, one can think of the four sectors as NE (economically neo-liberal and socially authoritarian), SE (economically neo-liberal and socially libertarian), SW (economically communistic and socially libertarian) and NW (economically communistic and socially authoritarian). Examples of people in each of the four quadrants are George W. Bush, Adolf Hitler and Margaret Thatcher (NE); Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman (SE), Ralph Nader; The Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela (SW); and Pope Benedict, Robert Mugabe and Josef Stalin (NW).

The web site has a test that anyone can take for free and anonymously to determine one's own political quadrant. When I took the test I got a score that placed me pretty far to the left economically (-.868 with 0 being middle-of-the-road and -10 being Communist) and slightly less strongly libertarian on social issues (-6.31 with 0 being middle-of-the road and -10 being hardcore libertarian). This made immediate sense to me, given that Nader, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama are people whom I have always admired. It also helped me understand why, despite a left-leaning economic persuasion, I have always felt uncomfortable with the authoritarian nature of Soviet and Chinese Communism. It also made sense to me that the people I have admired least (Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Margaret Thatcher) are at the opposite end of both spectrums to me; they favor economic liberalism but social authoritarianism. So while as a Southwesterner I feel quite comfortable with, say, same-sex marriage and full legalization of marijuana and heroin but think oil companies and pharmaceutical companies should be heavily regulated and the wealthy should be heavily taxed to provide healthcare for the poor, the Northwestern Bush and Reagan believe just the opposite on all these issues.

Take the test yourself and see where you fit. It may help you understand better why you either like this blog cite or hate it.

< p>For those of you who are following the American race for president, you may be interested in looking at the page on the US primaries. You will note, either with delight or with dismay, that all the leading candidates are in the same sector. They are all closely huddled around George W. Bush in the NE sector of the graph. The Republicans are all to the economic right of the Democrats and (with the exception of Ron Paul) more authoritarian, but all leading candidates of both parties are above-center authoritarians and right-of-center economic neo-liberals. If you are still undecided who to vote for, it could be because there is not much difference among the candidates. The only candidates not in the NE sector are Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel (neither of whom has a prayer of being nominated by their party). As the authors of the site point out, the ideological distance among American presidential canditates for the past twenty-five years or so has been less than in any other Western democracy. American political races tend to be among a pack of almost identical candidates. If it's political variety and real political choice you seek, think of living in Great Britain, Germany, Canada or New Zealand. If it's an illusion of diversity strongly magnified and exaggerated by the media you hanker for, The United States of America is the place for you.