Charting Politics

I’ve seen the following chart floating around on Facebook (click to enlarge):

This chart is certainly inaccurate, and probably misleading.

For one thing, anarchists are often labeled far-left, and anarchists support none of the government programs listed. But let’s assume that the chart author prefers to put anarchists under the libertarian center of the chart, and by left s/he means liberals, Democrats, Greens, and maybe democratic socialists, while by right s/he means conservatives, Republicans, and other right-wing movements. And let’s ignore totalitarians like Maoists and fascists. There are still problems.

Since when are statists on the right stalwart supporters of economic freedom and respect for others’ property rights? They wouldn’t be statists if they were, and saying that they are certainly contradicts the items on the right column in the red box.

Right wingers often aren’t even that good on the individual right to keep and bear arms – “stricter enforcement” and keeping guns out of the hands of “criminals” are big buzz phrases. I’ve seen gun shop employees avoid helping people who had a Muslim or ghetto look to them, and I’ve seen signs at gun shows saying that the vendor will not sell to anybody heard speaking a language other than English. I guess it depends on who counts as an individual.

It’s also pretty laughable to think that “giving generously to those in need” and “advancement based on individual ability” are characteristically right wing.

Similarly, since when have Democrats been stalwart defenders of personal freedom, non-interventionist foreign policy, tolerance of others’ personal choices, civil liberties and privacy, or ending corporate welfare? And Democrats will certainly play the Jesus card to get elected. These things generally contradict the items in the left side of the blue column.

And then we move to libertarians. The word “libertarian” means seeking to maximize individual liberty. Once the libertarian realizes that the institution of the state is necessarily in conflict with individual liberty, the libertarian becomes an anarchist. Once she realizes that social and economic authoritarianism restrict individual liberty and intertwine with political authoritarianism, she becomes a better anarchist. So saying that libertarians support this or that state policy is misleading: a radical libertarian supports preventing the state from functioning in any manner.

I think it is more useful to make a left-right spectrum based on the observations of Karl Hess:

My own notion of politics is that it follows a straight line rather than a circle. The straight line stretches from the far right where (historically) we find monarchy, absolute dictatorships, and other forms of absolutely authoritarian rule. On the far right, law and order means the law of the ruler and the order that serves the interest of that ruler, usually the orderliness of drone workers, submissive students, elders either totally cowed into loyalty or totally indoctrinated and trained into that loyalty…

The overall characteristic of a right-wing regime, no matter the details of difference between this one and that one, is that it reflects the concentration of power in the fewest practical hands.

Power, concentrated in few hands, is the dominant historic characteristic of what most people, in most times, have considered the political and economic right wing.

The far left, as far as you can get away from the right, would logically represent the opposite tendency and, in fact, has done just that throughout history. The left has been the side of politics and economics that opposes the concentration of power and wealth and, instead, advocates and works toward the distribution of power into the maximum number of hands…

The farthest left you can go, historically at any rate, is anarchism — the total opposition to any institutionalized power, a state of completely voluntary social organization in which people would establish their ways of life in small, consenting groups, and cooperate with others as they see fit.

The attitude on that farthest left toward law and order was summed up by an early French anarchist, Proudhon, who said that ‘order is the daughter of and not the mother of liberty.’ Let people be absolutely free, says this farthest of the far, far left (the left that Communism regularly denounces as too left; Lenin called it ‘infantile left’). If they are free they will be decent, but they never can be decent until they are free.

I hope you read the rest of Hess’ passage at Wally Conger’s blog.

I have said that consistent libertarians, those who want to maximize the freedom of the individual in all aspects of life, are properly understood as left-wing. This roots us historically, and identifies us as people looking for a radical change, not looking to stabilize the system or look backwards to a mythical golden age. It also identifies ways we can attack would-be oppressors – for example by using the tools of direct action and bottom up consensual organization to build independence of, and opposition to authoritarian structures. See my Libertarians Are Left discussion from Alternatives Expo for elaboration.

Certainly the meanings of words change over time, and labels should be used for facilitating communication, not locking communication in the chains of dogma. To communicate better it is helpful to look deeper at what is being said – especially noting contradictions and inconsistencies. This will help us present ideas as accurately as possible, and have an understanding what others are trying to say. So while we shouldn’t use labels to make ourselves more insular (I advocate reaching out to right and left), they can be useful in understanding the optimal ways to communicate, network, and build.

See also Charles “Rad Geek” Johnson, Kevin Carson, Roderick T. Long, Sheldon Richman, and The Alliance of the Libertarian Left.

[Update June-10-2010: Today I received an email from a Washington State Libertarian Party member saying that the chart was part of a brochure to be used in Libertarian Party outreach. They are sold at]

4 Responses to “Charting Politics”

  1. Werner Says:

    Would it not be better to present the political number line as two dimensional? Left and Right are on the “X” axis and authoritarian versus libertarian on the “Y” axis. For instance I’m a socialist and I’m also against gun control laws. Most anarchists are socialists although they might add that the terms “socialism” and “communism” did not equate to state control until the latter part of the nineteenth century.

  2. DarianW Says:

    You could do that, but I think it is more useful to have a simple, single line which measures consistency with libertarian or authoritarian principles. I’m actually not sure what would differentiate right versus left on a chart like you describe. I’m aware of the Nolan chart, but that is flawed by a) drawing a distinction between economic and personal liberty, and b) making it look as if statists are consistently in favor of either.

  3. DarianW Says:

    Well what I said would be more useful to me anyway. Certainly the utility of any presentation of the political spectrum would depend on what kind of message you are trying to get across. For me, that message is that one should consistently be for maximum liberty and against authority in every aspect of life.

  4. patientliberty7 Says:

    Another thing about right-wingers; despite all current pretensions, the right has never been in favor of a free-market. Like the acien regime of the 18th century, they favor entrenched economic interests. They mix pro-business actions with pro-market rhetoric and act like there is no contradiction.