Political ideological axes

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Political ideologies are commonly described as falling somewhere in a "left-right" spectrum, but this habit is generally misleading and appears to arise largely from a more or less arbitrary historical circumstance (a short-lived seating custom in the French National Assembly in the 18th century[1]). Other systems have been proposed, generally using two or more dimensions, and it seems likely that at least four dimensions will be necessary in order to avoid significant ideological conflation.

Proposed Spectra

  • Nolan chart: [personal freedom] x [economic freedom]
  • Pournelle chart: [belief in reason] x [belief in a State]
  • Jamais Cascio's "Future Matrix":
    • version 1: [optimism/pessimism] x [realism/idealism]
    • version 2: [optimism/pessimism] x [pragmatism/idealism]



Related Articles

  • Belief in a particular moral system is usually the basis for (or a strong component of) an individual's agreement with a particular political ideology.


I have my own favorite 3-D coordinate system.

Start by acknowledging a single discrete trait to stand for left-right. Not statism... but propertarianism. On the left you think personal property is suspect. On the right it's sacred. This is the best of all shadow simplifications of the horrid left-right cliche, since in fact there were many left & right statists. Still, Stalin did not actually "own" very much at all.

He didn't have to! The "up-down" axis would be "To what degree should the state or party have to power to coerce cooperation?"

Finally, the in-out dimensions should be "To what do you attribute differences among human beings? Nature or nurture?"

Now we really start to separate birds who are not of-a-feather!

Stalin, at top-left-in, says nobody should own anything, but he has the right to coerce/kill you... but because he believes all is nurture -- (Lysenkoism= infinite human reprogramability) -- he won't kill your children, only re-educate them to hate you.

Hitler is top-middle-out. Actually moderate syndicalist re: property. But he claims the right to coerce/kill you... an because he believes all is nature (race) explaining all differences, he must also kill your kids.

Classic aristocrats are top-right-out... They will kill you to defend their sacred and inherited right to own you and everything in sight.

Libertarians and anarchists differ over the sacredness of property. Down at the bottom, they will howl at each other for hours, while buying each other beers. So will Stalin & Hitler. Clearly the most important of these three axes is the one about coercion. All else is commentary.

  • Contrary Brin 2006-05-31 goes into some of the pitfalls of "political axis"-making, most notably:
    1. A spectrum should not be pejorative.
    2. Axes should not be (or seem) designed to coax people into choosing a predetermined quadrant (or area).
    3. It’s best when the two or three “axis traits” don’t have anything in common (i.e. avoid axes which seem different but share related concepts or are correlated in some way)
    4. The axes should pragmatically separate groups that clearly do not like each other and have different goals (i.e. avoid ideological conflation)


Main Dimensions

What other dimensions might be significant in measuring political ideology?

  • whether good and evil depend on context or are absolute (moral absolutism versus moral relativism)
  • view of negotiation as primarily a zero-sum game (Acoop+Bcoop = Acomp+Bcomp), i.e. competition for limited resources, vs. the idea that cooperation can yield greater benefits for both parties (Acoop > Acomp and Bcoop > Bcomp) This dimension probably has a lot to do with Horizon theory.
    • view that one's own interests take precedence over the common good (Acoop+Bcoop > Acomp+Bcomp is not sufficient reason to cooperate)
    • view that the other party is likely to cheat in any negotiation and thus we should preemptively do the same wherever it would prevent loss or maximize gain (mistrust, paranoia)
  • importance of studying doctrine ("doctrinality" or "doctrinaire") vs. observation and analysis (rationalism) (Pournelle box only charts reason vs. irrationality - is "belief in an incorruptible doctrine" a form of irrationality? If so, is it the only form?)
  • preference for superior-inferior (usually hierarchical) power relationships, as opposed to peer-peer (when applied to governance, this translates to authoritarianism (Authoritarianism) versus rule of the people)
    • perhaps this is a more-or-less logical corollary of "the toxicity of ideas" (see Brin questionnaire): (a) "I think ideas are inherently dangerous or toxic. People are easily deceived. An elite should guide or protect gullible masses toward correct thinking (Memic Frailty)" versus (b) "I believe children can be raised with a mixture of openness and skepticism to evaluate concepts on their own merits. Citizens can pluck useful bits wherever they may be found, even from bad images or ideologies (Memic Maturity)".
    • also seems related to the idea of the "desirability of some authority with the might to impose its will (perhaps for the "common good") upon recalcitrant individuals or competing systems", i.e. coercion, versus populism (see Brin)
    • may also be an expression of (or related to) the idea that the possession of power justifies its use (might makes right), a meme which seems to be quite successful under the right circumstances (e.g. Nazi Germany)
  • belief that the human condition can be improved (however slowly) vs. the idea of a golden past to which we can only aspire to one day return (usually by following the rules laid out in some ancient doctrine; this tends to go together with doctrinality)
    • This can also be stated in terms of the nature of the propagation of wisdom (see Brin questionnaire): (a) "humans knew a natural idyllic condition at some point in the past, from which we fell because of bad, inappropriate or sinful choices, thus reducing our net wisdom. (The Look Back View)" versus (b) "Wisdom is cumulative and anything resembling a human utopia can only be achieved in the future, through incremental improvements in knowledge or merit. (The Look Forward View)".
  • value of intuition vs. reasoning/analysis in arriving at understanding
  • value of human understanding, regardless of how it is arrived at
  • importance of personal property (left thinks this is a highly suspect idea, perhaps evil; right sees it as innate and irrevocable, one of the fundamental rights of man (see Brin))
  • nature vs. nurture: "What explains the observed differences among human beings in ability, temperament and achievement? Is it genes or the environment?" (see Brin)

Related Issues

Some issues which seem important but which may already be covered by the above:

  • willingness to reopen discussion of existing solutions (as opposed to just solving new problems), in different arenas (e.g. social, as in marriage laws; infrastructure, as in power generation - liberals don't want to reconsider nuclear as an option, for example, but conservatives aren't willing to consider that marriage might be redesigned either) – can this be expressed as a combination of any of the others? It seems a bit overspecific to be a fundamental dimension...
  • importance of observable facts versus pure reasoning (Continental rationalism)
  • whether or not studies of (a) animal behavior (especially primates, dolphins, and other large-brained animals) and (b) behavior of tribal, non-mainstream cultures can be of benefit to understanding our own behavior. Related questions: Is human nature fixed, immutable? Is our understanding of it changeable, or have we learned pretty much everything we need to know about it?
  • governmental style: "left-handed" (large projects explicitly coordinated and funded, e.g. pyramids, canals, wars, universities) versus "right-handed" (set up the rules and let individuals compete or cooperate out of enlightened self-interest, hopefully to the best benefit of society as a whole) (see Brin questionnaire)
  • Is there any use in trying to persuade others of your point of view by using reasoned arguments and factual data, or is it better (perhaps more responsible, if you know your viewpoint is the correct one and those who disagree need to be shown the error of their ways) to use a strategy of demonizing those who defend contrary points of view, overwhelming the discussion with arguments which do not yield easily to rational response and are likely to make your opponent look bad in the short run (where the long run doesn't really count for much, in the political arena)? (One's stance on this issue may be a direct corollary of one's view on the toxicity of information.)

Ideologies & Worldviews

Some sample uses of these axes:

  • Mysticism: intuition important, observation unimportant
  • Nihilism could be defined as a very low value assigned to human understanding (further implying that neither intuition nor reason has much value either)

Historical Examples

  • Stalin ("far left") was against personal property (see Communism, where most or all property is held in common), strongly pro-coercion by the state
  • Ferdinand Marcos, the Somozas in Nicaragua, and Saddam Hussein all believed in inherited private wealth (strong private property) and were also strongly coercive
  • Hitler ("far right") was perhaps the most coercive figure in modern history, but relatively moderate concerning private property