Yet another half-baked theory of the political spectrum

Most political theorising and philosophical discourse happens in the anglosphere. And the anglosphere is mostly, by numbers, the United States. It is no surprise that attempts at explaining political blocs are in one way or another USAcentric.

Even in the academic literature, one can find such things as “economic conservatism”, meaning “being in favour of less intervention of the government in the economy, lower taxation, etc”. Those things are not conservative (in the sense of preserving the status quo) at all! But it is called like that because political conservatives in the US endorse those policies.

To see what are these “left and right” things, we should think first about the essence or core of what here is called right and left, if any. But before classifying the world into two, as others have done before, we must ask: Why two?

Indeed, for some it may come easily to see the world in terms of left and right. Many people have an answer ready to the question “Do you consider yourself to be on the right or the left?”. I’ve never had an internal answer to that question that feels comfortable. It’s like asking me “Do you like coffee or alcohol?” (It happens to be neither). Those questions either assume that it has to be one or the other, or forget that there can be more categories.

But what categories. We’ll come back to that.

Previous attempts at explaining the political spectrum have tried to tie differences between left and right to wealth. The thrive/survive theory that Scott Alexander has or the similar theory that Robin Hanson espouses point to a strong role for wealth: the wealthier the more thrive/left/hunter a society is.

But this theory has an issue: Oil rich, high GDP, arab countries. Even when we limit ourselves to the rich within those countries, we don’t see as much “leftism” as we would see in Sweden. Equally, as people get rich they should get more leftist, yet in the US, income does not affect ideology that much.

These theories seem to work because if one looks cross-nationally, one does see a wealth-values correlation.

Bryan Caplan has a different story: the Left is anti-market and the Right is anti-left. Instead of describing what can affect values, he merely describes,

There are many prominent candidates, like:

1. Leftists care more about equality, rightists care more about efficiency.
2. Leftists care more about the poor, rightists care more about the rich.
3. Leftists are more secular, rightists are more religious.

To my mind, though, all these theories overintellectualize Left and Right.  Neither ideology is a deduction from first principles.  Not even close.  What binds Leftists with fellow Leftists, Rightists with fellow Rightists, is not logic, but psycho-logic.  Feelings, not theories.

What’s my alternative?  This:

1. Leftists are anti-market.  On an emotional level, they’re critical of market outcomes.  No matter how good market outcomes are, they can’t bear to say, “Markets have done a great job, who could ask for more?”

2. Rightists are anti-leftist.  On an emotional level, they’re critical of leftists.  No matter how much they agree with leftists on an issue, they can’t bear to say, “The left is totally right, it would be churlish to criticize them.”

And with this theory, he criticised Scott Alexander’s, arguing that society is not drifting leftward (the Soviet Union fell, etc), radical left parties were more prominent in poorer countries, and were not particularly socially liberal, and a few issues don’t match the theory (abortion, for one). He also points out that the power of our theory may hinge on what we call left and right

My Simplistic Theory intentionally fails to predict lots of details.  Why?  Because many of the features that Scott sees as quintessentially leftist – such as “freedom of religion, democratic-republican governments, weak gender norms, minimal family values, and a high emphasis on education and abstract ideas” – have been neglected or rejected by history’s most influential, dyed-in-the-wool leftists.  The leftists Scott personally knows may cherish the items on his list.  To be frank, though, the leftists Scott personally knows are just a trendy subset of a diverse and enduring movement.

Defining Left and Right

What facts should the theory fit, for Scott Alexander?

1) Why do both ideologies combine seemingly unrelated political ideas? For example, why do people who want laissez-faire free trade empirically also prefer a strong military and oppose gay marriage? Why do people who want to help the environment also support feminism and dislike school vouchers?

2) Why do the two ideologies seem broadly stable across different times and cultures, such that it’s relatively easy to point out the Tories as further right than the Whigs, or ancient Athens as further left than ancient Sparta? For that matter, why do they seem to correspond to certain neural patterns in the brain, such that neurologists can determine your political beliefs with 83% accuracy by examining brain structure alone?

3) Why do these basically political ideas correlate so well with moral, aesthetic, and religious preferences?

4) The original question: how come, given enough time and left to itself, leftism seems to usually win out over rightism, pushing the Overton window a bit forward until there’s a new leftism and rightism?

My issue with this is that 1) is not quite true. You have libertarians, Vox leftists, SJW leftists, conservatives, alt-righters, fascists, and communists. These groups are quite different from each other, and they do not seem to neatly align in a 1D axis unless one is so enmeshed in the 1D political world that the 1D axis swampts the other differences.

Point 2) may have some truth to it, but it may also be availability bias. We have this image of Athenians as enlightened philosophers and Spartans as skilled warriors, but both societies featured large amounts of slavery, in Sparta women apparently had more freedoms than elsewhere. And Spartans were apparently less open than the Athenians to commerce and trade.

Sparta does seem like what you would get when a society is configured for survival and expansion, and Athens not so. But that doesn’t immediately map into modern categories of left and right. If one wants to define right as survival and left as thriving, one cannot keep the modern axis where you have socially conservative and economically liberal (in the classic sense) policies at one side, and socially liberal and economically progressive policies at the other, for if we define it like that, then Sparta’s relative economic leftism would put it outside of a US-based version of what the right is.

Point 3) seems hard to evaluate – and it is not much discussed in the post? . Take socialist realism and compare it to the preferred style of the Third Reich and you will note some similarities.

Point 4) As mentioned above, this is just not true. If anything, liberalism wins, which is closer to the Whig theory linked by Scott than leftism. (Unless liberalism is leftism!)

The specific issues that are discussed are:

  • Fear that society might collapse (right) vs everything is okay (left)
  • Pro gun (right) vs anti gun (left)
  • Big and powerful police and military (right) vs smaller (left)
  • More religion (right) vs less religion (left)
  • Distrust of outsiders (right) vs trust (left)
  • Preference for hierarchy and conformity (right) vs the opposite (left)
  • Harsh enforcement of rules (right) vs less strict (left)
  • Wealth maximisation (right) vs other concerns (left)
  • Purity ethics (right) vs not having it (left)
  • Practical skills (right) vs bookish skills (left)
  • Black and white thinking (right) vs shades of grey (left)

This may make us think “Yeah, it all fits…” but when we bring into scene communists, or libertarians, it doesn’t seem to fit. Central planning was a big thing back in the days of the USSR and Nazi Germany. It was also popular among the progressive elites in the West, which at the time also endorsed eugenics and policies that were biased against women, immigrants, the disabled and blacks. These guys were also religious. We need to explain last-century Progressivism too.

Here is a first half-baked attempt of an explanation that I don’t really fully endorse: The common thing between leftists is utilitarianism. Eric Hobsbawm – a marxist historian – notoriously said that the promise of a utopian society justified the death of twenty or fifteen million people. Similarly, (one could say) what unites past-day Progressives and the modern day Vox wonk is the belief that whatever they believe in is what serves the greater good. Thus the difference between the eugenicists of the past and the wonks of the present is more of empirics than of values. What then unites rightists?

Concerns about the nation? That thread also seems common among Progressives (not quite so with modern rational leftists)

Free marketism? (Not with Trump, or Theresa May. In what respects to markets, rightists seem to accept conservatism: keep what is on the table. Some of what they will then propose on the margins will be more or less pro-free market). Nazis certainly did keep private property and markets relatively alone and crushed unions. This is not free market, but pro-business (Or ultimately, whatever worked to keep churning Panzer IVs)

Or maybe rightists are also utilitarians! (Again, I don’t really believe this). But this would be far fetched. It is true that utilitarianism could commands things that could be “rightist”, such as increasing the fertility rate (perhaps banning abortions, or making contraception less available), and it is true that social conservatism has had its utilitarian defenders). Utilitarianism is not probably what we are looking for.

Here’s another half-baked explanation, merely based on semantics: right wing means maintaining the status quo and left wing means changing it. This would make the transition from communism to capitalism in western countries as left wing, and Stalin a massive rightist, and this would also make libertarians left wing in Sweden, and social democrats right wing.


I have my own theory, and my own facts to fit.

The facts to fit include what Scott Alexander has already mapped, when applied to Group A (US republican-types) and Group B (US democrat-types). But in addition:

  • Some people see things as getting better, others as getting worse, or stagnating
  • Some are more willing than others to use force to impose a more extensive set of values on society
  • Some desire a society that is just people doing their stuff and cooperating, others prefer a society tied together by a common purpose
  • Communism and fascism must be similar in at least one axis
  • Libertarianism and Vox leftism must be similar in at least one axis

Given that, my theory is this: There are three axes that define political ideology.

  1. Axis one is liberalism (Ideology)

Liberalism is something around the lines of recognizing people as moral equals, and having strong anti-coercion and anti-violence principles. Rule of law, civil rights, free speech, all that.  Liberals tends to think of individuals, not nations, and the liberal utopia is a society where everyone can do as they please without harming others, freely associating with each other.

Illiberalism does not see everyone as moral equals, and tends to be more group or nation focused. Rights are not seen as being posessed by individuals and recognised by states, but as being created and granted by states, perhaps for the benefit of society as a whole. Society should have some sense of common goal, and people should not just do what they want, they should think beyond themselves in some cause deemed worthy.

2. Axis 2 is conservatism-progressivism (Mood)

Conservatism here means worrying that society might collapse, that cooperation is difficult, that trust is hard to gain and easy to lose, keeping in mind that institutions are made of people, and preferring small marginal changes to the status quo versus major changes, regardless of the expected outcome.

Progressives see opportunities for change and improvement. Cooperation is easy, everyone can be trusted. If there are big sweeping changes to be made that might make things better off, why not go for it. Things have been going well and they will continue to do so, is the belief of the progressive.

3. Axis 3 is voluntarism-involuntarism (Compulsion)

Voluntarists would just leave people to do what they wish, without forcing them to do it, regardless of whether they should or not. For example, a voluntarist conservative may think that homosexual marriage is wrong, but he won’t oppose banning it. An involuntarist liberal will be more open to coercing the rich to give to the poor.

With these three axis, we account for most political subgroupings.

Take nazis and communists. They both are high in compulsion, but they differ in their ideological orientation. Both are towards the illiberal side (one is biased against other nationalities, the other is biased against the bourgeoisie, with fascism being more illiberal than communism. And both are progressive ideologies: they look to radically transform the world, and are optimistic about being able to achieve that transformation.

Take now social democrats and libertarians. Both share liberal ideas, but social democrats are more willing to use force to enforce them. Within both groups there are conservative and progressive camps. Conservative libertarians (I would include here David Friedman, Bryan Caplan (Edit: Bryan is not a good example of being on the conservative pole), or public-choice libertarians) talk – comparatively – more about the negative effects of compulsion, and progressive libertarians (Matt Zwolinski or Jason Brennan) talk more about the good aspects of voluntarism. It is only in the progressive libertarian camp where we can find discussions of libertarianism in the frame of ideal theory (Brenann’s Why not capitalism). Progressive social democrats tend to endorse things like UBI, and conservative social democrats minor tweaks to the existing system, usually emphasising how hard it was to get where we are. Conservative social democrats would be sneering at UBI defenders years ago for their utopian aspirations, while progressive social democrats would be keen to have open discussiong about it.

Neoreaction and nazis are different, but in what sense? Compulsion is the answer here. They share a nationalist (Illiberal) bias, and a progressive outlook of the world. Neoreaction wants to change things to make them as they used to be, and this requires massive changes. But nazis want to do it by force, while alt-righters want to do it more voluntarily through the application of the right of exclusion, or so they say.

Scott Alexander and myself are quite liberal, and we are also relatively low on compulsion scale, but he is somewhat more on the conservative direction as I am. He is the one who wrote the now classic Meditations on Moloch, a beautifully written explanation of coordination problems, and I was the one who wrote the (far less known, and less beautifully written) Slaying Alexander’s Moloch, on why those problems are not that bad!

This theory places most people somewhere in the middle. US republicans and democrats are both somewhere in the middle in terms of liberalism, willingness to enforce their ideas, and how sanguine their are about the future, with conservatives being, naturally, more on the conservative side, and democrats being more on the progressive side.

Indeed, they are probably equally liberal, and equally willing to use compulsion, and their greater difference may be just one of mood, of how much they trust politicians, or on how much they think social problems can be solved by the government.

This is in contrast to other theories of the spectrum, where we have a defined axis that goes from one extreme to the other. The thrive/survive theory (Or Robin Hanson’s, for that matter) would have a hard time with communism and fascism, mine doesn’t.

But one may argue: Those theories at least try to find a common explanation, or even make predictions. Yours is like Caplan’s: it merely describes what there is. Yes, that’s fair.

Can we add some predictive meat to this model? I think we can.

  • (Ideology) Liberalism is predicted by IQ, not so much wealth.
  • (Mood) Conservatism/Progressivism is predicted by personality factors ( I can think of openness to experience)
  • (Compulsion) For this one I honestly have no idea.

Throughout history, there have been people more or less willing to try new things, and this probably will stay the same: there we have our progressives and conservatives, our eternal two blocks of social confrontation. But thanks to the Flynn effect, people are getting more and more liberal. Compulsion I said is a tricky one because if one looks at what clever people think, one indeed tends to find liberalism, both conservative and progressive fractions, and also people who are willing/not willing to use force to implement liberalism. This is, the key political conflict used to be one between illiberal and liberal values. Now we are migrating to a compulsion vs less compulsion world, if anything.

This theory also points at the fact that all your clever friends are equally liberal, but then they vary across the other dimensions: the elite political spectrum is bi-dimensional (The illiberal quarter is empty), with Vox leftists (progressive, high in compulsion), left libertarians (progressive, low in compulsion), right libertarians (conservative, low in compulsion), and  those few who advocate state paternalism a la Singapore (conservative, high in compulsion)

This theory is half-baked, and has lots of holes (e.g. Poland is a high IQ highly traditional society), but I believe this approximates reality and its change better than the other theories discussed above.

Reprinted from here