A Third Political Axis


[Political chart as proposed by the Political Compass organization, found here]

Perhaps you have taken one of the many political test, popular during elections, to determine where you lie on the political spectrum. Perhaps you were less than satisfied with the results or options, after all, many of us do not like being put into categories, especially if we find ourselves associated with others who’s views we find distasteful.

Most of these tests simplify views in order to track where one may land politically. Of course, they are limited in their accuracy, as many people are à la carte when it comes to political preferences. However limited these tests may be they do provide useful frameworks to understand the variety of political views, and from a pro-liberty perspective, it provides useful information regarding messaging and how to best advocate for liberty.

The two common axes seen on political tests are between social and economic freedoms, usually with the economic on the x-axis and social freedom on the y-axis. However, these biaxial tests fail to capture an important aspect about politics that is often confusing when discussing different political tendencies, which is how we should embrace political change. Here is how the three axes would appear when including a political action axis:

  1. Economic Freedom Axis (x-axis)– As is traditionally the case this axis contains the range of economic freedom permitted, on the left is often the strong socialist or communist tendencies, which may also include strong forms of progressive, and on the right absolute economic freedom.
  2. Social Freedom Axis (y-axis)– This is divided between the absolute free from social obligations to the restriction of social relations by the state. This may be described as the libertine/traditionalist spectrum.
  3. Political Action Axis (z-axis)– This axis focuses on how change is or should be implemented.  One extreme would believe that change should be implemented regardless of the means when it fails to match your political or policy preferences the other end believes that change should be fought or prevented tooth and nail. This is the radical/conservative spectrum, respectively.

The third axis removes some of the baggage associated with the term conservative, which has always been a bit ambiguous. For instance, in the European sense “conservative” carries a different meaning than in the United States, this because the institutions and political norms differ.

The challenge in adding the third axis is usability. At what point does this addition become two cumbersome? Three-dimensional visualizations are not amenable to easy comparison.

However, this remains useful conceptually because it captures a distinction that is difficult to articulate. For example, a conservative anarcho-capitalist (high freedom on the x and y axes, but low tolerance for political change) may find the institutions of the United States completely immoral and illegitimate but prefers they be maintained when considering the cost and risks of revolution. As a result, a relatively high level of tolerance for government exists despite holding that government is worse than a “necessary evil.”

As Yuval Levin points out, this radical/conservative tension is also at the heart of the left-right debate. His book The Great Debate is an discussion of this tension as captured through the writings and correspondence of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. Though the left generally leans toward Paine and the right toward Burke, both tend to accept at some level the opposing position, similar to the relationship between Burke and Paine. Burke believed in slow institutional reformation but did not always stand athwart policy or institutional changes- he was anti-slavery and supported American succession on practical grounds- and Paine held that government should be built from the ground up on first principles. His support of the French Revolution was a reflection of this belief but in the end he withdrew his support when his faction fell out of favor, narrowly escaping the guillotine.

Lastly, adding this third axis may not always provide a distinction, one such example may be some traditionalist who are very conservative, which may have enough overlap to be indistinguishable. However in the libertarian, classic liberal, or even left-liberal camps there is potentially a fair amount of variation on the political change spectrum. Which suggests this third axis may provide a fair amount of insight, especially between those who find common policy grounds but fail to align in terms of implementation. After all, one of the more difficult political questions isn’t whether a policy position is best, it is how to get from here to there.

James Devereaux is an attorney, all views his own. Find him on twitter @jcdevereaux1.

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