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Friday, September 27, 2013

Thinking Outside the Circle

Political spectra are often designed to make a “center” appear reasonable.

A circle is sometimes a useful image, but not in the way it’s often used to depict the political spectrum. Here is an example I found on the Internet of what I’m referring to.

You’ve got the Left and the Right at opposite sides of the circle such that, as you move to down and to the left from the Right and down and to the right from the Left—that is, away from their propensities—you end up at a kind of equilibrium point between the two. But moving up and to the left from the Right or up and to the right from the Left, you not only wind up farther from the reasonable “center” but at—gasp—unstable anarchy!

I learned this metaphor in high school. The lesson as I recall was something like “all extremes will eventually meet,” so the reasonable place to be is at the moderate “center.” The metaphor’s continued use reflects a continuing muddle in political discourse, especially in the mainstream media.

Does a Circle Have a “Right” or “Left” Side?

I saw a good specimen of such “circular thinking” on television when Edward Snowden, via Glenn Greenwald, revealed that an arm of the U.S. government, the National Security Agency, has been tracking foreign and domestic emails and phone conversations. Remember? It happened before the distraction of the President’s let’s-please-bomb-Syria campaign. (And while we’re at it, let’s remind ourselves of the abuses earlier this year of the Internal Revenue Service.) 

Now, I watch MSNBC about as much I watch Fox News (i.e., almost never) because of the particularly dismal (and usually loud) level of discourse on both channels. Not long ago, a paid “political expert” on the former remarked how puzzling it was that “libertarians,” whom he described as representing “the extreme right wing” of the political spectrum, were making common cause with the “Left” on the Snowden affair.

(Apologies for all the scare quotes in this column, but these terms are used so loosely in political blather that it’s dangerous to take them at face value.)

For that commentator the paradox emerged not so much from the fact that both progressives (at least some of them) and libertarians were upset about the breathtaking, unprecedented, and ongoing NSA violations of our civil liberties. The circle metaphor does after all put extreme Left and Right on the same spot. No, the mystery lay in the metaphor itself: It describes the situation without providing any underlying logic. What is it exactly that’s being measured around the circle? Apparently the point is simply to characterize “the center” as a reasonable ideological point of balance.

Means Versus Ends

I’m not sure that a single image can capture all of the important factors that go into locating a particular doctrine with respect to others. For instance, while socialism and fascism share political means, they each have different political ends. Moreover, look at how many varieties of socialism there are! That goes for fascism and capitalism, too.

I do think, though, that a political/doctrinal spectrum that looks at a single relevant dimension can clear up a lot of confusion. Although not his idea, Hayek put it well in The Road to Serfdom

Nearly all the points which are disputed between socialists and liberals concern the methods common to all forms of collectivism and not the particular ends for which socialists want to use them.

Now, writing in the 1940s for a British audience, Hayek used the term “liberal” to mean something like modern-day libertarians. So what he’s saying is that we can treat the ends of the various political doctrines as given and locate them relative to one another in a fairly straightforward way using the methods they each propose.

The method that all brands of collectivism (the doctrine that an individual’s ends are always subservient to those of the group) uses is political power (the use or threat of violent physical aggression and intimidation) to achieve whatever announced end collectivists are aiming at. For fascism the announced end may be national hegemony; for socialism it may be a more equal distribution of wealth. I say “announced end” because collectivism in practice usually turns out quite different from collectivism in theory. In any case, collectivism relies on the unrestrained use of political power to achieve its objectives.

I couldn’t find a clean image that exactly matched this simple yet useful metric of political ideology. Here is one that comes close, though I don’t necessarily agree with all the reference points on the image or endorse the position of the group I’m borrowing it from. 

The political power spectrum resolves the paradox that libertarians and progressives can unite to fight for civil liberties. To the extent that they share a suspicion of State authority, libertarians and progressives can make common cause against the NSA. Similarly, conservatives who oppose high taxes are the allies of libertarians. But when conservatives demand to make it illegal to smoke marijuana or when progressives want to make it illegal to smoke cigarettes—both of which extend political power and shrink individual autonomy—they part company with libertarians.

From the libertarian perspective, of course, opposing State intervention into our private affairs, economic rights, or civil liberties is just being consistent. Those who continue to think in circles will remain confused.


  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.