Thinking Clearly About Political Terminology

We are all used to vague political terms like “left wing”, “right wing” and “liberal”, often used as prefixes for the more general term “bastard”, but what do they really mean?

The Problem

I spend a lot of time on Wikipedia and one thing I see quite a lot of is people making bad edits to articles on political subjects because they don’t understand the established political terminology.

Part of the problem is that the words are overloaded. For example, if I say somebody is a “conservative” then that probably gives you at least three ideas about them: an idea of their economics, an idea of their attitude to change and an idea of their attitude to personal liberty. Quite likely at least one of those ideas is wrong, particularly if I fail to make it clear what country they are from and whether that was a small or a large C in “conservative”.

People get confused. Confused people get upset. Arguments break out simply over confused terminology and issues of genuine substance are missed. This isn’t just on Wikipedia. Political discourse is far too much concerned with using ambiguous terms or redefining words to make opponents look bad. The cynical confuse the uninformed and nobody has a clue what is going on.

We need to unpick this. What I want to do in this article is set out some ideas for a political terminology that is clear, precise and neutral.

Two Dimensional Models of Political Ideology

The simplest way of thinking about politics is left and right but this is hopelessly simplistic. To expect the terms left and right to bear the weight of all political nuance is unreasonable. This has lead to the development of two dimensional political models. These tend to split out attitudes to economics and attitudes to social matters.

Although not particularly original in its approach, my favourite of these is the Political Compass:

This site sets out its two axes (left-right economics and libertarian-authoritarian social values) in a way that is reasonably clear, locates the main US, UK and some other political parties on the chart and invites you to fill in a survey which locates your opinions. Everything is well explained and quite easy to understand even if you are not a political wonk. It is great fun. By all means go and have a play with it right now but please come back when you have finished because we need to go further.

The Politcal Compass chart

The two dimensions of the Political Compass are the starting point for my proposed terminology:

Authoritarianism and libertarianism are fairly self-explanatory so long as you remember the small “l” on libertarianism and don’t confuse it with the stance of any specific party that calls itself Libertarian. It means valuing personal liberty without any of the specific financial ideology of various “Libertarian” parties. Our libertarians can be on the left, right or centre depending on their economic views.

Left and right should be understood solely as economic approaches. The left is defined by an economy organised mainly on collectivist lines (whether imposed by the state or not) which tends towards economic egalitarianism while the right is defined by an economy based on property and asset ownership allowing wide disparities in wealth and a hierarchical society (which may be imposed by the state or simply arise as a result of economic activity). This is not the only definition of left and right but it is reasonably clear so lets stick with it.

We need to ask if these axes are truly orthogonal. Many on the left and right would argue that they are not. They would like to see the other side excluded from being seen as having a libertarian dimension and claim liberty as a property only of their stance. Certainly it is true that there was never a politician of any sort who didn’t claim to represent the cause of liberty. Even Hitler had a twisted idea he called “freedom”. This is all self-serving and/or self-deluding claptrap.

That said, we should consider an alternative to the Political Compass. The Nolan Chart has the corners cut off. It makes a diamond shape instead of a square if you orientate it the same way as the Political Compass. I dislike that because it assumes that libertarianism (shown as “individualism” on the diagram below) is a single coherent ideology and so is authoritarianism (shown as “communitarianism” below). It fails to allow us to distinguish authoritarians like Pinochet (right) from Stalin (left) or libertarians like Milton Friedman (right) from Nelson Mandella (left).

A Nolan Chart shown using American terminology and rotated for ease of comparison with the previous Political Compass chart.

Clearly there are genuine libertarian socialists on the left and genuine libertarian capitalists on the right but there is an issue when you get to the very extremes of left and right. If one becomes obsessed with an economic idea and will not compromise it then it encourages enforcement by force and oppression of dissent. The economic ideology comes to dominate all aspects of society.

A modified version of the Political Compass with rounded corners

On the left, there is a point where socialist economics becomes so intrusive that individual liberty is greatly curtailed. If Stalin says he is abolishing Sundays to improve economic productivity who are you to argue? If you can’t work for anybody but the state then what are your choices?

Similarly on the right, there comes a point there the hierarchy of wealth and power becomes entrenched (if it is not already entrenched by law) where social mobility becomes impossible and the liberty of those at the bottom of the pile is greatly curtailed. What can you do in a capitalist system if you have no capital and no hope of getting any?

Lets stick with the square diagram though. If you like, you can round off the corners a little bit to exclude the notion that the very most left and right wing can be fully libertarian. It is not possible to know precisely how much to round off the corners and it probably isn’t really necessary anyway.

Attitudes To Change

Pretty much any coherent political ideology can be located on the Political Compass and, while it still can’t give us all the nuances, it gives you a fair idea where they stand. There are however some political terms that don’t locate on the Political Compass. These are terms like “progressive”, “conservative”, “radical” and “reactionary”. Some would like to assign these positions based on parties of the same names but that misses the point. There is no ideology in these names. They relate to attitudes to change but don’t tell you anything about the ideologies themselves. For example, in the west we see “conservatives” as right wingers seeking to maintain the western Capitalist system but in the late stages of the Soviet Union a “conservative” was a hard line Communist seeking to maintain the left wing economic system. Similarly a progressive could be on the left or the right, an authoritarian or a libertarian, depending on the direction they want to progress in. We have found ourselves a new orthogonal axis.

Lets look at these terms and try to place them in a continuum. Here is how it might be done:

  • revolutionary radical (drastic change by force)
  • radical (drastic change)
  • progressive (gradual change)
  • conservative (little or no change)
  • reactionary (roll back change and restore “the good old days”)
  • revolutionary reactionary (roll back change by force)

That looks reasonably clear but there are some problems. One problem is in defining a reactionary. For a start, it is easy to define all viewpoints as reactionary. A left-winger can be accused of being reactionary for “wanting to return the the socialism of the 20th century” and a right-winger can be called reactionary for “wanting to return to the unregulated market of the 19th century”. This isn’t getting us anywhere. Then there are those seeming reactionaries who want to return to a golden age that never actually happened. I can’t quite work out if the American Tea Party Movement’s utopia is meant to be before or after 1776. Certainly the USA was never founded on their values and I can’t imagine George III would have approved either.

Lets forget the distant past and reserve the “reactionary” position for those who want to roll back to the recent past, i.e. people who want to undo the changes of the last few governments and go back a decade or two to a time that they, and most of the country, still remember from personal experience. Anybody who wants to roll back further than that might as well be proposing a brand new radical position. Lets redo the list:

  • revolutionary radical (drastic change by force)
  • radical (drastic change)
  • progressive (gradual change)
  • conservative (little or no change)
  • backslider (roll back recent change and restore “the good old days”)

That looks a lot better to me, although I think we need a more neutral term for the “backslider” position, “nostalgic” maybe?. Most left or right-wingers can be considered progressives, although they want to progress in different directions. The Tea Party Movement may, or may not, be flattered to hear that I consider them radicals. The one thing that they certainly are not is any sort of conservative.

The interesting point is that almost everybody aspires to be a conservative. Unless they have some objective served by pointless ongoing change just for the sake of it, they will want to get to their preferred position and then apply the brakes.

OK. So now we have our third axis. Do we need to go further?

The Size Of The State

Some on the American right seek to redefine the right-left axis away from economic structures and simply focus on the size of the state. They see big states as left wing. This doesn’t sound intrinsically bad at first. After all a collectivist society normally does require a large state. It seems like a very simplistic or derived variant on the normal left-right axis. There are a number of problems though:

  • By redefining existing terms there is endless scope for confusion. Old texts can be read in ways that might appal their authors and confuse their readers.
  • By attempting to equate a small state with liberty they equate a large state with tyranny when, as we all know, a large state might not be up to anything sinister. It might just be engaged in providing services that other states do not, like a health service.
  • By attempting to define all big states as left wing the American right hopes to reclassify all the notorious, large, oppressive states in history (many but not all of which are well accepted to be right wing) as being left wing and so taint the entire left. Every so often some twit will try to edit Wikipedia to say that the Nazis were left wing and get confused and angry when it is reverted. This confusion is simply too useful to the right to be anything other than a result of a cynical, tactical abuse of the language.

It should also be noted that the proponents of this terminology are blind to the size of their own ideal states. They are not going to claim that their huge military makes them left wing. The large elements of their ideal states simply don’t count. There seems to be an element of hypocrisy here.

So we can dispose of this idea entirely can we?

Maybe. The size of the state is an element of the existing left-right axis but it could be split out for a more nuanced view. The key thing is that it can’t be used to replace an economic understanding of left and right. One solution is to measure not only the size but also the power of the state and to call it what it is: a totalitarian-anarchist axis. This solves the language abuse problem, the Nazis were totalitarians not left-wingers. However this is beginning to become a bit like the authoritarian-libertarian axis. Is it independent or not? Maybe. A large powerful state can respect and protect individual liberty while a small efficient state can be as oppressive as a less efficient large one. The bottom line is that there may or may not be an axis worth plotting here but it sure as hell mustn’t be called a left-right axis.


So that’s the plan, three orthogonal axes without overlapping terminology and scope for a fourth if it decides on a definition and keeps itself properly orthogonal.

  1. Left-Right economics
  2. Libertarian-Authoritarian society
  3. Radical-Conservative attitude to change

The size of government axis seems to be a red herring to me. Another candidate for a fourth axis is the rationality axis as seen on the Pournelle chart, but that just seems hopelessly vague and confused.

Now all we need to do is hunt down the people who misrepresent their position within each axis and we will finally know where we all stand…

Note: All images are derived from images on Wikipedia or the Wikimedia Commons. Click on them for the original versions, author and copyright details.


June 9, 2010. Links, Politics, Sensible.

One Comment

  1. danielrigal replied:

    Wow! Check out the the confused thinking on the first two of those “Possibly related” links! That’s exactly what I am talking about.

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