How to Understand the Political Spectrum
The left-right political spectrum is used to create a model that shows a spectrum of political positions. Traditionally there is a 2-axis spectrum of left and right, but there are also many widely adopted 4-axis model.
These models generally put political positions, ideologies, and parties like social equality, liberty, liberals, Democrats, etc on the left and social hierarchy, authority, conservatives, and Republicans on the right. This generally accepted starting point lines up with the origin of the terms left and right as you’ll see below.
Further, there are popular models that break positions into those of economy and those of force, creating a 4-axis model consisting of two different left-right paradigms. This “libertarian” model is very popular and will, like the traditional 2-axis model, be discussed below.
With that in mind, this article goes beyond history and current models and actually presents a unique take on how a more complete and accurate model can be created by examining additional left-right paradigms. The root of this is an argument that all of politics cannot be summed up by economy and force, and instead a true all-encompassing (pun intended) spectrum would be many pointed. Of course, including theory in the discussion means that this article goes a bit beyond political fact and into political philosophy.
With that covered, let’s move on to the political fact and philosophy behind existing left-right spectrums and spectrum creation.
The Essential Basics of Left-Right Politics and Left-Right Spectrums
In simple terms, both historically and in our opinion, favoring Liberty, Social Equality, and the Collective is left-wing, and favoring Authority, Social Hierarchy, and Individuals is right-wing. Meanwhile, the “mean between” is “center-wing“.
The 2-Point Political Spectrum
With the above in mind, a basic left-right paradigm (a political spectrum that shows left-wing and right-wing positions and a “degree” between them) looks like this:
|Favoring Liberty, Social Equality, and the Collective||The Mean Between||Favoring Authority, Social Hierarchy, and Individuals|
The concept here is:
- If one favors liberty, equality, and/or policies that affect the collective equally (like classical liberalism, social liberalism, or communism at the far-left), they are generally said to be taking a “left-wing” stance (they needn’t embrace all these things, just one or more). TIP: Other key left-right positions include a long list of positions common to liberalism or socialism in any form, for example tolerance and progressiveness.
- If one favors authority, hierarchy, and/or policies that favor some individuals more than others (like classical conservatism, social conservatism, or fascism at the far-right), they are generally said to be taking a “right-wing” stance (again, they needn’t embrace all these to be taking a right-wing stance). TIP: Other key left-right positions are those common to conservatism in any form, for example order and traditionalism.
- If one takes a balanced position on liberty-authority, liberty-order, social equality-hierarchy, in favoring individuals or collectives, or in favoring progress or tradition (like center-left liberals and center-right conservatives), etc they are generally said to be taking a “center-wing” stance. TIP: A mixed left-right ideology is different from a “centered” stance. Center-wing describes a mean position between the left-wing and right-wing on a given issue, not a mix of left and right stances. For example, Communism and Fascism are far-left and far-right ideologies with a mix of left and right planks, they are not centered (they are “far” from it actually). Meanwhile true “small r” republicanism (the philosophical concept, not the party) can generally be considered center-wing due to it [ideally at least] using law and order to ensure justice and liberty in a free and democratic republic.
That basic political spectrum can then be applied to any political issue (pertaining to the use of state), economic issue (pertaining to taxes, spending, debt), or social issue (pertaining to the social and cultural) to determine one or more left-right stances (in absolute and/or comparative terms).
With just these factors considered we can expand on that logic to create many different (yet all equally accurate) models, For example we could create:
- a simple 2-point model that considers only left and right (this can either imply a center and degrees between or not),
- a 4-point that separates the political left and right and social left and right (and can allow degrees between or not),
- a 6-point that considers the political, social, and economic left-right (with degrees or not),
- an 8-point that considers the political, social, classical economic, and social-economic left-right (with degrees or not),
- or, a many point spectrum that tries to illustrate a range of left-right issues (each with or without a range of degrees considered).
There are many different ways to illustrate, explain, and justify the political spectrum, and many different models can be used to illustrate what the terms left-wing and right-wing mean in different contexts. The rest of the page will focus on exploring the complexities of the left-right spectrum.
Considering Some Complexities and Details
As eluded to above, for a proper left-right political theory that can illustrate actual left-right positions more clearly and accurately, we need to consider more than just a 2-point spectrum with a single “degree between.”
After all we have to grapple with complexities such as how far-left and far-right positions can end up looking a lot like each other in their authoritative and non-authoritative forms (for example, authoritative fascism can look a lot like authoritative communism, and left-wing anarchy can look a lot like right-wing anarchy). Likewise, we have to grapple with the fact that what we call liberal, conservative, left-wing, and right-wing in common language tends to be a placeholder for a complex mix of left-right ideology found in party platforms. Likewise, we have to grapple with the fact that social liberalism and social conservatism are complex left-right ideologies which mix classical and social planks from each side of the spectrum. The list goes on.
With that noted, before moving on to a more complex political theory that addresses the countless questions and gripes one might have (each of which is resolved with even this basic model if understood properly), here is a graphic that summarizes the above section:
TIP: See the Basics of Political Ideology to brush up on terms if needed. Having an understanding of the semantics we are using will help you to better understand our left-right political theory and its related models. Feel free to ask questions below.
The 4-Point Political Spectrum Which Considers the Classical and Social Positions
A slightly more complex version of the 2-point left-right paradigm (one that shows a larger “spectrum of degrees” and considers two left-right paradigms, one political and one social, at once) looks like this:
|Left-Right Paradigms / Main Thesis / Sphere of Action||Far Left Thesis / Antithesis||Left||The Left-Right Mean||Right||Far Right Thesis / Antithesis|
|Liberty-Authority AKA “Degrees of Force AKA “Political” AKA “Classical” (Classical Political Left-Right; Like Classical Liberalism and Conservatism)||Extreme Liberty||Favoring Liberty||Balanced Liberty||Favoring Authority||Extreme Authority and Order|
|Equality-Hierarchy AKA “Social” (Social Political Left-Right; Like Social Liberalism and Conservatism)||Extreme Equality (Favoring all Individuals and Groups in the Collective Equally) and Progressiveness||Favoring Equality||Balanced Equality||Favoring Social Hierarchy||Extreme Social Hierarchy (Favoring Some Individuals or Groups More than Others) and Traditionalism|
Not only can we consider a left-right political spectrum like that (with more degrees and multiple paradigms), but we can also plot it on a traditional 4-point left-right spectrum (see the example below, it is one of many). This 4-point spectrum can also be drawn as a 4-point compass like the political compass at the top of the page.
IMPORTANT: The basic 4-point political spectrum (either presented as a table or as a chart) can work as a placeholder for considering any political, social, or economic left-right political issue. Unlike the first 2-point chart, this 4-point chart better distinguishes between the classical and social to be describe what we mean by the terms left-wing and right-wing. If I had to use one chart, the 4-point that considers political/liberty and social/equality would be it. This is because this 4-point can be applied to any issue, including the central left-right issue economics . The 2-point crams too many concepts in just two boxes, the 6-point treats economics as one thing (cramming too many concepts in one box), and the multi-paradigm is unnecessarily nuanced. That is my justification for the 4-point spectrum being the most useful. It is the one model that can say everything in one chart.
While the above political spectrum works as a good foundation for a left-right political theory, for a more nuanced theory we can and should also consider a number of other left-right paradigms based on other important social, economic, and political factors.
The 6-Point and 8-Point Political Spectrums Which Considers Political, Social, and Economic Factors
If we just want to look at general left-right economic, social, and political issues as a whole, we might illustrate all the above in a way that allows us to treat the very important “economic sphere” as a thing of left-right politics and to show its relation to the above paradigms.
In doing this we could treat economics as one thing to create a 6-point (political left-right, social left-right, economic left-right), but I am going to skip right over that because I find it to be misleading. Instead let’s jump right into a 8-point which gives economics its own 4-way split, and instead of the term “political” we will use the term “classical” for liberty-based economics.
|Left-Right Paradigms / Main Thesis / Sphere of Action||Left Thesis / Antithesis||The Left-Right Mean||Right Thesis / Antithesis|
|Liberty-Authority (Classical Political Left-Right)||Liberty in Terms of Issues of State (like classical liberalism)||Balanced Liberty-Authority||Authority and Order in Terms of Issues of State (like classical conservatism)|
|Equality-Hierarchy (Social Left-Right)||Equality and Progress in Terms of Social Issues (like social liberalism)||Balanced Equality-Hierarchy||Social Hierarchy and Tradition in Terms of Social Issues (like social conservatism)|
|Liberty-Authority (Classical Economic Left-Right)||Liberty in Terms of Economic Issues (like economic classical liberalism)||Balanced Economic Liberty-Authority||Authority and Order in Terms of Economic Issues (like economic classical conservatism)|
|Equality-Hierarchy (Social Economic Left-Right)||Equality and Progress in Terms of Economic Issues (like economic social liberalism)||Balanced Economic Equality-Hierarchy||Social Hierarchy and Tradition in Terms of Economic Issues (like economic social conservatism)|
TIP: Above the first paradigm is the classical (issues of politics), the second the social (social issues), and the last two economic (issues of economics in both the classical and social sense). Thus, this model covers classical and social liberalism and conservatism in the political, social, and economic forms. From there, we only need to consider sub-paradigms of those major left-right spectrums.
TIP: For my money, looking at multiple paradigms on a table like we do above is the best way to consider a left-right theory. That said, if we wanted to show the above paradigms on a chart we could make an object with more dimensions (which would be difficult) or we could simply put two of our 4-point spectrums side-by-side and call one “economic” and the other “sociopolitical.” In both cases they will line up with the basic political terms classical and social liberalism and conservatism. The latter, that is using two 4-point charts side-by-side would be my suggestion. Again here you’ll note I come back to the 4-point chart as a foundation, and that is what I mean above when I say it is to me the most important (even if more detailed charts are more useful for close examinations of left-right stances).
An Example of the “Multi-Paradigm” Political Spectrum Which Considers all Political, Social, and Economic Factors as Sub-Paradigms of the Other Spectrums
The paradigms above can help us to denote things like the basic left-right ideology behind classical, social, and economic liberalism and conservatism (as illustrated above), but since people and groups in-action have complex mixes of left-right views, and since some paradigms can speak to more than one left-right position at once, it’ll help to dig a little deeper and consider additional left-right paradigms.
For a few examples of other left-right paradigms, we could consider that the modern left-wing tends to favor progressive change, cooperation, and spending on social programs, and the modern right-wing tends to favor tradition, competition, and less social spending (austerity).
Then we can illustrate all those factors (progressive–traditional, cooperation–competition, social spending–austerity) and more on their own left-right paradigms (and/or place them in the above categories!)
Examples of other left-right paradigms that could fall under the above categories (and I, therefore, call them sub-paradigms) look like this:
|Paradigms / Main Thesis / Sphere of Action||Extreme Left Thesis / Antithesis||Left||The Left-Right Mean||Right||Extreme Right Thesis / Antithesis|
|How Fast Change Happens in terms of social equality.||Progressive||Favoring Progress||Balanced Progress||Favoring Tradition||Traditional|
|Social Programs in terms of social equality.||Robust Social Welfare||Some Social Welfare||Moderate Social Welfare||Limited Social Welfare||No Social Welfare|
|Trade in terms of collectivism.||Globalism (equality) and Free Trade (liberty)||Favors Free Trade||Mixed-Trade||Favors the Nation||Nativism (hierarchy) and Protectionism (authority/hierarchy)|
|Natural Rights in terms of equality.||Social Collectivism||Favors the Collective||Mixed-Social Equality||Favors Individual Authority||Authoritative Individualism|
|Natural Rights in terms of liberty.||Individual Liberty||Favors Individual Liberty||Mixed- Individual Liberty||Favors Collective Authority||Authoritative Collectivism|
TIP: Imagine I listed every left-right issue possible above (something I should probably do and certainly do a bit more below), if that was the case, then we would go issue-by-issue, determine the leftness and rightness of a party or person’s position, and then aggregate the results in different ways to describe their position in absolute terms. That would be a formal version of what people generally do when they label things left-wing and right-wing. In real life people do an informal version that isn’t so easily explained.
TIP: In general, populism has a markedly classical left-wing quality to it, but in practice there is a populist left and populist right. The populist right is generally seen as socially conservative, this helps to show how the social forms are really a left-right mix.
Dealing With Ends, Means, Absolutes, Comparative terms, and Other Complexities
The paradigms can then be compared to each other for an “on average” left-right stance of an ideology as a whole, or in terms of classical politics, social politics, and economic stances, or applied per-issue and looked at that way, or used to denote comparative left-right stances, and more.
Then, from there we can denote the difference between “ends” and “means,” as a left-right stance can speak to ends, means, or a mix. For example, we could consider the ends of social spending to be left-wing, but the means of the authority and taxation needed to ensure that spending as right-wing (this being one of many examples).
For another example we can denote the “liberty for all” aspect of individualism, to be classically left-wing, but we can consider the resulting inequality and social hierarchy as having right wing qualities. Likewise, we can consider the “equality for all” aspect of collectivism, to be socially left-wing, but we can consider the illiberty that arises from this position to be classically right wing (TIP: See an essay on collectivism vs. individualism).
These sorts of complexities speak to why we have created a unique left-right political theory based on a range of paradigms rather than focusing on the Nolan chart model (like the PoliticalCompass.Org uses) which considers economics and liberty-authority only.
Lastly, we can note that we tend to use very loose semantics that differ per country in common political language, where for example in America we might call a mix of left-right issues that are socially liberal left on average “left or liberal” in common language (when really they would better be illustrated by a long list of left-right terms or more specific labels like for example American social liberalism).
We deal with other factors the above further down the page, and we present some different left-right spectrums to illustrate how this all fits together, for now let’s consider an above to a sufficient overview while we go over a few more details and then walk step-by-step back through everything we just covered and more.
TIP: Putting all the above together in one infographic looks like this:
Justifying the Left-Right Political Spectrums Above
The foundational terms used in the left-right political spectrums above can be confirmed in a number of ways.
The terms can be confirmed by considering the basics of political philosophy regarding basic political ideology and government types, especially in terms of the classical left/liberal/democracy and classical right/conservative/aristocracy, where Democracy (rule by “the many”) and liberalism are the ideologies of liberty and equality and are well represented by figures like Rousseau and Locke (left) and Monarchy/Aristocracy (rule by “the one” or “the few” respectively) and Conservatism are the ideologies of authority, order, tradition, and social hierarchy and are well represented by a figure like Hobbes (right).
Or, the terms can also be confirmed by considering the origin of the terms left and right at the start of the French Revolution where the political “left” and “right” were first used.
During the French Revolution of 1789 members of the National Assembly who supported the revolution and wanted “liberty, equality, and brotherhood” stood to the President’s left and supporters of the king who favored the Ancien Régime stood to the President’s right. Reporters subsequently referred to these groups as “the left” and “the right.”
In all cases, the classical terms and the events of the French Revolution (and other liberal revolutions against the conservative monarchs) speak to the classical left and right, they don’t speak directly to the social forms.
In other words, a careful examination of classical liberalism, left-wing, and democracy will show they all share basic ideology despite being unique terms, and likewise, a close examination of classical conservatism, right-wing, and monarchy/aristocracy will show they all share basic ideology despite being unique terms. That part is easy to confirm philosophically and historically.
Meanwhile, the modernly recognized social versions of these are more complex. A careful examination of social liberalism (and at an extreme communism) and social conservatism (and at an extreme fascism), show us that these mixed left-right ideologies we call left-wing and right-wing in modern terms are actually complex evolutions of the classical forms.
Today we might call an entire party right-wing or an entire party left-wing, or we might call one liberal and one conservative, but those general terms are only scratching the surface of the true left-right qualities of underlying a given party’s factions and platform positions. To accurately label ideological positions, it helps to understand how we can pair terms like classical, social, and populist left, right, liberal, and conservative to give a more accurate description of specific views. At the same time, it helps to realize that general descriptors like left-wing and right-wing actually have a range of meanings depending on context.
For more examples see: Plato’s Republic where he defines Democracy as the ideology of liberty and equality (and denotes the problems with pairing pure liberty with pure equality), Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws on the principles of Monarchy and Democracy, and an overview of social contract theory.
BOTTOMLINE: LEFT, LIBERAL, and DEMOCRACY is toward liberty, equality, and progressive change and RIGHT, CONSERVATIVE, and MONARCHY is toward order, tradition, social hierarchy, and authority. That two point spectrum is a really solid foundation that lines up with the original meaning of the terms left and right, and thus is a great starting point. From here it is just about working this basic concept into a complete theory of left-right politics full of paradigms and spectrums so we can properly address nuances and complexities.
Creating a Proper 4-Point Left-Right Political Spectrum
Above we gave an overview and justification for our left-right theory, from here forward the focus will be walking back through all the steps we took slowly with more justifications, illustrations, and explainers.
As you can see in the first table above (the one that illustrates the basic two-way split), defining the left-wing and right-wing like this gives us three positions (left, center, and right) that we can then consider in different ways, such as by considering extremes and degrees between positions (like we did a bit above and do more below).
This also brings up the general problem with the terms left and right (and the terms liberalism and conservatism by the way), that is:
1. We mean more than one thing when we say “left-wing” or “right-wing.”
Consider, in terms of semantics, when we say “left-wing” we either mean “socially left-wing” (like social liberalism) or “left in terms of liberty” (like classical liberalism), likewise when we say “right-wing” we either mean “socially right-wing” (like social conservatism) or “right in terms of authority” (like classical conservatism).
2. Even a single stance on a policy issue can require a mix of left-wing and right-wing positions (never-mind the many stances of a single political ideology).
Consider, in terms of logistics, a policy like single-payer healthcare is a social welfare program that seeks social equality (left), but requires in trade some amount of authority in terms of mandates and taxation (right).
Because of this complexity, it helps to consider at least two if not more left-right paradigms. Putting everything above together, we can represent the basics of a left-right political theory like this:
- “The liberty paradigm“ (the “classical” paradigm that deals with liberties) where “Liberal (favoring liberty) is left, and Conservative (favoring authority) is right” (see a discussion on classical liberalism vs. classical conservatism).
- “The equality paradigm“ (the “social” paradigm that deals with social equality) where Ideologies that favor the Collective (that favor social equality, collectives, and cooperation for example) are left, and ideologies favoring the Individual (that favor social hierarchy, individuals, and competition for example) are right (see individualism vs. collectivism or social liberalism vs. social conservatism).
On a Basic Left-Right Table that denotes the classical and social forms of liberalism and conservatism it looks like this:
|Paradigms / Main Thesis||LEFT: Not Conservative Enough / Too Liberal||The Left-Right Mean||RIGHT: Overly Conservative / Not Liberal Enough|
|Liberty vs. Authority (“the liberty paradigm“)||Favoring Liberty / Classically Liberal||Balanced Liberty/Authority||Favoring Authority / Classically Conservative|
|Equality vs. Hierarchy, Order, and Tradition (“the equality paradigm“)||Favoring Social Equality (Collective Focused) / Socially Liberal||Balanced Equality/Hierarchy||Favoring Social Hierarchy (Individual Focused) / Socially Conservative|
That gives us FOUR (not TWO) unique positions at once which line up with the classical and social liberal and conservative political identities (which allows us to better represent what people really mean when they say left-wing and right-wing): 1. liberty (of citizens) / Classical Liberalism (classical-left or liberty-left) vs. 2. authority (of the state) / Classical Conservatism (classical-right or liberty-right) and 3. collectivism (social equality) / Social Liberalism (social-left or equality-left) vs. 4. individualism (social hierarchy) / Social Conservatism (social-right or hierarchy-right).
Then these general ideological stances can be applied to any political issue.
Using the above logic we can then create a blank left-right spectrum that considers the liberty paradigm and equality paradigm on a 4 point XY chart (a chart on which anything pertaining to left-wing and right-wing can be accurately plotted).
And that is it, with that we have the basis of a left-right theory.
However, our groundwork so far only covers the foundation of what we need to know, it doesn’t touch on every detail (such as how to apply this to vastly different subjects like taxation or natural rights).
In other words, we need to apply more nuance and consider different “sub-paradigms” in different “spheres” of political life (to ensure our model lines up with semantics issue-by-issue and stance-by-stance).
Considering the Many Left-Right Paradigms
For a complete left-right theory we need to dig a little deeper and consider all the attributes behind the above terms.
This will allow us to see the wide range of factors that make a position “left or right”. It will also show that while liberty and equality are representative of the fundamental left-right or liberal-conservative positions, they are hardly the only factors we need to consider.
The table below shows some additional key left-right paradigms (I call “sub-paradigms,” as they are sub-paradigms of our main left-right paradigm) abstracted from the above terms to illustrate necessary nuances. This time we’ll add in more terms and more “degrees” of leftness and rightness to create “a broader left-right spectrum” for each term.
On how to chart these paradigms: In the chart below, we have denoted paradigms by names like “political ideology in terms of liberty” and “political ideology in terms of equality.” This allows us to compare these sub-paradigms to our main paradigms using a basic 4-point chart. When plotting a 4-point chart, any paradigm compared “in terms of liberty-authority” should be plotted on the vertical liberty-authority line (Y-axis), and any paradigm compared “in terms of collectivism-individualism or equality-hierarchy” should be plotted on the horizontal equality-hierarchy (X-axis). In this way, one can reuse the same chart over and over to consider any A…B left-right choices, including all the examples below.
|Paradigms / Main Thesis / Sphere of Action||Extreme Left Thesis / Antithesis||Left||The Left-Right Mean||Right||Extreme Right Thesis / Antithesis|
|Liberty||Extreme Liberty||Favoring Liberty||Balanced Liberty||Favoring Authority||Extreme Authority|
|Equality||Extreme Equality||Favoring Equality||Balanced Equality||Favoring Social Hierarchy||Extreme Social Hierarchy|
|Classical Government Type||Anarchy (Total Liberty and Equality)||Democracy||Mixed-Republic||Aristocracy||Tyranny (Total Authority and Social Hierarchy)|
|Political Ideology in terms of liberty.||Radical Classical Liberalism||Moderate Classical Liberalism||Centrism||Moderate Classical Conservatism||Absolutist Classical Conservatism|
|Political Ideology in terms of equality.||Pure Social Liberalism||Moderate Social Liberalism||Centrism||Moderate Social Hierarchy||Absolutist Social Hierarchy|
|Economy in terms of liberty.||Free Market||Lightly Regulated Market||Mixed-Economy||Tightly Controlled Economy||Economy Controlled by the One or Very Few (Centrally Planned or Oligarchy)|
|Social Programs in terms of equality.||Robust Social Welfare||Some Social Welfare||Moderate Social Welfare||Limited Social Welfare||No Social Welfare|
|Trade in terms of collectivism.||Globalism and Free Trade||Favors Free Trade||Mixed-Trade||Favors the Nation||Nativism and Protectionism|
|Natural Rights in terms of equality.||Social Collectivism||Favors the Collective||Mixed-Social Equality||Favors Individual Authority||Authoritative Individualism|
|Natural Rights in terms of liberty.||Individual Liberty||Favors Individual Liberty||Mixed- Individual Liberty||Favors Collective Authority||Authoritative Collectivism|
Although the list above is not exhaustive (it is representative of an exhaustive list, it is not itself one), it is an example of one of the last keys needed to understand the basis of left-right politics (the other keys, like using comparative terms are discussed below).
Left-Right Politics and Ends, Means, and Mixes
Finally, in the above chart, we can see things like how a left-right position on a single social, economic, or political is very different from being classically or socially left-wing or right-wing in general, and we can see clearly (if we assume this model is correct) that most real-life political stances are mixed.
We can also see that left-right positions are at odds even with themselves when it comes to ends and means.
After-all how does one ensure individual liberty if not through authoritative collectivism, and will not individual liberty allow for individuals to become authoritative and ensure social hierarchy? Or likewise, is this same thing not generally true for equality? How does one ensure social equality or robust social welfare if not through the state? And in fact, we can see this is true for almost every aspect of every paradigm. Ensuring a thesis, often requires its antithesis (or in terms of left-right politics, ensuring a left-wing position often requires right-wing positions and ensuring right-wing positions can have left-wing effects or vice versa).
Said plainly, mixed positions aren’t just about ideology, they are about necessity, and single positions aren’t just about the position being taken, they are about the effects and the other positions needed to ensure them.
When a social left-wing liberal decries the free-market, they aren’t standing against liberty specifically, they are standing against individual authority and the unequal effects of it. When a social right-winger stands against progressive social welfare, they aren’t generally standing against equality, they are standing against the necessary taxes and authority. It is in these ways in which left-right politics is both necessarily complex and important to understand.
With all that covered, the point here isn’t to consider every implication of left-right politics, it is only to present a model to build on.
In terms of a left-right model, our simple two-way split can represent all the above paradigms (if we see them as metaphorical and applying to all issues of the social, economic, and political), our four-way split represents it much better by considering authority issues and social issues as their own thing, and then these “sub-paradigms” (which speak to other vital issues like stances on economics) tell the rest of the story (allowing us to speak in comparative and descriptive terms denoting comparative positions on an issue-by-issue basis).
That is a lot to consider at once, but don’t worry, we will go over everything we covered above below in detail.
Putting This all Together in a Left-Right Compass
Before we get into any more detail, for those who just want a solid left-right spectrum (and don’t want more on the theory of how to build left-right spectrums), a useful left-right compass that considers the the “liberty/authority paradigm and the “equality/hierarchy paradigm” AKA that considers liberty (left) vs. authority (right), collectivism (left) vs. individualism (right), and social equality (left) vs. social hierarchy (right), and which can be considered for any paradigm noted on this page, looks like this:
TIP: This spherical political compass works exactly like the square one, you can overlay any of the above paradigms and it’ll work (although to avoid confusion, I suggest keeping the Y-axis as an authority index and the X-axis as a social index, that is a matter of custom essentially upheld since the Nolan chart).
NOTE: The political compass /political spectrum above is, in my opinion, the most useful due to its spherical shape (which can be thought of as “a double horseshoe” where the top left and top right represents what we tend to call “far-right” and “far-left,” and the bottom left and right are the “libertarian” AKA “non-authoritative” left and right). This spherical shape, or double horseshoe, shows how similar extremely authoritarian positions can be and it shows how similar non-authoritative positions can be. Thus this model shows for example, why people confuse the WWII ideologies of Communism and National Socialist Fascism. Social left-right differences aside, there is only a thin line between extreme authoritarian ideologies and only a thin line between different left-right flavors of stateless governments… Still, the line is there, and these ideologies can be discussed issue-by-issue using the terms left and right.
BOTTOMLINE ON LEFT-RIGHT SUB-PARADIGMS: Again, to summarize: Favoring Liberty, Social Equality, Democracy, Liberalism, and the Collective equally (and all social, economic, and political terms that relate to this) is left-wing, favoring Authority, Social Hierarchy, Monarchy/Aristocracy, order, tradition, Conservatism, and Individuals unequally (and all social, economic, and political terms that relate to this) is right-wing, and ideologies that favor a balance between the two, like centered-republicanism and centrism, are “center-wing.”
Understanding the Above in Terms of the American Political Parties
To help illustrate the above concepts before moving on, let’s discuss left-right politics in relation to the American political parties in more detail.
This section will generally apply to any political party globally throughout history, but to keep it simple, let’s focus on a single country in the modern day (the country me the author knows best, the U.S.).
Each modern American ideology favors a mix of left-right views, this can be understood by understanding classical and social liberalism and conservatism, where generally speaking:
- Classical liberalism is “classically left-wing in terms of liberty” in that it favors liberty, the free-market, and democracy.
- Classical conservatism is “classically right-wing in terms of authority” in that it favors authority, planned economy, and aristocracy.
- Social liberalism is “socially left-wing” in that it favors social equality and social welfare, but “right-wing in terms of authority” needed to ensure social justice.
- Social conservatism is “socially right-wing” in terms of favoring social hierarchy, but “left-wing in terms of liberty” in its favoring of free markets and limited authority.
On a left-right chart (that uses our liberty and equality paradigms), those identities look like this.
With the above in mind, Modern Democrats tend to hold all views except social conservative ones (they don’t tend to be “right-wing in terms of social issues”), and modern Republicans tend to hold all views except social liberal ones (they don’t tend to be “left-wing in terms of social issues”).
Thus, in terms of left-right politics, Americans (much like the western left-and-right and even the global left-and-right) tend to hold a “mix” of left-right views that differs issue-by-issue (often holding conflicting views such as favoring both liberty and social welfare).
To express this we can say things like, “Republicans tend to be socially right-wing in terms of social hierarchy, but left-wing in terms of liberty (they tend to be socially conservative on some issues and classically liberal on others),” or conversely, “Democrats tend to be left-wing in terms of social equality, but right-wing in terms of authority (they tend to be socially liberal on some issues but classically conservative on others).”
Or, we could get very nuanced and go issue-by-issue, using comparative terms and denoting spheres of action, saying things like, “in terms of trade, I am to the left of a classically conservative Republican, in that I favor fair trade over protectionism, etc.”
These complexities are indicative of why we want to consider multiple paradigms when discussing left-right politics, and why we should use comparative terms and discuss left-right ideology issue-by-issue.
TIP: In America, we tend to call the Republican party, with all its many ideological factions with differing stances, right-wing and conservative. Likewise, we call the Democratic Party, with all its ideological factions with differing stances, left-wing and liberal. Despite this oversimplified naming structure, the parties are actually coalitions of political factions, each of who hold a unique mix of left-wing and right-wing views (with notable left-right differences often occurring within a given party and even within a given “wing” of a party). In America, the liberal-left tends to err on the side of collectivism and social equality (they tend to be socially liberal), and the conservative right on the side of individualism and social hierarchy (they tend to be socially conservative), but the reality is most people, parties, and factions within parties hold beliefs that span the political spectrum. To add confusion, the West was largely founded on classically liberal principles, and many western parties will find that almost all of a nation’s major political parties actually favor the same basic liberal principles (such as the basic liberties and rights found in the U.S. Bill of Rights).
TIP: When denoting a stance on an issue, terms like classical liberal-left, social liberal-left, classical conservative-right, and social conservative-right, and then add in terms of social issues, in terms of economic issues, or in terms of political issues of liberties and rights to provide clarity.
Other Considerations for Creating Left-Right Spectrums
From here we can then create a robust left-right spectrum of possibilities between extreme left-wing and extreme right-wing by charting and plotting the above paradigms (and other related ones featured below)… and subsequently, things can get a little complex.
To avoid getting sidetracked by complexity and semantics, it’ll help to understand a few things about left-wing and right-wing before moving on:
- The terms left and right come from the French Revolution where supporters of the King stood to the right of the President of the National Assembly, and supporters of “the Rights of Man and Citizen” stood to the left. The image below will offer a simple visual of this.
- The terms relate to the philosophies of great thinkers from Plato to Mill (who helped define the way in which we talk about and understand governments and related ideologies).
- The terms are synonyms with the government types Democracy and Monarchy/Aristocracy and the political ideologies Liberalism and Conservatism. The confusing part with left-right is the same as with liberalism/conservatism, that is the meaning of the government types Democracy and Monarchy/Aristocracy didn’t change, but the meaning of liberalism and conservatism did. Thus, we have to consider a classical left-right and a social left-right, and a classical liberalism and social liberalism, but relate both back to the static Democracy and Monarchy/Aristocracy. If we don’t do this, our semantics will be off.
- Left-wing and Right-wing are broad terms that relate to most political positions one can take on a given issue. In other words, left and right doesn’t speak to one thing, they speak to many related things. Thus, there are a number of different, but related, left-right paradigms to consider like progressive (left) vs. traditional (right) (how fast change happens), idealism (left) vs. realism (right) (whether we govern based on how things are or how they should be), cooperation (left) vs. competition (right) (whether we cooperate or compete). I.e. that multi-row left-right paradigm table above could have easily had many more rows.
- Despite each term relating to a number of different paradigms, there are two core paradigms that work well as a placeholder for any left-right split, they are “liberty and equality” (and their antitheses “authority and social hierarchy.”) We’ll use these terms as a foundation below letting liberty stand as a placeholder for all issues of governmental power and equality stand as a placeholder for all social issues. Remember, we are going into this knowing each paradigm tends to conflict and that this creates paradoxes!
- The terms left, right, and center are best used descriptively and comparatively per-issue instead of as absolutes (e.g. “left in terms of liberty in the social sphere as opposed to right in terms of social hierarchy”, or “right in terms of authority in the economic sphere as opposed to left in terms of liberty”). Since the terms mean so much, it helps to speak “in terms of.”
- Extremes are generally not desirable, and “correct” centers often don’t exist in the literal dead center. There are many ways in which, for example, extreme equality is actually right-wing and extreme inequality is actually left-wing. Again, we can combat this by saying “in terms of.” For example, anarchy is right-wing in terms of its lack of laws by which social equality can be enforced.
- Generally, all real-life ideologies are mixed, and people’s leftness or rightness differs issue by issue.
- The core of what left and right are doesn’t change, but some cultures and individuals might have different takes on the theory. After-all there is no physical object “left,” we are discussing theories and philosophy as it relates to political realism, but we aren’t discussing concrete and purely tangible things.
With all of that in mind, let’s start by discussing the origin and philosophy behind the terms a bit more (to ensure our foundation), then we’ll add some more logic before diving into left-right spectrums, comparative terms, and other details. Feel free to skip around the page or quest questions in the comments below.
TIP: If you take a Mises-like stance, considering Bill-of-rights individualism as left-wing, know that I don’t disagree. Much of this page covers the semantics of deceptively complex terms like individualism and collectivism (as does our section on individualism and collectivism; I can’t say everything at once, so try not to get sidetracked by specific terms and instead consider all the terms in each paradigm together for a full picture).
Moving Forward With Left-Right Paradigms and Complexity – More on Paradigms, Sub-Paradigms, Spheres, and Descriptive and Comparative Terms
Below we discuss some complexities that we have only noted above, but which are central to understanding left-right politics and political spectrums.
Our core terms liberty and equality generally relate back to what it means to be left (liberal) or right (conservative), both in their classical and social forms, be we talking about politics, economics, or other issues, and thus all other paradigms we create will all generally relate back to these two terms at the heart of the French Revolution, liberalism (and by extension conservatism), and democracy (and by extension Monarchy and the other classical forms of government).
From this perspective, we can consider all left-right paradigms as sub-paradigms of our “liberty paradigm” (the one that deals with governmental power) and “equality paradigms” (the one that deals with social equality and collectives).
These sub-paradigms include all of those listed above in the introduction, the following examples, other paradigms listed on the page, and paradigms in the section below.
For example, they include: free-market vs. central planning (a factor of economy and government), progressive vs. traditional (how fast change happens), idealism vs. realism (whether we govern based on how things are or how they should be), cooperation vs. competition (whether society is competition or cooperation based), collective responsibly vs. individual responsibility, flexibility vs. absolutism and rigidness, etc.
The vital concept here is that 1. there are more paradigms than I have noted and 2. all paradigms will always relate to the liberty and equality paradigms.
TIP: There is more to say then I can say quickly. One thing to note is that issues like economics and who has legislative power are realist factors and liberty and equality are idealist virtues. We root our system in idealism, but extend it into realism when we consider the multiple paradigms. We could do the opposite, and we present an alternative model that does below, where left and right become about factors like “who rules” and “who do the rules favor.” That said, like Plato, we root our system in idealism. Only unlike Plato, we also draw from Aristotle and root our system in realism too. In fact, as you can see above, we can treat the idealist v.s realist paradigm as a left-right paradigm itself.
Using Comparative Terms and Considering Paradigms in Spheres
Above I noted that we should use comparative and descriptive terms when discussing left-right politics, and if you think back to the mixed nature of policies and the conflicting terms inherent in social liberalism and social conservatism (or morality and economics), you’ll see that this makes sense.
By considering different left-right “paradigms“ (abstractions of single political concepts that are symbolic of what we mean when we say “left” and “right”) in different “spheres“ (in different areas of political life), for example by considering the “liberty paradigm” liberty (left) vs. authority (right) in the political sphere (what the Objective Standard calls “degrees of force”), or the “equality paradigm” collectivism (left) vs. individualism (right) in the economic sphere, or the “equality paradigm” social equality (left) vs. social hierarchy (right) in the sociopolitical sphere, or the “equality paradigm” globalism (left) vs. nationalism (right) in terms of trade policy and immigration, or even by considering all this at once in general left-right terms, we’ll be able to create simple and complex left-right spectrums that line up with philosophy, history, and modern semantics.
This will allow us to compare and contrast the political left-ness and right-ness of ideologies accurately, per-party, and per-issue in terms of stances on social issues, the state, and more to create complex left-right descriptors like: “left in terms of liberty“, “to the left of X ideology in terms of favoring a large collective equally via social policy“, “right in terms of authoritative nationalism exclusive to a small group of nationals“, “to the left of Y ideology in terms of economic policy that favors economic equality without the use of right-wing authoritarianism“, “right in terms of favoring social hierarchy and protectionist policy, compared to an ideology that favors free-trade and globalism“, or “left in terms of freedom from government via good old classical liberal liberty“, etc.
Extremes are Corrupting in General
The reality here is, as I’m sure you’ve realized already, pure left and pure right are almost too simple and absolutist to be actual forms of government or political ideologies in practice, and this fact is compounded by the truism that extremes [of liberty and equality] corrupt democracy.
Just consider these extremes, a collective with no authority is bound to dissolve into anarchy, a society of individuals with absolute authority is anarchy, an individual with complete authority is a despot, and a state with absolute authority is a despotic state.
The extreme forms of left and right and even “left-right” are all fertile ground for tyranny, and can be difficult to even tell apart (again, why people can’t agree on if Hitler or Stalin is left or right)!
Simply put, pure left, pure right, and even extremes of mixed-left-right are some of the worst ideologies in practice for large groups (although some pure forms work in sub-groups in very specific situations; such as in a rule-abiding and elite unit of Marines or a small communal democracy).
NOTES ON OUR LOGIC: There are a lot of factors to consider here: spheres (like left-right economics, or left-right politics), paradigms (like liberty vs. authority), virtues (like equality or liberty), comparative terms vs. absolutes, the mixed nature ideologies, etc, and that can be confusing. The idea here is to start simple by looking at liberty, equality, and the roots of left and right in the French Revolution. The goal of all this is to be able to consider and compare specific left-right paradigms with policy stances in the political sphere, in the economic sphere, in the social sphere, etc issue-by-issue to get a true sense of the leftness and rightness regarding a given policy or ideology.
Avoiding the Creation of Left-Right Spectrums that Don’t Align With Semantics
Using the above logic will help us to avoid the complications found in other left-right spectrums (like the one’s discussed in the article The Political Spectrum: Understanding the Grossly Misunderstood), such as:
1. The following 2-point left-right paradigm which tries to consider everything at once, but which we can say is considering the paradigm globalism (left) vs. nationalism (right):
LEFT: Communism -> Socialism -> Liberalism <- Centrism -> Conservatism -> Monarchy -> Fascism :RIGHT
Or, 2. this “liberty paradigm” that only considers liberty vs. authority, sometimes denoting it as “degrees of force” (but in doing so changes the definitions of left and right):
AUTHORITY “LEFT”: Communism -> Fascism -> Conservatism <- Centrism -> Liberalism -> Libertarianism -> Anarchy :LIBERTY “RIGHT”
Neither of those paradigms are fully wrong, but neither aligns fully with what we mean when we say left and right, and that is why a more complex theory is being used here.
On some issues, communism and fascism are polar left-right opposites, but on other issues (like their stance on liberty), they often find themselves holding the same authority-right position. In this respect, placing broad ideologies with many different stances on a simple 2-point chart that tries to consider everything at once is always going to miss the mark in some ways.
TIP: Another popular choice is to use economy as one paradigm and authority-libertarianism as another. The problem with this is discussed in a few places on this page, but the basic complaint I have is that economics is complex, and although it is foundational to governments, it is not a single A…B issue that speaks to the heart of what it means to be left or right (rather nearly every real life economic position is a complex mix of left and right positions). A left-winger doesn’t “just want to plan an economy,” their ideology of social equality or collective liberty for all is about much more than this. It is for this reason that we consider economy to be a very important sub-paradigm, perhaps even the third most important, but it is an awkward replacement for the general sentiment of equality… as the desire for equality is more fundamental to the human condition and is not purely economic). This is the main problem I personally have with the political compass and Nolan chart. Using the terms “libertarian-authoritarian” in place of “liberty-authority” is just a nominal difference (although I strongly prefer the term liberty which speaks to liberalism), but using economy in place of the social paradigm (rather than applying both paradigms to economy and treating economy as sub-paradigms) is where I think other compasses get off course. I explain this more in the next section.
Notes on Other Left-Right Spectrums; Why We Used Slightly Different Paradigms Than Other Left-Right Spectrums
PLEASE READ: Sorry if the page is currently wordy. It is a work in progress. From this point forward the information is still useful and insightful, but it is slightly disorganized for the moment while I re-work the page (an ongoing effort)… e.g. if you get bored, consider scrolling around at this point.
Speaking of models that don’t work that well, let’s talk about two that do: the political spectrum from politicalcompass.org (the better of the two), and the very useful the Nolan chart (the original spectrum from the 1960’s).
Our theory expands upon and (in my humble opinion) improves upon these models (it adds to, not replaces these excellent and useable models).
My only real complaint with the aforementioned models is that they don’t explicitly consider the many left-right paradigms of social issues, economy, governmental power, morality, ideology, etc that we do.
Consider, our model treats economy as a paradigm that can be laid over our basic model just as easily as a paradigm related to church and state or realism vs. idealism. Meanwhile, their models require us to always focus on the realist and empirical sphere of economics for every issue!
In my opinion, they got the “liberty/authority” paradigm right (treating it as a social paradigm that differs by focus on individual or community), but “miss the mark” (just slightly) on what we denote as the “equality/hierarchy” paradigm (treating it as an economy paradigm that differs by focus on individual or community).
Their models, which both use the same general paradigms, will essentially output the same results as ours in most cases, but where their model’s require guesswork and a focus on economics, while our model comes with a cheat sheet of very explicit paradigms that can be laid over our basic liberty and equality paradigms.
In focusing on economy, and focusing on it as one absolute thing (and not a thing that differs issue-by-issue in terms of trade, social programs, military spending, etc), their paradigms miss the bigger picture and thus invite in confusion when discussing complex mixed ideologies like social liberalism or fascism.
Again, to avoid these complications, when distilling this all down to a simple XY chart, we use the terms “liberty and equality” as placeholders for all our left-right terms related to politics in any way (moral, economics, theological, socioeconomic, political, etc).
Free speech, for another example, doesn’t have an economic measure. However, it does have an equality and a liberty measure.
Remember, we aren’t looking for a purely empirical theory (where the economy argument becomes stronger), we are looking at this in terms of semantics and ideals too (what we mean when we speak).
If we just consider economy and authority, then Stalin and Hitler both call for an authoritative planned economy for nationals only, and thus a left-right chart that only considers economy and authority would paint these two in a similar way. However, when we go issue by issue, we find real left-right differences in terms of social issues between despotic fascism and despotic communism (even if both are equally authoritative).
I can’t hold a moral in my hand, but when people say “left-wing” they are sometimes denoting nothing more but a moral stance, thus we must consider other “spheres” beyond the purely physical and economical here.
I.e. I get that people want to speak in terms of economy, as it is a very central issue regarding politics, but I am being left in terms of idealism here and pointing out that we have to consider the ethical and moral spheres; not just empirical senses (right), but idealist sensibility (left)…. that is if we want to output a model that lines up with semantics and philosophy.
Notes on political identities and left-right politics: An anarchist is for total liberty, but can be left or right on social issues. To be anarchist, or libertarian for that matter, or classically liberal, or non-authoritative social conservative means to be toward liberty (but it does not set all left-right issues in stone… even if it does inform them). Now, generally a social conservative will be toward the right of a social liberal on most social issues, but certainly not on every one. Further, the reality is, in comparative terms, some socially conservative groups are to the left and right of each other issue-by-issue. We can call fascists right-wing and an anarchists left-wing, but if we dig in issue by issue we can see that this is oversimplifying things. A given ideology will have members and groups that are comparable to the social, political, or economic left and right of each other with stances that change per issue. If we compare only Communism to Fascism, then generally communism is left and fascism is right, however if we go issue-by-issue and group-by-group, we can see clearly that positions change group-to-group, wing-to-wing, and issue-to-issue. Our multi-paradigm model above accounts for this, as do our simpler models, and it’s an important thing to keep in mind (when for example trying to plot an ideology as a whole on a chart). We could probably sum this up by saying ideologies tend to span a range of positions on a 4-point left-right chart in general and can span the whole chart in some cases if we go issue-by-issue.
Notes on the “Spheres of political life”: We can apply our left-right theory to many different specific ideological stances in many different “spheres of political life.” We can consider issues in (but not limited to) the broad spheres of economy, diplomacy, state, and society, or the more specific spheres of equality-hierarchy, markets-planning, nationalism-globalism, liberty-authority, tradition-progress, or the even more specific spheres of a single issue like reproductive rights, food assistance, military spending, etc. Any issue we can consider, nuanced or broad, can have a left-right stance applied to it in terms of at least liberty and equality. In all cases, our basic 2-point and 4-point spectrums can inform which position is which. The result should be a left-right label that lines up with our modern semantics and the cannons of philosophy. TIP: See the 8values political chart for an example of treating ideology as a complex left-right mix of different stances (which is what we do when we create left-right paradigms from different “Spheres of political life”).
Notes on economics, taxation, and left-right politics: Economics is complex when it comes to left-right politics, and in no one place is this more clear than on the subject of taxation. Semantically, and in terms of our model, favoring freedom from government is liberty-left, yet at the same time favoring taxation for the common good is equality-left. On the same token, favoring freedom from government also ensures social hierarchy-right (and its implied social inequality-right), yet at the same time favoring taxation for the common good is also authority-right. In this respect, the best way to denote stances on taxation would be classical liberal-left, social liberal-left, classical conservative-right, and social conservative-right. If we accept this as true, then we can confirm that our model which uses that two way (and then four-way) basic split is the correct model. When we consider economics, we want to consider that vital paradigm as at least one sub-paradigm, if not many (for example, the paradigm of trade, the paradigm of taxation in terms of liberty, the paradigm of taxation in terms of equality, the paradigm of spending, the paradigm of how much say people should have, etc).
Notes on the semantics of economics: Generally, when people say “economically left” in the modern-day, they mean the social liberal position (spend, tax, and regulate). Meanwhile, when they say “economically right,” they can mean a range of things. They can mean a flavor of fiscally conservative and elite austerity paired with protectionism (they mean don’t spend, do tax, and deregulate business), or they can mean socially conservative populist protectionism (they mean don’t tax, deregulate business, but regulate social issues). Meanwhile, when people say “economic liberalism” they are denoting a position of liberal spending paired with free-trade and deregulation (what a neoliberal might do; neocon is a more socially right-wing version of this). The terms we use are often simple, yet their connotations are often more complex than just being “left” or “right.” For all these reasons and more it makes sense to consider economics a sub-paradigm, not a foundational paradigm (which has often been the practice by other authors; which is one reason why we are harping on it here).
Notes on general semantics: Consider, using the above paradigms alone we can make nuanced statements like “in terms of economy I am left-wing in that I favor a free-market; I’m liberal in this sense” (here we are discussing liberty in the economic sphere). Or we can say, “Hitler wasn’t a left-wing liberal in most respects. While he was left-wing in terms of favoring social welfare for his nationals, he also favored social hierarchy, extreme authority, nationalism, a mostly planned economy, and protectionism. We call that socially conservative, but authoritative, collectivist ideology fascist.” In other words, treating left and right as multiple paradigms and using descriptive terms allows us to speak with accuracy and nuance (or to decode what people mean when they use terms like “far-right” and “far-left” to describe mixed social liberal or social conservative ideologies). Semantics like “in terms of X” and “in the X sphere” help us to better denote exactly what we are talking about! Broad statements like “I am left,” don’t tell our audience much about our position.
NOTE: “Hierarchy” is in some respects simply a nice way of saying “inequality” (the antithesis of equality in some ways). People don’t generally want “inequality” (they don’t want to “favor individuals unequally”), instead they have stances that require inequality as an effect (like “not wanting total equality by way of central planning”). Given this, we can denote the stances against “social equality” as “social hierarchy.” This gives us four positive stances… instead of three positive and one negative (which would not be fair to the paleocon “hierarchy-right” “social-right” social conservative right-wing; after-all, part of their stance actually speaks to classical liberal liberty-left values applied to the “social sphere.”).
NOTE: One might note that unlike other left-right theories, we do not treat economics as a fundamental left-right paradigm. Instead, we treat it as multiple paradigms (as social spending, as taxation, as trade, as monetary policy, as a position on central banking etc) to which the above paradigms can be applied to determine the leftness, rightness, or centrism of a position. We don’t do this because economics isn’t central to political ideology and the state, we do this because this reflects the complex left-right economic stances actual people and parties have in practice (more on a justification for this below).
NOTE: To be clear a given person or political faction can hold a mix of the above ideologies in general, or on major issues like “liberties and rights,” “immigration,” “taxation,” “spending,” or even “economy in general,” or on any single issue broad or narrow like “school choice in general” or “funding for a specific arts program in particular,” or on any aspect of the aforementioned. These views can connect or conflict, for example one could want total liberty, but not inequality, or one could want total equality, but favor liberty even if it means hierarchy as a result. Still, any given position can be described as right-wing or left-wing, as can ideologies in general.
NOTE: Any choice can be broken down into an A…B choice (a binary choice with degrees in between). Either one wants liberty on an aspect of an issue, they don’t, or they fall somewhere in the middle. Either there is equality in access to healthcare, there isn’t, or its somewhere in the middle. In this way a left-right stance can be denoted on any sociopolitical issue.
NOTE: Some of the factors in the paradigms above conflict almost paradoxically (and thus one might ask, “how can pure egalitarian social liberalism, anarchy, and pure liberalism all be left, they conflict with each other?!”). This isn’t a mistake any more than Plato made a mistake when he defined Democracy and explained how it could devolve into anarchy. The tension and conflict simply speaks to why left-right politics is tricky to get, should be considered issue-by-issue, and is hard to break down in a single two-point chart (as that would force one to consider liberty, social equality, economics, and favored government type at once for example).
Left-Right Politics as the Questions Behind Government: Who Do the Laws Favor and Who Exerts the Force
There are, with all the above in mind, other ways to frame the core concepts behind left-right politics.
In other words, we don’t have to just focus on “the virtues” of liberty and equality, we can also look at two factors behind the closely related questions “who rules” and “who makes the laws?”
“Who Rules?” The Realist Question at the Core of the Political Spectrum
Due to an economy of words it didn’t make sense to bring up this point before, but it is a key to understanding the overarching theory here and directly related to the foundation of governments, so let’s discuss it now.
The main question that creates the left and right, and the traditional forms of government is in many ways the same, it is: “who rules?” (classically meaning who makes the laws, not just who votes for officials) which can be understood by two more questions:
- “How much authority does the government have?” <- liberty-authority
- “Who says so?” (which almost always nets the same result as asking “who benefits?”). <- equality-inequality
We can then call the basic political affiliations that arise from this:
- Non-Authoritative Collectivism (“Left-Left” or “Liberty-Left and Social-Left”)
- Non-Authoritative Individualism (Left-Right or “the Liberty-Right and Social-Right” )
- Authoritative Collectivism (Right-Left or “the Authoritarian-Right and Social-Left”)
- Authoritative Individualism (Right-Right or “the Authoritarian-Right and Social-Right”)
We can also, look at the same thing another way, looking at:
1. the question “who do the laws favor” (equality paradigm) and 2. the question “who is exerting the force (or who is giving true consent to the force being exerted)” (a sort of equality paradigm)?
In these terms:
- When liberties are applied equally and/or benefit all, when there is a focus on collective equality rather than the individual, but when the ideology is not authoritative, it is “collective liberty“ (“the liberty left”, where “left” is the “social left”, toward collective equality).
- Likewise, when the focus is on the individual rather than the collective, when individual liberty is favored over collective equality, but there is otherwise limited state authority, it is “individual liberty“ (“the liberty right“, where “right” is the “social right”, favoring individualism over collective equality).
- Next, when authority is used to ensure collective equality or even personal liberties, when authority is used to ensure social equality, it is “collective authority“ (“the authoritarian left“).
- Lastly, when hierarchy and order are favored over collective equality, it is “individual authority“ (“the authoritarian right“). With that said, we can use the same terms when speaking of “who is exerting the force“.
Notice that no matter how we phrase this, as an idealist’s virtues of liberty and equality, or as a realist’s take on “who rules,” the results are the same. We get four flavors of left-right that differ by stances on authority and social equality.
Consider the following left-right spectrums in this respect:
A liberty vs. authority and equality vs. “inequality” (AKA individual-focused) paradigm plotted on a simple 4-point left-right spectrum chart.
A four-point chart again, but this time denoting terms to describe each quadrant (where pure right-wing is at the top right corner, and pure left-wing is at the bottom left corner, and moving toward either from a more centered position denotes moving toward the political left or right respectively):
TIP: If one were to balance Liberalism with Republicanism and Democracy with Aristocracy, perhaps by separating historically overpowered powers, one would be expected to approach the “left-right mean” AKA correctness AKA balance. What a novel idea, why didn’t anyone think of… oh, wait. The philosophical point of the United States and the U.K. and the west in general. It is all, very loosely speaking, about balancing excesses and deficiencies of “liberty” and “equality”. #ThanksFounders.
Complexities of Individualism and Collectivism
Speaking on the above, complexity arises due to the fact that the person exerting the force isn’t always acting in their own self-interest.
The Queen may say “we” and create a classically right authoritarian state, but may do this in a way that respects rights and liberties of all (in a way aligned with “the general will“), thus the Queen would be being far-right in terms of governing style but very left in terms of social policy.
Likewise, the Tyrant Stalin or Hitler may say they are acting upon the will of the collective, but may strip the people of their rights and liberties, thus they would be acting far-right in many respects despite their on paper ideology.
Real systems are very complex, and specifically individualism vs. collectivism is very complex (like economics, there is more than one sub-paradigm buried in those terms)! Our model is meant to help us to decode complex real systems.
Again, as noted above, the complexity isn’t a statement on the model not being right, it just speaks to the complexity of politics, why we should consider things comparatively and per-issue using different paradigms, and generally “to why the answer is balance“.
TIP: With the above in mind, we can also show the left-right spectrum like this (this time adding in explainers and focusing on the question “who does it favor?”).
Considering Different Left-Right Spheres of Political Life
Left-right paradigms can be applied within different left-right spheres. Understanding this helps us to understand why, for example, an ideology might be left in terms of social issues, right in terms authority, but left in terms of economics (i.e. why they may hold a “mixed” ideology not just per-issue, but per-“sphere”).
An non-exhaustive list includes:
Left-Right Politics (the paradigms of the left-right political sphere). Most political left-right paradigms fit generally in what we can call “the left-right political sphere). We can discuss this sphere in terms of left-right social issues, left-right economics, left-right governments, etc as noted below. This section is all about making distinctions so we can differentiate between left-right views in politics, economics, social issues, etc.
Left-Right Governments (the paradigms of the governmental sphere): Another way to look at it is that popular governments like Democracies are left and authoritative governments like Monarchies are right (although this is somewhat tautological as the government types relate directly to the above underlying factors in general; as both democracy and liberalism are the ideologies of liberty and equality and conservatism and monarchy the ideologies of authority and inequality AKA hierarchy). See types of governments and Plato’s five regimes.
Left-Right Economics (the paradigms of the economic sphere): When considering governments and political ideologies, it makes sense to consider economics (as it is very foundational to a society). Here a regulation on a business may be “left” because it favors the collective by favoring the environment and workers, but “right” because it restricts the liberty of an employer. Likewise cost assistance may be left, as it favors low-income, but right, as it means more government-mandated taxes. Issues of economics should be considered separately from social issues and issues of personal liberties, as they are different aspects of an ideology. Paradigms for economics could include, for example: “state-controlled economy (right, controlled by the few) vs. individual run economy (left, controlled by the many)” and “taxation (right, authoritative) vs. no taxation (left, liberty)”. Of course, any of these should be compared against social equality paradigms, as a nation that does not care for the social welfare of the collective is by its nature more right than one that does (the way in which big government and taxation can be socially left despite its right-wing aspects). We can see how economics can lead to complex left-right systems where a socialist and libertarian can’t fully square out who is left of who as an absolute! TIP: Consider also left-right globalization paradigms, where we can denote free trade vs. protectionism, isolationism vs. imperialism, nationalism vs. internationalism, nativism vs. globalism, etc. In all cases, the ideology that favors the large group is generally “to left in terms of collectivism”, although it may be “to the right” by other measures.
Left-Right Classism (the paradigms of the class sphere): Another way to describe the factors underlying the left-right spectrum is by a classist divide. This would include looking at the paradigm: populist (left) vs. elitist (right). A chart I can’t draw might plot this as a Z-axis, but we could also here remove the individual vs. collective axis and add this populist axis (creating a populist vs. elitist / liberty vs. authority chart; thus differentiating between authoritative populism and not, and left-wing populism vs. right-wing). Consider, the KKK and NAZIs are far-right in general, but they are also in some ways “left” in terms of being anti-establishment and favoring aspects of individual liberty. Generally, “populist” is a liberal collectivist ideology and “elitist” is a conservative individualist ideology… however, socialism is authoritative collectivism, and this is obviously a left-right ideology, and “Tea Party” populism is a liberal individualist philosophy in that it wants the liberty to be progressively conservative. So again, things get complex, but like with the governments left-right paradigm, it is all analogous to the equality and liberty paradigms (in that, generally speaking, a populist movement is a collective movement against the authority of another group or individual whether it is left or right-wing).
TIP: Don’t confuse the political left and right with Democrats (left) and Republicans (right), that is a good starting point, but a little overly simple due to the complex ideologies of the parties in practice. See our breakdown of the modern American left and right for a little more nuance or see the original meaning of the party names.
More Notes on The Mixed Nature of Left-Right Ideologies and Their Complexity
Given the above, we can say there is not one primary left-right factor to consider, but at least two that must be considered simultaneously!… and this means almost all ideologies are “left-right” in practice.
Consider, an authoritative collectivist, a liberal monarch, and a free-trading-republic with a strong central government. Each is left on one paradigm, but right in the other.
- The freedom to own a slave is left, but the act of inhibiting the freedom of another is far-right.
- A despot using the state to ensure morality and social justice in a puritanical way is left in terms of policy that favors the collective, but right in terms of the authority needed to ensure that policy.
- A collective that only accepts one type of person is to the right of a collective that accepts all types (why Communism is to the left of the NAZI’s National “Socialism”).
- Taxation is right-wing in and of itself, benefiting or inhibiting some individuals more than others at the demand of the state, but its ends of providing funding for the common good (like locals roads) benefits the whole collectively equally, and is thus that aspect is left.
- A libertarian society based on pure freedom (save some basic rules) is far-left in terms of liberty, but right in terms of individualism (as pure freedom means inherent inequality).
- A socialist utopian commune based on pure equality is left in terms of favoring the collective, but to enforce total equality of all things is to exert authority, and that is right!
- Meanwhile, a society that offered the same freedoms as the purely libertarian one, but somehow also provided a strong safety-net, would be “to the left” of the libertarian utopia and the socialist utopia due to it favoring the collective over individuals and liberty over authority.
In all cases, the left and right labels work, but as we can see, most ideologies are “mixed”. In practice, one must typically either sacrifice liberty for collective social welfare, or sacrifice protections for more individual liberties.
This speaks to the balance needed in governance and politics, and makes giving accurate left-right labels complex in absolute terms.
TIP: Keep in mind, as noted above, all collectives are comprised of individuals. Thus, an individualist ideology, like libertarianism, can favor a collective by extension of its focus on individual liberty, and a collectivist ideology like “socialism” can sometimes limit the liberty of the individual by its focus on the collective. In both cases, it is using two left-right paradigms at once that helps us understand that these are both “mixed” left-right ideologies. The liberty of libertarianism is left, but the focus on the individual is right. The authority of a collectivist ideology may be right, but its favoring of the collective is left. Again, to expand on an above example, a benevolent monarch is right in terms of individual authority, but may be left in terms of their treatment of the collective. The more nuanced we are, and the more we discuss left and right qualities issue by issue, the better we can understand an ideology on paper and in practice and compare it accurately to other ideologies.
More on the Origin of the Terms Left and Right
With the above basics noted, before expanding on the above theories, let’s return to the easiest and most accurate metaphor for what left and right, origin story of the terms left and right themselves. We covered this above, but musing on it a bit more in the next section will help the skeptical reader to re-confirm we are on the right track.
Confirming the Fundamentals of Left-Right Politics
As eluded to above, not only are these terms the core of La Révolution, they are also the core of what defines the government types, liberalism and conservatism, populism and elitism, and many of the terms we identify with politically (even “Democrat” and “Republican” to some extent; even those are “mixed” political parties consisting of different factions and different left-right policy stances, their namesakes, current forms, and different policy stances speak to aspects of the left-right split).
The fundamental underlying “virtues” of Democracy (as defined by Plato in his Republic), Liberalism, and the French, American, and English Revolutionaries are well stated as “liberty” and “equality” (“Liberté, égalité, fraternité” as they say; AKA the principles of liberalism meant to temper conservatism). These ideologies express the desire for an “excesses” of liberty and equality (as one can see in documents like the Rights of Man and Citizen).
Meanwhile, fundamental principles of traditional Monarchy / Aristocracy, conservatism, and the opposition to the revolutionaries of each country, like the Ancien Régime in France (those “old orders” whose principles are: hierarchy, order, and tradition AKA the principles of conservatism, that which tempers liberty and equality) sought what we can call a “deficiency” of liberty and equality (they wanted more authority and hierarchy and less liberty and equality).
Given the above justifications from the classics and the revolutions (specifically the French Revolution where our terms come from), we use underlying virtues “liberty” and “equality” as a foundation, relating that to the basic political ideologies, relating that back to the basic government types, and basing our left-right spectrums and working off of that.
Because we have grounded our left-right theory in these political constants derived from history’s real governments and philosophies, it will generally work as a model that aligns with modern semantics, politics in-action, and the classical usage of terms.
For more reading, see The Origin of the Political Terms Left and Right.
Where do the Political Terms Left and Right Come from?
During the French Revolution of 1789, supporters of the king stood to the president’s right, and supporters of the revolution to his left.
This is to say, The citizens who wanted democracy, individual liberty, and social equality stood to the left <—— of the President ——> and, the supporters of the Aristocracy, Monarchy, and King (“the few”) who wanted order, tradition, social hierarchy, and authority stood to the right.
The above “left-right paradigm” doubles as a basic “classical” 2 point political spectrum. To simplify things: LEFT, LIBERAL, and DEMOCRACY is toward liberty and equality and RIGHT, CONSERVATIVE, and MONARCHY is toward order, tradition, social hierarchy, and authority (this is the basic original two-way split, in practice we want to consider liberty and equality separately rather than together).
Like the American Revolution around the same time, or England’s Glorious Revolution in the late 1600’s, the French Revolution was a liberal revolution over human rights vs. the absolute and divine right of kings (see history of human rights and birth of liberalism).
Specifically, the terms “left” and “right” first appeared during the events leading up to the French Revolution of 1789 when members of the National Assembly divided into supporters of the king to the president’s right and supporters of the revolution to his left.
In other words, at the National Assembly at the dawn of the French Revolution, the ideology that supported the traditional order, hierarchy, and government of “the one” King and “the few” aristocrats was called “right”, and the ideology that favored the collective rights and liberties of “the many” was “left”. And this of course fits with the models presented on this page.
The French Revolution: Crash Course World History #29. This will help put things in context.
TIP: See Left and Right: The Great Dichotomy Revisited for a more complete telling of the significance of the terms left and right. The opening chapter of the book describes the French origins of the terms in vital detail.
TIP: Even though the Queen says “we”, she is still right-wing toward social hierarchy. Even though individualism is right in absolute terms, its effects can be very left (liberal and equal) if all are free in their right to pursue their unique life, liberty, and happiness. These complexities speak to why this page is long and not short, not to the validity of the theory. We grapple with complexities below.
TIP: Leftism, like liberalism in general, can be seen as a pushback against the pyramid-shaped social order seen in the “estates” of France of the time of the French Revolution. The image below offers a visual of all this. Notice that the “barons” of the third estate (the oligarchs of the middle-upper-class) gained their liberty too, this complicates things and we should remember the Barons’ wars and the Magna Carta that did little for the workers or peasants (a Barons’ war is different than a Peasants’ War, is different from a Workers’ revolution, so to speak; this is true even though they all tend to rebel against the first two estates speaking in terms of the French Revolution). Learn more about Plato’s Republic and his class system, or see an explanation of the modern American class system (as it compares to the Estates of the Realm).
Left-Right and Governments, Using Plato’s Five Regimes as a Metaphor
With the above in mind, in terms of origins, we can also look to the philosophers of pre-Hellenistic Greece to confirm the basics of the theory.
In terms of Plato’s five regimes, each step away from Monarchy and toward Democracy can be said to be more “left” (Plato never used the term “left” or “right”, but he did coin the types of governments and offer theories of liberty and equality in his theory of justice from his Republic).
Thus, in Plato’s terms, each subsequent government from Monarchy to Democracy sacrifices order and inequality to gain more unrestrained liberty and equality:
RIGHT: Monarchy (pure lawful order and hierarchy) -> Aristocracy -> Timarchy -> Oligarchy -> Democracy (pure lawful liberty and equality) :LEFT
But don’t get too excited thinking i’m somehow favoring liberty and equality, nothing works well in extremes, even the core principles of liberalism… and certainly Plato postulated that it was none other than unrestrained liberty or equality that led to anarchy and tyranny.
In fact, while Plato didn’t exactly love monarchy, he greatly preferred the order of constitutional monarchy to the excessively liberal and equal democracy (hinting, as hopefully, you’ll pick up by reading this, that it is a tempered balance of the powers, rooted in a lawful Republic in which we find the balance that maximizes liberty and equality).
EXTREME RIGHT-LEFT: Tyranny (pure lawless order and hierarchy) <- -> Anarchy (pure lawless liberty and equality) :EXTREME LEFT-RIGHT
From this point, with the above political compass and the rest in mind, one only needs to deal with the points eluded to above about complexity, namely, that a Tyrant who favors the collective is to the left of the tyrant who doesn’t, and that pure lawless individualist focused anarchy is to the right of an egalitarian commune focused on social welfare with the same degree of liberty.
Plato: The Republic – Book 8 Summary and Analysis. To help frame the types of governments.
TIP: When considering origins and using classical terms, we also have to consider the government forms from Plato’s Republic and early Greek works on politics. We cover this below, but it can be expressed as: RIGHT: Monarchy (pure lawful order and hierarchy) -> Aristocracy -> Timarchy -> Oligarchy -> Democracy (pure lawful liberty and equality) :LEFT. As you can see this lines up with our theory perfectly (and it should, we built our theory around the origin stories and what we mean when we speak).
TIP: The importance of going issue by issue can’t be overstated. Utilitarianism is a great “left” “collectivist” theory that seeks to maximize liberty, equality, and happiness… when understood properly via a close reading of Mill. However, when taken to mean “the ends justify the means” – Period – it can result in some far-right means that really pervert Mill’s socially minded classically liberal theory. To apply left-right labels, one would look at each “mean” and the desired and potential “ends” and think on the left-right qualities of each. From this one could create a full picture on not only the correctness of the action, but its left-right properties. This could help one understand if the ends were a just balance of forces, or were skewed perhaps resulting in undesired outcomes.
TIP: There is no one way to understand left-right ideology, but our paradigms (especially the simple ones) are fairly accurate none-the-less. Our left-right spectrum models are similar to the popular “Nolan Chart” (which in my opinion, outside the chart on politicalcompass.org, is the only other correct model). I highly respect articles like “Political “Left” and “Right” Properly Defined” by the libertarian-minded theobjectivestandard.com, but their liberty-focused ideology has left them only considering one paradigm (and thus missing the bigger picture). The modern deregulatory right-wing likes to consider the social left-wing as being right-wing, but as we explain, this is only true in the liberty/authority paradigm, not the collective/individual paradigm. When we add in additional paradigms below, we will see things get even more complex. See us myth bust an “alt-right” claim that Hitler was a left-winger using this logic.
More on Basic Liberal Vs. Conservative Political Ideology Spectrum – What is the Difference Between the Left-Wing and the Right-Wing?
As noted above, historically speaking, the simplest way to understand left-right ideology is: liberal is left and conservative is right.
Also noted above this relates to the authority and collectivism vs. individualism paradigms.
With this information covered, let’s focus on the political core of all this, conservatism and liberalism.
Below we will better define those political terms so we can be clear on their meaning.
- Liberalism (AKA classic liberalism) typically being a fight for liberty, progress, and democracy and against authority. It supports the individual liberty and individual authority of the people, but at the expense of collective liberty and collective authority of the state. At its worst, it is lawless anarchy or a tyrannical mob.
- Conservatism (AKA traditional conservatism) being a push toward tradition, order, and authority and away from liberalism. It favors collective authority via the state, but at the expense of collective and individual liberty and individual authority. At its worst, it is a tyrannical dictatorship.
- A third concept, Socialism, is a populist movement rooted in late 19th century Marxism, that is typically to the left on most issues. Conservatism stands against this as well, as does classic liberalism. It favors collective authority via the state to ensure collective liberty, but at the expense of individual liberty and individual authority. At its worst it is also a tyrannical dictatorship.
These three types then break into four types as socialism informs liberalism and creates social liberalism and then social conservatism stands against that. We break this down in detail on our liberalism vs. conservatism page, but here is the gist:
- Liberalism is an ideology that grew out of the Age of Reason as classic liberalism (individual rights, anti-authority; a rejection of Kings, humans have natural rights), and evolved into social liberalism (collective rights, pro-authority; a rejection of social injustice, authority and law are needed) in the mid-1800s.
- Conservatism stands against both types of liberalism as classical conservatism (collective rights, pro-authority; Monarchy is the best system, revolution is wrong) and social conservatism (individual rights, anti-authority; anti-social justice and anti-big government).
Without getting into further details, here is how the types of liberalism and conservatism look on a left-right spectrum chart:
Understanding Left-Right and the Classical and Social Forms of Liberalism and Conservatism Illustrated Above
As you can see, like other aspects of the theory, these terms fit neatly on the chart. However, these terms are complex. Social conservatism uses classical liberal liberty and classical conservative authority, social liberalism uses classical liberal and classical conservative principles, classical conservatism all but classical liberal, and classical liberal all but classical conservative. In other words, each type is rooted in one quadrant but pulls from two other quadrants, really only opposing one quadrant. That complexity helps explain the key to finding balance in general (and applies to other charts), but also makes it too complex a spectrum to lead the page with.
Try comparing the above chart to the one below with important American figures on it. Here the left-right model shows that the ideologies of these past figures are best described as “mixed”:
TIP: Left and right are largely comparative terms, and are thus best applied specifically to an issue rather than broadly to a party, period, or nation. This is what creates “mixed systems”, you’ll note throughout this page that extremes are bad and lead to tyranny and most real world ideologies are “mixed.”
Who is Left and Right in American Politics? It is important not to get too caught up in modern politics when trying to understand the concepts of left and right, as the American political parties ALL have aspects of “left” and “right.” Generally, Democrats are “left” and Republicans are “right,” but this isn’t true on every issue. For instance, Republicans have a lot of classical liberal beliefs regarding individual liberty and deregulation, while taxes favored by the Democrats can be considered authoritatively right, despite funding programs that are socially left. See our page on the basic political parties if you feel unclear about what we are saying. You can also get a deeper understanding by looking at the difference between individualism and collectivism.
Complex 4 Point Political Left-Right Spectrum – Representing Actual Political Views
This next chart considers socialism and libertarianism, rather than just liberal and conservative. Thus this chart moves some things around, is more complex, and is more opinionated than the above charts (the more examples we give, the more likely there will be disagreement).
Our chart uses modern political terms, and we can draw similar conclusion to the “The Political Compass charts,” but we disagree with other spectrums like this. There are four basic quadrants of political leftist and rightist thinking based on individualism and liberty/anarchy, and collectivism and authority. These quadrants can be named using modern language and our model of basic political parties.
- Social Libertarianism (Chomsky) / Social-tribal-commune type Socialism (Marx as a philosopher) (Non-Authoritative left-left).
- Modern Social Pro-business Liberalism (Clinton, Keynes, and Mill) / Big Government Socialism, Communism at an Extreme (from FDR all the way to Lenin or even Stalin or Hitler) (Authoritative left-right).
- True Libertarianism (Robert Nozick and Ron Paul) / Classical Liberal (Locke, Jefferson, and Jackson) (Non-Authoritative right-left).
- Conservatism (Tories, Hamilton, Churchill, Thatcher, or King George III; It changes with the times) (Authoritative right-right).
TIP: The chart below uses different terminology than the other charts. These are “theories” AKA “models” for understanding the concept of left and right. No single chart is absolutely correct, they instead should be contrasted and compared.
The Left-Right Spectrum as Multiple Paradigms
As noted above when discussing sub-paradigms, we can add further complexity by considering other left-right paradigms and applying them per issue to a government type, political party, platform, piece of legislation, or ideology.
This helps explain why, for instance, modern American liberals are often seen as authoritative, using executive power to push progressive legislation, or are seen as favoring the collective and small groups like unions or vulnerable minority groups.
The Left-Right Paradigm Table – Creating a Complex Left-Right Political Spectrum
The left-right political spectrum can be expressed as overlaying individual paradigms related to political ideology.
TIP: Each paradigm in the table below can be compared using an XY axis like our charts above. It is my opinion that these paradigms are the key to truly understanding left-right politics. My theory may not be perfect, but given the Nolan chart and my research, I am very sure we are on the right track here.
TIP: For those with a deep interest, check out Aristotle’s deficiency and excess as it relates to governments below (or see a discussion on how it relates to virtue here). Ideally each left-right paradigm should have a “mean”, a balance in which correctness is found and then two extremes. For a very rough example, the “mean” of cooperation and competition may be “healthy competition and cooperation”. This side-note likely merits its own page, so let’s put it aside for now.
TIP: This left-right paradigm table is like the one near the top of the page, but phrases things a little differently and uses some different paradigms not covered above.
Left- Right Paradigm
|How much authority do people have? (Who has authority)||
Anarchy (Liberty) / Authority
|Who says so?||
Collective / Individual
|For the benefit of who?||
Everyone / Someone
|Do we cooperate or compete?||
Cooperation / Competition
|Do we rule with compassion or reason?||
Empathy and Ethics / Logic and Reason
Empathy and Ethics (idealism)
Logic and Reason (realism)
|How fast does change happen?||
Progressive / Traditional
|How restrictive are the rules? (how authoritative are laws?)||
Liberal / Conservative
Liberal (not restrictive)
NOTE: It is tempting to confuse “Anarchy” and “Liberty”, but we placed them side-by-side to avoid this. Liberty is a key underlying principle of western democracy, but true Liberty can only be accessed through laws (pure freedom is anarchy, not what most people think of when they say liberty). Anarchistic communes and individual anarchy do not recognize laws and only work in small groups, not as government systems that want to promote liberal principles. This general complication was well stated in Plato’s Republic where he considered Democracy and Anarchy as one due to both favoring liberty.
TIP: The empathy vs. reason one is a little like the liberty paradigm (everyone has a mix). All we mean here is that where a mother may act with compassion, a father may take a more rational approach. Both are acting out of love, but one is taking a more realist stance. Consider Hume’s fork (I’ve always thought David Hume “right” with his empirical approach, but really that sensory data is a “realist” thing and Kant’s reason is “idealist”). There is an essay of complexity just in that one point and I’m very sure complex cases can be made. Still, here reason is best equated with empirical evidence, as Pure reason has a certain idealist quality.
NOTE: This chart is not exhaustive per-say, I’ve already noted other paradigms in the page (such as in the left-right economics section) where we looked a free trade vs. protectionism, isolationism vs. imperialism, nationalism vs. internationalism, nativism vs. globalism. We can also look at other aspects like rationalism (left) and empiricism (right). Feel free to contribute to the overarching theory by commenting below.
The moral roots of liberals and conservatives – Jonathan Haidt. This video looks at the moral differences between liberals and conservatives. It looks at five moral factors: purity, in-group, authority, fairness, and harm, any of which can be compared as a duality in a fashion similar to the above paradigms.
TIP: I don’t want to highlight this part of the theory, as people get touchy about the terms “male and female… With that said, all left-right paradigms can very generally and metaphorically described as “feminine” (left) and “masculine” (right) traits. For example, empathy, ethics, the seeking of fairness, compassion, nurturing, caring, and other (very loosely and metaphorically speaking) “feminine” traits are “left”, and cold logic, order, strength, fear, protectionism, militarism, and other (again loosely and metaphorically speaking) “masculine” traits are “right”. Here we can generally equate “the feminine” with the general concepts of mother, democracy, the collective, and liberty, and then generally equate “the masculine” with the concepts of father, monarchy, individual, and authority. Of course, just like in real life, the lines blur. If you want know more about how I relate left-and-right back to the male and female characteristics, see a page on the left and right as naturally occurring.
“How Many People Get a Say?” The Underlying Aspect of Government
We touched on governments above in the origin story of left and right, and we discussed them in terms of how they apply to our theory, but let’s return to them now as they are an important part of the overarching conversation.
The basic government types (of which all other governments are generally a sub-type), clearly illustrated by Plato (Republic) and Aristotle (Politics), focus on “how many people get a say?” and are based on their observations of real government types. The table below describes these types, and then the chart below plots them as “left” and “right”.
The Political Spectrum and Basic Types of Governments (see a Visual of this here)
How Many People
One – Right
Tyranny (or Mob Rule).
All acting as one tyrant, sometimes under a single tyrant.
Monarchy (or Dictatorship)
(Single leader, minimal democratization of power if any.)
Few – Left-Right
(class based on wealth, power, and social status; rule of money.)
(class based on birth, power, and social status; or election; rule of law.)
Many – Left
(everyone has representation or votes directly.)
TIP: There is more than one way to express the concepts in this chart. One could easily place mob rule under Democracy. This is a simplified chart to express left-right and basic types of government. Most governments are complex variations of these.
Left-Right Political Spectrum Infographic (With Basic Governments)
The following image compares the basic government types discussed above into a more complex chart illustrated based on the authority vs. liberty and collective vs. individual paradigms.
Notice the authoritative democracy that Conservatives fear, and the lawless isolationism that Liberals fear? Notice how both are versions of authoritarianism?
This chart helps make sense of why Libertarians and Socialists share certain ideals, while “the establishment” on both sides share other ideas. A close inspection of this chart and America’s 2016 election is telling, to say the least.
TIP: Consider how government types work for different size groups. A bigger group needs more authority than a smaller one to function well. A careful inspection of the spectrum, from behind “a veil of ignorance“, and with complexity considered, makes spotting sticking points and addressing them oddly simple conceptually. In real life, we have to factor in bias.
TIP: Consider that most governments, especially large Democratic ones like America, use many different government styles and embrace ideas from across the political spectrum.
Understanding the Left-Right Governments Infographic Better
In the infographic, we see how each government type needs at least two left-right qualifiers to describe their left-ness or right-ness. For instance, a Dictatorship is right-right as a single individual has complete authority, and Mob rule is on the opposite side of the X axis, it is left-right because everyone has complete authority. Both types are tyrannical, one born from Democracy and one from the authority of a ruling class.
We can compare this chart to any of the other qualifiers mentioned in the table above. So we may consider a centered right-right Republic, and then ask “how progressive is this specific Republic?” If we find they are very progressive, then they are, on the aggregate, more left.
Notice how, no matter how we compare and contrast, the extremes are not a good thing. A quick glance at the graphic makes it apparent that most people are centered left-right.
America is a type of mixed Republic that employs elements of all the quadrants. If we then consider the branches of government and all the groups that form in America, we can see a single country can span just about every point on the chart, and that no one view is “always correct.”
How Big Should Government Be? Left vs. Right #1. This YouTube series by PragerU takes another look at the left-right paradigm. This is a right-leaning video and a good lesson on rhetoric. See how their theory contrast with or theory of left vs. right.
“Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.” – Alexander Hamilton
Hamilton knew as the Greeks did that freedom can only be found in a centered law, to find the center we must have balance and avoid extremes. The American Republic is meant to strike a balance between law and liberty (or Authority and Anarchy).
Noam Chomsky: On Power and Ideology | The New School. Here is some Chomsky to balance out the PragerU.
Looking at the Basic Political Spectrum in Another Way
To end, I want to stress the theme that when we look at the spectrum, we have to look at each issue and not get side-tracked by ideology and bias.
When Lincoln freed the Slaves, he was using an authoritative form of democracy and executive power for the benefit of the collective on behalf of his supporters (roughly half the country). Exerting that power was very “right-wing”, but it was done in a “left-wing” way that favored the liberty of the collective over the authority of individuals. This paints a complex picture that leads to debates over subjects like “did the American political parties or platforms switch?”
When we discuss a real-life ideology, we can call it left or right, but it is typically going to be “mixed.”
For instance, Social-liberalism favors collective authority (of the state) to ensure collective liberty (of all people as a group). It does this at the expense of individual liberty (of a given person as an individual) and individual authority (the freedom of individuals to be their own boss); Think socialist utopia and central planning as extremes.
Meanwhile, Classic-liberalism favors individual liberty and individual authority at the expense of collective liberty and collective authority; Think total free-market, unregulated capitalism, and the individual’s right to own indentured servants at an extreme.
Depending on context both the above ideologies could be described as left or right, because ultimately liberty always requires some amount of authority to ensure.
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- “Aristotle’s Political Theory” plato.Stanford.edu
- “Plato’s Republic” classics.MIT.edu
"The Left-Right Political Spectrum Explained" is tagged with: American Politics, Bias, Equality, Individualism and Collectivism, Left–right Politics, Liberalism and Conservatism, Liberty, United States of America