Political Compass #11: From each according to his ability, to each according to need.

Many political debates here have included references to The Political Compass, which uses a set of 61 questions to assess one’s political orientation in terms of economic left/right and social libertarianism/authoritarianism (rather like the “Libertarian diamond” popular in the US).

And so, every so often I will begin a thread in which the premise for debate is one of the 61 questions. I will give which answer I chose and provide my justification and reasoning. Others are, of course, invited to do the same including those who wish to “question the question”, as it were. I will also suggest what I think is the “weighting” given to the various answers in terms of calculating the final orientation.

It would also be useful when posting in these threads to give your own “compass reading” in your first post, by convention giving the Economic value first. My own is
SentientMeat: Economic: -5.12, Social: -7.28, and so by the above convention my co-ordinates are (-5.12, -7.28). Please also indicate which option you ticked.

Now, I appreciate that there is often dissent regarding whether the assessment the test provides is valid, notably by US conservative posters, either because it is “left-biased” (??) or because some propositions are clearly slanted, ambiguous or self-contradictory. The site itself provides answers to these and other Frequently Asked Questions, and there is also a separate thread: Does The Political Compass give an accurate reading? Read these first and then, if you have an objection to the test in general, please post it there. If your objection is solely to the proposition in hand, post here. If your objection is to other propositions, please wait until I open a thread on them.

The above will be pasted in every new thread in order to introduce it properly, and I’ll try to let each one exhaust itself of useful input before starting the next. Without wanting to “hog the idea”, I would be grateful if others could refrain from starting similar threads. To date, the threads are:
Does The Political Compass give an accurate reading?
Political Compass #1: Globalisation, Humanity and OmniCorp.
#2: My country, right or wrong
#3: Pride in one’s country is foolish.
#4: Superior racial qualities.
#5: My enemy’s enemy is my friend.
#6: Justifying illegal military action.
#7: “Info-tainment” is a worrying trend.
#8: Class division vs. international division. (+ SentientMeat’s economic worldview)
#9: Inflation vs. unemployment.
#10: Corporate respect of the environment.

*Proposition #11: * From each according to his ability, to each according to his need is a fundamentally good idea.

SentientMeat (-5.12, -7.28) ticks Agree.
Again, one for the strong leftists to Strongly Agree with. However, I suspect that everyone who recognises this as a core tenet of Marxism and therefore simply opposes it with Strong Disagreement might be reacting somewhat disproportionally. Taken on its face, I believe that it is a fundamentally good idea.

The caveats, of course, are that these words “ability” and “need” must be explained properly “Ability” to do useful, productive work in any capacity is straightforward enough, but my “need” to sit on my sofa playing an expensive guitar all day is rather an abuse of the word. As a negative utilitarian, I believe that “needs” are those basics which ameliorate outright suffering. After all, if a government cannot prevent its people suffering, what good is it?

An example: One person has the ability to work hard and smart in an exceptionally difficult and useful capacity, is in good health, and has simple tastes. Another is not very intellectually gifted and is prevented from performing physical work by a medical condition. Those who understand pure Marxism might interpret proposition #11 as “both of these people must work as hard as they can whilst enjoying precisely the same standard of living”, which is very difficult to ascribe to.

On its face, however, the proposition does not go so far. It merely asks us to assess the idea of somehow getting the most from people with ability while ensuring that people with needs are provided for. This is not in itself Marxist by any means; indeed it is perhaps the definition of a welfare state in a free market economy (which I consider no more a contradiction in terms than eg. universally providing for the educational “needs” of schoolchildren violates the freedom of the market).

I cannot ascribe to Marxism. However, I can ascribe to proposition #11 because I consider that it is clearly distinct from Marxism.


According to the poll the above link, a surprisingly high number of Americans apparently believed that Karl Marx’s dogma is included in the US Constitution - 35%, more than believe otherwise (let alone recognise it as a core tenant of Marxism) - some 31%.

This level of igorance on the part of American citizens is actually quite refreshing as, to me at least, it suggests they have judged it on its merits and approved of it on those merits alone. Associating it with their Constitution is surely their knee-jerk stamp of approval.

I would tick ***disagree ** * as whilst I concur that a society should protect those in need, I would not necessarily agree that the tax rate of contribution to permit that effort (as opposed to the tax sum contributed) should be weighted against those who simply have the ability to pay it. It is not a *strong disagreement * as I may be reading too much into the question - I could have almost as easily given a general approval, with only minor differences in interpretation.

I see that SentientMeat concentrates more on the *need * half than the *ability * half of the proposal.

Economic: 3. something, Social 5.something

(-5.38, -0.15) agree

As a good Christian, I recognize this as one of the fundamental tenents of my faith. (Although, somehow writing it that way seems just a trifle dramatic). I don’t strongly agree because I have misgivings about who gets to decide what my abilities are and what my needs are.

(7.75, -2.00) Strongly Disagree

My abilities and needs are no one’s business but my own. On the same level, your abilities and needs are none of my business. I have no moral obligation to work hard for your sake and you have no moral obligation to work for my sake.

I would agree that from a completely practical standpoint that the tenet presented (or rather the OP’s less-than-Marxist interpretation of it) probably makes society as whole function more smoothly, but I don’t feel that it is in anyway a ‘fundamentally good idea’.

Your genuine suffering is not “none of my business”, cckerberos. I would hope that you didn’t turn a blind eye to mine.

As a Christian, I may be more than happy to help you with yoor need (as a personal favor), but as a political compass, I ticked “disagree” because, as a general rule (with exceptions), I’d be pretty upset if the government mandated that I help you with your need.

You believe that all of the genuine need can be met without government mandate?

Jon the Geek (-3.00/-6.56) ticks agree… then disagree… then agree again… then settles on disagree.

Jon the Geek (-3.00/-6.56) sits back and watches this discussion to decide what he really thinks.

I probably wouldn’t. But I would help you because I’m a nice person (or at least I try to be), not because I was obligated to assist you.

I didn’t say all , which is why I ticked “disagree” rather than “strongly disagree”, and I said “with exceptions”. Life-saving health care needs, such as rare vaccinations that normal people can’t afford, can and should be met by the government. But as a general rule, the government shouldn’t mandate helping people with their needs, since this causes people to rely on the government, rather than themselves, family members, and friends.

Indeed, I also try to be a nice person. Which is why I recognise that paying tax proportional to my income in order to help those in genuine need is the best approach to minimising suffering.

I can’t speak for Engineer Dude (who I see on preview has just responded), but I certainly don’t believe that it can be all met without governmental intervention. I don’t think that that justifies forcing people to help, though. At least from a purely philosophical standpoint, I don’t feel that the end justifies the means.

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need is a fundamentally good idea.

This is a fundamentally good idea in the same way that “Let them eat cake.” is.

It’s a nice thought. But, totally devoid of any practical application or merit.

Debaser picks Stronly Disagree.

I would argue that people being taxed highly in order to help those in genuine need is the best approach to increase the suffering. By creating a cycle of dependance and subsidizing precisely the behaviour we wish to discourage social programs feed the problems they are designed to fight.

Don’t get too hopeful. It probabnly means that in the 3 seconds they took to read that (and honestly, I have some severe doubts about the veracity of these tests) it sounded pleasant and they checked whatever box jumoed out at them.

There’s an entire science behind these tests and I’ve come to recognize that you can get them to say almost anything.

This “forcing people to help” phrase crops up a great deal in these kinds of discussions, and I feel it distorts the issue. You, like me, happen to live in a democracy, wherein we accept the rule of law as set down by the elected government. We accept some level of taxation as a reasonable basis for civilisation, even if it is only used to prevent crime, invasion or other coercive force. We do not then complain of being “forced to help people (ie. victims of crime) by government mandate”.

Any tax is essentially “the government forcing you to help people”. I happily pay it because, just as I might find myself a victim of crime in genuine need, I might find myself a victim of cancer in genuine need. “Forced help” is only an objection open to those who advocate utter abolition of any tax whatsoever, ie. pure anarchists.

Ah, but is “dependancy” equivalent to genuine suffering? I would say not. Sure, if a homeless family are given shelter, food and basic medical treatment then they, for a short time at least, “depend” on it. But what of their suffering? I would say that this was reduced. Would you draw a genuine equvivalency between “dependence” and “suffering”?

And what of education? Is that not “forced help” for something which one does not even genuinely need to survive? Are schoolchildren not in a “cycle of dependence”?

Shodan (5.00,0.77) - Disagree.

As ccerberos mentions, my abililties and my needs are not subject to approval or disapproval from the government. And, as ever, the notion as presented founders on the hard rocks of motivation.

It is relatively easy to persuade me to work on my own behalf. It is still possible to persuade me to work on behalf of my family, or friends. It is relatively more difficult to persuade me to work on behalf of total strangers, at the behest of my government, as well as to persuade me that the goverment is always acting in everyone’s best interest. The temptation is always, since I receive no special benefit from extra work or more effort, is to do the minimum. Why bother starting up my own business if I don’t expect to keep any significant portion of the profits (besides what some bureaucrat decides that I “need”)? And thus the total economic activity is reduced. Which largely explains why the poor and needy in capitalist countries are better off, on the whole, than those in Marxist ones. Even if you are only getting the crumbs, a bigger pie means more crumbs.

Another factor is the disincentive to charitable work that exists when the government is expected to do it all. Why should I give that bum a quarter? Why doesn’t the government do it? I only get what I need, he must be getting what he needs, and wasting it. The hell with him.

It is not charity to see someone in need, and tell someone else to do something about it. Even, or especially, if that someone is the government.

Enlightened self-interest is the only practical basis for an economy.

Bill Gates is a lot richer than I am - he has much more than he “needs”. But I am a lot richer than I would be if the government had slapped a 100% tax on all incomes over a “living wage” back when he founded Microsoft.

This does not rule out private charity, or even limited government charity. But you cannot found a society on killing the goose that lays golden eggs. Let her hatch most of the eggs, and you get a lot more gold than cutting her open to get the next egg.

Even with the best intentions in the world.


Economic -8.25, Social -7.69: Leftist Libertarian. Agree.

(Like that’s going to be a surprise to anyone.)

We should attempt, firstly, to put this phrase into its proper context. It first appeared in Part I of The Critique of the Gotha Programme, which was the draft program of a party in Germany called the United Workers’ Party. The relevant passage below clearly indicates that Marx (and Engels) believe that this concept cannot be applied willy-nilly:

Marx believes this is ultimately possible because production, even under capitalism, is more and more collectivized - rather than the individual merchant or small shopkeeper being the norm, production and distribution relies more and more on large groups of people working together in the same place, and coordinating their efforts for greater efficiency. A socialist society - one that consciously runs production collectively - should also be obligated to meet the needs of individuals collectively. This doesn’t mean excessive government regulation and micromanaged bookkeeping, however, since the goal is to attain and maintain a permanent surplus of goods so large that human need could not possibly exhaust it.

Agreed. And welfarism is the only practical basis for ensuring that I will never find my genuine need unmet.

Economic Left/Right: 6.88
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -2.97

Strongly disagree.

I think Shodan got it exactly right. This might be a fine way to operate in a family setting, but not in a nation of millions of people. Who is determine those with “ability” and those with “needs”? Look at the countries in recent history that operated on this principle. That should be enough to make each and every one of us disagree with it.