Multiplicity of interpretation of the left-right axis
There are various different opinions about what is actually being measured along this axis:
Whether the state should prioritize equality (left) or hierarchy (right).
Whether the state should prioritize liberty (left) or security (right).
Whether the government’s involvement with moral issues should be minimal or interventionist. In different historical contexts, either of these positions has been called “left” or “right”.
Whether the government’s involvement with the economy should be interventionist (left) or laissez-faire (right). Note that certain right-wing governments have engaged in interventionist policies (see dirigisme).
Whether the government should take care of issues such as health care and retirement benefits (left), or whether individuals should be left to their own devices on such issues (right).
Whether their opinion on human nature is broadly optimistic (left) or pessimistic (right).
Support for the economic interests of the poor (left) or the rich (right).
Fair outcomes (left) versus fair processes (right). This was proposed by Australian Labor Party leader Mark Latham.
Whether one embraces change (left) or prefers rigorous justification for change (right). This was proposed by Eric Hoffer.
Whether human nature and society is malleable (left) or fixed (right). This was proposed by Thomas Sowell.
Some people feel that it is not obvious how these various concepts are related. They say that it is very confusing to speak of the right or the left without indicating what exactly you are referring to. They believe that one should first establish context by defining the axes upon which different positions will be measured.
Nonetheless, the right-left spectrum is so common as to be taken for granted. Many people even have a hard time conceptualizing any alternative to it. However, numerous alternatives exist, usually having been developed by people who feel their views are not fairly represented on the traditional right-left spectrum.
Perhaps the simplest alternative to the left-right spectrum was devised as a rhetorical tool during the Cold War. This was a circle which brought together the far right and left ends of the traditional spectrum, equating “extreme socialism” (i.e. the Communist Party) with “extreme conservatism” (i.e. Fascism). This nexus was particularly useful to those opposed to rapprochement with the Soviet Union.
Another alternative spectrum offered at American Federalist Journal emphasizes the degree of political control, and thus places totalitarianism at one extreme and anarchism (no government at all) at the other extreme. However, the way the American Federalist Journal uses such a measure to show Democrats and Libertarians both close to the two opposite political extremes is arguably ridiculous, with their rather more moderate stances unrealistically exaggerated. Such an error owes more to an apparent ignorance of the policies of those US parties and their distance in relation to the opposite levels of state power. Furthermore, there is the issue of the Journal’s own (conservative) political agenda to take into account.
Yet another alternative, currently popular among certain environmentalists, uses a single axis to measure what they consider to be the good of the Earth against the good of big business, which is seen as being the force most likely to harm the earth.
In 1998, political author Virginia Postrel, in her book The Future and Its Enemies, offered a new single axis spectrum that measures one’s view of the future. On one extreme are those who allegedly fear the future and wish to control it, whom Postrel calls stasists. On the other hand are those who want the future to unfold naturally and without attempts to plan and control, for whom she uses the name dynamists.
Other axes that might merit consideration include:
Role of the church: Clericalism vs. Anti-clericalism. This axis is not significant in the United States where views of the role of religion tend to get subsumed into the general left-right axis, but in Europe clericalism versus anti-clericalism is much less correlated with the left-right spectrum.
Urban vs. rural: This axis is also much more significant in European politics than American.
Foreign policy: interventionism (the nation should exert power abroad to implement its policy) vs. isolationism (the nation should keep to its own affairs)
Market policy: socialism (government should democratize or control economic productivity) vs. laissez-faire (government should leave the market alone) vs. corporatism (government should subsidize or support existing successful businesses)
Political violence: pacifism (political views should not be imposed by violent force) vs. militancy (violence is a legitimate or necessary means of political expression). Informally, these people are often referred to as “doves” and “hawks”, respectively.
Foreign trade: globalization (world economic markets should become integrated and interdependent) vs. autarky (the nation or polity should strive for economic independence)
Diversity: multiculturalism (the nation should represent a diversity of cultural ideas) vs. assimilationism or nationalism (the nation should represent the dominant ethnic group)
Participation: Positive Liberty (positive participation in the government) vs. Oligarchy (rule by a limited number of people)
A one-axis model is highly over-simplified, and lumps together fairly different political propositions; in particular, as seen before, there are many ways to define the left-right spectrum, which do not yield the same classifications.
Several of the political philosophies that have arisen over the past two centuries do not fit on the one-dimensional left/right line, in particular Anarchism and Libertarianism. Anarchism is assumed to be “left”, while Libertarianism is “right”. However, on the one-dimensional spectrum, Anarchism shares almost the same position as Communism, which is obviously inappropriate. Anarchism implies the rejection of government and societal control (as well as private property), while Communist theory implies the control by society of many activities. At the other end of the left/right line, Libertarianism finds itself in the same position as Fascism (or at least in the same position as rigidly authoritarian conservative capitalist governments, often classified as fascist), which is equally inappropriate.
In order to address these problems, a number of proposals have been made for a two-axis system, which combines two models of the political spectrum as axes.
The first person to devise such a two-axis system was Hans Eysenck in his 1964 book “Sense and Nonsense in Psychology.” Starting with the traditional “left-right” spectrum Eysenck added a vertical axis that considered “tough-mindedness” (authoritarian tendencies) and “tender-mindedness” (democratic tendencies). The effect of this new axis is that those who have very different views with regard to authority, but have the same “left-right” view (people like Stalin and Noam Chomsky), can be distinguished.
Similarly, one may wish to consider public/private property issues on the horizontal axis, and a spectrum from individual control of society to collective (or state) control of society on the vertical axis.
Note that this two-axis model lacks some nuances as to what is referred to as “control”. For example, one may wish to divide the question into issues of personal freedom, and other issues. For instance, up into the 20th century, the United States gave a significant leeway to its citizens with respect to security (right to bear arms…) while at the same time heavily regulating sexual activities, even between adults in private (Comstock Law, sodomy laws…). Furthermore, there is no clear way to locate philosophies such as feminism or environmentalism, even using this two-axis spectrum. A third or even a fourth dimension would be required to accommodate them, and that would make the model far too complex to be of any use.
The model used by the Political Compass is very similar to Eysenck’s chart, but instead measuring social freedom on the vertical axis, as opposed to “tender” and “tough” -mindedness.
Similar to the chart used by the Political Compass is the Nolan chart, created by libertarian David Nolan, with an economic and political axes, perpendicular to each other, with the whole chart rotated 45 degrees. This chart shows what he considers as “economic freedom” (issues like taxation, free trade and free enterprise) on the x axis and what he considers as “personal freedom” (issues like drug legalization, abortion and the draft) on the y axis. This puts left-wingers in the left quadrant, libertarians in the top, right-wingers in the right, and Authoritarianism or Communitarians (whom Nolan originally named populists) in the bottom.
A fourth, very different, two axis model was created by Jerry Pournelle. Pournelle’s model has liberty (a dimension similar to the diagonal of the Nolan chart, with those on the left seeking liberty and those on the right focusing control) perpendicular to belief in the power of one’s political philosophy of choice (with those on the top believing that all the evils their ideology attempts to fight would go away if only their ideals were instituted, and those at the bottom reduced to blind, celebratory attachment to their ideology for its own sake – the fascist who will now do anything to celebrate “greatness”, the anarchist given to tossing bombs around for the fun of it).
The Friesian Institute have even suggested a three axes spectrum. It combines the economic liberty and personal liberty axes with positive liberty, creating a cube.