America's Political Spectrum
Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Libertarians Offer a Different Spectrum
As is true for most subjects, treating politics as one-dimensional
is extremely limiting. Better than a left-right spectrum is the two-dimensional conceptual map of the
political landscape called the Nolan chart. David Nolan devised this chart while a political science student at MIT in the late 1960s.
Nolan identified two primary political axes: personal freedom and economic
freedom. Personal freedom issues have to do with how you live your life:
what substances you consume, with whom you copulate, what messages you
communicate. Economic freedom issues have to do with your income and
expenses: how you earn your living, how much tax you pay, to whom you give
Liberals typically advocate strong personal freedom, but limited economic
freedom; they believe that government should manipulate the economy to
achieve social goals such as equitable income.
Conservatives usually talk about a free economy, but want to outlaw acts
they consider immoral, limiting personal freedom.
The strengths of the Nolan chart, at right, come out when moving beyond liberal and
conservative. Totalitarians of all stripes, whether communist, fascist, or
religious, want to control both economic and personal
activities. Meanwhile, libertarians advocate personal and economic freedom.
Trying to place these latter two groups on a spectrum is
difficult. Religious fundamentalists like the Taliban would usually be
placed on the right, but they want as much control over the economy as a
far-left communist. And nearly every successful socialist revolution has
advocated a moral program as well as an economic one; recall that there
were officially no homosexuals and no drug use in the Soviet Union.
And where do you put libertarians on the spectrum? Placing them out on the right, as the spectrum does, cannot be right. Advocating drug
legalization and equal rights for homosexuals would make libertarians unpopular right wing neighbors indeed. And pushing for a right to bear arms in self-defense and seeking a final
end to taxation make libertarians anathema to the left.
Politics are truly more complicated than any two, seven, or ten dimensions
could represent. But the two-dimensional Nolan chart provides a
more useful map for political discussion then a simple spectrum.
You can find out where you fall on the Nolan chart by taking the World's
Smallest Political Quiz from the Advocates for Self-Government.
The Libertarian Apex
A few years after creating the chart, David Nolan co-founded the Libertarian
Party. His bias is reflected in the usual presentation of the chart with
the libertarians at the top, though that also has the advantage of
presenting the traditional left and right views on the left and right.
Many libertarians say that the consistency of libertarian positions
attracted them; the chart also reflects this. A consistently pro-freedom
approach, regardless of the issue, leads to high personal and economic
In addition, libertarians recognize that personal and economic freedoms are
necessarily intertwined. For example, you don't really have the right to
consume whatever chemicals you want if you aren't free to buy them, or if a
government dispensary has to decide which to stock in what
quantities. Conversely, you don't truly have freedom over your income if
there are certain things you are forbidden to buy.
Also consider marriage. Under any income tax system, marriage will either
incur benefits or penalties because of how household finances work. The
tax system will either make some people more likely to marry who wouldn't
otherwise, or it will discourage some couples from taking the plunge for
You don't truly have freedom of religion when a government body decides
which houses of worship's contributions are tax-deductible and which
aren't. You don't have freedom over your paycheck when you can be forced
to fund social programs, and you don't have freedom of speech when you are
forced to support art projects you find offensive.
For these pragmatic reasons, as well as for the underlying principles,
libertarians believe that freedom can't be had piecemeal.
Choice and Competition
Government is defined by its use of coercive force. A taxation system
without guns behind it is just another voluntarily-funded charity competing
But since the government can compel your contribution to its coffers, it
has no pressure to compete, to behave efficiently, or to spend your money
well. Progressives who have been funding the War on Terrorism and the War
on Drugs against their will are in the same boat with religious
conservatives funding blasphemous works of art.
Even the programs you want to fund are unlikely to be run efficiently. If
you give to a private charity that spends your money badly, you are
unlikely to donate again. The managers of the charity will find themselves
unemployed; this is pressure to which they are likely to
respond. Governmental programs are under no such pressure; only in cases
of egregious mismanagement are any corrective steps taken, and those steps
usually consist of a blue-ribbon investigative panel and a new manager
managing the same program. Witness the investigations of NASA after the
Challenger and Columbia disasters, for example.
Instead, consider the choices you make when you decide to donate to the
United Way or the Red Cross, Catholic Charities or Oxfam. You look for a
program that matches your values and that you feel will spend your money well.
The United Way is a huge charity with a considerable bureaucracy. Every
few years, it's revealed that their overhead has gotten too high, and
donations threaten to dry up. They react by restructuring and reducing
overhead (which then builds up slowly again over the next few years).
The Red Cross routinely puts half of earmarked donations into its general
fund. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, donors to the special relief
fund were outraged to find that happening to their money. The Red Cross
responded by changing its policy for that fund, and putting all of the
donations towards relief efforts.
When was the last time a government agency reacted so strongly or quickly
to public outcry? One reason they can't is because everything they do is
governed by a law. In order to change how they behave, they have to change
a law or a regulation, which requires a comment period, debate, political
maneuvering (in public or in back rooms), and possibly a vote. They simply
can't react as fast as private organizations.
Worse, you have little say over what programs you fund. If five to ten
percent of the population wants a program badly enough, it will get created
and funded, because most of the rest of the population won't care enough to
oppose it. With a coercive funding structure in place, the people who want
a new program, whether it's scholarships for inner-city children or funding
for paramilitary troops in Colombia, don't have to put their money where
their mouth is. They can put your money there instead. Privately-funded
programs have to earn every cent they get.
Libertarians believe that the only way to a healthy, productive, and free
society is to build it privately. Giving the government the power to
create a mass transit system, for example, is giving the government the
power to destroy the mass transit system. Giving Clinton the power to
structure a national healthcare plan is giving Bush the power to
destructure a national healthcare plan. Giving the EPA authority to
regulate pollution is giving the EPA authority to declare that carbon
dioxide isn't pollution.
Progressives and libertarians have very similar views of where society
should be, in the long term. Libertarians understand that government is
the enemy of progress towards that society. Let's build that society
ourselves, without forcing anyone to help. In the long run, a society built on coercion cannot stand.
Chris Maden is Chair of the Libertarian Party of San Francisco and a
candidate for California State Assembly, 12th District.
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