It is a truth universally acknowledged among wonky introverts that derive their identity from the contents of their minds over the coalition to which they belong that the left-right political spectrum must be in want of an overhaul.
The political spectrum is one-dimensional for a reason: conflicts tend to come down to two sides. If there aren’t the factions will join up or spilt until there are. Each side will have a center of gravity, and since we can draw a line between any two points there will be a spectrum. All was well until the sticklers objected. It wasn’t just that no single side appealed to them, but that no point on the line between them did.
So the political compass was invented.
It augmented a mostly economic left-right axis with a social axis ranging from the “authoritarian” to the “libertarian”. This allowed its most vocal fans to express their distinction by congregating in the lower right corner, which is underserved by electoral politics but popular among people who liked to argue politics on the internet 15 years ago.
The compass became wildly popular but I’ve never been a big fan. Part of the reason is that one tends to be underwhelmed by classification models that don’t result in a clear position for oneself. The compass doesn’t work for me, as I tend to wind up here:
This isn’t an accident or error, it’s a correct result given how the model is set up. But I still don’t get an identity and I doesn’t “do anything” for me. There’s no sense of insight.
However, this isn’t just about my personal dissatisfaction. I have some better objections.
When I worked as a consultant I made more of these 2-by-2:s than I can remember, and over the years I worked out a few rules of thumb for how to make them good:
- The axes should be independent or close to it. That means statisically independent as in “uncorrelated”, not just logically independent as in “not the exact same thing”.
- The axes should be inputs, ideally simple and as close to “fundamental” (whatever that means) as possible. They’re what explains, not what needs to be explained.
- Each end of the axes should be equal. They should be equally interesting, equally important and sometimes, if possible, equally good. If they’re outcomes (as in scenario planning) they should be approximately equally likely and one should not simply be the absence of the other (i.e. not “thing happens” vs. “thing doesn’t happen”.
- Something novel should emerge in the quadrants. Each intersection ought to be more than just the axis values put together. Interaction ought to produce a result with its own identity that we can recognize as a thing over and above its axis values.
I don’t think the political compass does very well according to these standards.
I’ll give it a pass on independence. It’s not perfect, since placing real politicians on it tends to yield a stretched blob from the bottom left to the top right, but I can accept that as partly an artifact of coalition politics as described above.
But the meaning of left and right is complex and it strikes me as more of an outcome than a basic attribute. The same applies to the authoritarian-libertarian axis. Few think of themselves as “authoritarian”, and those who are aren’t so for shits and giggles — you don’t value repression for its own sake (and don’t call it repression) but in the service of something, and that thing is more fundamental.
The axis (and the whole compass) is championed mostly by those with a libertarian bent, and freedom is central to them. But their opponents aren’t anti-freedom as such and defining them like that are going to be incorrect, and furthermore, loaded in a way we ought to avoid when making these models (as per rule three).
Also, “social issues” as commonly defined doesn’t stand out as a natural category to me. The axis that does exist seems to be what you’re permissive about and what you aren’t, more than how permissive you are across the board. It seems so if you constrict “social issues” to being about sex and drugs, but include political correctness, environmentalism and guns and it all looks less coherent except to the small minority the political compass was apparently made for.
The compass breaks my last rule most of all. Good 2-by-2:s are supposed to be “insight porn”, where everything falls into place when the axes are combined. This doesn’t happen. The quadrants don’t even get their own names! Look:
They’re just called “libertarian left”, “authoritarian left”, “authoritarian right” and “libertarian right”. That’s it? That’s a failure in my book. Yes, you get some feel for what each quadrant is like, but they don’t seem to map on to the real political landscape all that much. All the memes built on the model portray them as, in order: hippies, stalinists, nazis and pseudo-Randians. That’s fun for playing internet weirdo games but it doesn’t in my opinon describe the real political world particularly well, since it sacrifices explaining most of the landscape for some funny stereotypes at the extremes. It puts me at “half hippie and half pseudo-Randian”. Thanks, that’s certainly one mix of falsehood and old news.
I want to suggest another way to produce a similar structure, but better according to my rules. I don’t expect it to inspire any memes, but it does result in what I consider to be real groupings, emergent and internally complex, out of what I similarly believe are more fundamental underlying psychological factors (attitudes and stances more than policy preferences).
Cognitive decoupling transplanted
I’ve written a fair bit about cognitive decoupling. Here’s Sarah Constantin describing the idea:
Stanovich talks about “cognitive decoupling”, the ability to block out context and experiential knowledge and just follow formal rules, as a main component of both performance on intelligence tests and performance on the cognitive bias tests that correlate with intelligence. Cognitive decoupling is the opposite of holistic thinking. It’s the ability to separate, to view things in the abstract, to play devil’s advocate.
Speculatively, we might imagine that there is a “cognitive decoupling elite” of smart people who are good at probabilistic reasoning and score high on the cognitive reflection test and the IQ-correlated cognitive bias tests. These people would be more likely to be male, more likely to have at least undergrad-level math education, and more likely to have utilitarian views. Speculating a bit more, I’d expect this group to be likelier to think in rule-based, devil’s-advocate ways, influenced by economics and analytic philosophy. I’d expect them to be more likely to identify as rational.
High-decouplers isolate ideas and ideas from each other and the surrounding context. This is a necessary practice in science which works by isolating variables, teasing out causality and formalizing and operationalizing claims into carefully delineated hypotheses. Cognitive decoupling is what scientists do.
While science and engineering disciplines (and analytic philosophy) are populated by people with a knack for decoupling who learn to take this norm for granted, other intellectual disciplines are not. Instead they’re largely composed of what’s opposite the scientist in the gallery of brainy archetypes: the literary or artistic intellectual.
This crowd doesn’t live in a world where decoupling is standard practice. On the contrary, coupling is what makes what they do work. Novelists, poets, artists and other storytellers like journalists, politicians and PR people rely on thick, rich and ambiguous meanings, associations, implications and allusions to evoke feelings, impressions and ideas in their audience. The words “artistic” and “literary” refers to using idea couplings well to subtly and indirectly push the audience’s meaning-buttons.
At its most general it just means looking at a single issue/question/idea/fact at a time. Related ideas, implications and associations etc. can only be brought in explicitly and with the consent of all parties. Contextualizing, on the other hand, means that all associative connections between ideas are valid and count as relevant if any party thinks they are.
Now I’ll continue to milk it by applying it to politics.
Decoupling is about ideas: how are they connected? By any association or only by strict logic? What’s the default relationship? Connected and you need to prove isolation (difficult or impossible), or separate and you need to justify a connection by willing agreement or by proving it beyond reasonable doubt?
Now what if we replace ideas with people?
In decoupled society the default relationship between two people is that of no obligations whatsoever (special circumstances like friendship or family bonds don’t count since we’re talking about the macro scale). The only obligations are to respect explicitly stated rights and agreements. No expectations beyond that are valid (for example, between employers and employees). Social problems can and should be adressed with formal means: contracts, property rights, tort law. Political decouplers like money and the market as institutions because they quantify and decontextualize social obligations.
In coupled society what it means to be a good person or what may be required of you at any point is open-ended. There are not clear boundaries between people and you are expected to take others’ or society’s interests into account as much as your own. Anything you do that plausibly affects anyone or anything outside yourself is everybody’s business; duties are not fully specified and can never be completely discharged or fulfilled. Social problems can and should be adressed by everyone taking on themselves to be more self-sacrificing and focus less on what rights they have to do what they want. Political couplers dislike money and the market for the same reasons decouplers like it.
Coupling and decoupling as moral stances are obviously politically relevant. How about as factual stances? At least as much. According to a decoupled view, human beings are built from the inside out. They have traits, tastes and behaviors that results from a combination of inborn nature, rational thought and acts of will, and social structures are the emergent result of them interacting. In the coupled view, human beings are created from the outside in. They’re lumps of clay shaped to perform the roles assigned to them by a system tending to perpetuate itself, and individual selves are the emergent result of socialization into these roles.
Thrive and survive
Is that “left” and “right”? A little bit, yes, but it’s by no means the entire difference. There’s definitely a Right that celebrates conformity and fitting in, obedience to authority and tradition, and there’s also a Left that insists on their right to be and do what they want without restriction or condemnation.
We need something more. And remembering my first rule of thumb, it should be something as independent from the decoupling dimension as possible. The answer came to me right away in the form of this article from a few years back, where Scott Alexander defines left and right as “thrive” and “survive” type values:
My hypothesis is that rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.
The Dead Have Risen, And They’re Voting Republican
Before I explain, a story. Last night at a dinner party we discussed Dungeons and Dragons orientations. One guest declared that he thought Lawful Good was a contradiction in terms, very nearly at the same moment as a second guest declared that he thought Chaotic Good was a contradiction in terms. What’s up?
I think the first guest was expressing a basically leftist world view. It is a fact of nature that society will always be orderly, the economy always expanding. Crime will be a vague rumor but generally under control. All that the marginal unit of extra law enforcement adds to this pleasant state is cops beating up random black people, or throwing a teenager in jail because she wanted to try marijuana.
The second guest was expressing a basically rightist world view. The prosperous, orderly society we know and love is hanging by a frickin’ thread. At any moment, terrorists or criminals or just poor management could destroy everything. It is really really good that we have police in order to be the “thin blue line” between civilization and chaos, and we might sleep easier in our beds at night if that blue line were a little thicker and we had a little more buffer room.
The article goes on to give several examples but this is the gist. In a “survive” scenario (think famine, war or zombie apocalypse) mistakes are costly, outsiders are potential threats, keeping order is paramount and we can’t afford to be too generous towards the weak lest they pull us down with them. Only serious dangers are real problems and risk and discomfort are things we need to deal with.
In a “thrive” scenario by contrast (think true post-scarcity in a future automated economy), where we don’t even need to think about making a collective living we can afford almost limitless generosity towards the “other”, the non-useful, the few antisocial, the sensitive and the non-conformist. As we get richer we work towards eliminating ever smaller risks and discomforts.
This also captures a big part of left and right but not all of it, and I think the decoupling dimension picks up the remainder perfectly. For example, Scott A says that the thrive-survive model struggles with explaining why school choice is rightist, which the decoupling axis can handle.
Towards Left and Right
Think of the combination “coupled” and “thrive”. We’ve got far-reaching, non-enumerated duties toward the common good and self-sacrifice as the solution to problems. We don’t need to be concerned with survival/productivity and therefore don’t need to be stingy towards the needy — especially since somebody’s problem is everybody’s problem. So we distribute the costs of individual weaknesses, mistakes and misfortunes throughout the population because we can afford to deal with them and nobody has the right to refuse.
This “we’re rich” plus “we’re in it together” produces a love for grand public works and programs meant to help and nurture the people in various ways. The fact that this requires taxation is not much of a problem since wealth is produced by the system as a whole anyway. The reason we’re not using our society’s wealth to satisfy everyone’s needs is that some are hogging more than their fair share. Restrictions on behavior is mostly in service of combating this. This is close to the essence of the modern political left.
Putting “decoupled” and “survive” together yields the right. Here everybody is responsible for themselves and their loved ones only. You have your list of rights and obligations but anything more is strictly over and above what is required. Civilization is kept running by the productive and thus being productive must be rewarded and being unproductive or even destructive must be punished or at the very least not supported or society will stagnate or worse. You’ll suffer the consequences of your own mistakes and misfortunes because you must learn to improve, be an example to others — and because nobody else is obligated to clean up after you.
“We’re not rich enough” plus “limited, enumerated obligations” produces a skepticism of social programs deemed overly ambitious, intrusive, coddling or frivolous. The solution to poverty is the production of more wealth, which requires incentivizing the productive — the disciplined, smart, self-sufficient and responsible — to do so. Restrictions on behavior is mostly in service of cultivating these traits.
Putting the two dimensions together and tilting the whole thing so the left goes on the the left and the right on the right gives us this:
It’s very hard (and a popular internet pastime) to try to pin down the difference between left and right but I think this is them, in as pure a form as I’ve ever seen.
End of part 1.
In part 2 we’ll look at the other two quadrants and their tricky relationships to the left-right dichotomy.
• • •
In fancy words: we want nonlinear interaction effects.
Actually, that’s not fair. This isn’t a farfetched idea coming out of thinking about this concept excessively. I thought of it immediately after writing about decoupling for the first time so it’s more of a core feature than an exotic expansion.
I suspect a large part of the attraction of strongly coupled political ideology like communism is due to dissatisfaction with the formalized, sterilized, and from a social and emotional perspective grossly distorted relations (both towards each other and to work itself) that results from the use of currency as the most important or only way to allocate obligations. Note this quote from Red Plenty, a book about the economic aspirations of the Soviet Union:
Marx had drawn a nightmare picture of what happened to human life under capitalism, when everything was produced only in order to be exchanged; when true qualities and uses dropped away, and the human power of making and doing itself became only an object to be traded.
Then the makers and the things made turned alike into commodities, and the motion of society turned into a kind of zombie dance, a grim cavorting whirl in which objects and people blurred together till the objects were half alive and the people were half dead. Stock-market prices acted back upon the world as if they were independent powers, requiring factories to be opened or closed, real human beings to work or rest, hurry or dawdle; and they, having given the transfusion that made the stock prices come alive, felt their flesh go cold and impersonal on them, mere mechanisms for chunking out the man-hours. Living money and dying humans, metal as tender as skin and skin as hard as metal, taking hands, and dancing round, and round, and round, with no way ever of stopping; the quickened and the deadened, whirling on.
And what would be the alternative? The consciously arranged alternative? A dance of another nature. A dance to the music of use, where every step fulfilled some real need, did some tangible good, and no matter how fast the dancers spun, they moved easily, because they moved to a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all.
I read this as an expression of disgust at how modern market economies are systems where economic relations are stripped of their social elements, of feelings, intentions, meaning and will, turning it all into a machine. It needs to be machine. Machines work. But it will never feel quite right for most of us.
This could be called “individualism” vs. “collectivism” but those words are worn and overused to the point that they no longer can be used to communicate anything specific.
These two assumptions have some impressively divergent implications that leads to opposing perspectives on many, many issues. Having this one contradiction underneath the surface of public discourse condemns whole continents of conversation to dysfunction. It needs to be adressed openly and explicitly so that at least a little bit of consensus can be built as a basis on which to hold meaningful debate.
This might be slightly off. In my experience a lot of popular (far-)leftism appears to conceive (in a partial narrative way) not of “wealth” that’s “produced” but of “resources” — a choice of word that evokes the naturally occurring — that simply exists and are to be “distributed”. The right, of course, does the opposite pointing-out-vs-overlooking dance.