Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Political Axes

Last month I mentioned a fun and original system of political classification. Now I'd like to try my own hand at inventing one.

1) The first distinction concerns one's conception of political dispute: Rationalists believe that politics is (ideally) a rational endeavour, and that reason can resolve political disputes, eventually leading to convergence (at least among ideally rational agents). Subjectivists think it's all just a matter of personal preference, or a 'battle of wills'.

2) Another meta-political distinction (which I consider hugely important) is between procedural liberals vs. radicals. Radicals are most fundamentally committed to the advancement of their substantive political ends, by whatever means necessary. Liberals, by contrast, are primarily committed to the integrity of the political system as a whole. Recognizing their own fallibility, they see upholding just procedures -- e.g. democratic institutions, and the rule of law -- as more important than obtaining their preferred outcome on substantive (first-order) political issues. 

This suggests that radicals will be more open to violent revolution and imposing their views on others, whereas liberals will tend to prefer piecemeal reform through legitimate channels. (Though I suppose liberals could support revolution against tyrants or unjust institutions.)

[Aside: I think there are good utilitarian reasons to be a procedural liberal. See my post: 'investing in rational capital'. Come to think of it, I should add that one to my list of 'favourite posts'.]

3) Concerning the locus of political power, we have the distinction between managerialists vs. democrats. Managerialists think that politics is the business of politicians, and that ordinary folk should keep their distance. Democrats think that civilians should be politically empowered, through deliberative democracy and the like.

4) Concerning the extent or exercise of political power, we may contrast individualists vs. communitarians. The essential difference is whether one favours the autonomy of individuals or of groups. Individualists believe that the proper aim of politics is limited to enabling each individual to rule over themselves. Communitarians hold that the majority should rule over the minority. (Or, more charitably, that communities should be self-determining.)

5) Statists vs. Hayekians: Note that this distinction concerns one's empirical beliefs rather than ideals. Statists believe that good results come about through centralized planning. Hayekians are more inclined to trust 'the wisdom of crowds', and hence favour decentralized solutions (including the free market and commons-based peer production [think wikipedia]). 

6) Attitudes towards change: Progressives vs. Burkeans. Progressives are more optimistic and open to political experimentation, whereas Burkeans are cautious of change and prefer the 'tried and true'. 

7) Distribution of political power: universalists think that political decisions and laws should apply everywhere, whereas federalists think that different geographic communities should have a degree of political independence. 

8) Sense of justice: Egoists vs. Altruists. Egoists don't think we have any politically enforcable obligations to help others (say through redistributive taxation). Altruists do. 

9) Scope of justice: Cosmopolitans are concerned about global justice. Nationalists think we only have duties to those in our own communities or nation states.

I think the first eight axes are all conceptually distinct from each other, even if some more naturally go together than others. Are they adequately exhaustive, or can you think of other important distinctions I've missed? (The traditional economic "left/right" would seem captured by #5 and #8. And social lib/authoritarianism by #4.)

So... I'm a rationalist liberal democratic individualist Hayekian progressive federalist altruistic cosmopolitan (*gasps for breath*). How about you?



  1. You're a rationalist liberal democratic individualist Hayekian progressive federalist altruistic cosmopolitan? I'm a rationalist liberal democratic individualist Hayekian progressive federalist altruistic cosmopolitan too! Funny that two rationalist liberal democratic individualist Hayekian progressive federalist altruistic cosmopolitans would come up right away. Although, on some of these scales, I'd say that I'm a mixture of the two and just leaning in that direction, so it might be more accurate to describe me as a rationalist-leaning liberal democrat-leaning individualist Hayekian-leaning progressive federalist-leaning altruist cosmpolitan. These are scales, after all, not just binary categories, and there's no point in needlessly simplifying.

    Why the convergence? One possibility is that some axes are conceptually interrelated (e.g. it's hard to be a Burkean radical). A second possibility, which is probably a bigger part of the explanation, is that they're interrelated in practice (e.g. it would be strange to be a subjectivist altruist or a democratic communitarian Hayekian).

    An even larger part of the explanation, I think, is that you aren't being fair in how you define the categories. In many cases, there are a continuum of possible views, and you are identifying the side that you aren't on with one endpoint, while letting your side take up most of the continuum. You define egoism and nationalism, for instance, as the extreme positions that we have no duties whatsoever to other people or nations, but instead of defining altruism and cosmpolitanism as the other extreme, that our concern for others should be just as big as our concern for ourselves, you instead equate them with the entire continuum where we have any obligation whatsoever to others. You do something similar with federalism (which only requires "a degree of political independence" for locales), managerialism (which seems to involve no role at all for ordinary people), radicalism (which pursues goals "by whatever means necessary, and subjectivism (which holds that politics is "all just a matter of personal preference"). In the post that you link from individualists vs. communitarians, you oppose direct referenda in favor of indirect representation, writing "Keep the people as far away from direct power as possibile", but from your description of the third axis it's not clear if you're giving this much weight in pushing you towards being a managerialist rather than a democrat.

    Many of the axes don't seem to have a natural midpoint. Some of the categories might be most meaningful if you compared people on a scale, relative to each other or to a larger population, rather than just categorizing people on either side of an arbitrary dividing line.

  2. rationalist*, Radical**,managerialists***, Communitarian****, Statists*****, Progressive, universalist******, Altruist, Cosmopolitan*******

    As blar notes the dividing line isn't clear and may not be defined entirely without implications but Im making a fairly "bite the bullet" sort of a call on each (wiht an asterix!)

    * except at the very obscure level
    ** A supporter of various procedures because I think they support the ideology (i.e. ideology over procedure not procedure over ideology) this doesn’t mean I act radical though (for example I recognize that a revolution is in general a bad thing) so maybe I am being too careful in separating out this concept.
    *** I recognize corruption as something to avoid but fundamentally I want the best answer not the most democratic one. If the people vote to do something stupid (for example life sentence for all violent crime or 100% tax cuts) then the state should look them in the eye and tell them it isn’t going to happen. Maybe I am confusing this with "statist"
    **** Fundamentally utilitarian as I see it
    ***** The best and the worst come from central control - but I also think
    1) That we shouldn’t be entirely satisfied with the confused middle
    2) That we can develop systems to control it (isn’t this related to managerialism?)
    having said that I think there are many examples where we don yet have a good enough central system to replace it (eg free market).
    ****** Generally - this shouldnt fly in the face of any of the other things here.
    ******* Except you used the word "justice" from a utilitarian perspective I'm not sure what to make of that. Also it is a long term perspective and in terms of day to day perspective "what NZ should do" is more likely than "what botswana should do"

    and in order Altruist, rationalist, communitarian, progressive, radical, statist, managerial, cosmopolitan, universalist

    being rational and progressive facilitates radicalism. Communitarian defines what direction that goes in but are subject to rationalism. andalturism is central.

  3. blar said...

    it would be strange to be a subjectivist altruist

    Interesting, blar, but I guess I don't quite agree with this claim. I take myself to be a subjectivist (I guess due to my metaethical leanings, I take everyone to be a subjectivist as a matter of fact even if they don't realize it), but despite that I also consider myself an altruist. Another way of putting the point is: I'm not sure what the distinction between 'rational endeavour' and 'battle of wills' is supposed to be. Or maybe I'm not sure what makes one methodology a better source of political authority than the other. Any suggestions?

  4. Blar, that's a fair criticism, and I think it applies especially strongly to the federalism and cosmopolitan scales (where I imagine most people - myself included - will be in various stages of "in between").

    I should clarify that I've changed my views somewhat since writing that post you mention. (I probably should be more careful about linking old posts without explanation!) I still think that political power should be significantly limited, which I mean to capture on the individualism axis. But insofar as someone has to make decisions, I don't trust politicians to be the ones to do it. (So Genius' third footnote is missing the distinction I was trying to get at here. It's not as if politicians are essentially incapable of voting for stupid things themselves!)

    G. - I would've thought there was more of a tie between subjectivism and radicalism, whereas rationalism would tend liberal. After all, fallible rationalists should want to set up institutions that facilitate rational outcomes, rather than dogmatically assuming that their own personal preferences are always the supremely rational ones.

    Colin - can't we appeal to the intuitive distinction between rational and non-rational persuasion? The convergence idea is another way of characterizing the difference. Or we might say that rationalism leads one to think that others' views are worth listening to (you might learn something, after all), whereas subjectivists must take themselves to be normatively infallible, and hence think that opposing views are merely threats that must be overcome. (Mustn't they?) That's an idea I explore more here. (Though they could at least be open-minded on related empirical questions, I suppose.)

  5. Richard, after reading everything again and thinking about this some more, it's not clear to me what you mean by rationalists vs. subjectivists or by individualists vs. communitarians.

    You seem to be equating subjectivism with belief in your own infallibility, but rationalists could also consider themselves infallible - they'd just think "if everyone else was rational, then they'd all agree with me" (naive realism strikes again). Rare is the man who thinks that no one has anything to learn from him. And since everyone else is so irrational, the arrogant rationalist might go around trying to manipulate people into going along with him, rather than trying to persuade them by appealing to their rational faculties. In order to make this axis relevant to the actual practice of politics, you might want to move the distinction further away from metaethics and closer to theories of persuasion. Or maybe there was something else that you were trying to get at?

    In your comment, you seem to be suggesting that the individualist vs. communitarian distinction is about how limited political power should be, but it's not clear to me why people who want more expansive political power would have to base that on a belief in the autonomy of groups. Government power to control people's lives is also promoted, for instance, by moralists who think that we have politically enforceable obligations not to behave immorally, even in ways that do not harm others (and they have their theories about what is "immoral"). And where do paternalists fit in, who think that the government sometimes knows better than individuals themselves what's good for them (e.g. eating less junk food, wearing a seatbelt, not smoking crack)?

  6. Blar, no, I don't "equate" the two. As you say, "arrogant rationalists" are certainly possible. But infallibilism would seem to go more naturally with subjectivism, that's all. (Perhaps a separate "political conduct" axis would be appropriate, to distinguish deliberators from manipulators. But I think liberal vs. radical might capture that already.)

    I guess "belief in the autonomy of groups" isn't essential to what I was wanting to capture in my "communitarian" distinction. But all the same, it plausibly encompasses moralists, who imposing the community's "moral values" on wayward individuals. And paternalists think the collective is in a better position than the individual to decide what's best for them.

    If you can see what I'm trying to get at here now, I'd welcome any suggestions for how to express it more clearly!

  7. I’m not fully sure about the managerial one I’m starting to think I might be entirely neural on it or even slightly against it. maybe you can specify it more clearly?

    > I would've thought there was more of a tie between subjectivism and radicalism, whereas rationalism would tend liberal.

    Are not rationalists are the ones who believe others can be made to believe what they believe while subjectivists are those who don’t?

    When I think of subjectivists I imagine hippies. "your just not in my reality maaaannn."

    > After all, fallible rationalists should want to set up institutions that facilitate rational outcomes

    Do radicals not set up institutions?
    Maybe we need to review what the definition is again. Is there something about liberals being the status quo hidden in there?

  8. I certainly dont want to advocate anarchism via radicalism (as a stateist and potentially a managerialist!)

  9. Richard said...

    infallibilism would seem to go more naturally with subjectivism

    genius said...

    Are not rationalists are the ones who believe others can be made to believe what they believe while subjectivists are those who don’t?

    Well, I guess if you define the terms the way that Richard has you will end up with this consequence (depending on what you mean by 'made to believe what they believe', see more on this below). I am now wondering whether this is really a useful distinction. It seems loaded in the sense that anyone who wants to engage with you in a debate about politics and uses your classifications to place themselves on the spectrum somewhere will inevitably lavel themselves a rationalist. Otherwise they wouldn't bother having the debate or defining their position in the first place. And anyway, we philosophers tend to think that people who label themselves subjectivists in this sense are not really subjectivists after all. They are just confused.

    However, my original question derived from the appearance that the rationalist/subjectivist distinction is one concerned with the semantics of political discourse. Rationalists seem to see political discourse as realistic, Subjectivists seem to see political discourse as projectivist. But these metaethical distinctions do not imply anything about the role of reason in political discourse. Even projectivists think that reason plays a role in ethics and politics. They just take 'reasons' to have a different metaphysical foundation than the realist does.

    So the metaethical distinction is not a very important one, and its not a distinction most people have any strong opinion about, hence I doubt it plays a role in their political orientation. If, on the other hand, the rationalist and subjectivist do not disagree about (or they are not distinguished by) their metaethics, then I think most likely nobody is really a subjectivist. So I guess I'm not sure what kind of work this distinction is doing.

    Again, Richard said...

    can't we appeal to the intuitive distinction between rational and non-rational persuasion?

    This takes me back to my first comment. You can appeal to this distinction if you want, but my challenge was to give a substantive explanation of it. An appeal to intuitions is not a very good explanation in my book. Maybe this question is just going too far afield because its not really a question about the political axis. Its a question about rationality and what distinguishes it from (non-rationality? irrationality? whatever...)

    Presumably, rational persuasion is a variety of cognitive phenomena that is distinct from some other kind of belief- and action-guiding cognitive phenomena. But how are they distinct? And what is it distinct from?

  10. Sense of justice: Egoists vs. Altruists. Egoists don't think we have any politically enforcable obligations to help others (say through redistributive taxation). Altruists do.

    I'm don't think this makes a very satisfactory axis.

    Before the Welfare State most societies still helped the "needy" through charity. This was a moral compulsion rather than a legal one. Think Scrooge dismissing the charity collectors.

    The choice is thus three way: egoist, altruistic (moral imperitive), altruistic (state cohersion). This would then overlap another axis. Alternatively, it would be better to simplify this axis to lose the "state" component, thus:

    "Sense of justice: Egoists vs. Altruists. Egoists don't think we have any obligations to help others. Altruists do."

  11. But I'm interested here in the political distinction, not the moral one.

  12. You already have a "Statists vs. Hayekians" axis. Inevitably this axis must have some impact on whether we have politically enforcable obligations to help others. It is hard to conceive of enforcing such an obligation that was not statist in nature.

    Ditto "individualists vs. communitarians". Communitarians, by necessity, think the state should take over the "help others" role.

    Ditto "managerialists vs. democrats". Managerialists think that the state "helping others" is better in some way (maybe more efficient) that leaving that role to individuals.

    All of which tends to reduce the "Sense of justice" axis to a special case rather than a distinct axis in it's own right.


    The moral issue is much more complicated than whether we help others or not. It has been theorised that welfare states create a poverty trap, which progressively entraps greater numbers of people, who are unable to escape from that bottom rung of the ladder. Pre Chadwick, the Poor Laws were criticised with exactly the same arguments that are used today by say Charles Murray. We do not need to solve this problem but we do need to recognise the opposing sides of the argument and ensure that it is captured on one or more of your axis.

    To pick one facet - two statements:

    1. Welfare payments to single mothers helps a needy group escape poverty. The problem of poverty is alliaviated or resolved by making welfare payments.
    2. Welfare payments to single mothers encourage more single mothers, undermine marriage in poor communities. The problem of poverty is exacerbated by making welfare payments.

    Both statements might be true in individual cases but they cannot both be true in general. Moreover whilst the first statement implies a corresponding belief that there is a politically enforcable obligations to help others, the negation of the second statement does not not imply an egoist position. Workhouses were paid for by the state. Today you might contrast the views of say Sue Slipman, Frank Field, and James Bartholomew, none of who can be said to be opposed to statist views, but all are very different.

    Your current axis fails to capture this debate.

  13. Oh dear, I see I need a spell check before I press send!!!usnyz

  14. I don't see those other axes you mention as having any necessary implications re: politically enforceable obligations to others. After all, I tend Hayekian individualist democrat, and yet am also an "altruist". Note that the Hayekian axis is purely empirical in nature, whereas the justice one is purely normative, so there's really no overlap between them at all! One could hold decentralization to be generally more efficient than centralized statism, yet still hold that individuals may justly be required to help others (if that really would help -- you might for empirical reasons think that the situation would rarely arise. But you'd still be an altruist at heart).

    As for the empirical question of "poverty traps", do you think we need a separate axis for "incentives matter", or might that be subsumed under Hayekianism? (Note that I personally support basic income schemes for exactly this reason.)

  15. Let me try this a different way.

    You say you are a Hayekian individualist democrat altruist. Fair enough. I see myself in that box too.

    I can put myself in the same altruistic box together with Sue Slipman, Frank Field, Polly Toynbee, James Bartholomew et al. This isn't very helpful because there are no substantive people in the other box. Give me some examples of Egoists ie. no state involvement.

  16. Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick, libertarians who claim that "taxation is theft", etc.

  17. hah, I just saw this. Leseee... I'm a rationalist [decline to state/it's complicated] democrat individualist statist (though a more charitable one) progressive universalist altruist cosmopolitan.

  18. I suppose it is appropriate that this is my first real post, so as you all can better get to know the kind of person I am.

    I consider myself to be the following (and forgive the added adjectives, but I gotta add some of my own flavor to this):

    fervently rationalist, humbly liberal, strongly democrat, skeptically individualist, Hayekian a la Milton Friendman, only-when-it-makes-sense Burkean, Federalist-leaning with a dose of "it depends", hopefully Egoist, necessarily Cosmopolitan,


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