We no longer have much use for the horse and buggy or whale oil lamps, but when it come to our political vocabulary, most of us are still stuck in the nineteenth century.
The terms left-wing and right-wing hark back to post-Revolutionary France, where members of the Chamber of Deputies were seated according to their views on the monarchy. Those who supported the restoration of the king sat on the right, while those who preferred the reforms of the Revolution sat on the left.
There are still times when we hear the terms right and left used in this manner, to signify those who oppose political change and those who favour political change, respectively. For example, some commentators have been labelling hard-line communists in the Russian parliament as right-wing because they oppose the changes of perestroika and want to return to communism.
For most of us, however, the left-right labels have taken on connotations of specific ideological content. Thus, the left has become associated with socialism and the right with free markets. It strikes us as incongruous to hear Russian communists described as right-wing.
And after 60 years of an increasingly mixed economy, it's pretty hard to know which direction those who "favour change" intend to take: do they want the mix to continue moving in its current direction, only faster, or do they want it to reverse course completely? Do those who "oppose change" oppose any movement away from what we have now, or are they still opposing any movement away from what we had 60 years ago?
We could have hobbled along with the horse and buggy forever, but something better came along so we abandoned them. Similarly, we could continue to hobble along with the vague and confusing left-right political spectrum, but fortunately, something better has come along.
In a 1971 article in The Individualist, Denver advertising executive David F. Nolan proposed the use of a two-dimensional political graph--a rectangle--to replace the old one-dimensional line. He reasoned that what really defines a person's position politically is the degree of government activism he or she advocates. The two extremes are no government at all (anarchy) and pervasive, totalitarian government (which Nolan dubbed "omnarchy").
However, people are often inconsistent in the degree of government involvement they desire in the various spheres of human activity. There are many package-deal philosophies that embrace a large degree of state control over certain areas but reject any significant control over others.
Religious conservatives, for example, frequently want the state to regulate strictly things such as pornography, gambling, drug use and sexual practices, but take a hands-off position when it comes to regulating commercial activity or property rights.
On the other hand, there are groups like the hippies of the 1960s and 1970s who championed complete freedom on issues such as drugs and sex, but who were essentially Marxists, advocating total state control over all property and economic activity.
Nolan's graph divides political issues into two categories: economic and social. He places economic freedom on one axis, and social (or "personal") freedom on the other, each with a scale from zero to 100 percent. Plotting an individual's position on this graph conveys far more information about his or her beliefs than was possible on the old left-right spectrum.
The graph has generated increasing interest over the past two decades, especially among those who felt they were "politically homeless"--that is, not accurately represented by the terms left and right. Refinements have been added by admirers of the original graph. One enthusiast developed a ten-question quiz you can use to determine your position in the rectangle.
This has now been transformed into an amusing little computer program called The World's Smallest Political Quiz. When I brought it in to my office, everyone wanted to try it out, plotting their own positions and those of their colleagues.
The program is shareware; you are encouraged to make copies and give them away to everyone you know. You can get it for free if you have a Macintosh system and e-mail by sending a request to [out of date info deleted for publication of this article on the web].
It is also available on disk for DOS, Windows or Macintosh. Those without a computer can take the quiz in printed form from a postcard-sized card. Both disks and cards are available from Advocates for Self-Government, 3955 Pleasantdale Road, Suite 106A, Atlanta, Georgia 30340. Their toll-free phone and fax number is 800-932-1776. For a disk, send U.S. $5 to cover the cost of the disk and postage.
Don't be surprised, however, if your parcel arrives, as
mine did, already opened, with the words "Examined/Released" stamped on
it. Apparently the phrase "self-government" in the sender's name
struck fear into the hearts of Canada Customs officials. I think
we could safely position these bureaucrats somewhere towards the bottom
corner of the graph.
[Quiz now available on-line at the web site of Advocates for Self-Government.]
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