Saturday, April 4, 2015

Time to drop the Nolan Chart?

It's a handy, cute thing, the Nolan Chart, and is very useful for pointing out that the usual left-right political spectrum is somewhat arbitrary, and of limited utility. The danger is that the Nolan Chart itself is only somewhat less arbitrary, and is also of limited utility. A chart like this is just a chart, meant to evoke a Zen-like mini-enlightenment and paradigm shift. And as such, it's a fine thing.

But, as Alfred Korzybski could tell you, the map is not the territory, and you must remember that the reality of the scope of political thinking is not reducible to a chart or a slogan, and that the reality is always murkier than the description. I'm not telling you that the Nolan Chart is wrong, I'm telling you that it's inadequate. 

For example, it's rare to see the lefties and the righties divided up properly psychologically. Some libertarian — I think I heard it originally from L. Neil Smith — said that the right is paternalistic, the left is maternalistic, and the libertarians are neither, but wish to treat everybody like adults. There's certainly a lot of truth in that one. Conservatives are more like dads, who will help you out if you help yourself out. Liberals are like moms, with their unconditional love no matter what the behavior is.  Libertarians are more like good aunts or uncles, who are benign, but who feel no responsibility to 'bring you up' one way or the other.

But to me the clearest left-right distinction is as Karol Traven puts it in the quibcag: Rightists want people to realize their potential; rightists want people to be self-sufficient and think of work as a virtue. Rightists want people to take care of themselves. To leftists, all of this is old-fashioned and, frankly, boring. Leftists think everybody's potential is identical, so they're into ensuring equal outcomes. Leftists believe in interdependence (which always ends up being dependence on government) and consider self-sufficiency to be illusory (You didn't build that!) at best, and probably racist and fascist. Anyhow, they want everybody to take care of each other, which, again, means sitting back and letting the government take care of us all.

The Nolan Chart: a cute idea and technique, but not a description of reality in any sense at all.
Quibcag: It's Rika again, from 


  1. I think any description which depends on how the Left and Right imagine themselves to be, or how they perceive the other, is flawed as a description of libertarianism.

    Libertarianism is not derivative; it stands on its own. Will you be governed by others, or left free to govern yourself? Is that simple. The most important axis in politics is not left vs. right; it is authoritarianism versus liberty. -- terrymac

    1. That might be true at the moment that libertarianism becomes important. Sadly, it isn't, never has been, and likely never will be.

  2. If you're looking for how people see themselves, their political oppsition and the world, and thence how they self organize,. left-right may be, if imperfect, still the most useful.

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