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The Muddy Waters of the Nolan Chart

In response to my articles about the left-right political spectrum and the liberal right, readers have asked about my view of the Nolan chart. So I’ll say a few words about that here.

The Nolan chart (created by libertarian David Nolan in 1969) is a diagram with four corners—labeled libertarian, conservative, authoritarian, and liberal—that attempts to show political positions with regard to two axes: personal freedom and economic freedom. Its alleged value is that it presents political positions in a way that captures more data than does the left-right spectrum and thus makes room for “nuance.”

The actual effect of the Nolan chart, however, is to muddy political waters in myriad ways. Consider a few.

The Nolan chart treats the realm of politics as non-binary when, in fact, it is binary.

Politics is about freedom and force. Freedom is the condition in which a person is free to act on his judgment. Force is the opposite: To the extent that force is used against a person, he cannot act on his judgment; he is forced to act against it.

In terms of essentials, politics is either-or: Either you are (fully) free to speak your mind about controversial issues—even when doing so offends others—or you are not. Either you and your doctor are (fully) free to contract by mutual consent to mutual benefit—or you’re not. Either you and your lover are free to marry—or you’re not. Either you and a potential employer or employee are free to negotiate wages in accordance with your respective judgment—or you’re not.

The Nolan chart presents the basic alternatives in politics as non-binary and “nuanced.” But the alternatives are in fact binary and, when presented properly, vivid. The Nolan chart does not clarify the basic alternatives; it obfuscates them.

The Nolan chart ignores the most important political issue of all: the principle of individual rights.

Freedom depends on the recognition and protection of individual rights. Yet the Nolan chart doesn’t even mention rights. Although the chart is putatively about who advocates freedom and who doesn’t, it ignores the most fundamental, most important question in making that determination: Who upholds the principle of rights and who doesn’t? A political spectrum that fails to mention the most important principle of politics is not clarifying but stupefying.

The Nolan chart omits the category of “capitalist”—placing it out of sight and out of mind.

Capitalism is the only social system that can support and sustain liberty—because it is the only system based on the recognition and protection of individual rights. But rather than include capitalism and highlight this crucial fact (as a political spectrum worth its salt would), the Nolan chart omits capitalism as if it doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter.

Clearly, the aim here is to position libertarianism as the only ideology that supports and defends liberty. But as I elaborate in “Libertarianism vs. Radical Capitalism,” libertarianism can’t support liberty, because the ideology itself is morally and philosophically unsupported. As I show at length in that evidence-laden article, libertarianism is the ideology that attempts to defend liberty while ignoring or denying the moral and philosophic foundations on which liberty depends. If any ideology deserves to be omitted from a political spectrum, libertarianism does—for its sheer lack of substance.

The Nolan chart treats economic liberty and personal liberty as categorically different when, in fact, the former is a species of the latter.

Economic liberty is a form of personal liberty. It is personal liberty in the realm of production and trade.

If a government (or a gang or a “competing defense agency”) can stop you from acting on your judgment, then it can stop you from acting on your economic judgment. If it can dictate what you may and may not ingest, whom you may and may not marry, or the like—then it can dictate what you may and may not produce and trade, what you may and may not offer in wages, and the like.

Separating economic and personal liberty, and treating them as though they are fundamentally different, causes substantial problems. Among other things, it enables both leftists and conservatives to pretend that they are advocates of liberty—which brings us to further problems with the chart.

The Nolan chart hands leftists the term “liberal,” as if that term doesn’t mean advocate of liberty.

“Liberal” does not mean leftist. It means advocate of liberty. To equate liberalism with leftism is to abuse language in an Orwellian way. Yet the Nolan chart equates them. So . . . Rachel Maddow, a leftist if ever there was one, is a liberal? And Dave Rubin, a genuine advocate of liberty, belongs in the same quadrant with her? That’s clarifying. Like mud.

The Nolan chart implies that conservatives are fundamentally different from leftists, but they are not.

If politics is about freedom and force (and it is), then conservatism is a species of leftism—leftism of the religious variety. As I summarized the point in “Political ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ Properly Defined”:

Conservatism is not for individual rights or personal liberty; rather, it is for religious values (euphemistically called “traditional values” or “family values”) and a government that enforces them. Although conservatism calls for some economic liberties, it simultaneously demands various violations of individual rights in order to support certain aspects of the welfare state (e.g., Social Security and government-run schools), in order to shackle or control “greedy” businessmen (e.g., Sarbanes-Oxley and anti-immigration laws), and in order to forbid certain “immoral” acts or relationships (e.g., drug use and gay marriage).

Conservatism is a form of leftism, yet the Nolan chart places it on the right. That misplacement may appease conservatives and Marxists. But it obscures vital truths and retards the cause of liberty.

We could go on, but the foregoing is sufficient to make the point: The Nolan chart muddies political waters—waters that advocates of liberty need to make and keep clear.

If we want to think and communicate clearly about politics, about the basic alternatives involved, and about where various ideologies and systems stand in relation to those alternatives, then we need a political spectrum that corresponds to that aim. The Nolan chart does not. The properly defined left-right political spectrum does. Let’s use the one that does.

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