Four Fallacies Regarding the Political Spectrum


“No mind is better than the precision of its concepts.”1 —Ayn Rand

Let’s begin with three seemingly uncontroversial facts:

1. Politics is the branch of philosophy that defines the principles of a proper social system, including the proper functions of government. Politics addresses the questions: “What should people be free to do? What should they be forced to do? What should they be forcibly forbidden from doing? And how should government (or the powers that be) establish and enforce such rules of conduct?” In other words, politics is essentially about freedom and force.

2. A political system is a system of ideas, institutions, laws, and practices (e.g., those of socialism, fascism, theocracy, or capitalism) that codifies and enforces a particular set of answers to the above questions within a given geographic area.

3. A political spectrum is supposed to indicate the nature of various political systems (or ideologies) by reference to the basic political alternatives: freedom and force.

None of the above should be controversial, at least not among people who seek clarity. But the last of those statements is.

Some people don’t like a political spectrum that exposes the respective natures of political systems by reference to their positions on freedom and force. Some people don’t want such clarity. This is to be expected from socialists, nationalists, theocrats, and statists in general. They want to force people to act against their own judgment for some alleged “greater good,” such as “society,” “the nation,” or “God”—but few of them want to come right out and say that the essence of their system is the use of such force whereas the essence of capitalism is freedom. Why?

To the extent that rational, freedom-loving people are aware of the true nature of statism—especially as compared to capitalism, which leaves everyone fully free to think, act, produce, trade, and prosper in accordance with his own judgment—they will not support statism. They’ll reject it. So it’s no surprise that statists reject a political spectrum defined in terms of freedom and force. Such a spectrum works to their disadvantage.

What is surprising, however, is that some advocates of capitalism reject such a political spectrum. Although many advocates of capitalism recognize that freedom and force are the fundamental alternatives in politics, when it comes to the political spectrum many of these same people fail to think and speak in terms of these alternatives.

You’ve heard the claims:

  • “The whole political spectrum is statist.”
  • “One end is communism, the other end is fascism.”
  • “One end is socialism, the other is nationalism.”
  • “One end is progressivism, the other is conservatism.”
  • “The political spectrum is all just variations of collectivism.”

And so on.

Such claims are rampant. But they make no sense. And understanding why  they make no sense is vital to the defense of individual rights, freedom, and capitalism.

In “Political ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ Properly Defined,” I lay out a series of fact-based, integrated reasons for defining the left-right spectrum in terms of freedom and force.2 In “The Vital Function of the Left-Right Political Spectrum,” I discuss the fallacy of package dealing and its role in retarding thought on this matter.3 Here I want to focus on four other fallacies that also retard thinking about the spectrum: false alternative, frozen abstraction, concept stealing, and context dropping. We’ll take them in turn.

False Alternative

Many people (including some advocates of capitalism) claim that the political spectrum consists of communism at one end and fascism at the other. But, as Ayn Rand noted, this claim is “fraudulent,” its origins are “shameful,” and its implications disastrous:

Mussolini came to power by claiming that that was the only choice confronting Italy. Hitler came to power by claiming that that was the only choice confronting Germany. It is a matter of record that in the German election of 1933, the Communist Party was ordered by its leaders to vote for the Nazis—with the explanation that they could later fight the Nazis for power, but first they had to help destroy their common enemy: capitalism and its parliamentary form of government.

It is obvious what the fraudulent issue of fascism versus communism accomplishes: it sets up, as opposites, two variants of the same political system; it eliminates the possibility of considering capitalism; it switches the choice of “Freedom or dictatorship?” into “Which kind of dictatorship?”—thus establishing dictatorship as an inevitable fact and offering only a choice of rulers. The choice—according to the proponents of that fraud—is: a dictatorship of the rich (fascism) or a dictatorship of the poor (communism).

That fraud collapsed in the 1940’s, in the aftermath of World War II. It is too obvious, too easily demonstrable that fascism and communism are not two opposites, but two rival gangs fighting over the same territory—that both are variants of statism, based on the collectivist principle that man is the rightless slave of the state—that both are socialistic, in theory, in practice, and in the explicit statements of their leaders—that under both systems, the poor are enslaved and the rich are expropriated in favor of a ruling clique—that fascism is not the product of the political “right,” but of the “left.”4

This fraud may have collapsed in the 1940s, but it has been resurrected in recent years.

In terms of logical fallacies, the notion that the extremes on the political spectrum are variants of statism is, among others, a false alternative. It omits the possibility of a political system that recognizes and protects individual rights. It omits the possibility of freedom. It omits capitalism.

That is as clearly erroneous as a false alternative gets.

What are the practical implications of this false alternative? What happens when otherwise freedom-loving people accept the idea that the political extremes are variants of statism? As Rand pointed out, when people are faced with such alternatives, they tend to choose “the middle of the road”:

The safely undefined, indeterminate, mixed-economy, “moderate” middle—with a “moderate” amount of government favors and special privileges to the rich and a “moderate” amount of government handouts to the poor—with a “moderate” respect for rights and a “moderate” degree of brute force—with a “moderate” amount of freedom and a “moderate” amount of slavery—with a “moderate” degree of justice and a “moderate” degree of injustice—with a “moderate” amount of security and a “moderate” amount of terror—and with a moderate degree of tolerance for all, except those “extremists” who uphold principles, consistency, objectivity, morality and who refuse to compromise.5

This false alternative not only drives otherwise good people toward the unprincipled middle; it also empowers the truly committed statists by creating the appearance that they have a monopoly on principles, consistency, objectivity, morality. It makes everyone else look morally compromised.

That is not a good spectrum for advancing truth, justice, and the American way.

Frozen Abstraction

This same phenomenon can be seen as an instance of the fallacy of the frozen abstraction, which consists in substituting a particular conceptual concrete for the wider abstract class to which it belongs.6

To treat communism and fascism, or socialism and nationalism, or “progressivism” and conservatism—or any other pair of ideologies or systems that are merely particulars within the broad spectrum of possibilities—as representing the entire political spectrum is to freeze the abstraction of “political spectrum” at the level of those concretes. This places all of the other political systems (e.g., theocracy, monarchy, capitalism) out of sight and out of mind, leaving people with a severely truncated and disastrously mistaken view of their alternatives.

Just as it is illogical and disastrous to freeze the abstraction of “moral code” at the level of “altruism,” thus excluding egoism and other moral codes from that abstraction, so too it is illogical and disastrous to freeze the abstraction of “political spectrum” at the level of “communism vs. fascism” (or the like), thus excluding capitalism and other political systems from that abstraction.

A political spectrum that doesn’t capture the various political systems is not a valid political spectrum. And insofar as people accept such a spectrum, their thinking in regard to politics, rights, freedom, and force will be distorted.

We who want to advance reason and capitalism must reject all such nonsensical spectrums. Instead, we must embrace a spectrum defined by the broad and true political alternatives: freedom and force. Such a spectrum accounts for all political systems and ideologies: those that initiate physical force and violate individual rights in the extreme at one end, those that protect individual rights and secure political freedom in the extreme at the other end, and mixed systems throughout the middle in accordance with the degree to which they initiate force and violate rights.

That spectrum makes logical sense. It clarifies thinking rather than muddling it. And it advances freedom rather than destroying it.

Concept Stealing

Another error that causes conceptual chaos regarding the political spectrum is the fallacy of concept stealing, which consists in using a higher-level concept (or idea) while ignoring or denying one or more of the lower-level concepts on which it logically depends.7

To see how this fallacy retards thinking, we must bear in mind that conceptual knowledge is hierarchical: Higher-level concepts presuppose and depend on lower-level concepts, all the way down to concepts whose referents are at the perceptual level, such as “force” (e.g., a punch in the face). This structure connects higher-level concepts to reality and gives them meaning. Consequently, if someone uses a higher-level concept while ignoring or denying a lower-level concept on which it depends, he thereby tears the higher-level concept away from the conceptual base that gives rise to it—from the hierarchy to which it belongs, on which it depends, and by reference to which it has meaning. He commits conceptual theft.

What concepts underlie and give rise to the concept of “political,” as in “political spectrum”? Well, “political” is the adjectival form of “politics,” so that’s the most immediate. But the most important underlying concepts in this regard are “freedom” and “force.” These concepts are fundamental to the meaning of politics, political system, political spectrum, and every other idea involving the concept of “politics.” Politics refers to the sphere of life concerned with freedom and force. Those are the basic alternatives that give rise to the need of the concept and to its very meaning.8 Thus, to speak of a political spectrum as apart from freedom and force is to tear the concept of “political” away from the conceptual base that connects it to reality and gives it meaning. It is to steal the concept of “political.”

This conceptual crime is a major means by which statists get away with all manner of rights-violating proposals and policies. If people can’t see that a given policy ultimately amounts to a punch in the face or a gun to the head or the shackling of producers, then they can’t see the problem with the proposal or policy. By severing political ideas from the basic alternatives of freedom and force, this crime places those fundamentals out of sight and out of mind, making the political systems and policies that (in fact) initiate force and violate rights seem not all that bad, relatively peaceful, maybe even good.

And such concept stealing is not limited to statists. Anyone who uses the concept of “political” or speaks of a “political spectrum” as apart from the alternatives of freedom and force commits this crime. And, in doing so, he aids and abets statists in their efforts to enslave thinkers and producers.

If, however, we define political systems and the political spectrum in terms of freedom and force, we make visible the fact that certain systems violate individual rights by initiating force against human beings. Rather than aiding and abetting statists in their nefarious efforts, this puts a spotlight on their anti-life aims.

Which spectrum is to the advantage of capitalism? One that exposes the facts and makes matters clear? Or one that doesn’t?

Exactly.

Context Dropping

The final error I want to mention in this connection is the fallacy of context dropping, which consists in omitting from one’s thinking available information that is necessary for proper analysis, integration, or evaluation.9

One way in which people commit this fallacy is by assuming that we can abandon the left-right political spectrum and speak strictly in terms of a statism-capitalism spectrum or a collectivism-individualism spectrum without correcting misconceptions about the left-right spectrum. That may sound great—until we think about it, reflect on the broader context, and realize that a two-pole spectrum by its very nature has a left side and a right side.10 No matter which words we place on the opposite ends, the spectrum will still have a left side and a right side; thus, people will still think about it and refer to it in terms of left and right.11

Because the terms “left” and “right” are so deeply embedded in political thought and discourse, and because any two-pole spectrum has a left side and a right side, attempting to abandon the left-right spectrum and establish a “different” one is futile. What is fruitful is to embrace the terms “left” and “right,” define them objectively (in terms of force and freedom), and help people to understand why such definitions are essential to clear thinking.

As long as people conceive of political left and right in terms of undefined (or vaguely defined) words, package deals, false alternatives, frozen abstractions, or stolen concepts, their thinking about the political spectrum will be discombobulated. The only solution to this problem is to establish and promote clear, objective definitions.

Ayn Rand wrote in 1971:

Since, today, there are no clear definitions of political terms, I use the word “rightist” to denote the views of those who are predominantly in favor of individual freedom and capitalism—and the word “leftist” to denote the views of those who are predominantly in favor of government controls and socialism. As to the middle or “center,” I take it to mean “zero,” i.e., no dominant position, i.e., a pendulum swinging from side to side, moment by moment.12

Those provisional definitions and that usage made sense at the time. And with the refined definitions we have today, that usage makes all the more sense. A rightist is an advocate of individual rights, freedom, and capitalism. A leftist is an advocate of government controls, the initiation of force, and statism. Those in the middle are confused and/or unprincipled, and they ought to do the necessary thinking and choose a side.

Our alternatives are to use the terms “left” and “right” and define them rationally (which fosters clarity and thus advances capitalism), to refrain from using the terms (which is nearly impossible and condones conceptual chaos), or to use the terms without defining them (which is non-objective and irresponsible).

Of course, if someone doesn’t want to use the terms “left” and “right,” that is his prerogative. And it is possible (albeit exceedingly difficult) to speak about politics without using the terms. But to claim that the whole left-right spectrum is statist (or collectivist) is to commit a host of logical fallacies, to perpetrate a fraud, and to harm the cause of capitalism.

A great deal is at stake here. Let’s do this right.

Endnotes

1. Ayn Rand, “‘Extremism,’ or The Art of Smearing,” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1967), 177.

2. Craig Biddle, The Objective Standard 7, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 71.

3. Craig Biddle, The Objective Standard 12, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 59.

4. Rand, “‘Extremism,’ or The Art of Smearing,” 180.

5. Rand, “‘Extremism,’ or The Art of Smearing,” 181.

6. For more on this fallacy, see Ayn Rand, “Collectivized Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), 94.

7. For more on the fallacy on concept stealing, see Ayn Rand, “This is John Galt Speaking,” in For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1961), 154; Nathaniel Branden, “The Stolen Concept,” in The Objectivist Newsletter 2, no. 1: 2; and Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Meridian, 1993), 136–37.

8. Our concern here is logical and epistemological dependency. But the history and etymology of “politics” support this point as well. The English word “politics” derives from the Greek word “polis,” meaning city or city-state. And city-states in ancient Greece, such as Athens and Sparta, involved (among other things) institutions charged with determining degrees of freedom and force in their given geographic areas. For instance, the Athenian democracy established and enforced the laws of Athens, and forced Socrates to drink poison hemlock for breaking Athenian law. Freedom and force are fundamental to politics and always have been.

9. For more on context dropping, see Ayn Rand, “The ‘Conflicts’ of Men’s Interests,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, 51; and Leonard Peikoff, The Philosophy of Objectivism lecture series, Lesson 5, “The Objectivist Theory of Concepts: Concepts as Objective and Conceptual Knowledge as Contextual and Hierarchical.”

10. Unless it is rendered vertically, which would imply that the upper end of the spectrum is better than the lower end. Such an implication might be appropriate in certain contexts, but it is inappropriate for a spectrum intended to present ideas without bias.

11. For myriad problems with multi-axis spectrums, such as the Nolan Chart, see Craig Biddle, “The Muddy Waters of the Nolan Chart,” The Objective Standard 12, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 83.

12. Ayn Rand, “The Disfranchisement of the Right,” in The Ayn Rand Letter 1, no. 6 (December 20, 1971).


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