I used to think that the political compass was a sloppy way of describing political ideology. Most politically relevant issues, I believed, didn’t fit on the graph. Although the commonly accepted definitions of libertarian and authoritarian may be fairly straightforward, “liberal” and “conservative” are a bit more nebulous in a political context. People know what it means to give a “conservative estimate” or to apply a “liberal amount” of something, but what does that mean for actual policy positions?
Recently, I have changed my mind about the relevance of the political compass, after realizing that its points line up neatly with certain concepts from the Four Apocalypses, also known as the four fundamental liabilities. Any obstacle or threat that stands in the way of any goal or value falls under at least one of these liabilities, and the political compass describes how people deal with them. Why is this important? Understanding how liabilities define the political positions that people live by is the key to reconciling opposing positions and accomplishing anything constructive. We can make it easier to change the shape of politics by making it easier to understand the nuances of the status quo.
Below, I give my take on what the words on the graph really mean, and you can decide for yourself if these definitions are useful for describing people and the problems they care about.
Libertarianism versus Authoritarianism
Starting with the vertical axis, both libertarianism and authoritarianism are approaches to the problems of stagnation (Age) and conflict (War). Libertarianism errs on the side of underregulating these liabilities (risking decadence and turmoil), and authoritarianism errs on the side of overregulating them (risking dogma and corruption).
Libertarianism embraces free thought and freedom of choice. It expects people to pursue their goals independently and make their own mistakes. The libertarian ideal is that people will use their passions and intellect to improve society when left to their own devices. Under this assumption, people will build businesses and trades. They will educate themselves and become self-sufficient and strong of character. Thus empowered, they will be enlightened enough to keep the peace through their strength and pragmatism. They will honor the independence of others while protecting themselves and their neighbors from danger. Those people who make consistently bad choices will be held responsible for their own decisions, and left to fail until they start making good ones. Libertarianism believes that when people are free of restrictions and overprotection, they will learn and grow, build and create, because that is where they will find fulfillment.
Galt’s Gulch from Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged provides a popular example of a libertarian utopia.
The dystopia that libertarianism fears is easy to imagine because we have seen it depicted in innumerable works of fiction: an authoritarian nightmare with no freedom, no rights, and no privacy, in which citizens are brainwashed and those in power create and enforce laws for their own gain. Dogma leads to the suppression of creativity and individuality and the imprisonment of the mind. Laws are corrupted into weapons of oppression wielded by the elite. Companies edge out competition by influencing government regulations on their industries, so consumers have no alternatives. If any semblance of choice remains, it is an illusion maintained by the ruling class to keep people complacent.
George Orwell’s 1984 provides the quintessential example of what libertarians fear most.
Authoritarianism embraces structure and certainty, regarding them as necessary conditions for humanity to thrive. It expects that society will work better when arranged in a hierarchy or system of rules, and prioritizes the health of the community as a whole over the preferences of any individual. In an authoritarian utopia, subordinates will conform to custom and obey their superiors, while the superiors will faithfully uphold moral standards and provide wise guidance to their subordinates. Authority figures and the laws they make will prevent behavior disruptive to the good of the group. When people are all following the same rules and working towards the same goal, they will be able to accomplish great things and avoid distractions and strife. Authoritarianism seeks to give people a fulfilling purpose in life based on service to the community and its own higher purpose, if it has one. By focusing on this purpose, people will maintain discipline and develop strength of character. Authoritarianism believes that given order and guidance, society will be stronger and happier.
The archetypical example of an authoritarian utopia in fiction is a kingdom ruled by a wise and benevolent “rightful king or queen”. The peasants are happy in the service of the nobility, who are truly noble of character and make decisions with the best interests of their subordinates and subjects at heart. Any work of fiction that depicts a well-functioning society with any sort of sovereign ruler, or an official caste system or social hierarchy, is depicting a version of an authoritarian utopia. However, it should be noted that authoritarianism does not require that power be hereditary; it only requires that people obey the rules and commands they receive from their superiors.
The dystopia that authoritarianism fears is one of decadence and turmoil: addiction of the mind and oppression through violence. Authoritarians are concerned that a libertarian world fails to instill discipline. As a result, people’s characters weaken until the world deteriorates into a violent anarchy filled with depravity. In such a world, people overindulge in vices without a second thought, forsaking any higher purpose and abandoning their potential in favor of tearing down the cultural principles that have sustained society up to that point. Sanctioned selfishness results in everyone struggling against everyone else in a cutthroat economy, or the remains of one. A few large companies will capture a consumer base by appealing to the lowest common denominator and exploiting their desire for instant gratification. Many end up addicted to drugs, stealing from each other, or parasitically exploiting the few in society who do useful work. Some embrace radical ideas that they only half understand because they see immediate benefit for themselves. Crime and barbarism will become the norm because people will know only how to destroy, not how to create.
You’ve seen examples of a libertarian dystopia in many cyberpunk (and other -punk genre) works, or in post-apocalyptic works where society and community structures have collapsed.
Liberalism versus Conservatism
Both liberalism (economic left) and conservatism (economic right) are approaches to the problems of scarcity (Famine) and disaster (Pestilence). Liberalism errs on the side of underregulating these liabilities (risking wastefulness and negligence), and conservatism errs on the side of overregulating them (risking austerity and susceptibility).
Liberalism embraces change in order to improve the status quo. As a political ideology, it pushes for technology, culture, and government spending to come together to solve people’s problems. Anytime somebody identifies a potential enhancement for a system, the change is made without delay and with no expense spared. Poverty, inequality, disease, natural disasters—liberalism firmly believes all of these problems and more can be solved if we put our minds to it. A liberal ideal is a future in which everyone can live comfortably, with all of their needs met and without fear of harm. People and communities will spend the resources they have in order to get what they want and enjoy existence. Anyone will be able to change their lifestyle and their environment as much as necessary in pursuit of fulfillment. Civilization will progress scientifically to solve all medical and environmental problems. Every so often, communities will fund massive creative projects for the edification and entertainment of their people. As people’s values evolve and they recognize new problems, society will regularly update the goals it optimizes for.
Liberal utopias show up from time to time in fiction, often as a happily-ever-after ending or as an enlightened world faced with an external threat. The United Federation of Planets from Star Trek (the original series, at least) is probably the most well-known version of this ideal: a society that conquers its problems with science and technology, in which people explore space and interact with hundreds of alien species to mutual benefit.
The dystopia that liberalism fears is a conservative one in which people adhere rigidly to the old ways, halting social progress. Society builds no grand works of culture or architecture, instead hoarding its resources in case of hardship. People may labor under inherited duties and restrictions—not because they can’t imagine any differently, as in the case of dogma, but because they fear the consequences of relinquishing them. Terrified of incurring catastrophe, society has frozen technological advancement and is afflicted by self-imposed poverty and, ironically, vulnerability to the volatility of nature. Custom dictates the methods of running society even when those methods stop working or reveal problematic side-effects, because no one wants to test out new processes in case they make things even worse. Large changes to the landscape (other than traditional agriculture, of course) are right out. People are at the mercy of disease and disability and can do nothing against them other than hope. They try desperately to keep everything the same regardless of what opportunities for improvement they may be forgoing.
This dystopia is typically illustrated by a hidebound village rejecting an idea that could make life better for everyone. Rather than an image of a possible future, it’s often a continuation of a time of hardship in humanity’s past, with each problem perpetuated and each outside threat prompting further withdrawal into the collective comfort zone. Alternatively, it could be a seemingly idyllic rural or suburban town with a dark secret to how they preserve their way of life.
Conservatism embraces established practices to prevent disruptions to the status quo. It believes that change is best implemented slowly, if at all, so we can keep from losing the good things we already have. A civilization following strictly conservative ideals expects that people will enjoy decent lives by sticking to traditions and tried-and-true methods. Everyone will have sufficient food and resources, because they save it for when they need it. By working hard at normal jobs, they will reap the standard rewards, and will be content with having a place in their communities. Society will remain safe by eschewing dangerous new technologies in favor of diligence and humility. People accept problems as a part of life, and endure them gracefully. Everything they need to live a fulfilling life is already with them, as long as they practice and uphold the ways that keep it running. In general, each year is much like the one before it.
A conservative utopia in fiction often takes the form of an arcadian village which has remained in contentment for centuries. The only major problems come from outside the realm, usually from an evil empire, and the narrative is focused on restoring the status quo.
The liberal dystopia that conservatism fears is one in which people spend money they don’t have to buy things they don’t really need, and they cause major problems by attempting to solve minor ones. Instead of accepting the world the way it is, they come up with ideas to change it that only cause them and others to lose what they already had. Technology causes terrible accidents, or it takes away jobs, while the government’s spendthrift policies drain money from the people who do things the honest way in order to support the people who don’t. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong, as people upset the balance of the world in pursuit of the mirage of perfection.
You can see glimpses of liberal dystopias in science fiction B-movies, where a breakthrough technology intended to help humanity invariably goes awry and threatens the world at large. On a less whimsical note, during the Cold War communist states like Soviet Russia frequently implemented sweeping agricultural changes for the glory and prosperity of society, only for them to fail catastrophically, with massive casualties from starvation.
Now that we’ve got the illustrations out of the way, let’s take another look at the “cardinal directions”:
- Libertarianism wants fewer restrictions on individual choice so that a single authority cannot cause problems
- Authoritarianism wants more structure and stricter guidance in society so that the public at large doesn’t cause problems through ill-considered choices
- Liberalism wants to implement change to solve problems
- Conservatism wants to stick with the status quo to avoid causing more problems
Many policy positions can be classified as a combination of two cardinal directions, ending up in the corners:
- Authoritarian liberals want to make new laws and give commands that add structure to society
- Libertarian liberals want to get rid of longstanding laws, to make laws that protect freedom from other forms of authority, or to change things without using laws or commands
- Authoritarian conservatives want to preserve existing structures, or to return to laws we used to have
- Libertarian conservatives want to preserve existing freedoms, to return to a state without so many laws, or to remove laws that force change
How is this definition different?
There are a couple interesting features to note about this version of the political compass.
First, the points on my political compass don’t correspond to specific policies, which means people with the same political leanings are fully allowed to disagree on what policies they support. “Liberal” doesn’t necessarily refer to government control of the economy or to less restrictive social norms, nor does “conservative” mean the opposite. Liberal is simply defined as, “see a problem, try to solve it.” Exactly what a person considers a problem or how they try to change it are small details. Likewise, conservatives are defined by preferring to stick with (or return) to the tried-and-true, even if it has some flaws. What exactly they consider a familiar status quo depends entirely on what background the conservative comes from, but conservatives everywhere share the same general attitudes towards scarcity and disaster.
On the vertical axis, libertarians like to let people do what they want without restrictions, but what they expect those people to do with their freedom may vary drastically from culture to culture. Authoritarians want people to be obedient to rules and leaders to make it easier to protect the communities, but the nature of the rules and the identity of the leaders is still up for debate. Two authoritarian people may try to impose mutually exclusive authorities. Thus, you can have two people from the exact same point on the political compass at odds with each other when they reach the voting booth.
Conversely, we may see two people trying to push the exact same policy for two completely different reasons. A libertarian liberal may want to repeal a law because doing so changes the status quo to give people more freedom, but an older libertarian conservative may want to repeal it because they are old enough to remember how much freer people were before it was passed. From the latter’s point of view, repealing the law is a return to the status quo they once knew. Similarly, a religious person may be libertarian in their goal of reducing the reach of the federal government because they have an authoritarian belief that that influence should be in the hands of local cultural leaders instead. Knowing what policies a person supports doesn’t tell you the reasons why they are supporting those policies, but it’s knowing those reasons that will allow you to connect with them.
With that in mind, the first lesson of my political compass is that all policy positions are based on the same basic concerns regarding fundamental liabilities. Whether we realize it or not, we’re all ultimately trying to solve the same problems. We differ only in how we prioritize them and what we think the solutions are.
Why do we differ in the first place, though? How do we know that the people claiming to have sincere disagreements aren’t trying to deceive people for their own gain? These questions bring us to the second lesson.
The second important aspect of my version of the political compass is that you can be at different points on the compass in different situations.
Of course, your formative life experiences will calibrate your baseline assessment of which liabilities are most likely in different contexts. If you witness firsthand the dangers of drug addiction, you may consider it a more imminent threat than any damage to society done by the War on Drugs. Conversely, if most of the families you meet can survive illegal drug use but disintegrate when law enforcement and the judicial system step in to punish it, you may estimate that such measures do more harm than good, based on what you’ve seen.
Granted, people’s risk assessments are often distorted by their limited experiences and rudimentary grasp of reasoning. Their political adversaries typically try to remedy this problem with aggressive and sanctimonious education. Such an approach employs facts and even statistics to assert that people’s sense of the scale and seriousness of a problem, drawn from their experiences, is wrong. It rarely works, but not because of intellectual stubbornness. The problem with this method of argument is that it ignores another key factor which contributes to a person’s political position.
Above, we established that your political position is based on what outcomes you fear, but it’s more accurate to say it’s based on what you fear most. Even if you fear that someone’s political position will lead to a dystopia, it would be foolish to assert that they desire for that dystopia to come about. (Not that people don’t say it anyway.) It would be wiser to suspect that they consider a step towards that dystopia an acceptable risk if it prevents the dystopia they think your position will lead to.
The risks you are willing to accept depend on your ability to effectively deal with different liabilities. If you think you can endure, mitigate, or resolve one crisis more easily than you can another, you are more likely to increase the risk of the former crisis in exchange for reducing the risk of the latter. Your resources at hand and your skills at applying them vary depending on the situation, and therefore so will your political position.
For instance, you will probably act much more conservatively with your money if you’re making $20,000 per year than if you’re making $100,000 per year. The negative consequences of wasting money are greater the less money you have. As another example, if you struggle to rein in your impulsive children but find the adults under your supervision reliably exercise good judgment, you may be more authoritarian with your children than with your subordinates. When imposing order is more difficult than disrupting it, removing free choice and inquiry seems a small enough price to pay. Your authoritarianism may temporarily increase when your children are around fragile objects (adding a bit of conservatism). As your skills and life situation evolve over the long term, your position on the political compass regarding your own lifestyle may shift to reflect which risks you are willing to incur to protect yourself from other risks.
Both of these factors—what you consider likely and what you believe you can handle—will influence what risks you are willing to take in different contexts and therefore what your political position is in those contexts.
You can apply this knowledge when observing or participating in political disagreements. In online discussions, people may make extreme statements in order to push back against perceived threats or to reaffirm their group affiliation. Despite this, they almost always have hidden nuanced feelings on the topic. Their more reasonable opinions surface when they confront a difficult situation in a safe environment.
People’s very real insecurities and weaknesses cannot be changed by a barrage of facts of any size. These weaknesses simply require different methods to address them.
How is this useful?
How do we address the insecurities which lead people to oppose each other so vehemently, though? How does knowing any of this help?
Firstly, the political compass will help you to understand other people from their perspective. If you think of someone’s policy positions in terms of the risks they are willing to accept in a particular context, you realize the person is a lot more reasonable and sane than you thought they were. You should also be able to imagine how people with different political opinions feel by imagining yourself in a situation that would prompt a similar risk assessment from you. (It’s a novel concept, I know.) By visualizing the circumstances in which you would accept or reject each different type of risk (i.e. the situations which would place you at each point on the political compass), you can learn to appreciate the validity of others’ fears. Even if you don’t think they should be sacrificing so much to prevent those fears from coming to pass, you can both agree that neither of you wants it to happen.
Understanding the different perspectives of others enables you to communicate with them more effectively, because you know what they consider important and unimportant. Being willing to appreciate what others care about will encourage them to listen to and appreciate your values as well. Demonstrating and earning respect is much easier when you know how people might feel and why. Even if they don’t share your particular values, they will try and accommodate you if you do the same for them.
Mastering the concepts of the political compass also allows you to frame political disputes in terms of what problems people are actually concerned about, and not merely in terms of what policies they favor for solving them. Knowing the difference between a person’s values (and fears) and their default responses to them lets you set the stage for constructive conversations where people are comfortable admitting the flaws in their proposed policies, because they know that even though you may disagree with their methods, you still want to help them achieve their real goals.
When you are confident in cooperating and each person understands what the other wants, you can work together to come up with solutions that are more satisfactory for everybody, instead of merely pushing back and forth between two mutually exclusive alternatives in a false dichotomy.
Applying the mindsets will help you come up with creative plans to assuage everyone’s concerns. Perception mindset is vital for understanding the nature of the problem and what resources you have at your disposal to resolve it. Communication mindset is indispensable for making sure that people understand each other and are on the same page regarding the situation. Facilitation mindset is especially useful for coming up with clever, robust policy approaches that are often more effective than the first idea that comes to mind. Finally, action mindset is necessary for implementing the solution effectively and efficiently. Don’t forget to practice strengthening all of the attributes of each mindset as well!
What would a solution look like?
Defining political problems using fundamental liabilities will remind you to practice the four virtues in order to avoid the dystopias associated with your preferred positions.
If you’ve read my earlier article on the liabilities you may already realize that I don’t consider any of the utopias I listed to be possible unless people learn how to make their different inclinations work together to mutual benefit. Such cooperation necessarily goes beyond mere political compromise. Arguing about where to draw the line of perfect balance will only waste time. Even if balancing two bad ideas worked, it wouldn’t be stable in the long term. There is no mystical criterion or calibration that will allow us to create prosperity, safety, vitality, or harmony through policy alone.
As Albert Einstein may or may not have said, you can’t solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created it. Paradises are powered by people, not policy. In order to attain any utopia, people need to actively and continuously practice the virtues that counter each liability.
To avoid all of the dystopias simultaneously, we will need all four virtues:
- Investment of effort, resources, and time, to counter scarcity.
- Exposure to new situations and hazards, to counter disaster.
- Transcendence of ideas and desires that ensnare and consume, to counter stagnation.
- Ethics to guide our treatment of others towards more compassion, honor, support, and dedication, to counter conflict.
But that’s so naive!
I will end this article with a warning.
The reason I am recommending the approach above to resolving political disagreements isn’t merely because it’s the most pleasant one. It’s because, to the best of my knowledge, it’s the only one that will ever work.
If we want people to push for less extreme positions, we must ensure that our own policy positions do not actively threaten them, that we are willing to work with them to deal with what they fear, and that our interactions with them are tempered with respect. If we take the initiative to address their worries, we can come up with solutions better than the ones they already have, and can earn their trust to implement our plans and policies by volunteering to be held accountable for results.
However, many people don’t want to invest the effort to reconcile their differences the diplomatic way, so instead they spend their effort on trying to crush their opponents once and for all. When those who disagree with you don’t take the time to appreciate your concerns, don’t educate themselves in order to find a solution that works for everyone, and don’t even find a good solution for their own concerns, it’s tempting to try to steamroll them instead of taking the time to appease them. Why should you bother to reward their willful ignorance?
I find, though, that punishing people for being wrong is pointless compared to inspiring people to change for the better. After all, people’s faults aren’t their fault. No one chooses to have flaws. If we can inspire people to see the value in learning, even if it is difficult, I would take that without hesitation over imposing a punishment that, despite what we tell ourselves, teaches nothing.
Make no mistake, attempting to squelch people’s concerns cannot accomplish your utopia. It’s naivete and spite masquerading as pragmatism. Movements that smack down other people spend much more time and effort trying to overcome resistance from the those they’re trying to suppress than they would trying to build a mutually acceptable world. After all, if someone tried to coerce you into submission, would you put any thought into why they might be justified in doing so? Everyone thinks that they are right and those who disagree are wrong. There are methods to tell the difference, but they don’t work when you’re chanting slogans.
The path of subjugation also makes it much easier for opposing politicians to get elected with the promise of “protecting” people from you. By attacking your ideological adversaries, you’re actually helping demagogues gather support. Demagogues need an enemy, and in order to profit off of that enemy, they will preach a position that is as antithetical to that enemy as possible. If you behave like an enemy, then demagogues who define themselves in opposition to you will comfort those you intimidate and win their allegiance, no matter how righteous you are and how misguided they are. The result is that your adversaries will become better organized and more extreme in their beliefs.
Finally, even if you manage to triumph over all of the indignant ignoramuses and the rousers of resentment, every voice you silence brings you a step closer to one of the dystopias above. Every opinion you brush past is a guidepost along the path to making the world a worse place in one way or another. Your political adversaries aren’t insane, alien, or even fundamentally broken. Their minds may not measure up to yours, but their worries are just as worthy. If you can’t figure out a way to show them that you’re willing to work towards a world that’s less scary for everyone, you are probably steering the world towards your own preferred flavor of doomsday.
Maybe you’re amenable to that, but I’m not. I stand against all of the dystopias. If we truly want to build and maintain a future we can all be proud of, we need to do better than impeding those who are just trying to look after their part of it. We’ll have to work together, and that means that instead of fearing each other as we’re told to, we have to understand each other. This compass of liabilities points the way towards that understanding. It’s up to you to take the first steps.
I expect you to have developed some form of respect for your political adversaries after reading this article. If you reply in your head, “yes, but they’re wrong,” then you have missed the point, and I have failed. The point isn’t who already has the most accurate picture of a situation, or the best solution. The point is that before you can even start thinking of a solution, before you can even judge what needs to be included in your picture of a situation, you need to understand two things: what people care about, and what they’re willing to risk to protect it.
Edit 8/11/19: Afterthought: There are other diagrams of political persuasions that can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_spectrum. I like my version at the moment, but the Ingelhart-Welzel cultural map of the world makes a lot of sense to me as well. Then again, that one also seems to correspond to the fundamental liabilities, with the horizontal axis dealing with stagnation/conflict and the vertical axis dealing with scarcity/disaster. I take that as a positive indicator that the fundamental liabilites really are useful for describing some important aspects of culture. What do you think?
3/29/20: Updated the penultimate paragraph.
- The phrases “under-control” and “over-control” have been changed to “underregulate” and “overregulate” respectively to avoid confusion with the dichotomy of experience and control, where control does not imply order.
- One reference to “peace” has been updated to “harmony” to reflect the updated boon for overcoming conflict.
- Removed a passing reference to “a peaceful kingdom” in the conservative utopia section to avoid confusion with authoritarianism.
- Added a section describing a common manifestation of authoritarian utopias in fiction.
- Changed the description and example of the liberal utopia to remove references to peace and social harmony, because while liberalism often attempts to solve problems of conflict, in doing so it invokes ways of dealing with conflict that overlap with libertarianism or authoritarianism. These archetypical examples need to be clear-cut and to illustrate the liabilities and approaches that define a political extreme. Real world situations will usually be more complex.
- Tweaked several sections and removed gratuitous reference to propaganda in the authoritarian section.