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A place for Political Compass Content in memetic or similar form.
There is a popular subreddit most of you are probably familiar with called politicalcompassmemes
. There, they have identifed four basic political ideologies: Authoritarian Left, Authoritarian Right, Libertarian Left and Libertarian Right and they make memes about how the “Auth Left” are tankies, the “Auth Right” are Nazis, the Lib Left are blue haired SJWs and the Lib Right are morally compromised sex tourists. Or something like that. It’s funny about 60% of the time.
Anyway, I’m bored and I got to thinking and I strongly believe that these categorizations are fundamentally flawed.
In my view politics is better understood, not as ideologies at all, but rather as impulses. There is a libertarian impulse, a right impulse and a left impulse. People don’t necessarily follow each impulse consistently, however. One can be libertarian on abortion rights but leftist on free speech and rightist on immigration policy, for example, but both the right impulse and left impulse are necessarily anti-libertarian. Let me explain. What is the libertarian impulse?
The libertarian impulse is essentially to live and let live. Any action or behavior that does not harm another person, or any person's things or does not defraud a person through dishonesty, should be tolerated.
In a purely libertarian world all drugs would be legal, as would all forms of sex work by consenting adults, there would be no dress codes in schools and work places, social media sites would not have content policies and no one would face any kind of negative sanction unless it had been explicitly proven that they were guilty. Strict adherence to due process is an essential component of the libertarian impulse.
It is important to note at this point that I am not limiting my understanding of libertarianism to just laws and government, I’m speaking very broadly about one’s desire to limit the freedom and choices of others.
So, if a fast food franchise requires their workers to wear a uniform, they are not being true to a libertarian impulse. And if a social media organization suspends the account of a user who consistently posts racist memes, they are also in violation of a libertarian impulse. In each case, however, the fast-food place and the social media do have a legal right
to impose whatever policies they want on people who wish to work for them and use their services. It’s just that they would not enact such policies if they were following libertarian impulses. A couple of more points before moving on.
First, the libertarian impulse is rooted in the secularism and rationalism of the Enlightenment. Any rule or restriction must have a clear reason behind it based on the material and not the spiritual or emotional. This places libertarianism at odds with the right impulse.
Secondly, the libertarian impulse is strongly wedded to the idea of realizing one’s own individual potential. Thus, to follow strict libertarianism would be to limit taxes to essentially zero, as taxes are a barrier to a person’s freedom of choice about what to do with their own wealth. This necessarily means that concern for inequality is incompatible with the libertarian impulse and this fundamentally puts it at odds with the leftist impulse. More on that soon. OK, what is the right impulse?
The right impulse is to maintain tradition and to resist change. When we mistrust and dislike the unconventional, the unusual and the alien we are adhering to our right impulse. It is also defensive in nature. The right impulse is to protect "one's own" from outsiders and enemies. In this way it is fundamentally at odds with the individualism of the libertarian impulse. Let's look at some examples. The right impulse vs. individual expression:
Imagine the following: a 45 year-old-man goes to a beach in a popular park and undresses completely. He reasons thusly, "I like my body and I am not ashamed of it. If other people don't like how I look naked, that is their problem, not mine. Moreover, the notion that I would pay to own and wear "a bathing suit", an article of clothing whose sole purpose is to get wet is ludicrous. No one likes wet clothing. I'm swimming nude."
Now, if you are thinking, "this man's logic is completely sound", then you have a strong libertarian impulse. But, if your impulse is to accuse this man of being a pervert and to advocate for his removal and arrest from the park, this is your right impulse at play. And that's fine but understand that there is no reason
to arrest him. He's not hurting anyone; he's just violating a societal taboo that we do not expose our reproductive organs to strangers. For most people in most countries, to tolerate such behavior is not acceptable.
This example may seem somewhat ridiculous but it's important to understand that it wasn't very long ago that it was shocking for women to wear trousers, for men to have long hair, for people to wear sneakers to work, to go outdoors without a hat, etc. And with each change, some people followed their libertarian impulse and accepted the new trendsetters and others followed their right impulse to enforce conformity and order. These people who follow their right impulse respond with mockery, disgust and even violence to those who dare to step outside the norm. We can see just such a confrontation between the right impulse and the libertarian impulse happening right now in Iran regarding the right of women to express themselves through fashion.
That is not to say that I am accusing every person who feels the right impulse of intolerance. We all feel this impulse to conformity to some extent. How many people reading this would allow a doctor dressed as a vampire to examine them, or hire an attorney who comes to work in mesh hats and overalls? There is no logical reason for your discrimination, a doctor does not need to wear hospital scrubs to measure your pulse and a lawyer doesn't need a suit and tie to interpret the law. But that is just not how things are done. And that logic, to do things in the “right” way is the right impulse in a nutshell. The right impulse vs. individual identity:
A perfect example of this dichotomy is the story of when my three-year-old daughter was disciplined for biting another child at daycare. When I found out about this my libertarian impulse won out, I was horrified and I spoke to my daughter very sternly at home. I held her as responsible as one can hold a three-year-old for her actions.
My mother-in-law followed her right impulse, however. She became very protective of my daughter and as the days progressed she began to point out misbehavior in the other children that she saw at the daycare and was especially mistrustful of the teacher who broke the news to us. When I confronted her about this, she basically accused me of betraying my daughter and told me, "I know her. She's a good girl and she wouldn't do that. Either the teacher is lying, or the other kids were doing something very bad and caused her to do that."
This is a clear example of how the right impulse leads people to protect "their own". The assumption is to assume the best about insiders and the worst about outsiders and opponents. We can see this at play when sports fans never agree with a call or foul against their own team but always agree with penalties called against their competitors. We also see it when Turkish nationalists deny that there was an Armenian Genocide during WWI and Armenian nationalists refuse to hear any evidence that such an event did not occur. In each case, the facts do not matter. There is no due process as the decision of who is guilty and who is not is based solely on the identity of the accuser and the accused.
There is a logic to this too. I would venture to guess that it stems from the fact that humans are a tribal species that thrive in groups. When I talked to my mother-in-law in greater depth about my daughter's behavior she said, "we have to be on her side. If we are not, no one will be. She is small and we have to defend her, no matter what." And, when you consider the fact that my mother-in-law comes from a corrupt country where laws are regularly bent by the will of the rich and powerful, you start to understand her point and why she was so upset with me for taking the side of a stranger. When the right impulse gets ugly:
Most of the people reading this hear the word "right-wing" and they think of bigotry and hatred. There is a reason for that. In order to understand why, let me provide another ridiculous example.
Let’s imagine that the NBA gets a libertarian reformer for a commissioner. He decides to get rid of a few unwieldy rules including the non-sensical ban on “travelling”. Henceforth basketball players will not be required to “dribble” the ball. They can just run around with it in their hands.
Now, I’m going to guess that most basketball fans would not be at all comfortable with these “reforms” to their favorite sport. I would imagine that some of them might even say, “whatever idiotic game this clown has come up with, it sure as sell is not basketball!” If such “improvements” were implemented I’m would not be surprised if some people even resorted to violence to express their frustration.
So, if you are still with me, I think this goes a long way toward understanding how people with a strong right impulse feel when politician suggests reducing barriers to immigration to their home country or when a religious leader suggests recognizing same-sex marriage. For people with a very strong right impulse, their country stops being their country when the demographic composition is drastically changed and their religion stops being their religion when it redefines who can marry.
And here we can see why people with a strong right impulse are so often frustrated to the point of committing acts of violence; the history of the struggle between the libertarian impulse and the right impulse is a history of unrelenting victories for secularism, individualism and rationalism. We have seen the pace of technological, social and demographic change increase at an exponentially faster rate since the 17th century really. Some people (Nazis, the KKK, the Taliban) have real trouble making sense of that and are more than ready to stamp out the libertarian impulse wherever it threatens the last tenuous shred of sense they use to try understand the world.
I would like to close this chapter by asking everyone not to judge such people too harshly. A couple more examples please.
Imagine a more completely libertarian future where all barriers to international travel have been removed. No more passports and visas. People are essentially stateless and move around the world at will. Sound good? Some of you may think so but others may feel that such as future would be an affront to the international order or nation-states and think that to adopt such a system would be to invite international anarchy. That is your inner “bigot” talking if you think this way.
Or, imagine if someone in the not too distant future proposes plural marriages. They already exist in many parts of the world but let’s say we have a couple marrying a couple, or a trio to a trio. Why not? Romantic feelings can be strong toward more than one person, right? But surely some are saying that this would be ridiculous and that do adopt such a libertarian attitude toward marriage would be to render the institution completely meaningless. Sound familiar? I’ll leave it at that, let’s move on to the left impulse. What is the left impulse?
The left impulse is very simple. It’s the desire to make things better, more just and more equal. And therein lies its inherent anti-libertarianism already: to make
things better. Things are not going to just improve if everyone does whatever they feel like doing. It takes effort. Particularly when you consider that we live in a world rife with horrendous inequality and injustice. So, how much effort it’s going to take to fix this (or how many liberties we will have to curtail) really depends on how strong your left impulse is. Let’s dive in. The left impulse vs. individual choice:
To start with , most health and safety regulations are rooted in the leftist impulse. This is largely uncontroversial. If we were to follow purely libertarian logic, we would politely request that an oil refinery not dump lethal toxins into the water table, for example. But pretty much all sane people realize that the oil refinery is going to need some actual regulations and oversight by some kind of authority if we really want to make sure that the water is safe to drink.
Taxes are also essentially a leftist institution as they are payments that we all make to fund improvements that we all share. But what gets funded and improved is where the real debate starts. So, let’s start with something simple, school lunch.
Most countries (including the United States) have some kind of taxpayer funded program that provides lunch free of charge to children from low-income families. Such programs do not face much opposition as most people accept that children cannot be held responsible for the material circumstances that they were born into but, if someone were following a very strict libertarian impulse they might say something like, “I didn’t tell anyone to have kids that they can’t afford to feed so I don’t see why I should have even one cent of my own hard earned money stolen from me
to pay for children that their own parents need to look after. Programs like this just encourage laziness and reduce incentives for people to take control of their own lives.”
So, here we can explicitly see how leftist impulse butts up against the libertarian, as someone following the leftist impulse would counter that such a person is being willfully ignorant of the historical factors that led those children’s parents to a life of poverty and hardship. Furthermore, the only way to address such systemic inequalities is to redistribute some of society’s wealth through funding such programs through progressive taxation. But that’s not where the conflict between the left impulse and the libertarian ends… The left impulse vs. individual rights and indentity:
Please indulge me with imagining two more scenarios.
First, let’s say white cisgendered male was nominated to a government post of considerable power and authority. During his confirmation process a woman comes forth stating that he made unwanted sexual advances toward her when they were in law school and that he even physically threatened her on one occasion when she refused to have sex with him. How might one view these allegations?
If you are inclined to say, “That sounds terrible but is there any actual evidence that this happened? Did she report this behavior when it happened over two decades ago? Is there a chance that she is making this up in collaboration with the political opponents of this man to derail his confirmation?”, then you are adhering to the libertarian impulse.
However, if you say, “we should move forward as though this woman’s accusations are true. Men of his class and demographic background have been abusing women with impunity for centuries in precisely the way that she has described and women who dare to speak out against them have consistently found themselves subject to ridicule and undue scrutiny. We will never be able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt if this man is guilty but, if we confirm him in spite of the allegations, we send a message to men and women across the world that such behavior will continue to go unpunished. He should be precluded from employment in any further government posts henceforth.” If that sounds good to you then you are following your anti-libertarian left impulse.
Now, let’s imagine a popular comedian gets a lucrative contract to produce a comedy special on a high profile streaming service (I don’t know where I come up with these ideas). The comedian is known for “punching down” in his act and making jokes about marginalized groups that have only recently been able to publicly express their identity. How would one react to this news if following the left vs. libertarian impulse?
Well, the libertarian impulse would lead one to say, “however vile and obnoxious one might feel about this man’s performance, the fact remains that he is popular. People want to hear his comedy and are willing to pay do so. Why else would the streaming service have hired him? We must not interfere with the comedy special. If we don’t like it, we can watch something else.”
A person following the leftist impulse would have a profoundly different reaction, however. Here we might reason thusly, “This man’s comedy cannot be silently abided as it normalizes hatred and bigotry toward an extremely fragile group that has historically wielded no power and has faced centuries of unrelenting oppression and discrimination. By ignoring it and tolerating it we sent a message to this victimized group that we acquiesce to their further persecution. We must do all that we can to stop the special from moving forward. The comedian should be deplatformed, the streaming services boycotted and, however possible, his fans made to feel shame for encouraging him. This is the only way to move toward an equitable future free of bigotry. The comedy special should be treated as an act of violence.” When the left impulse gets ugly:
The idea that words can equal violence really encapsulates how the left impulse is antithetical to the libertarian. There is even a slogan that has become popular recently that further develops this line of thinking: “silence equals violence”.
The phrase is entirely logical. I want to make that very clear. When one looks back at the past 500 years of conquest, enslavement, outrage, exploitation, abuse and oppression perpetrated by the few at the expense of the many, one has to realize that this was only possible with the quiet complicity of millions of people who did not speak up when they could have. And this continues today too.
We have made progress but there is much more to go before the descendants of enslaved Africans and of conquered indigenous Americans enjoy equity with the progeny of their European oppressors. And we are still very far from women and LGTBQIA+ people enjoying equal access to societal power and influence as heterosexual cisgendered males. If we are going to realize a fully equitable society then we must not tolerate indifference. How can one “not have an opinion” centuries of injustice? Apathy must be rooted out.
And this is where we see how it is possible for the left impulse can lead to totalitarian societies. For inequality has been fundamental to civilization for more than just centuries but for millennia. It’s so baked into our society that the only way to root in out is to tear everything down. Quibbling about a Supreme Court justice nominee or a celebrity’s obnoxious sense of humor is just a distraction. Only a total upheaval managed by a vanguard of professional revolutionaries can realize a just society. Concern about “civil liberties” such as free speech and due process only serve to aid the privileged to protect their power and affluence.
Or…thus taught Lenin and Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot. They followed such the left impulse down a path that led to the starvation, imprisonment and execution of millions of people in the pursuit of building a more just society. I don’t want to say that the left impulse always will end up there, anymore than I want to say that the right impulse always leads to Auschwitz-Birkenau but I am pointing out that there is nothing libertarian about the right or the left and while I think that each of us has all three impulses, we should be weary of any impulse to curtail the rights of others.
And that is pretty much that. Thanks for reading all this. I’m really just entertaining myself on a long train ride. Hope you had fun! Let me know if you agree or what I got wrong.