The Futility of the Left-Right Spectrum

Update: I’m not responding per se to what Sven wrote – but to so much talk in our society about left, right, and center that does not make sense to me.  And Sven gave me a chance to rant since people may have that spectrum in their head when thinking about Brooks’ alleged centrism.

I’ll take Sven’s bait. 

The left-right spectrum does not have a lot of utility, especially once you start doing cross-national comparisons.  So, Hitler is on the right and so is Adam Smith?  Stalin on the left with the ACLU?  So let’s stop talking about left, right, and center (even though I, bowing to the language we are currently afflicted with, do reference it on occassion).  Instead, we should use something like the Nolan Chart (though even this, unfortunately, uses left and right as well) or just plain words like progressive, socialist, social democrat, classical liberal, Burkean conservative, American conservative, neoconservative, libertarian, etc. 

Here is a variant of the Nolan Chart created by Marshall Fritz:

10 thoughts on “The Futility of the Left-Right Spectrum

  1. Then you could make foreign policy a third dimension coming out of the page, a set of issues that splits libertarians down the middle.

    I’m actually not persuaded that left-liberals are all that hot on personal freedoms. There are exceptions, like the usually satisfying Glenn Greenwald, but most of them seem to have a nannying, paternalist impulse.

    1. I agree that the left isn’t all that into personal freedom (such as the right to bear arms). What they are interested in is sexual freedom and abortion rights. Abortion means more freedom for the sexually active, but considerably less freedom for those being aborted. Indeed, one could characterize state-sanctioned abortion as extreme authoritarianism. It only works as a civil liberty if you de-humanize the unborn.

    2. Embarrassing.

      You are overlooking a lot of liberal causes, like letting women and minorities vote, own property, work in the marketplace, etc. Sometimes economic freedoms are personal freedoms too. You are overlooking a lot of conservative nannying, like the drug war, gay marriage, all the blue laws, abortion, etc.

      Fun exercise: list the 5 or 10 most recent Supreme Court decisions that have limited personal freedoms that are important to you, the reader. Then look at which 5 justices voted to restrict your freedom and which 4 liberal justices voted to uphold them.


      1. As far as Supreme Court cases, three that come to mind are
        Kelo, DC v. Heller and the (McConnell/Citizen’s United–which I’ll group together for convenience). I think in all three of those cases, the “liberal” justices voted on the anti-freedom side. (I’d have to do more research to come up with additional cases.)

        The left-wing of the Court supports rights in the area of drugs, pornography, abortion, and (sometimes) due process, but seldom in the area of speech, guns, property, or commerce. That is my sense anyway.

        You are right that sometimes economic freedoms are personal freedoms. I don’t much like the economic/personal dichotomy or the economic/social dichotomy. In fact, those dimensions are so bad they might be worse than a single dimension.

        And as far as things like voting rights, that is an area where leftists and libertarians share common ground.

  2. “I’m actually not persuaded that left-liberals are all that hot on personal freedoms.”


    You’ll be granted government-approved freedoms only.

    No salt, no tobacco, no gas-guzzling cars, etc.

  3. Indeed. Many liberals or “progressives” favor bans on smoking, want to tax the heck out of consensual vice or ban it altogether, favor “speech codes”, etc. Hence the need for a space that represents both folks who want to increase government across the board and those, like us, who want to maximize individual liberty.

    1. “want to tax the heck out of consensual vice”

      I thought this was the market/libertarian solution!?

      Don’t ban, just tax to cover the negative externalities?


      Oh, and if consensual vice is the barometer, can we examine the conventional “conservative” stance on vice?

      War on drugs, gay marriage, blue laws, prostitution, pornography, etc.

      Legalizing consensual vice is the overlap between libertarians and liberals on the venn diagram.


      I notice no one wants to discuss criminal rights and freedoms. Clearly, can’t demonize the liberals for coddling criminals then say liberals don’t win that one, can you? (Oh say, is coddling criminals anti-statist?)

      I really like limiting police powers, and old school liberals do that the best.

      1. I think Grover is suggesting that the taxes would be “sin taxes” meaning they would exceed the size of the externalities. In other words, taxing smoking is a sin tax because they net externality of smoking is actually negative (they die early). Now in this case it’s a bit more complicated because there’s an added nuisance externality (I don’t want to smell their smoke), but I think the basic difference is that libertarians are opposed to a tax exceeding the size of the externality.

        I think conventionally people tend to think conservatives are less permissive on social issues, and that’s reasonable given the issues you listed. Unfortunately, liberals aren’t perfect on social permissiveness either which makes the situation unnecessarily complicated.

  4. Yes, yes, Grover, but . . . one has to beware the urge to be overly prescriptive when it comes to language usage. I too lament the Hitler/Gingrich/Reagan/Republican elision on “the right,” and I am happy to tweak the nose of would-be tyrants wherever they are found. But almost everyone today uses the terms “right” and “left,” and thus, unhelpful though they may be in some contexts, I think we have to come to terms with them.

    I have used many different terms to describe my own political-economic position, though that is perhaps partly due to the fact that my position is frequently changing, at least at the margins. But “classical liberal” is the term I use most.

    Hayek, for what it’s worth, suggested “Old Whig.”

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