26 April, 2010

Busy, But Not Dead (And Fun Political Taxonomy Stuff)

I have been a little busy this last week. Odds are that I will be busy over the next week as well. The wait should be worth it, however – I have written drafts of several posts that might just pique the readership's interest. Later this week I should have time to hammer down their specifics and get them published.

In the meantime, I direct my readership to this post by Noah Millman (H/T League of Ordinary Gentlemen). It has been noted before that the smartest people don't seem to fit nicely into boxes labeled "left" or "right." This says more about our our method of classification, I think, than it does about these people themselves. It seems clear to me that a new taxonomy is needed to replace our old system.

Enter Mr. Millman. He provides an entirely new taxonomy that breaks down American political thought into three metrics:

  1. Liberal vs. Conservative – "Put simply: a liberal outlook trusts individuals and questions authority; a conservative outlook distrusts individuals and defers to authority."
  2. Left vs. Right "Put simply: a right-wing perspective is animated by an affinity for the winners and their interests, while a left-wing perspective is animated by an affinity for the losers and their interests."
  3. Progressive vs. Reactionary "The progressive-reactionary axis revolves around attitudes toward time and history. The progressive is future-oriented. Things will – or could – be better in the future than they are now. But more than this, history has a direction that can be discerned, and that one must be cognizant of in constructing one’s politics....The reactionary, by contrast, is past-oriented. Things will – likely – be worse in the future than they are now, just as they were better in the past."

(I recommend my readers give the full thing a read - Millman's taxonomy is a bit more nuanced than these short excerpts would have you believe, and he does a fine job providing examples of each)

So what do you all think? Is this breakdown better than the current left/right dichotomy? Where do you fall on the Millman Political Taxonomy?


jk said...

OBJECTION! Counsel is leading the witness!

You know that I love these and am always looking for better dimensionality than the Political Compass he links to. But this, as written, is most certainly not it.

I was trying to see if the parameters could be kept with some less judgmental descriptive text. That may be possible but I do not see it.

The author belies strong preferences. To correctly frame one of these requires hair-splitting devotion to fairness in the descriptions. Millman misses by a mile. Liberal, left wing progressives like puppies and want all people to enjoy the world's blessings. Conservative right wing reactionaries kill babies and will likely use their bones to memorialize Bill Gates. Which one are you?

Moving past the text, I find it hard to think you can define attitudes without looking at collective versus individual or at compassion versus coercion.

I liked his attempt to revive the Misesesque meaning of liberal. But I would have put Conservative in opposition to Progressive (his Reactionary) and then put something in opposition to Liberal that championed the collective and public good view.

As it stands, most of his axes are mutually exclusive in my case. I guess I am a right winger though I chafe at the description. I'm a progressive in his (and only his!) taxonomy. But willing to stand athwart history to protect something good.

In the end, I don't see its providing much differentiating information.

T. Greer said...

A few thoughts -

I view this taxonomy as a work in progress. It is a thought starter, not the end all be all. It also plays a slightly different role than most political compass-type projects, as its aim to describe attitudes and temperaments, not a person's actual politics.

I think the metrics he uses are useful. They are not couched in the fairest language, but I do not think it is difficult to put them into such. Let’s take the two categories of the most evil nature, right-wingers and reactionaries.

Millman categorizes the argument between the right and left as a clash between friends of the losers and friends of the winners. I think this rings true, but is more narrow than it ought to be. Better would be something along these lines: Right-wingers worry more about increasing the upside, while leftists worry about minimizing the downside. Right-wingers speak in terms of 'incentives' - by and large something that those on the left find utterly uncompelling. "A rising tide lifts all boats" says the rightist, and consequently, they are troubled much more by the possibility of slowing or cutting off growth than they are about a few people slipping through the cracks.

Millman's characterization of Reactionaries is unfortunate. Of the Progressives, he says two things 1) They are sure that the future holds more than the past, 2) History has a discernible direction that informs your politics. His description of the Reactionaries only emphasizes the opposite of the first of these things, while I think the second should take just as much precedence. Reactionaries do not believe history has a "motor". It is without direction, and those who attempt to give it a direction are dangerous. They prefer to look to the past for models for the future, and if things must change, they would rather have this change happen in increments, not leaps and bounds. Thus they are not, as Millman states, resistant to change simply because it is change, but because they view most change as radical and uniformed attempts to dash forward with an untested model. (You could call these men are the patrons of The Gods of the Copyboook Headings ).

Does that sound a bit more fair? It is good enough a classification for me.

T. Greer said...

An individual/collective metric is needed. I suggested as much in the comment thread of both Millman's place and the League. To quote the relevant material:

It seems to me that one can be an individualist without placing much trust in individuals themselves. Ayn Rand is the perfect example here. As you state, she did not really trust in the power of the great majority of mankind at all. She placed her trust in a dogmatic and authoritarian belief system. But this system was completely centered on the individual. Rand saw life through the eyes of the atomized individual and could imagine nothing els....

So how to classify people like this? I suggest, as have others before, that you break up ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ into more specific groupings. As I see it, the replacement metrics could be:

* Individualist vs. Holists. Individualists are those whose world views are centered on the individual. Individuals make up communities, not the other way around. The Holists, on the other hand, have a world view centered on larger groups – individuals are segments of a much larger, more important, interdependent whole.

With that said, I still think the taxonomy is useful as it is – as long as you recognize what it does and does not say. It does not say anything about the actual policies you support or disparage. As Millman says in the comment thread on his site: ”You can have liberals who support an active government and liberals who support a more restrained government, and that division has everything to do with how they think government power shapes the environment for individuals – whether government can help shape an environment in which individuals can better realize their capacities, or whether it’s more important for government to get out of the way”

So if these metrics don’t describe our actual politics, what do they describe? Why we have those politics. This taxonomy is essentially a series of metrics that measure the attitudes and mentalities that form the basis of any political philosophy. It helps define what we find compelling and convincing, how we analyze any given argument. To this end I find it extremely useful – certainly it has given me a measure of insight into a few of the sharper disagreements I have with folks of various stripes.

For example, there is a certain libertarian who frequents your site with whom I tend to fall into rather venomous disputes. On the outset this doesn’t make much sense – if we were to rank all Americans by their libertarianism, I am fairly sure I would be ranked above the 95th percentile. So whence comes the vitriol? It isn’t our politics. It is the logic we use to get there.

In our last bout, this libertarian said something to the effect of, “you don’t believe in the power of free men sweating for their own purposes”. Upon reflection, I realized he is right. I don’t believe that free men working for their own purposes are incredibly more powerful than those working in the collective or for the state. For me, limited government has very little to do with unleashing motivated individuals’ full potential. I recognize this argument, even parrot it once in a while, but it has never been very compelling to me. I am not one of Millband’s liberals. My opposition to centralized government is conservative in nature – if humans are ‘perverse’ (as Millband puts it), all the more important to keep centralized power out of their hands. Starting from these different starting points, the two of us just talk past each other. Even though we have similar end goals – scaling back most of the central government, including our national security apparatus, into nothingness, the way we get there is diametrically opposed. Millband’s taxonomy does much to explain the source of our acrimony.

John said...

Ah, the old Political Compass. I almost forgot about that one.

Ever since I discovered the California F Scale in the appendix of Gordon Allport's The Nature of Prejudice about 1959 I have tracked a string of similar instruments, all of which are interesting but fall short of anything other than springboards for discussion. I concluded a few years ago that most of us have a cocooning impulse causing us to be always seeking others who agree. Cognitive dissonance may be the most painful of human conditions.

Last year I came across the Moral Politics test which some may find amusing. Respondents now number over half a million and the database is slowly growing. Be sure to check out the sidebar for stats.

John said...

Sorry, I forgot to leave any opinion. Here goes:

Politics and morality are inseparable but most people do not discern the difference, expecting to live however they choose unmolested. Even extreme minorities, from skinhead splinter groups to the Amish depend upon a modicum of tolerance whether or not they recognize it.

Morality is the bricks and politics the mortar of my conceptual house. The bricks, of course, are categorically more important.

I concluded long ago that morality and legality are rarely congruent and sometimes in conflict. Life, then, presents a sequence of decisions, usually benign but occasionally important enough to risk everything when made correctly.

So the most critical challenge we all face turns out to be conflict resolution.

jk said...


Thanks for the link. I scored a (-1,-4). It says I should be a Democrat and should have supported John Kerry in '04 (But McCain in '08)

I'll gove Tanner a moment to compose himself...

Perhaps my problem is that I liek politics too much. How one wants to structure the government and society around him is more interesting to me that outlook.

John said...

I like Ambrose Bierce's definitions of Conservative and Liberal.

A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.

T. Greer said...

A few more thoughts.

I thank John for highlighting the Moral Taxonomy. After snooping around their site for a bit, I do not think it is a particularly useful way to analyze our politics. I am uncomfortable with the number of ill-thought out assumptions it uses as a basis for its political divisions. Take this sentence from the taxonomy's explanation of what links authoritarianism and conservatism together:

"NonConformance stems from the belief that children are born bad. Children must be taught self-discipline and self-reliance to become responsible members of society. Teaching self-discipline and self-reliance commonly entails following a set of well-established social guidelines ("traditional values")"

This is questionable, at best. One could believe that man is innately good, but easily corrupted, and still hold the view that self-discipline and self-reliance are prime virtues. Furthermore, there is no relation between these 'prime virtues' and the idea that men rank above woman, God ranks above man, one culture is superior to another, ect. Lacking a convincing reason to classify people as it does, this taxonomy ultimately fails.

Which is not to say that morality is non-factor in our political decisions. John uses the metaphor of brick and mortar. I find another metaphor from the world of construction to fit better - the raw materials that make up the bricks, boards, concrete, and nails of a building, and shape and form of these bricks, boards, and nails themselves.

Our sense of morals - how we define good and bad, just and unjust, liberty and slavery - is the stuff with which we build our bricks. The policies we support are outgrowths of our inner motivations and attitudes. Is is as easy to separate one's outlook and moral sense from the way one wants to structure government and society as it is to separate a frame from the wood it is made of.