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How Useful Is The Political Spectrum?

Do words typically used to name your place on the political spectrum apply accurately to you? Here are some thoughts for updating the political spectrum. I have been thinking about the spectrum as it is used in modern American usage and think that it has a number of problems. What are the most commonly used spectrums and what are their problems?

The Rejects

  • Right vs. Left
  • Republican vs. Democrat
  • Conservative vs. Liberal

Right versus left makes only a little bit of sense when used in the US, but it appears to break down entirely when looking at the rest of the world or looking at history. Aesthetics seem to have a large role in earning "right-wing" credentials; a bit of a military flair and it is yours - regardless of one's actual policy goals (such as collectivization, central planning, etc.) or name ("socialist" right there in the very name can still allow one to stay "right-wing" in good standing, especially if the one offering the description objects to some aspects of the ostensible right-winger). This, this distinction is muddled beyond help.

Republicans and Democrats have become increasingly coherent ideologically, with Democrats tossing New England Republicans out of office and Republicans doing the same to most southern Democrats. So this is not a completely useless distinction. However, it is not a very helpful distinction for the public policy debate. It has too strong a tribal connotation. As such, the labels tend to solidify previously held attitudes into policy preferences instead of elucidating reasoned beliefs.

In many important respects, conservative versus liberal is not only misleading but is in fact backwards. Modern American conservatives directly follow eighteenth century liberalism. Elsewhere in the Anglosphere, one finds remnants of this past usage in places such as the Liberal Party of Australia, which is the less liberal party in the modern American sense of the word. The history aligns the word "liberal" with "liberty," which makes sense but has been reversed in the current usage. As for "conservative," there may be less about our current form of government that conservatives would wish to conserve when compared with their political adversaries. In fact, greater liberty and the liberalism of the 1700s would be a radical departure from current public policy. It should hardly be called "conservative". Just spending more, taxing more, regulating more, and politicizing ever more aspects of private lives? That has been going on long enough such that one might be willing to cede it the word "conservative".


  • Natural consequences and incentives
  • Contrafactuals
  • Rent seekers versus entrants

My proposed replacements will be imperfect, but my goal is to offer three that will at least be somewhat more useful. First, do you broadly accept the role of natural consequences and the incentives that they provide? When someone takes a risk, builds a business, raises children, or purchases private property, do they - and should they - own the natural, innate consequences of such actions? If they prosper, do you look upon that as their prosperity? If they fail, is that their failure? Natural consequences create an incentive structure. Are incentives important and useful for encouraging certain behaviors? Alternatively, are incentives unimportant, ignorable, or are they something that needs to be undermined by the state? To me, this is a central spectrum that informs much of the public policy debate.

Particularly in regulatory affairs, there is a key difference between those who rely on counterfactuals and those who do not. Should a given decision be made if it is better than the counterfactual, when all costs and benefits are considered including indirect costs, diffused costs, and unintended costs? This reliance on counterfactuals is distinct from a view that one should judge a public policy proposal on the basis of intent, particularly its empathy. Non-counterfactual thinking is often predicated with a "you cannot put a price on _____" or religious-type appeals that we should do "whatever we can to _____" without regard to risk or reward.

Finally, I would propose that the battle between rent seekers on the one side and entrants on the other define much of our public policy discourse. Rent seeking is the effort towards getting paid for goods or services by manipulating the political process instead of by creating wealth. Rent seekers want to use your means to serve their ends. In short, they are not here for your principles; they are here for your stuff. Rent seekers have thrived in our political process. At the same time, they have also effectively seized the moral high ground: they want your stuff and they want credit for their generosity when they take it.

What is on the other side of the battle against rent seekers? The other side of the spectrum includes some philosophical opponents, some that are tired of paying the costs, but mostly the entrants. Rent seeking is mostly a matter of political incumbents aiding economic incumbents. This has little if anything to do with aiding the least and the lost. Entrenched institutions exact high costs, but these are not just the direct, visible costs borne by the taxpayers. Perhaps most importantly, rent seekers are able to crowd out entrants. Subsidized industry makes it hard for new competitors to enter markets. High regulatory burdens are perfect barriers to entry in that the incumbents are the ones that can afford to pay.

I believe that these designations are more useful and more accurate. In addition, it could change the substance of our debate if we can step away from our more tribal labels where our views are partially formed based upon our identity. Finally, it would be an improvement if political efforts were named for what they are. Politicians constantly undermine natural consequences and in the process create a host of new perverse incentives. Let's start by calling it what it is. Instead of considering costs and benefits, are they trying to narrow debate to the intended benefits only and are they mostly concerned with their best intentions? Do they use their empathy as a weapon to shut off debate on costs? There should be a contingent that at least calls them out on what they are doing. Are they simply rent seekers? If so, then economic entrants and any of us who are not on the take may want to step up to oppose those who are.