THE POLITICAL COMPASS & WHY
LIBERTARIANISM IS NOT RIGHT-WING
J. C. LESTER
The political distinction between left and right remains
ideologically muddled. This was not always so, but a return to
the pristine usage is impractical. Putting a theory of social
liberty to one side, this essay defends the interpretation of
left-wing as personal-choice and right-wing as property-choice.
This allows an axis that is north/choice (or state-free) and
south/control (or state-ruled). This Political Compass clarifies
matters without being tendentious or too complicated. It shows
that what is called ‘libertarianism’ is north-wing. A quiz gives
the reader’s Political Compass reading.
Pristine Clarity and Modern Confusion
The modern political left/right division is too crude to
accommodate many important political positions in a way that
makes any sense. Libertarianism (or extreme classical
liberalism) is sometimes placed, often implicitly or vaguely,
somewhere on the extreme right. But can we say whether it
ought to be to the right or left of other ‘right-wing’
ideologies? How are we to indicate the extreme tolerance of
personal choice (as regards drug use and consenting sexual
practices, for instance) that libertarianism entails but which is
not normally thought of as being right-wing?
Samuel Brittan sees clearly the confusion in the modern left
and right (though assuming a libertarian view of liberty):
The dilemma of the [classical] liberal is that
while Conservatives now use the language
of individual freedom, they apply this only —
if at all — to domestic economic questions.
They are the less libertarian of the two
parties — despite individual exceptions — on
all matters of personal and social conduct,
and are much the more hawk-like in their
attitude to ‘foreign affairs’. Labour, on
the other hand, has liberal instincts on
foreign affairs and personal conduct, but is
perversely blind to the claims of economic
liberty, which is distrusted as a capitalist
rationalisation. (Brittan 1968, p. 131)
The original political meanings of ‘left’ and ‘right’ have
changed since their origin in the French estates general in
1789. There the people sitting on the left could be viewed as
more or less anti-statists with those on the right being
state-interventionists of one kind or another. In this
interpretation of the pristine sense, libertarianism was clearly
at the extreme left-wing. This sense lasted up to as late as
1848, with Frederic Bastiat sitting on the left in the national
assembly. In Britain, it was the Fabians in particular who
adopted old Tory ideas, asserted that they were more to the
left than free trade, and labelled them as ‘socialism’
(Rothbard 1979). In the wake of the Fabians the old left and
right has been muddled. It might be thought that there is now
a swing back to the old labels. For instance, the Russians
now call the Communists ‘right-wing’. But it seems that
they are mainly following the west in using ‘right-wing’ as a
A return to this original meaning would fail to make important
distinctions that currently dominate political thought. One
problem would be that any existing left and right groups with
mirrored policies of state intervention in personal and
property matters (say, 40/60 and 60/40) would, confusingly,
find themselves at the same point on the right-wing of the
political line. The modern left-right view is also extremely
popular: virtually everyone has some conception of what it
means. People have often tried and failed to show what is
wrong with it and how it can be replaced (some examples
follow). That they have failed is a sign of its stability. These
two facts make it impractical to convince people of the virtue
of an immediate return to the old distinction.
So a single political line provides no solutions to these
problems. As a result, it is sometimes suggested that the
political array is better viewed as a circle in which the
extremes meet: the extreme left and the extreme right differing
more in rhetoric than in reality. There is undoubtedly some
truth in this idea. Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet
Union have often been taken as extremes of right and left.
But behind the political labels they look practically identical
rather than opposite. People often admit the Hitler-Stalin
similarity, yet that does not stop them thinking that Stalin is
left and Hitler is right and that the market must somehow be
on the right (being the opposite of communism). Hence, in
their confusion, they can only come up with a circle. (Figure
It is hard to see how the political circle has better real
explanatory value than the political line. The circle fails to
distinguish the distinctively left and right elements both from
each other and from other political elements. Perhaps this is
because the idea of a political circle is not inspired by a
desire to clarify matters but by a dogmatic delight in a
paradox that seems to make all extreme political views
inherently absurd. But the circle may be a useful first stage for
illustrating the confusion in the left/right view, for the paradox
does not withstand serious investigation.
Having an Axis to Grind
One idea that makes some sense of this confusion, or
conflation, is David Nolan’s diagrammatical distinction
between economic and personal liberty based on the
empirical work of professors William Maddox and Stuart
Lilie (1984). Nolan puts both types of liberty in the same
diagram along two axes. But in my version I use the more
neutral term ‘choice’, to be contrasted with (state)
‘control’. I also prefer ‘property’ as being a bit clearer
than ‘economic’. (Figure 2)
In figure 2, libertarians and classical liberals then find
themselves in the top right-hand corner. Authoritarians,
including paternalists, are in the bottom left-hand square.
Fascism is in the extreme bottom left-hand corner, being
the very opposite of libertarianism. ‘Left-wingers’ are
somewhere in the top-left square, with left-wing (anti-money
and anti-private property) ‘anarchists’ in the extreme top
left-hand corner. ‘Right-wingers’, possibly with certain
religious fanatics in the corner, are somewhere in the bottom
So perhaps it is a clarificatory caricature to view modern
right-wingers as personal state-controllers and left-wingers as
property state-controllers. The contrasting distinction is
between control and choice (no state-control) over both
categories. The clarity of these distinctions enables us to
avoid Kedourie’s risk of ‘guilt by association’ (1985, pp.
143-147) whereby what is not left is automatically right.
This diagram makes things clearer, but it fails to incorporate
the left/right view as simply left and right. It also fails to give
us a felicitous analogous expression for the alternative
choice/control distinction. But what if we follow Marshall
Fritz (Bergland 1990, pp. 22-23) and rotate the diagram 45
degrees anti-clockwise? (Again, I use my preferred
distinctions: figure 3.)
In figure 3, left-wing and right-wing are now to the left and
right of the diagram. And we are able to describe the
choice/control contrast as ‘north-wing’ and
‘south-wing’. With this distinction, libertarians can position
themselves on a Political Compass. The expression
‘Political Compass’ has long been used, but not much
sense of it has been made before as far as I am aware.
In the UK, Jacobs and Worcester have produced a recent
attempt to sophisticate the political spectrum that is less
successful (1990). The questions they ask often presuppose
state-intervention and so the categories arrived at do not
allow for a choice/control distinction. Maddox and Lilie share
one flaw in their approach. They are too focused on the
centre of politics and so cannot make sense of the various
extremes. It is misleading to categorise, as Maddox and Lilie
do, 18% of Americans as ‘libertarians’ in any serious sense
of the word. Also, their four boxes ignore other reasons for
wingedness than being Liberal, Libertarian, Populist, or
Conservative. Unlike their boxes, the Compass allows for
greater precision of direction and degree, and without
specifying the particular ideology.
Brittan comes back to left and right in a later book (1973).
He quotes the conclusion in Political Change in Britain
that most people "have wholly atomistic responses to the
issues of politics" (p. 356). Though he notes that "statistical
psychologists have found significant, although moderate,
correlations between views on different issues which enable
them to locate ‘opinion clusters’." (p. 358) So Brittan gives
up the attempt to clarify left and right in the way he did in his
earlier book. He sees the search for independent dimensions
as mistaken, and concludes that "what different attitudes and
individuals, who are characterised as left or right ... have in
common are ... ‘family resemblances’." (p. 363)
He then gives a list of beliefs "a sufficient combination" of
which "will justify the label ‘left-wing’ in a broader sense
than mere proneness to vote Labour". (p. 363) He later gives
a breakdown for Conservative political attitudes. (p. 366)
What he apparently fails to see, or fails to see the significance
of, is that the left-wing views are overwhelmingly about
state-control in property matters with choice in personal
matters, and that the other list is the opposite. This is what
sorts out the modern left and right; and this also suggests the
single alternative choice/control scale. Having values that fit
better on that scale enables us to avoid the crude view that
"people are inconsistent", as Maddox and Lilie observe
(1984, p. 33), when they do not fit along left and right.
Instead, Brittan tries to make sense of these views by
suggesting labels that qualify which kind of left or right is
under discussion. But this discourages clear extremes at odds
with the general left/right scale. In particular, it discourages
something that Brittan says he would value: "a return to a
party division in which one side puts together, in Cobdenite
fashion, freedom in all its aspects and non-intervention
overseas." (1973, p. 371) But he fears that "if the
authoritarian party happened to be in power for the greater
part of the time, the outlook for freedom would be dim...".
(p. 372) It appears that his one-dimensional approach
prevents him from seeing that the whole political consensus
can simply move northwards so that both, or all, main parties
would opt for less state control.
A Simpler Diagram
The previous diagram is more complicated than is necessary
to convey the basic idea. A simpler diagram (figure 4) is
possible, taking the clue from the earlier Samuel Brittan
(1968, pp. 88-89): a single vertical choice/control axis can
form a cross with the horizontal personal/property choice
However, though this is an easier idea to grasp, it does not
work for plotting political positions directly (it is not itself a
Cartesian diagram — and nor are Brittan’s — it just looks
like one). With the way I have set up the questions below, it
will be necessary to work out one’s political position on the
previous diagram first.
It might be thought that this distinction between personal and
property choice is tendentious. I shall consider four criticisms
along these lines:
1) The Compass ignores the socio-economic,
or class, bias of left and right.
2) The nature of liberty is too controversial to
call one Compass point ‘libertarian’.
3) The personal/property choice distinction is
4) Equally important dimensions could further
1) Is it misleading to ignore the
socio-economic, or class, bias of left and
The west and east wings are partly stipulative and not
intended to capture all that is in the notions of left and right
wings. One thing that is ignored is the supposed
socio-economic bias of the modern left and right: that there is
some slight statistical tendency, in the UK for instance, for
Labour to find more votes among the lower socio-economic
groups and Tories among the higher.
For one thing, compared to the overall Compass such slight
differences are trivial. For another, these differences can be
seen as, in practice, reflecting vested interests that cause
everyone else to suffer, including those of one’s own
‘class’. In any case, if the Compass questions produce a
three-dimensional bell-shaped distribution curve then that
indicates the capture of something socio-ideologically
significant, rather than arbitrary groupings of ideas. A failure
to be bell-shaped might indicate that the population can more
clearly be interpreted along different ideological lines. But this
does not in itself show that the Political Compass does not
make conceptual sense. Libertarians can still use this idea in
order to explain themselves.
2) Can libertarianism be north-wing when
‘real liberty’ is either to be found in
another wing or it is an ‘essentially
contested concept’ (Gallie, 1955)?
If pressed, a libertarian could, in this context at least,
concede the libertarian/authoritarian contrast. The
choice/control (or state-free/state-controlled) contrast can be
accepted as more neutral. He can still preserve the essential
north/south distinction that enables his own political position
to be more easily understood. This also has the advantage of
objectively solving Lilie’s philosophical problem of
categorising or avoiding issues where the ‘true libertarian’
policy is debatable (Boaz 1986, p.88).
However, to object to the name ‘libertarian’ altogether
would seem unfair. It is polite debating practice to allow each
ideology to be named by its advocates. There are some
generally positive connotations to ‘conservative’ and
‘socialist’ that it would be equally trivial to complain about.
3) A more radical criticism, sometimes put
forward by libertarians, is that the
personal/property distinction is not
These are really two aspects of any human activity: the body
is in a broad sense property (or an economic resource);
external goods are at some point tied up with someone’s
personal projects. So, the libertarian might insist, only the
north/south (original left/right) axis makes proper sense, and
we cannot have the other axis (and so cannot have the
I see considerable force in this point and so reject the view
expressed by Maddox and Lilie that "the extent and nature of
government regulation of personal behaviour ... is both
analytically and empirically distinct from conflict on the
economic dimension." (Maddox and Lilie 1984, p. 4,
emphasis added) Nevertheless, moral and political
distinctions are conventionally made between what are called
‘personal’ and ‘property’ issues. I cannot see why these
distinctions ought to be entirely ignored because they are
indeterminate from a purely conceptual viewpoint. This would
be as unfortunate an excuse for continued confusion and
dogmatism as is the current insistence on only the modem
left/right division. As Brittan puts it,
Relationships between views on different
subjects do not have the authority of logic or
mathematics. There are historical,
sociological and cultural explanations why a
bias towards economic freedom should be
combined with an anti-permissive approach
to social questions and relatively belligerent
external attitudes among Conservatives -
just as there are for the combination of state
economic intervention, a bias towards
freedom in personal behaviour and pacific
external attitudes among the Labour Party
(1968, p. 142).
The distinction between personal and property choice is
conceptually dubious but it is a socio-political reality
(somewhat like the mediaeval distinction between ordinary
women and witches). And this reality can be illustrated
graphically without conceding that it is conceptually coherent.
Perhaps by this display people will eventually be brought
round to abandoning the current left-right view. But it is a
mistake to insist on a choice/control axis without allowing
people a clear view of how it relates to the modem left/right
view. This is to require an intellectual effort that will be too
much for most people, due to lack of real interest in politics,
as well as an unnecessarily immediate rejection of their
comfortable orthodox distinction.
4) It might also be suggested that we could,
in principle, introduce all sorts of
theoretical dimensions to complicate the
simple left/right one.
I believe that the preceding account captures something very
significant politically while not moving too far beyond the
popular, simpler distinction to be impractical for general use.
Maddox and Lilie show that even ‘foreign policy’ is also
clearly divisible into these four winged approaches (Maddox
and Lilie 1984, ch. VII). Samuel Brittan made various
attempts to improve on the left/right view (Brittan 1968, pp.
88-89), but none of them appears to have the simplicity and
verisimilitude of the view defended here. In the quoted
passages, Brittan clearly sees that the personal/property
distinction exists, but he does not home in on it as the solution
to the mess (perhaps because he is, ideologically, too near
the centre of mainstream politics).
In reality, then, it is non-libertarians who are being
tendentious if they insist that libertarianism is on the ‘extreme
right-wing’. This usage is merely a pejorative and an excuse
to avoid debate. But now libertarians can, if necessary,
practice tit-for-tat by lumping together non-libertarians as
undifferentiated ‘south-wingers’ or ‘authoritarians’.
As more people become libertarians, especially more
academics and other intellectuals, we might find that their
insistence on being ‘north-wingers’, if they do so insist,
gives currency to this interpretation of the Political Compass.
The modern political terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ will not
disappear in a hurry, if at all, but they do not need to. Though
if the Political Compass were to become popular then ‘left’
might sometimes become ‘west’ and ‘right’ become
A Political Compass Quiz
Marshall Fritz offers a quiz with only five very general
questions for each axis. (Bergland 1990, pp. 22-23) The
following quiz has ten questions each. These questions are
still relatively few and selective. They might fail to place some
readers in the proper area. They are roughly in ascending
order of extremity, from a conventional viewpoint, of
anti-statism. They have been thought up both to clarify the
general idea of the Political Compass and to elucidate the
nature of the libertarian (choice or state-free) north-wing.
Some questions might seem to be partly relevant to the
opposite category. To some extent this is because what are
roughly distinguishable as personal and property aspects are
contingently bound together in certain issues. But this is also
because of the truth of the criticism that the distinction is
To give an absolute position on figure 3, and thereby the
Compass, give yourself one point on the appropriate axis for
each ‘Yes’ answer (or a fraction of a point to the extent
that you agree).
Personal Choice Questions
1) Should people be allowed to follow their own religions in
peace and privacy?
2) Should women be allowed contraception and abortions?
3) Should all consenting, private, adult sexual acts be legal?
4) Should all state censorship be abolished?
5) Should employers be allowed to discriminate on any basis
6) Should all drugs be legal?
7) Should all voluntary human sports, no matter how violent,
8) Should crimes be seen as only against individuals, or
private institutions, who are due restitution from the criminals?
9) Should the few political figures responsible for a war be
targeted rather than civilians and conscripts?
10) Should state immigration controls be replaced by
private-property controls on entry?
Property Choice Questions
1) Should the state stop using taxes to subsidise art and
2) Should the state stop using taxes to subsidise industries?
3) Should all state barriers to free trade be abolished?
4) Should people acquire their education from the market or
charity instead of by taxation and state intervention?
5) Should voluntary insurance and charity replace state
6) Should the state’s coercive monopoly of money be
7) Should all roads and streets be privately owned and
8) Should private ownership be allowed to deal with
9) Should all taxation stop because it is extortion?
10) Should the state’s coercive monopoly of law and its
enforcement be replaced by competing protection agencies?
1. However, nothing about the suggested Political Compass
depends on this interpretation being true.
2. An interesting attempt to make sense of this from a
libertarian viewpoint is Jerome Tucille. (1970, p. 38) There
libertarianism is placed as more extreme than fascism and
communism. I cannot see how this really clarifies matters,
despite the accompanying explanation.
3. In Britain, the Revolutionary Communist Party (or at least
one RCP debater at the LSE) put Hitler and Stalin on the far
right, but themselves, Lenin, and classical liberals on the left.
If they mean that we are all anti-authoritarian in principle
then that is a return to the old labels (in principle — but we
have a considerable factual dispute about what is
anti-authoritarian in practice).
4. As Z. Sternhell puts it in The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of
Political Thought’s entry on ‘fascism’, "Totalitarianism is
the very essence of fascism, and fascism is without question
the purest example of totalitarian ideology." (Miller 1987, p.
150) He quotes Mussolini’s definition of fascism:
"Everything in the state, nothing against the state, nothing
outside the state."
5. "Political map" is the expression Marshal Fritz uses.
6. Liberal (for personal freedom [+PF] and for government
intervention in economic affairs [+ GE]); libertarian (+PF, -
GE); populist (- PF, + GE); conservative (- PF, - GE).
7. Butler and Stokes (1969), Political Change in Britain,
8. Who, in turn, modified the original idea of Eysenck’s
psychological tough-minded/tender-minded distinction
9. This was the major criticism of David McDonagh in
correspondence. It is apparently implied in Hayek’s view
that "To be controlled in our economic pursuits means to be
... controlled in everything." (Hayek 1976, p. 68)
10. He continues: "But these combinations are not part of the
permanent order of things. At least as good a case can be
made for putting together in Cobdenite fashion economic and
personal freedom and non-intervention overseas."
11. As Brittan shows is true in the UK, in both cited books,
and the work of Maddox and Lilie bears this out for the
12. My interest being primarily philosophical, I set aside
detailed empirical refinements. It is probably clearer to plot
ideologies and not political personalities (as do Brittan and, to
a lesser extent, Maddox and Lilie).
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© Libertarian Alliance 2001