The Pournelle Political Axes

jbone at jbone at
Thu Nov 6 11:51:32 PST 2003

Figures omitted.  An interesting take on this.  Still mashes things 
down into too few dimensions.  (Cf. Vocem spaces, no link, Google it, 
it was on kuro5hin.)


An Appendix

One reason Jim Baen keeps me around is that he likes to talk. We have 
endless telephone discussions of column topics, and they tend to spill 
over to anything else going on. In the course of one conversation we 
got to the subject of the Ayatollah Kockamamie, and Jim said something 
about "all ends of the political spectrum, points."

"Curious you should put it that way," I replied. "I wrote my 
dissertation in political science on a proof that the political 
spectrum has more than one dimension; that the old left-right category 
doesn't really work."

"Now there's a column," Jim said. And on reflection I agree. At least 
it makes a good appendix to my tirade on what's 'wrong with the social 

The notion of a "left" and a "right" has been with us a long time. It 
originated in the seating arrangement of the French National Assembly 
during their revolution. The delegates marched into the Hall of 
Machines by traditional precedence, with the aristocrats and clergy 
entering first, then the wealthier bourgeois, and so on, with the 
aristocracy seated on the Speaker's right. Since the desire for radical 
change was pretty well inversely proportionate to wealth, there really 
was, for a short time, a legitimate political spectrum running from 
right to left, and the concept of left and right made sense.

Within a year it was invalidated by events. New alliances were formed. 
Those who wanted no revolutionary changes at all were expelled (or 
executed). There came a new alignment called "The Mountain" (from their 
habit of sitting together in the higher tiers of seats). Even for 18th 
Century France the "left-right" model ceased to have any theoretical 

Yet it is with us yet; and it produces political absurdities. No one 
can possibly define what variable underlies the "left-right" continuum 
today. Is it "satisfaction with existing affairs?" Then why are 
reactionaries, who most definitely want fundamental changes in the 
system, called "right wing"? Worse, the left-right model puts Fascism 
and Communism at opposite end-- yet those two have many similarities. 
Both reject personal freedom. Some would say they are more similar than 

What are we to make of Objectivists and the radical libertarians? 
They've been called "right wing anarchists," which is plain silly, a 
total contradiction in terms.

Nor is this all academic trivia. "There is no enemy to the Left" is a 
slogan taken very seriously by many intellectuals. "Popular Front' 
movements uniting "the Left" (generally socialists and communists) have 
changed the destinies of nations. Conservatives swallow hard and treat 
kindly other members of "the Bight" even when the others seem 
despicable by Conservative standards. The left-right model, although 
nonsensical by any theoretical analysis, has had very real political 

Some years ago I set out to replace the old model with one that made 
more sense. I studied a number of political philosophies and tried to 
see what underlying concepts separated them from their political 
enemies. Eventually I came up with two variables. I didn't then and 
don't now suggest these two are all there is to political theory. I'm 
certain there are other important ones. But my two have this property: 
they map every major political philosophy and movement onto one unique 

The two I chose are "Attitude toward the State," and "Attitude toward 
planned social progress".

The first is easy to understand: what think you of government? Is it an 
object of idolatry, a positive good, necessary evil, or unmitigated 
evil? Obviously that forms a spectrum, with various anarchists at the 
left end and reactionary monarchists at the right. The American 
political parties tend to fall toward the middle.

Note also that both Communists and Fascists are out at the right-hand 
end of the line; while American Conservatism and US Welfare Liberalism 
are in about the same place, somewhere to the right of center, 
definitely "statists." (One should not let modern anti-bureaucratic 
rhetoric fool you into thinking the US Conservative has really become 
anti-statist; he may want to dismantle a good part of the Department of 
Health, Education, and Welfare, but he would strengthen the police and 
army.) The ideological libertarian is of course left of center, some 
all the way over to the left with the anarchists.

That variable works; but it doesn't pull all the political theories 
each into a unique place. They overlap. Which means we need another 

"Attitude toward planned social progress" can be translated 
"rationalism"; it is the belief that society has "problems," and these 
can be "solved"; we can take arms against a sea of troubles.

Once again we can order the major political philosophies. Fascism is 
irrationalist; it says so in its theoretical treatises. It appeals to 
"the greatness of the nation" or to the volk, and also to the 
fuhrer-prinzip, i.e., hero worship.

Call that end (irrationalism) the "bottom" of the spectrum and place 
the continuum at right angles to the previous "statism" variable. Call 
the "top" the attitude that all social problems have findable 
solutions. Obviously Communism belongs there. Not far below it you find 
a number of American Welfare Liberals: the sort of people who say that 
crime is caused by poverty, and thus when we end poverty we'll end 
crime. Now note that the top end of the scale, extreme rationalism, may 
not mark a very rational position: "knowing" that all human problems 
can be "solved" by rational actions is an act of faith akin to the 
anarchist's belief that if we can just chop away the government, man 
truly free will no longer have problems. Obviously I think both top and 
bottom positions are whacky; but then one mark of Conservatism has 
always been distrust of highly rationalist schemes. Burke advocated 
that we draw "from the general bank of the ages, because he suspected 
that any particular person or generation has a rather small stock of 
reason; thus where the radical argues "we don't understand the purpose 
of this social custom; let's dismantle it," the conservative says 
"since we don't understand it, we'd better leave it alone."

Anyway, those are my two axes; and using them does tend to explain some 
political anomalies. For example: why are there two kinds of "liberal" 
who hate each other? But the answer is simple enough. Both are pretty 
thorough-going rationalists, but whereas the XIXth Century Liberal had 
a profound distrust of the State, the modern variety wants to use the 
State to Do Good for all mankind. Carry both rationalism and statism 
out a bit further (go northeast on our diagram) and you get to 
socialism, which, carried to its extreme, becomes communism. Similarly, 
the Conservative position leads through various shades of reaction to 
irrational statism, i.e., one of the varieties of fascism.

On the anti-statist end of the scale we can see the same tendency: 
extreme anti-rationalism ends with the Bakunin type of anarchist, who 
blows things up and destroys for the sake of destruction; the utterly 
rationalist anti-statist, on the other hand, persuades himself that 
somehow there are natural rights which everyone ought to recognize, and 
if only the state would get out of the way we'd all live in harmony; 
the sort of person who thinks the police no better than a band of 
brigands, but doesn't think that in the absence of the police, brigands 
would be smart enough to band together.

The whole thing looks like Figure One.

Now I do not claim this is the model of modern politics; I do claim 
that it is a far better model than the one we're using, and in fact I 
go farther and claim that the "left-right" model so ubiquitous amongst 
us is harmful. And while I understand that some ideologues find the 
"left-right" model useful to their cause, and thus have a powerful 
incentive to gloss over its failures, what puzzles me is why so-called 
objective political "scientists" don't try to abolish it, at least in 
freshman political science classes.

But then I've already admitted I don't understand the "social sciences" 
to begin with, and I needn't say all that again.
Editor's (Jim Baen) note:

Never before have I felt called upon to add to one of the redoubtable 
Dr. Pournelle's columns, but Jerry has been guilty of that most heinous 
of auctorial sins: modesty.

Seriously, Jerry seems to have come up with a useful, predictive, 
scientific measuring device for the social so called sciences, and 
passed it off as an "Appendix," forsooth! In politics alone the results 
of the widespread use of the Pournelle Axes would be revolutionary: 
pols would be required not only to declare themselves but to reveal 
precisely and literally their political position- and live with it. For 
example Teddy Kennedy from his own pronouncements cannot be less than a 
4.5/4.5'-how many people in this country would vote for a 4.5/4.5' once 
it was revealed for what it was? Give me a 2/4' any day! (That's what I 
am; once you have analyzed your own position, you may find your own 
political choices becoming remarkably simplified. Reagan and Crane, 
both at 4/2', make me a little nervous. Bush, at 3/3', looks pretty 

Note also the odd sympathy and support between the diagonally facing 
quadrants, as opposed to the antipathy between contiguous ones-at first 
blush diagonals would seem to make natural enemies, yet artists, 
intuitive by definition and anti-statist almost by definition, yearn 
for a world where true art is replaced by Socialist Realism-while 
libertarians provide the theoretical groundwork for right-wing 
dictatorships! Odd, very odd.

Note also how one can define "reasonable" as any position no farther 
from 3/3' than one's own: those farther out in one's own quadrant are 
pleasantly dotty; those farther out in another, unpleasantly so . . .

But it's not my aim to analyze the Pournelle Axes in depth-- any such 
attempt by me would be necessarily superficial. One of these days I'll 
get another column from him on this subject. My point is that for this 
column Jerry Pournelle is guilty. Guilty as sin. Of modesty.
-Jim Baen

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