Friday, February 18, 2011

The Sumner Political Wheel

At this point, several people have shared and discussed Scott Sumner’s division of the political landscape into six groups, and a lot of people like it.

I started as positively pre-disposed to it myself. I have a few questions about it though. I feel most at home in the upper-right orange, between pragmatic libertarian and idealistic progressive. But there’s something weird about being there, because I don’t feel like I’m especially an idealist. I feel a lesser identification with the dark red group (see my caveat on the narrowness of this idea of a “corrupt progressive” below) and the yellow “minimal state” group, each of which emerges more on some points than others. There’s something very odd about this arrangement, though. Notice there is no:

1. Pragmatic progressive
2. Pragmatic conservative
3. Dogmatic progressive
4. Dogmatic conservative
5. Corrupt libertarian, or
6. Idealistic libertarian

Why? Sumner suggests that by “corrupt” he doesn’t mean “taking bribes”, he just means abandoning principles to please people. But that’s an extremely narrow way of thinking about the reasons for flexibility in an ideological perspective. Sumner allows for pragmatic libertarians and considers himself one. Why? Presumably because he doesn’t think he’s “abandoning principles” for someone – he’s simply pragmatically recognizing where principles are good guides and where they are less good guides. He sees principles as broad sketches or frameworks for approaching problems not divine laws. He is, in short, a pragmatic libertarian.

But don’t progressives and conservatives act flexibly for precisely this reason as well? Most progressives and most conservatives aren’t in power and aren’t seeking votes, so they’re clearly not maintaining a flexible outlook to “please special interest groups”. Even many progressives and conservatives in power aren’t doing this to “please special interest groups”. There is a good reason to push for tort reform – the Republicans aren’t just kowtowing to the doctors. Clinton didn’t work on welfare reform to cater to a segment of the political spectrum, he largely did it because it needed to be done! This complete lack of pragmatism on the progressive/conservative side of Sumner's schema and complete lack of a “corruption” group on the libertarian side says a lot about Sumner.

He has some strange points here too. Dogmatic libertarians and idealistic conservatives revere the original intent of the Constitution? That this sentence was written by a libertarian is blatantly obvious. A progressive would say that it’s the dogmatic libertarians and idealistic conservatives that are putting their own modern spin on the Constitution. But of course the very idea that this is even a contested point is foreign to many libertarians and conservatives. They simply assume that progressives have knowingly and proudly written off the founders!

There’s also something very odd going on when Scott Sumner and Will Wilkinson both put themselves pretty darn close on this mapping to where I put myself (we seem to just be on different halves of the same segment). I imagine a lot of progressives and a lot of libertarians are all putting themselves in that segment. What good is this schema if that’s where everybody in the discussion puts themselves? I imagine anarcho-capitalists are going to put themselves in the yellow area rather than the very light purple area. When a centrist Keynesian and an anarcho-capitalist are adjacent to each other something’s a little off, I think.

I don’t like that old diamond model much, personally – but even over the course of writing this post I’m starting to think that is better than this.


  1. "They simply assume that progressives have knowingly and proudly written off the founders!"

    It is a good assumption actually. If you look a the history of progressive historiography going back to its inception with the likes of Charles Beard the founders were largely written off. Viewing the founders as corrupt old white men who screwed over the little people is a dominant strain in progressive thinking re: the Constitution.

  2. I trend more toward dogmatic libertarian; then again, "dogmatism" in the defense of liberty is no vice.

  3. In other words, progressives spent most of the 20th century tearing down the founders, the founding moment, etc., so it is a bit odd to claim that they as a rule reify the founders or look to them for inspiration, etc.

  4. Gary - dogmatism in defense of liberty may not be a vice, but you didn't claim to be dogmatic in defense of liberty - you claimed to be dogmatically libertarian. Those are two very different things.

  5. In the end, politics can never be represented by a spectrum.

    Marxists and social democrats are called "leftists", with Marxists being "more left" than the latter. Yet, Marxists have more in agreement with the supposedly "right wing" bourgeois economic thought of David Ricardo, Joseph Schumpeter, or Friedrich Hayek than they have with social democracy - a system that they believe is anti-worker, removes control over production even more away from workers towards the state, and prevents natural capitalism from creating enough productivity for socialism. Brad DeLong himself called Schumpeter and Hayek to be "right wing Marxists", because they and Marx have similar views on countercyclical policy.

    On top of which, I have seen plenty of idiotic statements from LRC and YouTube user HowTheWorldWorks about how environmentalism is "Marxist". Marxists have been more anti-environment than the most radical pro-jobs, pro-business conservatives, and consider environmentalism to be anti-worker and antithetical to achieving maximum production.

    These spectra are useful for conflation.

  6. Right, but you're citing a schematic to refute a schematic, which I think just shows us that these are only useful to a certain extent and we need to be open to all points. That doesn't mean, of course, that some aren't more useful than others.

    DeLong makes a very interesting and very good point with that discussion he has about the similar roots of Austrians and Marxists. That's nice as a caveat, but it's not a very useful way of talking about the two groups in most cases. Neither, I would submit, is this idea that fascists and communists are the same thing. We all have to realize the collectivism of most fascist regimes, but to take that and pretend that there aren't enormous differences between fascists and communists is misleading, just like the "Hayekians as right wing Marxists" point is misleading if taken much farther beyond the narrow point it is meant to illustrate.

  7. I thought he was just joking when he made that comparison, although it is partly true.

    While I believe the differences are more important than similarities, some think it's the other way round.

    GMU's Walter Williams had a column on the supposed difference between Socialists, Leftists, Progressives, and Communists. He said that he had simply stopped caring what was the difference between them - it was not that he conflated them, but saw them as one broad group of social engineers out to upset a society that does not need to be changed.

    Similarly, Chronicles Magazine editors often condemn capitalism and socialism, and all spectrum of thought from liberalism to Marxism. In their view, it's all one single family of ideology that replaced old-fashioned sanity before the printing press. But the condemn-all approach has queer results. Free trade is bad, because it empowers cosmopolitan businessmen. Protectionism is bad because it enriches greedy capitalists.

  8. Liberarianism, liberty, same thing. :)

  9. Gary, you'll be amused to learn that one of the papers I'm currently working on is titled "Liberty Versus Libertarianism."

  10. I imagine a lot of progressives and a lot of libertarians are all putting themselves in that segment. What good is this schema if that’s where everybody in the discussion puts themselves?

    My thoughts exactly. Although, OTOH, maybe that illustrates how much scope there is for agreement and genuine common ground.

    @ Prateek
    Your first comment reminded me of something termed the horseshoe theory:
    (Basically, the idea that the "far-left" and "far-right" might have more in common than their more moderate counterparts)


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