Zombie and the Heinlein Political Compass

In an otherwise very interesting post on how the original ’60s counterculturists and today’s Tea Party may have more in common than they realize, Zombie proposes yet another version of the political spectrum/compass. As I have never had much use for the simplistic “left/right” or “conservative/liberal” divide, I’ve always been intrigued by attempts to come up with something more thorough.

One can, of course, easily add so many variables that one can no longer see the forest for all the trees. One would end up having to do something akin to what statisticians call “principal component analysis”: trying to explain as much as possible of the variation in a dataset using as few variables (or fixed linear combinations of them) as possible. Many attempts have been made: this Wikipedia article, while it obviously has numerous flaws, is a good starting point for reading.

Actually, if I were to give Zombie’s spectrum a name other than the “Zombie spectrum”, I might call it the Heinlein Political Compass. Its two main axes directly refer to two of my favorite Heinlein aphorisms:

A. “Political tags — such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth — are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.” (Time Enough for Love (1973) and The Notebooks of Lazarus Long (1978)).

B. “Correct morality can only be derived from what man is — not from what do-gooders and well-meaning aunt Nellies would like him to be.” (Starship Troopers, Ch. 8 )

This former dictum corresponds to Zombie’s horizontal axis (degree of government control). In the well-known “smallest political quiz” (a.k.a. the Nolan Chart), this variable is split up in two axes, which represent economic and personal liberties. (“The [social] conservative wants the government out of your wallet and in your bedroom; the liberal wants it out of your bedroom and in your wallet; the authoritarian wants it in both and the libertarian in neither”, as the common folksy description goes.)

The latter dictum defines Zombie’s vertical axis, belief in, vs. skepticism about, the malleability of human nature. Stalinists, Maoists, and the Khmer Rouge take one extreme position (best illustrated by the Soviet regime’s approval of the anti-hereditary theories of Lysenko), while Nazism, with its belief in complete racial determinism, takes the other extreme. In more temperate climes one might find, on the upper half of the axis, the liberal who daydreams of people giving up armed conflict or financial self-interest, and on the lower half of the axis, the hard-nosed conservative who may love world peace and lovingkindness every bit as much as the liberal but simply accepts the fact that man isn’t wired that way.

Anyhow, without further ado:

The Zombie/Heinlein chart bears a more than superficial resemblance to Jerry Pournelle’s Political Axes. Pournelle (who has multiple academic degrees) wrote his political science thesis on how people’s political orientations cannot be explained by a single axis. He ended up picking two main ones:

  • “Attitude toward the State”: varying from state worship at one (totalitarian) extreme to the state as the ultimate evil at the other (anarchist) extreme
  • “Attitude toward planned social progress”.

This latter axis, while strongly correlated with the Zombie/Heinlein vertical axis, is not identical to it. One can still believe in some form of planned social progress (such as trying to undo discrimination against certain groups — or for that matter, in favor of specific groups) while being skeptical that human nature will ever fundamentally change. Note, for example, that 200 years ago the idea of slavery being a moral outrage was considered revolutionary, while nowadays, almost nobody would consider buying and selling human beings as anything other than a moral outrage. Yet I would be hard-pressed to say that human motivations and urged changed in any significant way — only the rules by which the game is played have fundamentally changed.

On a Sabbath note: Both Judaism and Xianity are ambivalent on the “malleability” axis. Certain Christian core beliefs (such as that in original sin) would appear to favor the “innate” half-axis, while others (such as the belief in the transformative nature of ‘accepting Jesus’) point in the other direction. Some interdenominational faultlines cross that axis: compare the Quaker insistence on total pacifism with “Just War theory” (originally Roman Catholic), for instance.

Meanwhile, the Jewish belief in “Tikkun Olam” (literally “healing the world”) would seem to fall on the “malleable” half of the vertical axis, and has been (successfully ab)used by some liberal Jewish theologians to sell Jews on the liberal orthodoxy du jour. However, Jewish rabbinical thought is full of statements that point in the other direction, from mundane skeptical attitudes such as “if you are planting a seedling and they come tell you the Messiah is coming, finish planting and then go greet the Messiah” to the fundamental belief that every human being has innate altruistic (“yetzer tov”, literally “good impulse”) and egoistic (“yetzer hara”, literally “bad impulse”) — and that it is good that human beings are this way, as “were it not for the yetzer hara , nobody would marry, build a house, or beget children” (Genesis Rabbah 9:7).


3 thoughts on “Zombie and the Heinlein Political Compass

  1. A few points:
    Most Republicans, from commentators to politicians, are a sort of crypto-Marxist internationalist; who believe in spreading democratic ideology by bombs. NeoCons are anything but believers in limited government; their differences with modern ‘liberals’ is that they have different priorities of domestic vs. international reformism.

    The use of the term ‘true anarchist’ is just loaded nonsense. I would say that libertarian-anarchists are anarchists that understand things like economics and social order; whereas left anarchists like Bakunin are basically operating off nonsensoleum.

  2. Want to comment that Edmund’s point is absolutely correct about anarchists. I also nominate Noam Chomsky to the list of nonsensical anarchists.

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