Scholars & Rogues take the Political Compass test

My fellow Scrogues and I have been talking about the Political Compass and sharing scores and insights (and complaints) today. On the whole, the compass a great tool for helping us think past simplistic notions of a left vs. right political spectrum by forcing us to separate economic and social issues, which are all too often conflated in public “debates.”

Both an economic dimension and a social dimension are important factors for a proper political analysis. By adding the social dimension you can show that Stalin was an authoritarian leftist (ie the state is more important than the individual) and that Gandhi, believing in the supreme value of each individual, is a liberal leftist. While the former involves state-imposed arbitary collectivism in the extreme top left, on the extreme bottom left is voluntary collectivism at regional level, with no state involved. Hundreds of such anarchist communities exisited in Spain during the civil war period.

You can also put Pinochet, who was prepared to sanction mass killing for the sake of the free market, on the far right as well as in a hardcore authoritarian position. On the non-socialist side you can distinguish someone like Milton Friedman, who is anti-state for fiscal rather than social reasons, from Hitler, who wanted to make the state stronger, even if he wiped out half of humanity in the process.

The chart also makes clear that, despite popular perceptions, the opposite of fascism is not communism but anarchism (i.e. liberal socialism), and that the opposite of communism ( i.e. an entirely state-planned economy) is neo-liberalism (i.e. extreme deregulated economy).

I’ve taken the test a few times in recent years, and I’m always frustrated with the results. It does a decent job of reflecting where I am at the moment, perhaps, but the problem is that my political position at a given moment is more heavily dictated by how I’m being forced to react to external forces than it is my own intrinsic beliefs. If it weren’t for the unwavering assault of certain elements of the GOP, for instance, I’d be a lot further to right on the economic axis than I am.

To illustrate what I mean by this external vs. internal motivational dynamic, let’s suppose that you’re really, really opposed to violence. But if the Hells Angels are in the yard shooting through the windows at your family and you have a gun handy, at that precise moment your answer on the “violence is always wrong” question might not be the same as it was right after your last yoga class.

In any case, we decided that we’d take the test and, I suppose in the interest of full disclosure, post our scores. So here we are (those scores are still rolling in and I’ll update the map as we go):

Compare with the assumed scores of a variety of world leaders:

As you can see, most of my collagues are godless commie hippies. But – and I can’t speak for everybody on this point – here’s where my complaints begin to take shape. You can see my score (I’m the red 1), but you also see the green 1a, which is where I suspect I’d score if it weren’t for the fact that the world is overrun by people who are either stupid, greedy, power-mad, or a combination of all three.

In addition, the quiz is guilty of asking some bad questions – in places the only answers available to you are misleading and in others the questions seem predicated on faulty logic. So this time I recorded some of the bad questions as I went along. Let’s take them one at a time:

Our race has many superior qualities, compared with other races. I agree wholeheartedly – whitey rulz! Except that the question seems to wanting to quantify ethnocentrism, and agreement would presumably move you up the authoritarian axis a notch. My sense of the superior qualities of caucasians aren’t a function of a belief that these things are innate to the race – instead, that belief reflects many circumstances of cultural history. So any answer I give is going to be off. I believe that people of any race can answer the same way with the same justification.

The rich are too highly taxed. At the moment? With their buddy Dubya and his kleptocrat cronies at the helm? Not so much. But is this question intending to elicit my opinion on the Republicans circa 2007 or is it instead after my philosophical beliefs on progressive taxation? Certainly they’d want to know about the latter, right? Because the answer to the former doesn’t really measure inherent political beliefs at all. In this the question fails badly.

Controlling inflation is more important than controlling unemployment. More important? There’s no option to answer “equal.” So if I think they’re both equally important I have to put “disagree,” but how is that scored?

Protectionism is sometimes necessary in trade. Well, if I say yes I’m a communist, right? But unless you’re a creature of pure theory you’d have to hold out protectionism as a tool to deal with extreme cases of economic bullying and unfair play, right? So even if I’d advocate it only in the rarest of cases, I have to slot myself to the left of center the way the question is structured.

Those with the ability to pay should have the right to higher standards of medical care. Well, if you’d like to pay for even better care, sure. But why am I being asked this question and not a question about whether I think there ought to be a baseline standard of care for all? If I answer yes, does the test score me as anti-single-payor?

The freer the market, the freer the people. Heh heh heh. So, bub, define “free” for me.

All authority should be questioned. Absolutely. But does the test assume my “strongly agree” answer as indicating more anarchy than is intended? I think authority needs questioning, but I make no assumption about the answer – some authority is worthy. So what do I do if I hypothetically question all authority but wind up concluding that 75% of it is okay?

Taxpayers should not be expected to prop up any theatres or museums that cannot survive on a commercial basis. WHOA, WHOA WHOA WHOA! I’m sorry – “prop up”? Did we let Rush Limbaugh write this question all by himself?

When you are troubled, it’s better not to think about it, but to keep busy with more cheerful things. Ummm – and puppies and rainbows figure into our Middle East policy how? Okay, I guess an agree answer here scores as pro-authoritarian on the social scale – don’t worry, be happy, Cheney and Rove have it under control – but is this really the most reliable way to get at that answer?

First-generation immigrants can never be fully integrated within their new country. This question is as loaded as a jacuzzi full of Sodom State Kappa Sigs on Spring Break in Gomorrah Beach. Can they be fully integrated? Not likely. But what does “fully integrated” mean, and so fucking what? If I say I agree, does that make me anti-immigration? My wife’s grandfather came over from Italy and was here for nearly 80 years. He was so concerned that his kids be American that he refused to let them learn Italian. Whether he was “fully integrated” is an open question, but there’s no doubt at all about the positive contribution that he made to his employers and every community he was involved with. So again, what is the point of this really badly conceived question?

A significant advantage of a one-party state is that it avoids all the arguments that delay progress in a democratic political system. Advantage? Well, yeah, it avoids arguments and speeds things up. Whether haste is good depends on what’s being sped up, though. In any case, is anybody taking this test really advocating for a one-party system? Maybe this question is there to measure the authoritarian fringe?

You get the idea. The Political Compass is an interesting and useful, if flawed, tool. We encourage our readers to take it, but at the same time we caution everybody against taking its results uncritically. It’s great for starting conversations but shouldn’t be used to end them.

2 replies »

  1. I’m uncomfortable with most of the assumptions here. I regard two of the quadrants as being impossible to achieve.

    Consider bottom-left (where most of the S&Qs wind up): it calls for voluntary collectivist action. As in, we should all volunteer and place the group over the individual. Left to right runs from absolute collectivism to absolute individualism. The “voluntary” bit is where things get unhinged.

    See, economists point out the “free-rider” problem. If most people in my street pay for a private security guard but I refuse to I still benefit. Pretty soon my neighbours pop round and tell me I better contribute too, ‘cos that’s more “fair”. Except, I point out, it’s voluntary. I don’t want to pay. So my neighbours take it to the local rates committee and pretty soon it’s a law.

    The problem with “voluntary” collectivism is when the group decides I’m not contributing enough. Any collectivism becomes authoritarian pretty soon. George Orwell knew this. Read “Animal Farm”.

    The other no-go is top-right; how exactly do you get authoritarian individualism? I mean … really?

    It is very hard for an authoritarian leader to force people to act individually. Any authoritarian is going to find enforcing collective behaviour a lot easier than individuality which simply undermines their authority. Dictators can’t have people who question their rule after all.

    In other words: what you believe in theory becomes very different when it comes time to put it in practice. You have to decide which aspect is more important to you: universal agreement (which requires authoritarianism); or individual freedom (which requires a degree of anarchy). And the continuum in between.

    That doesn’t mean you cannot tax individuals and provide that money to create a minimum standard of living for all; but it does mean you can’t expect all individuals to agree without question.

    Further: I think that all those political leaders shoved into the top-right need to be re-evaluated. Maggie Thatcher, for instance, is definitely bottom-right. She took on vested interests, decentralised power, fragmented the economy. She wasn’t authoritarian, although she may have been a bully. John Howard, Tony Blair authoritarian freemarketeers? Impossible. They should be near the centre line on the top-left.

    Maybe only George Bush deserves to remain where he is, on the top-right. But then, we all know how divisive, confused and confusing his leadership has been.