Is the left–right spectrum in flatland? A better way to graph Ron Paul

The rising prominence of the Ron Paul campaign is straining the interpretive power of the conventional left–right political spectrum. The San Francisco Chronicle recently took a stab at placing Paul somewhere along it (Is Ron Paul left of Obama, or a throwback to Ike?). In an online discussion spurred by an Economist article about the political spectrum and libertarian ideas (The problems of purity), I commented that, "The scale itself, left, right, and middle, is entirely within flatland." This stirred some puzzlement. 

What if there is a way to graph the core positions of the Paul campaign that goes beyond trying to squeeze them into the usual left–right spectrum? Could the spectrum itself be analogous to the imagined world in the classic 1884 novel Flatland? What if at least one whole dimension is missing from conventional discourse?

In the novel, two-dimensional beings live within a geometric plane. They are awed by a three-dimensional being who seems to appear one day out of thin air, change shapes, and then vanish from their midst. How might we locate an additional dimension in the political spectrum when it seems as though the whole range of opinion must exist only along one line? Such a line does not even allow us the Flatlanders' relatively generous two dimensions.

So let us imagine a second scale that crosses over the modern left–right scale from front to back. The whole left–right scale could then move as a band along this second scale over time. I will label this new scale with percentages as an expedient to illustrate relative positions and directions of movement.

Let us say that all the way at 95%–100% in the "back" of this scale is totalitarianism, the idea that the state can do to/with citizens and non-citizens whatever "it" pleases. Notice how the historical "far right" fascists and "far left" communists had different flavors of totalitarianism in common. They had different areas of emphasis, but agreed that the state/party was supreme over any individual or traditional community interest. For simplicity, say that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were all standing side-by-side way out there around 95%–100% on our imagined front–back scale. When viewed along this dimension, their differences were incidental, their commonalities overwhelming.

Now let us say that all the way in the "front" of the same scale at 0%–5% is (philosophical) anarchism, the idea that the state as such (depending on exactly what is meant by "state") has no properly justifiable place within civilized human societies. Interestingly, there are also distinct "left" and "right" versions of this body of thought, though fewer people are familiar with those distinctions.

This raises a puzzle. If the left–right scale can join seemingly opposite left totalitarians and left anarchists together all the way down at one end and seemingly opposite right totalitarians and right anarchists all the way down at the other, it would seem to suggest that something about that scale is a little odd. It seems to lack some...dimensions. A naive observer might be forgiven for assuming that the two sets of anarchists and the two sets of totalitarians, despite being on opposite ends of the left–right scale, might be at least as likely to find common ground with their opposite numbers as with their supposed neighbors in debating how either their imagined ideal total states or totally statefree societies, respectively, ought to look.

If we view the sweep of US history starting from the revolutionary period, many of the various 1770s American revolutionaries were probably around 0–10% on this front–back scale, depending on which ones you talked to. They were rebelling against perceived overreaches of monarchy and mercantilism (at 30%?) and wanted to replace them with somewhere between nothing and as little as possible, or with a novel "limited" state organization that was supposed to differ significantly from monarchy. Yet there were also some 25%-ers among the Hamiltonian Federalists, and indeed, many Jeffersonians already viewed the Constitution of 1787 as a dangerous step in the direction of unlimited government, which clashed with the original revolutionary ideals of 1776.

As US history has progressed since then, there has been cyclical zig-zagging between "left" and "right," but there has also been a pervasive undercurrent in which left, right, and center all move "back" in the direction of a more powerful central state in all areas. The modern US Federal government's effective powers vastly exceed those that most monarchs would have even dared dream of. Modern powers to tax, inflate, and borrow are immense, the US presidency has steadily amassed new and expanded powers, and myridad aspects of life and business are hyper-regulated. The whole left–right scale has been moving along the front–back scale toward the back for a long time.

Where is it now? At 65%? More? Everyone might place a different subjective number on it, but in relative terms, it has moved far indeed from its former positions, and in the big picture, the overwhelming "consensus" direction of movement remains toward more central state power. Looking just at 2011–2012, where on this front–back scale should one place "legalized" extralegal military detention or assassination? Where should one place armed raids on small-scale farmers selling raw milk to eager customers in search of more healthful products?

The original French left–right scale was focused on the question of change. Should the familiar old ways be preserved or should something new be done? Included in the "left" were the great French economists Bastiat and de Molinari, who wanted to largely or completely eliminate the powers of the state in many areas in order to let civil society and economy function properly. They did not want to transfer those same or even greater powers to some other form of mass-coercive organization. Their main goal was to eliminate those powers to intervene and invade people's lives, not reassign them. "Change" meant reducing the powers of the state and the cronyocracy.

Only shadowy suggestions of that spirit have survived in the modern left. What is the party of "change" now? Allegedly "left" Barack Obama was voted in on an anti-war, pro-civil-liberties ticket with the word "change" featured on his campaign materials. After taking office, however, he appears to have carried forward and expanded some of the worst policies of his predecessor. Whatever one's opinion of Ron Paul, it is widely agreed that he is focused on making serious changes to core status quo policies. If the classical "change" versus "status quo" definition of the left–right spectrum holds up, Paul must be further "left" than any of the other candidates. Yet many think of him as being well to the "right."

The primary question debated along the modern left–right scale is quite different than the kind of debate suggested by the original French one. There is no longer any fundamental question of reducing the total net power of the state. The idea that the modern right wants smaller government is a ghost from the quite distinct "Old Right," and survives today mainly as empty rhetoric. The modern right wants the government to be bigger in different places than the modern left does. Both major parties have long been united on ratcheting up big government; they just differ at times on precisely how and where and for the benefit of which exact blend of special interests. From the perspective of anyone in a different position along our suggested front–back scale, the major parties have been increasingly coming to be indistinguishable from one another on the biggest issues, and by the biggest issues I mean war versus peace and police-state versus republic.

How to graph Ron Paul

Using this model, we can view Ron Paul's 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns as primarily addressing issues along this front–back scale. This scale is much more important in understanding the core of his campaign message than struggling to place it somewhere on the left–right scale. Paul himself opened his 2008 The Revolution: A Manifesto by deconstructing the false alternatives the modern left–right scale sets up. In contrast, his unique location among modern politicians on the front–back scale better explains his broadening crossover appeal.

Imagine the whole left–right line being configured nowadays such that it crosses over the front–back line at somewhere around 65%–75% state power. Ron Paul would be effectively invisible to anyone looking only along the usual scale from left to right. Conversely, he might stand out to others for exactly the same reason. He is the only candidate substantially off of the conventional left–right scale as it is now positioned along the front–back scale. He thus appears either completely unfathomable (is that why some media people so awkwardly try to ignore his prominent existence in poll results?) or as an intriguing alternative.

In this proposed two-dimensional view, the mainstream candidates of both parties can be seen arguing with each other about how and where to grow state power even further based on their "left–right" differences. Meanwhile, Ron Paul is saying that we should be moving that whole power meter, left, right, and center, in the other direction along the front–back axis.

This view reveals that the American political culture has been moving steadily in the direction of greater state power since soon after the revolution. The American revolutionaries and loyalists were divided over what the natural order of society was, monarchy or some form of self-government. The idea of central planners fundamentally deciding how society should be and then using the police powers of the central state to try to engineer it that way would only mature later as statist ideology evolved. There have always been left and right camps, and one side might lean more or less toward the front or back, tilting the angle of the crossbar one way or the other. Nevertheless, a monocular focus on the left–right scale alone obscures the long-term movement of the entire political culture toward greater central state power and away from individual liberty and civil society institutions.

We are supposed to be enchanted by the theater of differences between the heads of a two-headed beast. We are not supposed to notice that the whole two-headed beast has been lumbering in the direction of ever-expanding powers for itself and special privileges for its camp followers of all parties.

From that perspective, it is encouraging that more and more people, especially among the young, are beginning to notice. Could this be a sign that the illusion-holding power of the one-dimensional left–right scale is weakening?

The three-dimensional visitor to two-dimensional Flatland was not a beast, but the two-headed, two-armed, bipartisan leviathan is. Ron Paul is the only candidate who is working to turn that whole beast around and walk it back in the direction of its cage.