Libertarianism and the Political Spectrum
Libertarianism and the Political Spectrum

Left - Right Politics

The modern political spectrum in the U.S. is usually defined from left (liberal) to right (conservative), with communism and fascism at the respective extremes. This one dimensional definition is illustrated in the figure below.

To understand libertarianism it is helpful to expand that definition to include a second dimension. It reflects the amount of authority that government should have over economic and personal matters.

Consider the Nolan Chart (shown below), developed in 1969 by a founding father of the libertarian movement, David Nolan. The Nolan Chart illustrates the two dimensional political spectrum graphically. The chart shows politics defined using two dimensions:
1) liberal/conservative (left/right) and 2) libertarian/authoritarian (up/down).
Nolan Chart Liberals tend to believe that government should have limted authority over your private life and behavior. Liberals expect more government authority over peoples' wealth and earnings and more regulation of businesses.

Conservatives tend to expect more government authority over morality and more regulation of your behavior. Conservatives prefer limited government authority over peoples' financial matters and prefer less regulation of businesses.

Authoritarians prefer government with a significant control of your personal and economic matters and over businesses.
Though they disagree on specifics: authoritarians, conservatives, and liberals all expect government to "protect" people by forcing consenting adults to avoid risky, dangerous and foolish behavior that does not harm or endanger others.

Libertarians believe that government's role is to preserve personal and economic freedom -- including those of "minorties" -- and that government-provided "protection" should only include defense against foreign enemies, holding people who cause harm accountable, and providing for general order.

Libertarianism versus Liberal and Conservative

In simplest terms the primary difference between libertarianism and other political philosophies involves beliefs about the amount of authority government should have over peoples' personal and business matters.

Liberals want government to focus on doing what is "good," including providing what is often referred to as "social justice." To do that, among other policies, liberals expect government to: a) tax corporations and "wealthy" and "high income" citizens heavily to pay for the social justice programs and b) regulate business and personal behavior to the extent necessary for social justice.

Conservatives want government to control "bad," offensive, and immoral behavior, even if that behavior brings no harm or danger to non-participants. Most often bad is defined based on the prevailing interpretation of Judeo-Christian rules. And, though conservatives tend to express a belief in small government, they usually cannot resist government programs that serve their agenda such as "family values."

Liberals and conservatives both believe that government's mission is some combination of: a) making the world better, b) providing moral leadership, and c) protecting people from themselves. Of course conservatives and liberals tend to disagree about what is good and what is moral. And whether or not you agree with those objectives, you are forced to pay for them with your money and/or your liberty. Ironically you pay for liberal and conservative programs, rules, and regulations -- with your money and your liberty.

Libertarians believe that goodness is voluntary, morality is personal, human nature cannot be legislated away, and only harm to others should be illegal.

And, though libertarians believe in limited government, as described in the U.S. Constitution, they do not want chaos. Libertarians recognize that government has a clear and critical mission: preserving and enhancing liberty. To achieve that goal government must: a) protect citizens from foreign enemies, b) arrest, try, and punish people that harm or endanger others, and c) make some judgment calls when peoples' liberties conflict.

When considering where to locate your politics on the Nolan Chart first ask yourself: "How much should government do to make my preferences mandatory?" Then ask yourself, "How much should government control what I do based on what other people think, believe, or want?"

Close Using the Nolan Chart

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