Political Compass – RationalWiki

Angelena Iglesia

The Political Compass™ is an online test, made in the UK by a political journalist and a professor of social history.[1][2] It places people’s political views on two axes instead of the traditional left-to-right axis. The compass uses two axis to assign political views, a technique used by the earlier […]

The Political Compass™ is an online test, made in the UK by a political journalist and a professor of social history.[1][2] It places people’s political views on two axes instead of the traditional left-to-right axis.

The compass uses two axis to assign political views, a technique used by the earlier Nolan Chart and Pournelle ChartWikipedia's W.svg as well as a number of other political charts. It has the same “corners” as the Nolan chart, which has led some to view it as an unattributed use of the Nolan Chart. However, the economic/social axes are rotated 135 degrees:

Nolan Chart Political Compass
Libertarian Libertarian Right
Conservative Authoritarian Right
Authoritarian Authoritarian Left
Liberal Libertarian Left

Note that the above are not “conversions” that hold true in every individual; while the Clintons, for example, would be regarded as liberal by the Nolan Chart for not wanting to completely privatize Social Security, the Political Compass regards them as right of center.

The compass[edit]

The Political Compass™ uses a two-axis chart, with each test-taker falling between -10 and +10 on each axis.[3]

The X-axis measures economic positions, ranging from the far left, “Communism” (-10) to the far right, “Neo-liberalism” (+10). The labels vary on different versions of the graph, but essentially this range measures how much or little government intrusion in the economy is favored.

The Y-axis measures social positions, from “libertarian”[note 1]/”anarchism” (0 to -10) to “authoritarian”/”fascism” (0 to +10). This range measures a person’s stands on government intrusion in personal or social matters.

The test[edit]

The test consists of 62 propositions in six categories, covering areas such as economics, religion, culture, and what governments should and should not be allowed to do. The respondent can answer each proposition with one of “Strongly agree,” “Agree,” “Disagree,” or “Strongly Disagree.”


There have been a number of criticisms of the test, some of them mentioning the test’s failure to take into account the political and cultural differences between America and Europe,[4] and noting large discrepancies between the scores actual people get on it and the scores posted for politicians and political parties.[5]

The following is a RationalWiki-specific criticism.

Writers’ anti-neoliberal bias?[edit]

The political journalist and professor of social history are very much left-wing; they speak a good deal of “neoliberal orthodoxy,”[6] in a somewhat similar way that Conservapedia might use the phrase “Darwinist orthodoxy.” A major difference between the two usages is that there is no consensus in favour of neoliberalism among economists in the way that there is such a consensus in science in favour of Darwinism.

The test-writers chart the political positions of prominent politicians, political parties and governments across the democratic Western world, but the only one of these in which results for different years are compared side-by-side is the case of parties in the UK.[7] This analysis shows that the Conservative and Labour parties’ scores are only a hair’s breadth away from each other, especially on the economic scale.

The test-writers bemoan this reading, and lay it on Tony Blair quite heavily in that article. It is possible to conclude that when they say, “Voter turnout is highest when ideological differences are most significant,” it is probably just code for “We hate Tony Blair.” Not to say that Mr. Blair does not deserve this, but there it is.

Loaded propositions[edit]

Although this cannot be known for sure, due to the test-writers’ declining to release the scoring details,[8] it is possible that the entire test was rigged simply for the purpose of bashing the UK Labour Party by portraying its position as significantly to the right of the average score attained by respondents on the test.

As evidence of this, there are a number of propositions on the test that present “neoliberalism” and other ideas in a fallacious straw-man fashion, similar to what Conservapedia does, except to a different set of “liberals.”

Examples of such loaded propositions are:

Proposition Remarks
If economic globalisation is inevitable, it should primarily serve humanity rather than the interests of trans-national corporations. Supporters of supply side economics have no way to answer this, as they believe that there is no conflict of interest between humanity and large corporations.[note 2] When this was pointed out to the test-writers, their response was that someone with this belief should simply answer “Strongly disagree” and the test will move them to the right accordingly.[9]
Governments should penalise businesses that mislead the public. Even Ayn Rand believed that the government should punish those who commit acts of fraud.
The businessperson and the manufacturer are more important than the writer and the artist. This and similar propositions fail to make a proper distinction between those who hate art and literature, and those who like it but feel that the State should in no ways be involved with it. This criticism fails to make the distinction between importance and state involvement. It also makes the same mistake the proposition about economic globalization made, as supporters of supply side economics often believe that Free-Market Capitalism allows artists to be more successful than any other economic system.
Astrology accurately explains many things. The test-writers indicate that they put this in to gauge a person’s belief in “determinism,” which they believe is correlated with authoritarianism.[10] But even fundamentalists who believe in determinism would call this proposition what it really is; even Conservapedia, a well-known hotbed of authoritarians and pseudoscience, is not too hot for that pseudoscience. Twice as many Democrats believe in astrology as Republicans, so this question might actually have the opposite effect on political position to what was intended.[11]
Abortion, when the woman’s life is not threatened, should always be illegal. All Many propositions in the test use absolute terms such as always, never and only. The issue here is that wording propositions in such a manner can be used to influence the answer since only one exception to the statement is needed in order to disagree with it.[12][13] Even many pro-life Republican politicians in the United States would disagree with this statement. For example, Jeb Bush supports abortion in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy and has further exceptions for situations involving rape and incest.[14]

Broader problems[edit]

The writers insist that the center of the chart must remain fixed and unmoving in order to chart the changes in the political “center of gravity,”[15] possibly over as long a period as 200 years.[16] Yet the test is highly dated, as many of its propositions (e.g, concerns over counter-terrorism and the commercialization of drinking water) would have made no sense 40 years ago, let alone 200, while others (e.g., several about race and ethnicity) would have been answered very differently even by the radical left-wingers of old time.

Differing vocabulary[edit]

Usage of the word ‘libertarian’[edit]

The writers seem to use the term “libertarianism” to mean social and cultural liberalism. There also seems an implicit assumption made by the writers of this test that all leftists are in favour of a more regulated market than rightists. Particularly the left “libertarian” quadrant seems reserved for those who want government control over economy and are socially liberal. For some people, the appropriate terms to use are different: they would say that this is a progressive viewpoint and not a left-libertarian one. Modern market-oriented left-libertarians, using said others’ terminology, are staunch supporters of a laissez-faire economic system supporting free trade and property rights that are taken to be “rightist” viewpoints by the writers. Their position is leftist only insofar as they believe that “workers” are exploited by their “bosses” and are deprived of their fruits of their labour. Interestingly the early socialist movement heavily overlapped with the classical liberal movement. The compass works from the unstated assumption that any critique of corporate power is somehow “anti-business” or “anti-market.” There is no way for modern-day left libertarians to answer many questions without giving a false impression.

It is possible that this difference in vocabulary reflects the difference in way the words are used in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Usage of the words ‘left’ and ‘right’[edit]

Furthermore it is questionable whether being supportive of more government intervention in the economy is exclusively left-wing. For instance the writers dismiss the idea that the BNP is a far-right party because they are supportive of tariffs and the welfare state but it is entirely possible to be “right-wing” (i.e. more accepting of inequality) while supporting government intervention in the economy so long as the motive is consistent with far-right beliefs (ex. Economic NationalismWikipedia's W.svg). The writers eschew the more traditional and academic definition of “far-right” in favor of equating it with neoliberalism. Despite the fact that some neoliberal policies (ex. the negative income tax) would be more easily embraced by those of the left (i.e. less accepting of inequality) than those on the right. Overall their definition of far-right and far-left is somewhat unorthodox and in some cases may not give you a very accurate position of your beliefs on a more traditional political spectrum.

This usage of the words ‘left’ and ‘right’ is an innovation which fits in with the usage of two spectra.

Raison d’être?[edit]

The creators claim their model as superior to the traditional political spectrum due to the latter’s limits. But this is a massive strawman, as the Compass, unlike the spectrum, is marketed as a tool to plot precisely the positions of most politicians. Perhaps an advantage of the political spectrum is that it, by contrast, does not claim such an ability. While the Compass claims to be able to sort out the nuances of differing ideologies between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, the concept of the spectrum only claims one thing: that there are such things as left and right and that there are many nuanced differences around those poles (i.e. That not all conservatives are Mussolini and that not all leftists are Lenin).

External links[edit]

  1. In the European sense, not the American one.
  2. Ayn Rand offers this argument that there is not, in a scene in Atlas Shrugged where an industrialist is on trial: “Are we to understand,” asked the judge, “that you hold your own interests above the interests of the public?” — “I hold that such a question can never arise except in a society of cannibals.” — “What… what do you mean?” — “I hold that there is no clash of interests among men who do not demand the unearned and do not practice human sacrifices.”


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