The Other Axis

The basic right/left dynamic between progressive and conservative is an obvious measurement, and one that’s easy to track, in broad terms, on an axis from equality to hierarchy. The other axis? That one isn’t working as well for me.

Individualism and collectivism – the person or the group – is incredibly… hypothetical. The political philosophies attached to them in my ratings post are all valid, I think, but this lives too much in the realm of theory. And as I mentioned recently, I want to focus on material aspects of politics and ideology, so the further those examples are from real world action, in my opinion, the worse.

What’s more, the following question arose:

If ‘neoliberalism’ wants more government than liberalism, why is it on the individualist side of the map and not the collectivist side?

It’s a fair question! And I have seen some label the second axis to follow the size of the government. But I don’t think it works, for a few reasons. In the collectivist/individualist model, for instance, there is something I’ll call the government zone.

Most folks, it turns out, think there should be SOME kind of government

In the government zone, you typically want something like a State to protect the what you view as the rights of its citizens. The catch? Different people have different ideas of what those rights are, and who deserves them. To some, it might mean, for instance, banning guns. To others, it might mean locking up folks who aren’t productive in the right way. Some people completely dehumanize certain groups, and believe they don’t have any rights the government needs to worry about. Whether it is conservative or progressive, individualist or collectivist, in the government zone, the important thing is not the size of the State, but who it protects.

This is why people who make fun of, say, Grover Norquist, founder and President of Americans for Tax Reform, a radical anti-tax (and supposedly anti-government) organization who works tirelessly to make sure taxes are complex and painful to deal with, for taking bailout money during the coronavirus, they’re missing the point. Grover Norquist is not anti-tax; he is anti-taxing-him. He is not against the government; he is against the government restricting him. He has not done anything, to my knowledge, about federal agents kidnapping people off the streets of Portland. Instead, he is currently fighting against the government helping people get health care. He wants a government — just, a government that specifically protect his interests.

Broadly speaking, I think we can split the four quadrants of the government zone into different (incredibly. generalized.) ideas about the purpose of the State.

Here, you can see why neoliberalism is listed as an individualist philosophy and not a collectivist one, despite arguing in favor of a larger government. Functionally, (neo)liberalism is all about elites, about giving people a runway and then rewarding those who take off. A liberal idea of feminism, for instance, might focus heavily on a female President or CEO, opening up more room for women to become elites; a more collectivist idea would be about improving the lives of as many women as possible.

Perhaps a more fitting axis than Individualism and Collectivism is Elitism vs Populism? The political philosophies remain in similar places here, but I think the language is more approachable and understandable — and comes out more obviously in normal writing. When an article writer is talking about the CARES Act and the extra $600 in unemployment, do they talk only to employers, lawmakers, and lobbyists about the effect of that money, or do they talk to people who are receiving it?

So that’s me working through my thought process on this issue, since I did promise transparency on how these ratings went. Thoughts or questions? Let me know!

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