The Pournelle vs. Nolan Chart: Political Throwdown

Before Jerry Pournelle began writing science fiction; before, that is, he teamed with Larry Niven to write the classic Lucifer’s Hammer1, he was a political scientist.

Pournelle was dissatisfied with the traditional Left-Right distinction. One variable describing such a complex situation “produces political absurdities.” Just because one is not of the Left does not mean that he is of the Right. At least, not in the way the “Right” is usually meant.

Even two dimensions is not enough to capture the subtleties of any person’s beliefs. There are people calling themselves Catholics who support abortion, for instance. Just as there are others who are against capital punishment but who advocate guns for personal protection (I’m thinking of radio host and radical lawyer Ron Kuby).

Politician David Nolan came to the same conclusion as Pournelle: one dimension is not enough to describe political affiliation.

Both gentlemen produced a two-dimensional chart in an attempt to move away from the simplistic. Nolan’s first:

Nolan Chart

His axes are Personal and Economic Freedom. Those governments, or people arguing for a government, who prefer to award their citizenry the least Personal and Economic Freedom are called “Statist” or sometimes “Communist.” These folk, according to Nolan, desire tyranny. Not to be used against themselves, surely; but they say that an all-powerful government is ideal.

Those governments who opt for the greatest Personal Freedom and the least Economic Freedom are said to be “Leftist” or “Socialist.” Oppositely, those who opt for the greatest Economic Freedom but the least Personal Freedom are said to the “Rightest” or “Conservative.”

At the top of the pyramid—the apex, if you will—we find a system which values equally maximum Personal and Economic Freedom. These fine folk are called “Libertarian”. Coincidentally, this is the same political affiliation of the chart’s designer (Nolan is also a follower of Ayn Rand).

Now Pournelle’s chart:

Pournelle Chart

Its two axes are (horizontal) “Attitude toward the State,” and (vertical) “Attitude toward planned social progress.”

The more you feel that the State can solve all problems, the further right you go. Likewise, the more you feel that the State is an evil—necessary or tyrannical—the further left you travel.

The vertical axis is more difficult. According to Pournelle, this axis “can be translated ‘rationalism’; it is the belief that society has ‘problems,’ and these can be ‘solved’; we can take arms against a sea of troubles.”

That is, the more you believe superior brain power can tackle the complexities of government, the higher up the chart you go, until you reach a point where reason is “Enthroned.” Not unexpectedly, Max Steiner and Ayn Rand are found in these lofty reaches.

Understand, this axis does not describe any person’s rational state. This describes the belief a person has toward the idea that reason can solve problems.

Now, those who advocate larger States are Communists, Socialists, Welfare Liberals, and Various Conservatives, Fascists and Nazis. The first three are separated from the later by their belief that Intellectuals Are Our Hope.

Those who say the State should be small to nonexistent are Objectivists, Libertarians, and Hippies, and Anarchists. Once more, the belief in brain power separates the first from the second two.

An immediate advantage Pournelle’s chart has over Nolan’s is the center line: Pournelle’s can immediately be rescaled so that this is the 0 point. Further, although it is drawn as limited (finite) in extent, it need not be in reality. That is, we can stretch the axes out farther than we see. This cannot be done with Nolan’s chart.

Nolan’s chart takes a critical body blow with his labeling Socialists as those who enjoy the “greatest personal freedom.” This is utter nonsense. By “utter” I mean, the greatest possible; just in case there was any ambiguity. A socialist is born to regulate, to constrain and restrict: not in any logical or consistent fashion, but as his whims’ direction.

Also, to say that the Right are those who would love to do nothing more than restrict personal freedom but gleefully allows maximal economic freedom is just-less-than-utter nonsense. What—exactly—is the distinction between “economic” and “personal”? Is opening a tobacco—vile sin!—shop classed as an economic or personal exercise of freedom?

Nolan also faces the unsupportable problem of calling “libertarian” what is ordinarily labeled “anarchist.” What else is absolute freedom in all aspects? The system where there is no control of any kind?

Neither Pournelle or Nolan claim that their two dimensions are all; nor does either claim to be perfect. But Pournelle does a better job of finding two dimensions that are the most unlike while also being the most explanatory.

One might argue—I would—that Fascists and Socialists belong in the same quadrant, but that is a minor criticism of placement. Pournelle’s axes are sound.

He combines the “economic” and “freedom” into one dimension: “Attitude toward the State,” which is a more practical than Nolan’s breaking these apart. And nowhere does Nolan capture the influential nature of Intellectuals, as Pournelle neatly does.

A subtly is that, unlike Nolan’s trick of elevating his own party, Pournelle places what many would consider most appealing dead center.

For example, I tend to think the State as a necessary evil. It cannot be dispatched—it would be impossible to, even if one desired that outcome. I also view the standard intellectual’s self-assessment of superior intelligence with deep suspicion: for a start, any man that has to continually tell us how smart he is is doing something wrong.

This places me just under, and slightly to the right of, “Various Libertarians.”

Where are you?


1I can’t resist a plug for that book. It describes what happens when a giant meteorite slams into the Pacific. Apart from destroying civilization, it creates a miles-high tidal wave which sweeps over L.A., taking with it a surfer who happened to be on the ocean when the meteor hit.

I won’t tell you his fate, but it’s unique. “That damn surfer,” Pournelle said on at TWIT show last year, “is all anybody ever remembers.” He claimed the surfer was Niven’s creation.


  1. Created as part of Pournelles Psychology and Political Science doctoral dissertation I think?

    And perhaps Niven and Pournelles ‘Fallen Angels’ is more appropriate for the current world?

  2. Based on the limited choices, I would be closest to the “Various Libertarians”. However, I examine each issue that come up independently, and a higher numbers of possible dimensions of direction would be needed to cover me. Personal filters (from upbringing, education, and introspection) bias my positions, and sometimes they flip individual responses quite a bit from my average position. I am also a realist, and support the best of bad choices rather than ideal ones to actually try to get something done rather than feel good.

  3. Doesn’t Schelling’s Tipping model show even a small selection bias with sufficient iteration segregates a complex system into left and right?

  4. I agree with you on “Lucifer’s Hammer”. It was a great book and is still a good read. I will never forget that surfer. Wasn’t there a boy meets girl thing on top of El Capitan, too, doing the inevitable while waiting on same? Guess you know what direction my mind takes.

    Pournelle’s diagram has always been interesting, and a bit baffling to me. I could never get past that vertical axis. Thanks for the clarification. I am still not sure it makes sense given the relative placements Pournelle makes. Fascists, socialists, communists, and probably Nazis belong in close proximity. They are all similar with respect to size and role of government, and with the idea that a few people can remedy societal problems.

  5. I will never forget the surfer in Lucifer’s Hammer . Pournelle always wrote interesting stuff, especially in his Chaos Manor column in the old Byte magazine.

    His political placement diagram was always a bit incomprehensible to me. I could never understand the vertical axis. It seemed to me that socialists, communists, fascists, and even nazi’s belonged in close proximity. Thanks for you clarification.

  6. Though sometimes interesting – and entertaining – I believe charts of this type do little more than reflect the personal biases or goals of the constructor. They seem attempts to “place all the bits in boxes”, as it were. Mostly in the hope that once “boxed”, those of like-minded bents can be more easily influenced or minimized. Or controlled.

    The problem is always the same. It’s more like an egg-crate than a box, and we gadfly humans keep crawling over the edges of a one segment and briefly dropping in another. Oh, sure, some of us may tend to roam more often in one area of the carton than the other, but most intelligent beings adapt quickly to perceived dangers – or the presence of food sources – and change locales quite easily.

    As to:

    ” I also view the standard intellectual’s self-assessment of superior intelligence with deep suspicion:”

    As above, I continue to believe many muddled-thinkers confound “education” with “intelligence”.  It does no good to know something if one doesn’t or refuses to react to that knowledge.  Those that claim to be intelligent but prove incapable of adapting to changing situations are usually doomed  If one knows a giant rock is rolling down the hillside but can’t move out of its way s/he might be smart but sure ain’t intelligent.

    Quite disappointed Matt didn’t actually construct his own chart.

  7. With Nolan’s chart, I think you’re confusing the ideal with the implementation. A socialist/communist ideal could afford great personal freedom, having your job match what you’re good at, and having your needs taken care of. It’s just that the ideal hasn’t been reached yet, and the implementations are statist.
    Also, the libertarian label is covering a lot of space on that grid. Would you agree that drawing a line from the center of the diagram to anarchy, it would pass through libertarian? Segmenting the upper corner and calling it anarchist would be more descriptive. And for your tobacco shop example, switch it to a shop that sells pornography (or alcohol in the 1920’s).

    As for what I am… I’d have probably put myself between objectivism and libertarian on both axes, while I don’t like being pinned down by the definition of the statist axis. I don’t see a minimal state as “evil”, I see it as both necessary and good. Only extending beyond necessary activities can it become evil. A simple “preferred size of government” would be a better description. With rationalism and the lack of a controlling central government, I don’t think intellectuals are something to be feared. The primary mechanism of influence (generating social progress) would be through the market, and therefore loses the planning/enforcement aspect.

  8. I have seen the Nolan chart before. You are correct, the opposite is statist is anarchist — which can then be split between the left leaning Anarcho-syndicalist, and the “rational anarchists.”

    Regarding the Pournelle chart, I think that “reason enthroned” might better be called utopian / idealist. I don’t yet have my head around the “irrational” extreme. I am thinking that the fabric of this model frays at the rationalist extreme, as a utopian cannot except that a nearby utopia is actually nearby.

    Finally, these models should be printed on the surface of a sphere (or would it be a torus) such that certain extremists are actually closer to each other than they appear projected onto a plane.

  9. For Pournelle, any of the corner ideologies would be utopian, it just depends on your definition of utopia. And while the “counter culture” may not fit, it looks like irrational vs rational could really be power or force vs reason.

  10. Regarding the Nolan chart — If think of personal freedom as morality — ranging from relative to abolute, it descibes the reality a little bit better.

  11. I dont think a two dimensional model does not show the real differences. Maybe a cube or even a higher dimension object would be more correct. I dont feel either of ones shown correctly place my strongly conservative views (and I am considered the liberal in the family).
    I also think until conservative theorists like Newt Ginrich get proper respect from both the main stream media and from the “intellectual” elites will we every really be a able to be appreciated as much as their real heroes like Marx, Lenin, Mao, Castro, Che Guevara

    Please do not call Obama a socialist – he is a true believer Marxist.

  12. Last summer I had an exchange of e-mails with Tom Bouchard about the “moral virtues triad.” There is a propensity for people who are authoritarian, and conservative to also be religious. It is nothing more than a tendency however; and people often conflate political affiliation with the triad. In effect, they lump people who are Republicans with the triad when there is little or no correlation of Republicanism with the triad. In fact, social research surveys show that the most authoritarian people in American society identify themselves as conservative Democrats. The academic research on this topic is full of shoddy scholarship. Classification is tricky and full of biases as one produces classifications most complimentary to one’s own beliefs.

    Jonah Goldberg’s book (Liberal Fascism) implies yet another classification scheme based on parentage — a family tree of belief systems.

    I see multiple dimensions: Traditionalism versus Progressivism, attitude toward finance, attitude toward reason, personal freedom, personal responsibility, religion, and acceptable scope of Government. One projects these many dimensions onto two, and produces a diagram with anomalies of all sorts.

    Do these classifications have a predictive use? If so, then perhaps that is the way to judge them.

  13. I don’t know where you got a Nolan Chart with “Socialism” on the left. I have always (for 30 years) seen “Liberal” on the left and a check of Google Images for “Nolan Chart” shows many like that. The bottom is, variously, “Statist” or “Authoritarian” or “Big Government.” That is where both socialism and fascism belong because both have little of either economic or personal freedom. I couldn’t find any with Socialism on the left but I admittedly did not go through scores of pages.

  14. How can anarchists and communists be polar opposites when there are so many proponents of collectivist anarchism?

    We need a better topology, whereby the chart borders wrap around and connect with opposite edges. I’d like to see some Mobius action, too, and maybe a few doughnut holes.

    Like most of these pop charts, two dimensions is not nearly enough. Six or seven dimensions would be nice: rational-irrational, sceptical-gullible, iconoclast-iconolater, wolf-sheep, excitable-indifferent, sober-drunk, etc.

  15. Socialism, is the intermediary phase of Communism according to Marx. Socialism, among other things, requires that the individual gives up their right of ownership of property and accumulation of wealth to the collective.

    I am curious how anyone can suggest Leftist or Socialist promotes individual freedom.

    Every Socialist government on the Planet past and present has eroded individual freedom of choice, decision, self-determination and transferred these to the State.

  16. Mr. Briggs has started another interesting Discussion. I agree with some of the other posters that both more dimensions and more complex shape would help. I don’t pretend to know what that shape should be. Part of the problem is defining exactly what each of the labels mean. If you consider Socialism an economic system and Communism a system of government, comparing them on the same chart probably doens’t make sense.

  17. I would suggest that the Nolan chart does NOT represent the most personal freedom in the socialist corner. It does show more personal freedom going from bottom to left, but, it also shows more personal freedom going from right to top!!

    Since personal freedom overlaps economic freedom and vice versa the maximum of both has to be the top. My thought was that the horizontal axis only represented halfway to to complete personal and economic freedom.

    In my interpretation of the Nolan chart communism would be the left and fascism would be the right. The US would be moving approximately down the center axis and be close to the center if not slightly below it!! Anarchy would be top and total control the bottom.

  18. I think I pan out somewhere within the various Libertarians on the Pournelle chart. I know I’m in the upper right corner of Centrist on the Nolan chart.

    I agree that these charts simplify the subject too much. I also fail to see how the “one size fits all” of communism and socialism would lead to greater personal freedom.

    Lofty ideals work great until you attempt to apply them to real human society.

  19. All,

    Although, as originally admitted, both charts simplify, the one-dimensional labels “Left” and “Right” simplify even more, yet none of us has any compunction against using them. The task is to find the best two-dimensional approximation to classifying political beliefs (then the best three-dimensional, and so on).

    Pournelle’s is, I say, the better, yet still imperfect, approximation. It is better than the one-dimensional “left-right” distinction, and avoids the oddities and limitations of the Nolan chart.

    Can we think of a better two-dimensional summary?

  20. “Those who say the State should be small to nonexistent are Objectivists, Libertarians, and Hippies, and Anarchists. Once more, the belief in brain power separates the first from the second two.”

    I appear to be the closest thing to a hippy around here and I’m also a libertarian, as are most of my so-called hippy friends. Hence I cannot support this dichotomy.

    [Aside] Back when the Hawke government came to power in Oz in the 1980s, a decision was made to “do something” for the alternative lifestylers (aka hippies). The report presented to the parliament indicated that (contra the assumption that most were young and driven by involuntary poverty):

    More of us were over 50 than under 25
    Most of us had tertiary qualifications
    We weren’t poor (as in under the poverty line)
    We didn’t need, or want, any government help.

    Erroneous assumptions lead to erroneous conclusions. [/Aside]

    Pournelle has often remarked on the increasing level of education of the ruling elite and the oddity that the decisions they make seem ever more irrational. Go figure…

  21. The way I see it, the difference in socialists/communists and fascists/nazis is one advocates big government to regulate “the whole” to protect and empower the individual, while the other advocates big government to restrict the individual in order to improve and raise the bar of “the whole”.

  22. To address this, “Every Socialist government on the Planet past and present has eroded individual freedom of choice, decision, self-determination and transferred these to the State.”

    That’s never been the original goal, but when socialism gets too top heavy, those in power in actuality have shifted the focus into a more fascist state. They got there by controlling the big businesses and supporting the individual, and once they had enough power they took control of the individual without a fight.

  23. “Even two dimensions is not enough to capture the subtleties of any person’s beliefs.”

    This should have been your conclusion. We need to forget about parties and labels and just use a separate dimension for each political issue. N-dimensional space is not something we can visualize, of course, but modeling opinion this way is much more accurate than these inherently biased 2D models, and lets us measure in a meaningful way how ideologically similar we are to a particular politician or party leader.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *