In the comments, Joseph links to this post by Den Beste arguing for a series of axes to place folks on political positioning.
Den Beste's post, like almost all his posts, was well argued, and thoughtful. I'm not certain it is the most useful model.
What we know about axes in politics.
- If the axes chop heads...it's bad.
- American votes in the Senate are far better modeled as a single-axis than as anything else. There is the left-team, and the right-team...and various players are variously committed to leftness or rightness. If one says what the vote-split was on a political measure (57 yea, 43 nay ... more republicans voted yes...then one can get 90+% predictive value on who voted for and who voted against).
- Cultural differences between folks in all countries everywhere are very well modeled as a 2-axis system. Rich/poor (Forager/Farmer) and West/East (individual/group). We're all westerners here, so that boils down to a Forager-Farmer distinction (Hanson's words) or a Trader / Guardian distinction (Jane Jacobs).
- Most people treat politics as a team sport...and support their team independent of positions. Supporting Romneycare and opposing Obamacare. Opposing Bush in Iraq, but supporting Obama's identical policies in Iraq. etc.
- individualized/central choices
I know folks who care deeply about equality...or at least about extra protection for the poor...and honestly don't give a damn about the rest of the axes.
Most libertarians I know care massively about the autocratic axis...and don't care at all about the rest of them.
And conservatives don't seem to be well represented on this set of axes.
I will restate my line:
- Conservatives are folks whose top political goal is to preserve the existing good. Changing things to make things better is likely to cause more problems than it solves...and so it's better to keep what good we have now...or even sometimes go back to what good we had last week / year / decade. "We live in the best country in the best time in the history of the world...what are you trying to break now?"
- Progressives are folks whose top political goal is to make things better, especially for the poor and weak. The core issue is that the existing system creates losers...and those losers are losers substantially because of the system they're in. "The system itself creates winners & losers...it is our ethical responsibility to mitigate that...and the only way to do that is to tinker with the system."
- Libertarians are folks whose top political goal is more freedom for each individual. The government is an (but not the only) oppressive institution that spends 98+% of it's resources screwing people...nearly always in favor of government insiders...and always doing 10x more harm than good. The goal is to minimize the government footprint on our lives...and replace the government with alternate institutions subject to the checks and balances that come from having to please the customer. "GTFO of my life".
- The elitists are folks whose effective top political goal is to collect more power for the center. Public Choice economics says that upwards of 99% of everyone involved in politics necessarily falls into this category, regardless what their other nominal goals are. The most effective method of collecting more power for themselves is to increase the power available to the government, and decrease the power available to the public. Power is zero-sum. Libertarians mortal enemies are elitists.
I have next to no sympathy for anyone anywhere near the elitist position...and don't do well describing it from the inside, while I have lots of sympathy for all 3 of the other positions. The issue...as per the 2nd aretaevian meta-rule...is value > truth ....NOT where are you on the axes, but what's important. Many progressives would like stability (My 85 year old granmother, for instance), but protecting the poor (and the even weaker animals, or trees) is higher priority. Many conservatives would like to help the weak, but they fear that doing so would break the goodness we have now. And many libertarians like either or both of the other two goals...but think that preventing government intrusion into our lives is a higher priority.
Formalists are hyper-conservatives who think elitism can result in conservation of existing value, or restoration of historical value.
Neocons are conservatives who think that the US position in the world order ca. 1960 is essential to conserving our way of life.
Greens are progressives who have expanded their protection of the weak outside the boundaries of homo sapiens.
Left libertarians anarchists (ME!) are libertarian who think protecting the weak is important and who think the government's primary purpose is to enforce inequality.
Corporations are all elitist, because it's much easier to bribe the government to change the rules, and thereby make money than to deliver value in a competitive market and make money.