The Nolan Chart

The Nolan Chart is a political spectrum diagram created by American libertarian activist David Nolan in 1969. The chart charts political views along two axes, representing economic freedom and personal freedom. It expands political view analysis beyond the traditional one-dimensional left–right/progressive-conservative divide, positioning libertarianism outside the traditional spectrum.

The claim that political positions can be located on a chart with two axes: left-right (economics) and tough-tender (authoritarianlibertarian) was put forward by the British psychologist Hans Eysenck in his 1954 book The Psychology of Politics with statistical evidence based on survey data. This leads to a loose classification of political positions into four quadrants, with further detail based on exact position within the quadrant.

A similar two-dimensional chart appeared in 1970 in the publication The Floodgates of Anarchy by Stuart Christie and Albert Meltzer, but that work distinguished between the axes collectivismcapitalism on the one hand, individualismtotalitarianism on the other, with anarchismfascism, “state communism” and “capitalist individualism” in the corners.[3] In Radicals for Capitalism (p. 321), Brian Doherty attributes the idea for the chart to an article by Maurice Bryson and William McDill in The Rampart Journal of Individualist Thought (Summer 1968) entitled “The Political Spectrum: A Bi-Dimensional Approach”.

David Nolan first published his version of the chart in an article named “Classifying and Analyzing Politico-Economic Systems” in the January 1971 issue of The Individualist, the monthly magazine of the Society for Individual Liberty (SIL). In December 1971, he helped to start the group that would become the Libertarian Party.

Frustrated by the “left-right” line analysis that leaves no room for other ideologies, Nolan devised a chart with two axes which would come to be known as the Nolan Chart, and later became the centerpiece of the World’s Smallest Political Quiz. Nolan’s argument was that the major difference between various political philosophies, the real defining element in what a person believes politically, is the amount of government control over human action that is advocated. Nolan further reasoned that virtually all human political action can be divided into two broad categories: economic and personal. The “economic” category includes what people do as producers and consumers – what they can buy, sell and produce, where they work, who they hire and what they do with their money. Examples of economic activity include starting or operating a business, buying a home, constructing a building and working in an office. The “personal” category includes what people do in relationships, in self-expression and what they do with their own bodies and minds. Examples of personal activities include whom they marry; choosing what books they read and movies they watch; what foods, medicines and drugs they choose to consume; recreational activities; religious choices; organizations they join; and with whom they choose to associate.David Nolan in 1996 with a version of the Nolan Chart distributed by Advocates for Self-Government

According to Nolan, since most government activity (or government control) occurs in these two major areas, political positions can be defined by how much government control a person or political party favors in these two areas. The extremes are no government at all in either area (anarchism) or total or near-total government control of everything (various forms of totalitarianism). Most political philosophies fall somewhere in between. In broad terms:

  • Those on the right, including American conservatives, tend to favor more freedom in economic matters (example: a free market), but more government intervention in personal matters (example: drug laws).
  • Those on the left, including American liberals, tend to favor more freedom in personal matters (example: no military draft), but more government activism or control in economics (example: a government-mandated minimum wage).
  • Libertarians favor both personal and economic freedom and oppose most (or all) government intervention in both areas. Like conservatives, libertarians believe in free markets. Like liberals, libertarians believe in personal freedom.
  • Authoritarians favor a lot of government control in both the personal and economic areas. Different versions of the chart as well as Nolan’s original chart use terms such as “totalitarian“, “statist“, “communitarian” or “populist” to label this corner of the chart.

In order to visually express this argument, Nolan came up with a two-axis graph. One axis was for economic freedom and the other was for personal freedom, with the scale on each of the two axes ranging from zero (total state control) to 100% (no state control). 100% freedom in economics would mean an entirely free market (laissez-faire); 100% freedom in personal issues would mean no government control of private, personal life. By using the scale on each of the two axes, it was possible to graph the intersection of the amount of personal liberty and economic liberty a person, political organization, or political philosophy advocates. Therefore, instead of classifying all political opinion on a one-dimensional range from left to right, Nolan’s chart allowed two-dimensional measurement: how much (or little) government control a person favored in personal and economic matters.

Nolan said that one of the impacts of his chart is that when someone views it, it causes an irreversible change as viewers henceforth view the included orientations in two dimensions instead of one.

In 1987, Marshall Fritz, founder of Advocates for Self-Government, tweaked the chart and added ten questions – which he called the World’s Smallest Political Quiz – which enabled people to plot their political beliefs on the chart.

Where would you plot yourself on the chart?

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