Nolan Chart

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The Nolan Chart is a political diagram popularized by Libertarian David Nolan. He created it to illustrate the claim that libertarianism stands for both economic freedom and personal freedom (as he defined the terms), in graphic contrast to left-wing "liberalism", which, according to Nolan, advocates only personal freedom, and right-wing "conservatism", which, according to Nolan, advocates only economic freedom.


While its exact origins appear to be unclear, the chart and its concept are commonly attributed to David Nolan. A similar chart appeared in Floodgates of Anarchy by Stuart Christie and Albert Meltzer (1st Edition published in 1970). Its two axes are: one from individualism to totalitarianism, the other from capitalism to collectivism. Its corners are capitalist individualism, anarchism, state communism and fascism.

David Nolan first published the current version of the chart in an article called "The Case for a Libertarian Political Party" in the August 1971 issue of The Individualist, the monthly magazine of the Society for Individual Liberty (SIL). In December of 1971, he helped to start the group that would become the Libertarian Party. [1], [2]

Anarchist Review published a different version where the economic axis has a subtler meaning: degree of hierarchy in economic decision-making. At the anarchist end, there is no hierarchy, or just one level. At the capitalist end, hierarchies allow some to utilize the work of others. This version stretches various sorts of liberals from the corner of "left radicalism" to the corner of "free marketeers". Somewhat outside the square lies the anarchist position, next to the corner of left radicalism. State communism and fascism are the two other corners, and conservatism lies towards centrism next to fascism.


Differing from the traditional left/right distinction and other political taxonomies, the Nolan Chart in its original form has two dimensions, with a horizontal x-axis labeled "economic freedom" and a vertical y-axis labeled "personal freedom". It resembles a square divided into four quadrants, with each sample in the population assigned to one of the quadrants.

The upper left quadrant represents the political Left — favoring government that taxes more and spends more for activities such as welfare, healthcare, education, Social Security and funding for the arts and that encourages more barriers on trade and business regulations (which David Nolan labeled "low economic freedom"), but supporting personal freedoms such as abortion, homosexuality and illegality of the conscription (which he labeled "high personal freedom"). At the bottom right is its converse, the political Right, whose coordinates place it as supporting high economic freedom and low personal freedom. Those on the Right want lower taxes and fewer social programs but support regulation by the government of cultural issues and personal behavior. The Nolan Chart places David Nolan's own ideology, libertarianism, at the top right, corresponding with high freedom in both economic and social matters. The fourth quadrant at the bottom left represents the antithesis of libertarianism. David Nolan originally called this philosophy populism, but many later renditions of the chart have used the label authoritarianism or totalitarianism instead. Some critics have argued that this was an attempt to popularize the image of libertarianism as the "opposite" of ideologies with a rather negative public image, thus putting libertarianism itself in a good light. Communitarianism also exists within the fourth quadrant.


Many variations of the Nolan Chart have been developed, with some rotating the chart area 45 degrees in a rhomboid form to allow representation of left/liberal and right/conservative along a single axis in the manner they are typically charted. Many use different labels to describe the various types of government that would be placed in the quadrants.

Uses of the Chart

The advocates and writers of these quizzes are most often libertarian, and a common remark by them about their tests is that people who are libertarians inside and didn't know it will discover their true political leanings. The detractors of the Nolan Chart are most often people who accuse people with libertarian beliefs of using it to further their agenda and gain converts to their party and political movement. One specific accusation is that libertarian "recruiters" try to convince people that, because they hold several libertarian positions, they should consider making all their positions libertarian in order to achieve consistency in advocating "liberty".


Critics of this diagram (and this kind of chart in general) claim that it represents at best a pseudoscientific illustration of a political point of view. The essential premise of the diagram is for many an oversimplified generalization, one that is no real improvement over the unidimensional left-right or liberal-conservative scales; economic freedom and personal freedom are often inextricable, and both left-wing (Bakunin) and right-wing philosophers draw the same connection, though they have radically different views on the actual meaning of these types of "freedom". Corporate welfare, for example, is listed as a Leftist stance (since it falls under "low economic freedom"), yet it is often supported by the Right. Many libertarians would claim that this actually indicates that the political Left and Right are, in fact, very similar to each other despite their seemingly highly different positions. Critics argue that the libertarian views on personal and economic freedom may be a useful way of classifying libertarianism in relation to other ideologies, but they do not apply to the classification of those other ideologies in relation to each other.

The libertarian conception of freedom is perceived by some as tending toward anarchy. Others see it as driven by excessive individualism that actually detracts from social freedom. In essence, they claim the "chart" exists only to distance the term "libertarianism" from the older terms of anarchism and socialism, the latter of which draws polemic connections to communism, which itself draws polemic connections to totalitarianism.

A similar criticism of the chart is that the terms "authoritarianism" and "liberalism", as used to describe opposing stances on the y-axis of "personal freedom", do not easily apply to some prominent contemporary social issues (although these terms were not originally used by Nolan, they have become popular with followers of his chart system). For example, proponents of strict gun control are generally social liberals, who see fewer guns on the streets as promoting individual safety and thus individual liberty. At the same time, opponents of gun control see restrictions on certain firearms as an infringement on their personal liberties. Similar problems emerge from other social issues such as abortion, where the debate centers on whether the "right" to have an abortion is more or less important than the "rights" of the unborn child. In both of these examples, both sides tend to argue that their stance on the issue maximises total liberty. Thus the division between "liberal" and "authoritarian" is of little use on these issues, and the debate instead often divides people in terms of other exogenous factors such as their religious beliefs. This, some argue, leaves the effectiveness of the chart somewhat compromised.

Other critics argue that the libertarian definition of economic and personal "freedom" is incorrect or flawed, and that non-libertarian ideologies actually give people more freedom than libertarianism does. One such argument is that freedom from government intervention in the economy does not assure individual freedom within the private sector, and that government may preserve individual freedom against non-governmental powers. (This is the case Noam Chomsky makes when he refers to "private tyranny". [3], [4]) Nolan's usage of "populism" shows that he rejects this argument.

The x-axis of "economic freedom" assumes a choice between a strongly state-regulated economy ("low economic freedom") and free-market capitalism ("high economic freedom"). This completely ignores the existence of libertarian socialism and most branches of anarchism, who are opposed both to the state and to capitalism. Anarchists and libertarian socialists do not want any kind of state intervention in the economy, yet they are also vehemently opposed to private property over the means of production and wish to give the workers direct collective control over the economy. They see themselves as promoting economic freedom, but certainly not in the capitalist sense that is used in the Nolan chart.

A few of the people who oppose the use of the Nolan Chart are strong libertarians, Objectivists or other advocates of laissez-faire capitalism who believe that the political spectrum need be portrayed only through one dimension, but not the traditional Left/Right one. They propose an axis with totalitarianism/authoritarianism (statism) at one end, and libertarianism at the other end—something similar to the first diagonal of the Nolan Chart. They insist that all types of government intervention, in any areas, are the same.

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