Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Dalai Lama and me

Everyone knows you shouldn’t take internet personality tests seriously, but I don’t know any other easy way of measuring how rightwing I’m becoming, so every so often I take the Political Compass test. You answer a questionnaire and it rates you on two scales: libertarian-authoritarian and socialist-capitalist. Then it puts you on a graph with various other people like Stalin, Silvio Berlusconi and Nelson Mandela so you can see how you compare. I don’t think they got Stalin to take the test though, so putting him in the socialist/authoritarian quadrant must have been an educated guess. What puzzles me is that no matter how rightwing I feel like I’m becoming, it always plonks me firmly in the libertarian socialist corner next to the Dalai Lama. I’m not surprised about the libertarian thing but I’m puzzled about the socialism. It’s not like I want to collectivize the means of production or put a 99% income tax on the top 1% or anything like that anymore. I’ve got three explanations for why they still count me as such a leftie.

One is that the test is badly designed. They either ask unrevealing questions or have a lousy algorithm for turning the information into an assessment of how rightwing I am. I think the second is more likely: the questions look divisive enough to me.

The second is that you just can’t tell how rightwing someone is by getting them to fill in a questionnaire. When I first took Simon Baron-Cohen’s empathy test and landed deep in the autistic zone I was a bit taken aback, but then it was pointed out to me that asking people whether they can read minds isn’t a foolproof way of finding out if they can. Maybe political views are like that: people assess their views on the basis of slogans like ‘free trade is fair trade’ and shibboleths like abortion, but this assessment might not be borne out by the positions they take on specific issues when they arise.

The last explanation is that I’m really not that rightwing, and that’s because becoming more pragmatic with age just can’t make you that rightwing. I think there are three reasons to support economic liberty which are often conflated, although it’s not clear to me they even overlap. One advantage is that free markets are often the most efficient way of getting the people what they want and need. Another is that economic freedom is a kind of freedom. The third is that capitalism distributes more goods to the most productive people. It seems to me that only the third is particularly up for debate in terms of its factual basis, but the only one I place much value on is the first. I’m not much fussed about who is most deserving, and much as I like Robert Nozick I’m willing to restrict people’s economic freedom a fair bit if it gets the needy what they need. If banning me from paying you £2 an hour to serve fast food is what will raise most children out of poverty then I’m happy to take the hit. The arguments from efficiency, freedom and desert really are distinct, and as far as I can tell they’re quite independent of each other and only one is much good. So why do we keep voting for such rightwing people?


  1. I seem to be about the same as Mandela or Gandhi.

  2. I'm just taking the quiz now, and I've got to say that the questions are pretty atrocious. As is the lack of any 'indifferent' or 'unsure' middle-ground button.