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The Pournelle chart

The Pournelle chart, developed by Jerry Pournelle (in his 1963 political science Ph.D. dissertation), is a 2-dimensional coordinate system used to distinguish political ideologies. It is similar to the Political compass and the Nolan Chart in that it is a two-dimensional chart, but the axes chosen in the Pournelle chart are different from those in other systems.

The two axes are as follows:

  • The x-axis, "Attitude toward the State" (labeled Statism), refers to a political philosophy's attitude towards state and centralised government. The farthest right is "state worship", and the farthest left views the state as the "ultimate evil", preferring individual freedom.
  • The y-axis, "Attitude toward planned social progress" (labeled Rationalism), refers to the extent to which a political philosophy holds that problems in society can be solved through the use of reason. The top indicates complete confidence in planned social progress; the bottom represents skepticism of such approaches, often seeing them as naively utopian. Those at the top of this axis would tend to discard a traditional custom if they do not understand what purpose it serves (considering it antiquated and probably useless), while those at the bottom would tend to keep the custom (considering it time-tested and probably useful).

"Leftist" ideologies, such as American liberalism, socialism and communism, are placed by Pournelle in the upper right-hand quadrant of high state control and high rationalism. Conservatism, fascism and Nazism are placed in the lower right hand quadrant of high state control and low rationalism. Classical anarchists are in the lower left hand corner of low state control and low rationalism. Libertarians (including anarcho-capitalists) and Objectivists are placed in the upper lefthand corner of low state control and high rationalism. Each diagonal axis contains "natural" political allies; in the United States, Republicans would tend to cluster along one axis and Democrats along the other.

Criticisms of the model

Some have criticized the model for the pejorative use of the word "irrational". However, the "bottom" of the scale could more specifically be seen as representing the belief that human rationality cannot perfect society (see Postmodernism vs Modernism). For example, the conservatism of Edmund Burke would be near the middle on the left-right scale, but near the bottom on the "rationality" scale (3/1', in Pournelle-style notation), because Burke believed that human society was not perfectible and was skeptical about initiatives aimed at vast improvements to society. Since Pournelle himself has views not far from those of Burke, it is clear that the term "irrational" is not intended as a pejorative. Pournelle noted that the belief that all societal problems can be solved rationally may not itself be rational. It may similarly be argued that the bottom of the top-bottom spectrum represents not a rejection of reason's power to solve scientific/technical problems (Pournelle is a technology enthusiast), but rather of its utility in forming the community and determining its sense of fundamental purpose.

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