Nolan Chart

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The Nolan chart, with the traditional left-right political spectrum on the dashed diagonal.

In 1999, American politician David Nolan was named one of the "2,000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 20th Century" by the Cambridgeshire, England-based International Biographical Centre (IBC), and he was included in their reference work of the same title, published in late 2000. Nolan speculated his inclusion in the book is due to his creation of the Nolan Chart, which has gained international fame as the core of the World's Smallest Political Quiz.

The Nolan Chart is a political view assessment diagram created by Nolan in 1969. The chart divides human political opinions into two vectors – economic opinion and personal opinion – to produce a type of Cartesian chart. It expands political view analysis beyond the traditional "left–right" line, which measures politics along a one-dimensional line, into a graph with two dimensions: degrees of economic and personal freedom.


David Nolan

A similar two-dimensional chart, with eight points instead of four, appeared in 1970 in the publication The Floodgates of Anarchy[1] by Stuart Christie and Albert Meltzer. In Radicals for Capitalism (p. 321), Brian Doherty traces 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".[2]

David Nolan first published the current 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.[3]

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. The Nolan Chart is the centerpiece of the World's Smallest Political Quiz. Nolan's insight 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.[citation needed] 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.

Since, Nolan realized, 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:

  • Conservatives and those on the right tend to favor more freedom in economic areas (example: a free market), but more government intervention in personal matters (example: drug laws).
  • Liberals and those on the left (by the common US meanings of those terms) tend to favor more freedom in personal areas (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 that people should be free to make economic choices for themselves. Like liberals, libertarians believe in personal freedom.
  • Statists 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 "communitarian" or "populist" to label this corner of the chart.

In order to visually express this insight, 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 a free market; 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. Instead of classifying all political opinion on a one-dimensional range from liberal to conservative, 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: viewers henceforth view the included orientations in two dimensions instead of one.[4]

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.


A variant of the Nolan chart using traditional political color-coding (red leftism versus blue rightism) and alternative labels for the sections. (Note that this chart is rotated 90° from the one above.)

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 sections, with a label assigned to one of the sections:


In August 2011, the libertarian Reason Magazine worked with the Rupe organization to survey 1,200 Americans by telephone and place their views within the Nolan chart categories. The Reason-Rupe poll found that "Americans cannot easily be bundled into either the 'liberal' or 'conservative' groups". Specifically, 28% expressed conservative views, 24% expressed libertarian views, 20% expressed communitarian views, and 28% expressed liberal views. The margin of error was ±3.[5]

A similar Gallup survey in 2011 included a centrist/moderate group. That poll reported that 17% expressed conservative views, 22% expressed libertarian views, 20% expressed communitarian views, 17% expressed centrist views, and 24% expressed liberal views.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Christie, Stuart, Albert Meltzer. The Floodgates of Anarchy. London: Kahn & Averill, 1970. ISBN 978-0-900707-03-2. p. 73.
  2. ^ Maurice Bryson and William McDill (Summer 1968). "The Political Spectrum: A Bi-Dimensional Approach". The Rampart Journal of Individualist Thought. 
  3. ^ "David Nolan – Libertarian Celebrity". Advocates for Self Government. Archived from the original on 2008-06-16. Retrieved 2008-09-09. 
  4. ^ "Mark Selzer and co-host Martina Slocomb interview David Nolan". The Libertarian Alternative Public Access TV Show. Retrieved February 15, 2013. 
  5. ^ a b Ekins, Emily (August 29, 2011). "Reason-Rupe Poll Finds 24 Percent of Americans are Economically Conservative and Socially Liberal, 28 Percent Liberal, 28 Percent Conservative, and 20 Percent Communitarian". Reason Magazine. Retrieved January 1, 2012. 

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