Parsing Political Philosophy (II)

This is a work in progress. The first version is here. This version expands the range of political stances by adding Despotism to Anarchism, Minarchism, and Statism. Also, this version goes into more detail about the differences between various stances. I’m leaving the first version in place because I’ve linked to it and quoted from it often, and because some of the descriptive material complements this post.


The aim of this post and its predecessor is to find more precise political labels than Democrat, Republican, left, right, center, liberal, conservative, and libertarian. I want to show, for example, the dimensions of agreement and disagreement between a so-called liberal who wants government to dictate certain aspects of human affairs, and a so-called conservative who wants government to dictate certain other aspects of human affairs. Are they not both statists who merely have different agendas, or are there deeper differences between them? And what about the so-called libertarian who espouses some views that are anathema to many on the left (e.g., free markets) and other views that are anathema to many on the right (e.g., legalization of marijuana and harder drugs)? Are such views coherent or merely provocative?

Any one person’s political philosophy — if he may be said to have one — is likely to consist of a set of attitudes, many of them logically irreconcilable. This, I believe, is due mainly to the influence of temperament on one’s political views. It is a rare human being who does not interpret the world through the lens of his preferences, and those preferences seem to be more a matter of temperament than of knowledge and reason. Even highly intelligent persons are capable of believing in the most outlandish things because they want to believe those things.

I therefore admit that my search for more precise political labels may be — and probably is — both quixotic and reductionist. But it can, at least, shed some light on real differences — and real similarities — among various lines of political thought.


Political views, and their essential differences, cannot be organized into a taxonomy without first defining politics and its essential issues.

Politics is the means by which human beings regulate their behavior, which usually (but unnecessarily) is divided into social and economic components. The purpose of regulating behavior — whether the regulation is explicit or implicit, imposed or voluntary — is to sustain or change the modes of human interaction, and the outcomes that derive from human interaction. Some political stances are incoherent because their principles cannot yield the preferred outcomes (e.g., redistribution, a favored policy of left-statists, actually makes the poor worse off because it stifles economic growth). But incoherence does not prevent a political stance from becoming popular, or even dominant.


The following sections of this post culminate in a taxonomy of political philosophies, which is given in a table at the end of the post. In that table, I take as a baseline a political stance that I call Right-Minarchism. It represents traditional conservatism, as it would have played out in practice under the kind of true federalism represented in the Articles of Confederation.

What is the traditional conservative position? I begin with a redaction of Russell Kirk’s “Six Canons of Conservative Thought“:

1. An understanding that political problems, at bottom, are moral problems.

2. A preference for tradition — which incorporates beneficial change — over the shackles of statism and the chaos that must ensue from anarchy.

3. Recognition that change is not the same thing as change for the better (reform), which emerges from tradition and is not imposed upon it.

4. An understanding that a flourishing civil society requires order, without which freedom is available only to despots and predators.

5. Faith in traditional mores and reliance upon them, in the main, to maintain a regimen of order that enables freedom — ordered liberty, in other words. Traditional mores are supplemented but not supplanted by the rule of law, impartially administered and no more intrusive than is required for ordered liberty.

6. Knowledge that property and liberty are inseparably connected, and that economic leveling is not economic progress.

For an elaboration on the role of government, I turn to Michael Oakeshott:

Government, … as the conservative in this matter understands it, does not begin with a vision of another, different and better world, but with the observation of the self-government practised even by men of passion in the conduct of their enterprises; it begins in the informal adjustments of interests to one another which are designed to release those who are apt to collide from the mutual frustration of a collision. Sometimes these adjustments are no more than agreements between two parties to keep out of each other’s way; sometimes they are of wider application and more durable character, such as the International Rules for for the prevention of collisions at sea. In short, the intimations of government are to be found in ritual, not in religion or philosophy; in the enjoyment of orderly and peaceable behaviour, not in the search for truth or perfection…. To govern, then, as the conservative understands it, is to provide a vinculum juris for those manners of conduct which, in the circumstances, are least likely to result in a frustrating collision of interests; to provide redress and means of compensation for those who suffer from others behaving in a contrary manners; sometimes to provide punishment for those who pursue their own interests regardless of the rules; and, of course, to provide a sufficient force to maintain the authority of an arbiter of this kind. Thus, governing is recognized as a specific and limited activity; not the management of an enterprise, but the rule of those engaged in a great diversity of self-chosen enterprises. It is not concerned with concrete persons, but with activities; and with activities only in respect of their propensity to collide with one another. It is not concerned with moral right and wrong, it is not designed to make men good or even better; it is not indispensable on account of ‘the natural depravity of mankind’ but merely because of their current disposition to be extravagant; its business is to keep its subjects at peace with one another in the activities in which they have chosen to seek their happiness. And if there is any general idea entailed in this view, it is, perhaps, that a government which does not sustain the loyalty of its subjects is worthless; and that while one which (in the old puritan phrase) ‘commands the truth’ is incapable of doing so (because some of its subjects will believe its ‘truth’ to be in error), one which is indifferent to ‘truth’ and ‘error’ alike, and merely pursues peace, presents no obstacle to the necessary loyalty.

…[A]s the conservative understands it, modification of the rules should always reflect, and never impose, a change in the activities and beliefs of those who are subject to them, and should never on any occasion be so great as to destroy the ensemble. Consequently, the conservative will have nothing to do with innovations designed to meet merely hypothetical situations; he will prefer to enforce a rule he has got rather than invent a new one; he will think it appropriate to delay a modification of the rules until it is clear that the change of circumstances it is designed to reflect has come to stay for a while; he will be suspicious of proposals for change in excess of what the situation calls for, of rulers who demand extra-ordinary powers in order to make great changes and whose utterances re tied to generalities like ‘the public good’ or social justice’, and of Saviours of Society who buckle on armour and seek dragons to slay; he will think it proper to consider the occasion of the innovation with care; in short, he will be disposed to regard politics as an activity in which a valuable set of tools is renovated from time to time and kept in trim rather than as an opportunity for perpetual re-equipment. (Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, New and Expanded Edition, pp. 427-31)

In what follows, I synthesize Kirk and Oakeshott, and call the result Right-Minarchism.


I begin with a rough sorting of political philosophies:

  • Anarchism is a fairly coherent (if implausible) philosophy of non-government, propounded by persons who usually call themselves anarcho-capitalists (probably because it seems a more respectable label than “anarchist”).
  • Minarchism is a somewhat more diffuse but still coherent philosophy of minimal government, propounded by persons who usually call themselves libertarians, over the objection of anarchists, who claim to be the only true libertarians.
  • Anarchists and minarchists dwell in the big tent of libertarianism.  Where anarchists are fairly monolithic in their views (government is evil because it must always be based on coercion), minarchists are of varied stripes, which I delineate below. My analyses of anarchism and minarchism span the range of libertarian ideas, so there is nothing more for me to say in this post about libertarianism as a political philosophy.
  • Statism comprises a broad set of attitudes about government’s role, propounded by “types” ranging from redneck yahoos to campus radicals, each type proclaiming itself benign (for some, if not for others). But each type would — in thought and word, if not deed — set loose the dogs of the state upon its political opponents and the vast, hapless majority. Statism, because it is so powerful and pervasive a force, merits further analysis — more aptly, dissection — into its main types.
  • Despotism is perhaps the inevitable outcome of statism. Despotism may be “hard,” as with the USSR under Stalin and Germany under Hitler, or “soft,” as with innumerable “social democrat” regimes, including the controlling regime of the United States. Under despotic rule there is no dividing line between the state’s power and individual liberty. The state can — and will — dictate to its subjects about anything.

Thus the four broad philosophies that I parse in this post are anarchism, minarchism, statism, and despotism. Here is more about each of them:


Anarchists believe that no one should govern others; rather, all human interactions and joint functions (e.g., a group’s efforts to defend itself against predators and enemies) should be undertaken through voluntary agreements, including contracts with private defense agencies.

Central to anarchism is the dual principle of non-coercion and non-aggression: conjoined prohibitions against the imposition of one’s will upon others and, therefore, the use of force except in self-defense or the defense of others. (Are there loopholes for dealing with imminent, predatory threats and teaching children to behave? Only an anarchist knows for sure.) Government, by definition, imposes its will by exerting superior force. Government, therefore, is illegitimate.

The non-aggression principle is the undoing of anarchism. Anarchy (purely consensual anarchy) cannot prevail. Non-aggression often is met with aggression. Anarchists (were there a viable group of them) would fall prey to well-armed aggressors (both from within the group and outside it). This inconvenient fact is of no account to doctrinaire anarchists. They are focused on the world as they would like it to be, and have little time for the world as it is, except to object when it isn’t to their liking — which is all of the time.


The Central Tenet: Limited Government

Minarchists are united in but one respect: Government, being inevitable if not necessary, must be kept within strict bounds. Given the inevitability of government, it is better to control it than to be controlled by it. It is therefore better to design an accountable one that can be kept within its bounds (or so minarchists hope) than to suffer an imposed regime, most likely an oppressive one.

Why do minarchists prefer strictly limited government? There are two reasons. The first reason is a desire to be left alone, or more elegantly, a deontological belief in the natural right to be left alone. (Most anarchists are deontologists.) The second, consequentalist, reason is that voluntary social and economic transactions yield better results than government-directed ones. Friedrich Hayek makes that argument, at length and successfully, in his essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” Here is a small sample:

As Alfred Whitehead has said in another connection, “It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” This is of profound significance in the social field. We make constant use of formulas, symbols, and rules whose meaning we do not understand and through the use of which we avail ourselves of the assistance of knowledge which individually we do not possess. We have developed these practices and institutions by building upon habits and institutions which have proved successful in their own sphere and which have in turn become the foundation of the civilization we have built up.

What Hayek says is true not only of economic institutions but also of social ones. The seemingly uncoordinated price “system” guides economic actors toward better ways of meeting ever-changing human wants with limited resources. The social “system” accrues behavioral norms that guide individuals toward peaceful, constructive coexistence with their compatriots.

The Protection of Negative Rights

Whether deontological or consequentialist, minarchism holds that the central role of government is to protect citizens from predators, domestic and foreign. Such protection cannot be absolute, but government’s evident ability and willingness to dispense justice and defend the nation are meant, in part, to deter predators.

More generally, the ideal government is restricted to the protection of negative rights. Such rights, as opposed to positive rights, do not involve claims against others; instead, they involve the right to be left alone by others. Negative rights include the right to conduct one’s affairs without being killed, maimed, or forced or tricked into doing something against one’s will; the right to own property, as against the right of others to abscond with property or claim it as their own; the right to work for a wage and not as a slave to an “owner” who claims the product of one’s labor; and the right to move and transact business freely within government’s sphere of sovereignty (which can include overseas movements and transactions, given a government strong enough to protect them).

To a minarchist, then, rights are limited to those that can be exercised without requiring something of others (e.g., transfers of income and property). The one necessary exception is the cost of providing a government to ensure the exercise of rights. That cost must be borne, in some arbitrary way, by citizens who, on the one hand, see no need for government (i.e., anarchists) and by citizens who, on the other hand, have differing conceptions of rights and how the cost of protecting those rights should be shared.

More about Property Rights

Minarchists (like anarchists) are fierce defenders of property rights. Minarchists hold that we own what we earn (or what is given to us, freely, by others who have earned it). The right to property is a negative right, in that the enjoyment and use of that which is ours need not deny anyone else the right to enjoy and use that which is theirs. (Acts of enjoyment and use, however, must not infringe on the negative rights of others.) The denial of property rights (in whole or in part) is theft, whether committed by a private party or government. (The “public use” clause of the Fifth Amendment is applied legitimately only when government must take property, with “just compensation” in order to execute one of the few legitimate functions of government.)

There is an economic justification, as well, for minarchists’ defense of property rights. People generally use that which they own more carefully and more productively than that which they do not own. This tendency — which springs from the same psychological source as the tendency of individuals to care more for those who are closest to them — yields less waste and greater output. That outcome benefits everyone, not just the owners of economic resources.

The Role of Civil Society

There can be more to minarchy than the protection of negative rights. In the view of some minarchists, government legitimately serves the broader (but related) purpose of protecting civil society. Other minarchists have no use for what they see as the strictures of civil society; they wish only to be left alone. In their introverted myopia they fail to see that the liberty to live a peaceful, happy, and even prosperous life depends on civil society: the daily observance of person X’s negative rights by persons W, Y, and Z — and vice versa. That is so because it is impossible and — more importantly — undesirable for government to police everyone’s behavior. Liberty depends, therefore, on the institutions of society — family, church, club, and the like — through which individuals learn to treat one another with respect, through which individuals often come to the aid of one another, and through which instances of disrespect can be noted, publicized, and even punished (e.g., by criticism and ostracism).

That is civil society. And it is civil society which, many minarchists aver, government ought to protect instead of usurping and destroying as it establishes its own agencies (e.g., public schools, welfare), gives them primary and even sole jurisdiction in many matters, and funds them with tax money that could have gone to private institutions. Moreover, some minarchists aver that government ought to tolerate a broad range of accepted behaviors across the various institutions of civil society, as long as government also protects the negative rights of association and exit: the right to associate with persons of one’s choosing, and the right to live and work where one prefers.

The centrality of family, church, club, and the like, to civil society reflects a fundamental fact of the human condition: We tend to care more for those who are close to us than we do for those who are unrelated to us by blood or a direct social bond of some kind. Charity and civilization begin at home.

A Note about Left-Minarchism

This branch of minarchism attracts pseudo-libertarians who proclaim their dedication to liberty from one side of the mouth while supporting statist restrictions on liberty from the other side. The hypocrisy of left-minarchism is discussed in the table below, and by Bill McMorris in “Conservatives Will Embrace Libertarians When Libertarians Stop Embracing Government” (The Federalist, February 26, 2014).


I come now to statism, about which less need be said than about minarchism. Statism is notable mainly for its failure to understand, respect, or protect negative rights and civil society.

The Essence of Statism: Control

Statism boils down to one thing: the use of government’s power to direct resources and people toward outcomes dictated by government. Statism is orthogonal to the libertarian worldview of anarchists and minarchists.

The particular set of outcomes toward which government should strive depends on the statist who happens to be expounding his views. But all of them are essentially alike in their desire to control the destiny of others. (Two excellent posts that spell out the essential sameness of statism, whether it comes from the “left” or the “right,” are John Ray’s “The American Roots of Fascism” and Eric Scheie’s “Rule by the Freest.”)

“Hard” statists thrive on the idea of a powerful state; control is their religion, pure and simple. “Soft” statists profess offense at the size, scope, and cost of government, but will go on to say “government should do such-and-such,” where “such-and such” usually consists of:

  • government grants of particular positive rights, either to the statist, to an entity or group to which he is beholden, or to a group with which he sympathizes
  • government interventions in business and personal affairs, in the belief that government can do certain things better than private actors, or simply should do many things other than — and sometimes in lieu of — dispensing justice and defending the nation.

The distinctions between “hard” and “soft” are, for my purposes, less important than the particular kinds of positive rights and interventions preferred by statists of various stripes. I parse the variety of statists later in this post.

Feeble Excuses for Statism

Statists give various excuses for their statism. Here are three, the second and third of which are mentioned above:

  • Government is the community. (This is an odd thing to say, given that politicians elected by a minority of the populace, and often a bare majority of voters, are able to dictate to the non-voting majority. The main virtue of  many an appointed official is that he represents a particular interest group, which is a far cry from “the community.”)
  • People (or certain kinds of people) can’t do such-and-such for themselves. (This claim is credible only because government has destroyed much of civil society by fostering dependency instead of personal responsibility; by blunting entrepreneurship, business formation, and economic growth through taxation and regulation; by breaking up families through various welfare programs; by usurping many of civil society’s functions (education, care of the elderly, and charity being the three most obvious); and by heavily taxing those who would have the means to underwrite the educational and charitable institutions of civil society.)
  • Certain kinds of activities and industries must be regulated because we can’t trust certain so-an-so’s to do the right thing. (This claim is tantamount to saying that (a) only certain outcomes are acceptable, (b) risk — which is necessary to progress — can be controlled by politicians and bureaucrats, and (c) the superficial knowledge and judgments of those same politicians and bureaucrats are adequate substitutes for the vast amounts of knowledge resident in free markets and free social institutions.

The reality from which statists avert their eyes is this: Even in a “democracy” such as ours, where government is supposed to be the people’s servant, it is in fact operated by power-hungry politicians and their often-arrogant minions. The arrogant attitudes of elected and appointed officials toward the “communities” they supposedly serve are revealed by the lavish offices and perquisites they arrange for themselves. The higher they rise on the scale of political power, the more god-like they become, to themselves at least. Constituent service is a means of garnering votes — a necessary evil, handled by staffers whenever possible, and paid for by taxpayers. (A politician naturally take a more personal interest in big contributors seeking attention and favors.)

The Bottom Line about Statism

No recitation of the character and limitations of government really matters to a statist. Government is at once a statist’s god and bully of first resort.


In “democratic” nations, despotism arrives as an outgrowth of statism. It arrives by stealth, as the state’s power becomes so pervasive and so entrenched in statutes, regulations, and judicial decrees that liberty becomes a hollow word. Every sphere of existence — religious, social, economic — is subject to interference and control by the state. The state may not exercise full control in every instance, but it has the power to do so, rhetoric about liberty to the contrary notwithstanding.

America’s despotism is “soft,” compared with the despotism of the USSR and Nazi Germany, but it is despotism, nonetheless. If you think it hyperbolic to call the America a despotism, think again, and again, and again, and again, and again. The dividing line between statism and despotism is a thin one, and if you will follow the links in the two preceding sentences, you will find many reasons to believe that America has crossed over into despotism. “Soft” verges on “hard” when myriad organs of the state — from the IRS to local zoning departments — can persecute and prosecute citizens on almost any pretext. The only saving grace is that the victims of America’s “soft” despotism still have recourse to the courts and sometimes find relief there.


These statements implicate several political issues:

1. Toward what social and economic outcomes ought human endeavor be aimed? The “aiming” need not be deliberate but, rather, the natural result of voluntary, cooperative action in accord with social norms.

2. Who should determine social norms, and how?

3. What behaviors should obtain?

4. How should norms be enforced?

5. What is the proper role of the state?

6. When the norms and actions of the people and the state are in conflict, how should the conflict be resolved?

7. Who benefits from the imposition of norms by the state, and who is harmed by those impositions?

8. Who should pay for functions of the state?

9. What should happen when the state exceeds its authority?

10. With respect to the foregoing matters, how should dissent acknowledged and accommodated?

The answers to those questions lead to a taxonomy in which Minarchism is divided into Right-Minarchism (the traditional conservative stance, fleshed out with its implications for governance), and Left-Minarchism. Statism is divided into Left-Statism and Right-Statism. I leave Despotism and Anarchism intact. Both stances have nuances, but both are baleful enough without being proliferated.

The following table delineates each of the six philosophies in terms of the ten questions listed above. I have placed Anarchism last, not only for convenience but also because it is the least probable of the six options.

Taxonomy of political philosophies

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Related posts (mainly about America’s slide into statism and despotism, and the consequences thereof):
Unintended Irony from a Few Framers
Freedom of Contract and the Rise of Judicial Tyranny
The Constitution in Exile
What Is the Living Constitution?
True Federalism
FDR and Fascism
The Ruinous Despotism of Democracy
The Ruinous Despotism of Democracy
The People’s Romance
Intellectuals and Capitalism
What Happened to Personal Responsibility?
Democracy and Liberty
The Interest-Group Paradox
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Fascism and the Future of America
The Real Constitution and Civil Disobedience
The Near-Victory of Communism
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Invoking Hitler
The Left
The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
The Divine Right of the Majority
Our Enemy, the State
Does the Power to Tax Give Congress Unlimited Power?
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Does Congress Have the Power to Regulate Inactivity?
The Left’s Agenda
The Meaning of Liberty
Understanding Hayek
The Left and Its Delusions
A Declaration of Civil Disobedience
Crimes against Humanity
Abortion and Logic
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War
Society and the State
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
Our Perfect, Perfect Constitution
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Abortion, “Gay Rights,” and Liberty
Don’t Use the “S” Word When the “F” Word Will Do
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
The Capitalist Paradox Meets the Interest-Group Paradox
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Is Taxation Slavery?
A Contrarian View of Universal Suffrage
Well-Founded Pessimism
Restoring Constitutional Government: The Way Ahead
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Spending Inhibits Economic Growth
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
Defining Liberty
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
The World Turned Upside Down
Secession Made Easy
More about “Secession Made Easy”
A Better Constitution
Progressive Taxation Is Alive and Well in the U.S. of A.
“Social Insurance” Isn’t Insurance — Nor Is Obamacare
“We the People” and Big Government
The Culture War
Defense Spending: One More Time
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament (see also the links at the bottom)