Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“I've got a touch of hangover, bureaucrat. Don't push me.”     John Wayne as George Washington McLintock

March 8, 2006

Isms – part 1

by Chris

Let’s talk about -isms, in particular political -isms

Oh and we’re working with a bit of obscure and boring stuff here, so if you aren’t into theoretical underpinnings of political systems, go ahead to the next post.

Let’s begin,

There are several over-arching political -isms that you can use to categorize most of the other isms; and they can be arranged into two axes, the axis of rach, and the axis of force.

At a fundemantal level all systems come down to the structure and limits of governmental reach, and governmental force. In other words, how many areas the government has a legitimate interest in controlling, and how much control they have over it.

The first measure, reach; is bounded on the extreme low end by true anarchism: The belief that there is no legitmate role for government of any kind.

On the extreme high end of reach, we have the totalitarians, who believe that there is no limit to the legitimate reach of government. Government can and SHOULD be involved in all aspects of life.

The other axis is force; delineating how much authority government should have over it’s legitimate areas of reach, and how much force can be used to execute that authority.

At the extreme low end of the force scale are anti-coerciveism (also called anti-intialism) and pacifism. The first is a philosophy of rule that declares no coercive force of any kind can be initiated against any other for any reason. Pacifism is somewhat different, in that it rejects all force, whether it be coercive, neutral, or defensive in nature as illegitimate; whereas the anti-coercives allow for defensive force, and the response to an initiation of force.

At the other end of the axis are the authoritarians, who believe that government has the legitimate authority to use all force it deems necessary within it’s legitmate reach.

You can see that all political philosophies will have a position on these axes, even if they are somewhat fuzzy, and may actually need to be plotted as a curve (most systems would be); but you can loosley classify the major political-isms handily.

It would seem clear that the most harmful systems to liberty would be the authoritarian totalitarian systems:

Democratism (yes, this is without question harmful to liberty because it submits the will of the majority as the absolute authority)
Hierarchicalism (these include meritism, oligopolism, monopolism etc..)
Islamism (and other political theisms)

Conversely one would assume that the systems most conducive to liberty would be the opposite, true anarchy. Unfortunately, this is not the case; because without any form of government, or the ability to initiate force against others, a society will inevitably collapse into crime, and the rule of the strong over the week will assuredly prevail.

The systems that tend towards maximising human liberty are the ones more to the middle, that limit the reach of government, and strictly limit it’s authority within that reach; but which allow for an effective defense against both external attack, and internal parasitism and criminalism:

Limited Republicanism (which is NOT democratism)
Liberal Constitutionalism

You might note that democracy, republics, even purely constitutional states aren’t necessarily good for liberty; because they allow for the tyranny of the majority. These systems can easily become authoritarian at the whim of an angry populace.

It is necessary to have a strictly, and structurally limited form of government in order to prevent both the rise of strongment, and the tyranny of the majority.

One might also note that collectivism isn’t necesarrily harmful to liberty, so long as that collectivism isn’t involuntary (as in communism, marxism etc…). For example, in syndicalsim, the participation in the collective is voluntary ; and it is entirely acceptable that one may perform actions in competition with syndicates, or in co-operation with them, without being a member. I generally dont consider syndicalism the best system for maximizing liberty, but it CAN be an effective way for anti-coercive individuals to provide for collective action without the initiation of force.

Most people who call themselves anarchists, are in fact anarcho capitalists, or anarcho syndicalists, who believe that there should be no government, and no governmental authority, but that markets or voluntary collective action can provide all the functions necessary for a government.

I think both of these philoshophies are a bit off; both simplistic in ways, overly dependent on uncertainties in others; and in both cases unreasonably optimistic about the purity of their systems. Only if the systems are kept rigorously pure can they properly function; and the mechanisms for assuring this purity are explicitlty disallowed by the nature of the systems.

To my mind, the best systems for human liberty are minarchist systems (of any structure); which specifically limit the government to the most basic functions:

  • We need a neutral arbiter for disputes. This function is served by civil courts.
  • We need to keep people from commiting crimes (the strong harming the weak). This function is served by police.
  • We need to catch people who do commit crimes, to ensure they can be punished, and that restitution can be made. This function is also served by the police.
  • We need to have a system for determining who is punished, how they are punished etc.. This function is served by criminal courts.
  • We must prevent those from outside our society who would harm us, and our vital interests, from doing so. This function is served by the military, and to an extent by diplomats as part of the executive office.
  • There must be an agency for negotiating and concluding agreeements with other nation states in support of our vital interests. This function is served by the executive office.
  • In the united states, or any other federal entity, there must be an agency for settling disputes between the states. This function is served by the federal courts and particularly the supreme court
  • There must be a system for creating and defining legislation. A written code of laws is essential to a free society. This function is served by the legislature.
  • There must be an agency for selecting those who are given authority by the government, whether in police, military, court, legislative, or executive roles. In our society this is served through the franchise, as adminsitered by the states, counties, and precincts.
  • There must be the systems and infrastructure in place to enable and support these functions. This function is served by the bureaucracy of civil service.
  • There are some functions which are best served through collective action, such as public works. Though much of these can be privatized, there is a legitmate claim for functions such as roads to be provided by the government, as it is not possible to perform the basic functions of government without them. When not served through private contract, these functions would also be provided through the civil service.

This would allow for far more government reach and authority than anarchists, and even most libertarians would allow for; however it is very difficult to have a functioning society containing more than a few thousand individuals without those enumerated functions.

In a minarchist systems, the absolute minimal rach, and authority of government are strictly defined, and then strictly enforced, through a consitution, and code of laws to enforce it, which CANNOT be overridden; except by the overthrow of the government.

In these systems, it is not necessary to change the constitution; because the constitution only specifies that which as absolutely necessary to the function of government. All else is either left to the individual, or codified in law. This prevents a supermajority from forming to change the constitution to the detriment of individual liberty (a common argument anarchists use against constitutional systems).

If such a supermajority DOES form, it can simply overthrow the government and form another one; which is the ultimate recourse of any population. Of coruse in this they may forma new government harmful to liberty, but so long as they do not coerce others into that form of government, they are wlcome to do so. If they DO coerce others, than there is ample justification for resistance with force.

Of course if the force is 1/3 vs 2/3 and no chance of outside support… well then you’re screwed. Go read “The Moon is a harsh mistress”.

In part two we’ll go into a lot more detail about the systems themselves.

Crossposted from The Anarchangel

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  1. Thank you for making some excellent points. In particular, it always bothers me when people define collectivism as categorically evil and harmful to liberty. Having some friends who live in a commune – specifically a mendicant Franciscan friary – I have seen consentual collectivism work. The key, as you say, is whether this is forced upon a person.

    There is nothing wrong with consensual communism. As with any other -ism, it is the question of consent that determines whether liberties are jeopardized – in other words, when the government enforces one philosophy on all.

    Nice write-up.

    Comment by Wulf — March 9, 2006 @ 5:15 am
  2. Thanks for this interesting post.

    Comment by Julie — March 9, 2006 @ 9:33 am
  3. You missed the most important ism, are you ready,,,

    Down South you might hear an ignorant person explain, “Taint yos, ism mine!”

    I’ll report for PC retrain next time it comes around.

    Comment by T F Stern — March 9, 2006 @ 7:28 pm

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