Political Theory Simplified

9 October 2011

What is your political theory?  It’s not a question about your party affiliation.  Parties exist to pursue specific policy strategies and objectives which may be shared by people with differing political theories.  Rather, the question concerns your basic beliefs about what the government should and shouldn’t do. Like the four cardinal directions of the compass, there are four political theories:  authoritarian, libertarian, liberal and conservative.  It is fair to say that most people don’t understand this political compass or to which of the four theories they hold.   To clear up the confusion, let’s oversimplify things just for the sake of clarity.



Think of human activity in two dimensions: business and personal. You go to work and engage in some sort of productive activity (we hope), under the leadership of a boss.  That’s business.  Then you get off work and go home to do what you want.  That’s personal.  Which of these human activities, if any, should the government regulate?  Your answer to this question in the two categories of  business and personal determines your political theory.

Should the government regulate business?  Those in favor feel that laws are necessary to stop unethical business practices, to protect employees and consumers from abuses of economic power and to conserve resources and a clean environment.   Those opposed say that a successful business with a good strategy doesn’t need to be regulated.  Customers will punish businesses that provide bad services or bad products, or that make socially poor choices.

Should the government regulate personal behavior? Everyone agrees that the government should enforce laws that prevent people from infringing on the rights of others.  But beyond this, some feel there should be laws against bad, offensive or immoral behavior even if it causes no clear and immediate harm or danger to non-participants.  It may be felt that God demands a righteous society or that nature abhors certain bad behaviors.  But in either case, it would be the government’s proper role to instill moral values and enforce moral behavior in its people.



How do you answer those two questions?  A glance at the figure below will show the position you occupy on the political compass.



Authoritarian (yes/yes)
With our American emphasis on liberty, it is difficult to find clear examples of the authoritarian theory.  Perhaps the temperance Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries comes closest.  The women of the Temperance Movement had a keen interest in social justice and would regulate business to achieve it.  At the same time, they were all for the use of government force to make people behave themselves.  Liberals agree with authoritarians that government should regulate business, but disagree when it comes to personal behavior. Conservatives agree that government should regulate personal behavior, but not business.  Libertarians and authoritarians agree on nothing.

Libertarian (no/no)
Ron Paul exemplifies libertarian theory.  Government should get off the backs of business and out of our personal lives.  Liberals think libertarians are half right, as do conservatives.  The old joke is that libertarians are conservatives who want to smoke pot and get laid.

Liberal (yes/no)
A liberal feels that human nature is basically good, and that people should be left alone when it comes to their personal choices.   The self-determination of the people, however, is often jeopardized by those in control of great economic power, and therefore a robust government is needed to keep business in check. To a liberal, authoritarians and libertarians are both half right, but conservatives are dead wrong.

Conservative (no/yes)
Conservatives see business as the most important part of the human experience, and business is best when it is governed only by its success or lack thereof.  What is most profitable is the best strategy.  Individual, personal life, however, is where governing is most needed.  Left to their own devices, people will run amok.  Conservatives think the libertarians and the authoritarians are half right, but they have nothing in common with liberals.

Still unsure? Look at it this way:  Should the government tell the overalls factory to pay its employees a decent wage and to avoid using toxic chemicals in its fabric?  Absolutely.  Should the government tell people that they’d better wear shirts under their overalls and cinch up those straps tight?  Of course not!





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