I have never felt comfortable with the horizontally-based arrangement that defines political thinking along a "Left" to "Right" continuum. I know this designation arose from the seating order in the old French parliament, but this only adds to our confusion. We have structured our minds to believe that "communism" and "fascism" are polar opposite political systems, and that those desirous of avoiding the vicious "extremes" of either are invited to seek refuge in the safe harbor of the "middle" of the spectrum. In such ways has the state continued to expand its powers, advising the uncritical boobeoisie to vote for the "lesser of two evils."
The word "spectral" has two meanings: one relating to a "spectrum" (i.e., a continuous sequence), the other having reference to a "specter" (i.e., something of a "fearful or horrible nature"). This dual sense of the word has relevance to political definitions: along the "Left/Right" spectrum are to be found the various franchises of statist behavior that have conspired to plague mankind with the horrible nature of all political systems. The parliamentary origins of this concept ought to have been a tip-off that human freedom was not to be part of the equation defining positions along the spectrum.
With the realignment of political categories that seems to be occurring — "conservatives" mutating into war-loving imperialists, and "liberals" becoming champions of "states-rights" — this is an opportune time to rethink the model that has become virtually meaningless to a comprehension of modern politics.
If we are to understand the fundamental nature of political thinking, we must distinguish it from the kind of thinking that transcends politics. To confine the choices in our social arrangements to the state-serving options provided by this traditional linear model, is to condemn humanity to the familiar vicious circle of choosing between "Republican" and "Democrat," or "Labor and "Conservative." Through such means, people continue to delude themselves that they are running the political system, totally oblivious to the fact that if their votes could affect a fundamental change, the electoral process would be declared unlawful.
In order to understand the alternatives that political systems might find it fatal for us to consider, I propose using a vertically-described system, with "up" and "down" designations in place of the horizontal model. At the upper end would be found complete individual liberty, while at the lowest end would reside systems of total statism. The arrangement might look something like this:
- Libertarianism (classical "liberalism")
- Modern liberalism
- Limited state-socialism
- Expansive state-socialism
Differences of opinion might arise as to the relative positions I have selected, or whether other groups ought to be added. Just to begin thinking in such an alternative way is a value in itself, breaking us out of our well-conditioned mold that encourages us to believe that because we get to vote for the prison-warden of our choice, we are thereby free men and women.
The standard by which I have ranged these varying systems is the property principle. How is property to be owned and controlled under these differing arrangements? Is property to be owned privately or collectively? I have used this approach because, upon the close examination that statists do not want you to make, it will be discovered that every political system is defined by its approach to property. And since the basic property question has to do with whether individual self-ownership is respected, "property" and "liberty" are unavoidably entwined. "Liberty," in other words, is an expression of the decision-making authority one has over his or her life and other property interests.
"Fascism" and "communism" share the same level of statist absolutism on my scale. "Fascism" is defined as a system in which title to property remains in private hands, but control is exercised by the state. Having "title" to property creates only the illusion of ownership if the actual control resides in someone else. The farmer who has title to his land, but is prevented from farming it because it has been deemed a "protected wetland," has experienced the reality of fascist thinking. So has the homeowner whose title does not prevent the state from taking what she owns, through eminent domain, in order to build a highway. A communist system — in declaring the state the owner of all lands — is at least more honest in not hiding behind the illusion of private ownership. Each system, however, concentrates property-controlling authority in the absolutist hands of the state.
The varying degrees of state socialism are defined in terms of the range of private property to be seized by the political system. More limited socialist regimes might be content to own mines, railroads, and airlines, while their more aggressive counterparts would add factories, broadcasting facilities, housing, and retailing to the list of state enterprises. I have placed "feudalism" into this mix as a system of land ownership acquired through military conquest, with the king (the ultimate landlord) conferring estates upon his loyal supporters who, in turn, subdivide their estates into the hands of their followers. This formalized system has been transformed into the modern special-interest politicking and government-contracting practices with which we are familiar.
The differences between "conservatives" and "liberals" were so well-defined by Ambrose Bierce that I feel I can add little. Bierce labeled a "Conservative" a "statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others." Those who continue to search the media for fly-specks of meaningful variation between Republicans and Democrats, or of conservatives and liberals, would do well to consider Bierce’s remarks. Neither group shows any consistent respect for individual property interests, each having its own priorities for the plundering of the many for the benefit of the few.
For purposes of this article, I am equating "libertarian" and "classic liberal" as positions advocating a "limited government" restrained by a written constitution. Unlike modern conservatives and liberals who tend to see the Constitution as a barrier to their varied objectives, libertarians have, at the core of their beliefs, a sincere commitment to individual liberty. Despite their motives, they continue to be ensnared by the idea that the state is a fundamental necessity for the protection of people’s lives and property and, furthermore, that state power can be institutionally circumscribed so as not to exceed these limited purposes. The American experience with constitutionalism ought to have dissuaded such people from their continuing efforts, many of which are focused within the Libertarian Party.
The "anarchist" position — which I described more fully in an earlier article — is premised upon a complete withdrawal of the state (or any other institutionalized system of violence) from society. At this point, some definitional confusions may arise, as many self-styled "libertarians" would ascribe to this view. At the same time, there are some socialists who embrace the label "anarchist," but whose commitment to non-violent social arrangements await an answer to the question of whether they favor voluntary or involuntary socialistic communities.
Absent any formal mechanisms for coercively enforcing the will of some upon others — such as by threatening trespasses to the person or property of individuals — an anarchistic system would necessarily be supportive of private property interests. Even voluntarily-constituted socialistic but anarchistic communities — many of which have existed in this country — had their origins in individuals freely transferring their property interests to collectives to which they were philosophically committed.
As we proceed vertically along this proposed scale, we discover an increasing expression of individual liberty that is inseparable from an enhanced respect for the private ownership of property. This contrasts with the fraudulent high school civics class definition that equates "liberty" with being able to vote for the politicians who will coercively rule your life and despoil your property interests! My proposed model abandons the horizontal continuum that subdivides humanity into mutually-exclusive factions that generate the perpetual conflict upon which the state feeds — always to its benefit and always to the detriment of ordinary people.
My vertical model, by contrast, reminds us that politics institutionalizes hostility, slavery, and despoliation, and that only by moving toward alternative systems that respect the liberties and property interests of all, can such contrived discord and destructiveness be ended. Perhaps this new model does nothing more than visualize the insight of the early 20th century Marxist Max Eastman who, later in life, acknowledged:
It seems obvious to me now — though I was slow coming to the conclusion — that the institution of private property, the dispersion of power and importance that goes with it, has been a main factor in producing that limited amount of free-and-equalness which Marx hoped to render infinite by abolishing this institution.
If a Marxist can come to the realization that individual liberty and property ownership are interdependent, there is some basis for hope that even "conservatives" and "liberals" might one day experience such an epiphany!
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.