The Deconstruction of the Libertarian-Authoritarian Axis


There is a post by another blogger who I respect (Zippy) that introduced (to me) the concept that “All politics are authoritarian“. He obviously received some responses that attacked the idea in what one may consider a typical fashion, along the lines of “Clearly there are libertarian/authoritarian ideologies. What, is there no difference between 1984 and The American Constitution?” In doing so, I believe the discussion has not adequately examined the very concept of libertarian vs authoritarian. I believe far more information is contained in this distinction than one might imagine at first glance. So I’d like to discuss the axis itself, break down the specific components of it, and then move on to Zippy’s assertion.

The Axis Itself

If you’re reading this blog, you’ve likely seen/heard of/taken a political compass test. The most popular one,, gives you results based on two axes (Left-Right and Libertarian-Authoritarian). See here:


The axis was designed to complement the apparent “economic” Left-Right axis with a “social” axis. Generally, more “progressive” social ideas lean libertarian while more “conservative/traditional” social ideas lean authoritarian. But is it possible that progressive social ideas might need to be enforced through authority? See the Supreme Court and US Government protecting otherwise unpopular (at the time) social ideas (desegregation being the most prominent example I can come up with off the top of my head). And, why is it that quite a few social conservatives are so opposed to the government? If social conservatism truly was authoritarian, then wouldn’t all social conservatives advocate for a far larger state? So clearly there is a distinction between being “progressive”/”traditional” versus being “libertarian”/”authoritarian”.

Breaking Down the Axis

The first breakdown within these ideas of libertarian vs authoritarian can be seen in that a person’s social attitudes (progressive-traditional) are distinct from the person’s attitudes towards the STATE (libertarianism-authoritarianism). We can now make 2 axes out of the Lib-Auth axis:
Progressive-Traditional (Social attitudes)
Statist-Minarchist (How involved the state should be in enforcing law)

But I would like to make a further note on authoritarianism. Specifically, many libertarian-leaning Social Conservatives advocate for a kind of self regulating society. That the society itself enforces its will on a local and familial level without the “administrative/bureacratic state” taking that role. In doing so, it is clear that authority is not entirely based in the State. So what does that mean? Well, I would argue that a third axis can be added to the 2 existing ones:
Progressive-Traditional (Social attitudes)
Statist-Minarchist (How involved the state should be in enforcing law)
Libertarian-Authoritarian (The Individual’s attitude towards coercion/liberty)

Wait what? Hold up. Did we just add the original axis back? Well, not exactly. The Libertarian-Authoritarian axis now exists specifically as a manner of saying “how do you feel about coercing others” or in other words “how strongly do you adhere to the liberal concept of ‘freedom = the maximization of choice'”. And it is here that we begin to see Zippy’s valid critiques of Libertarianism as a real concept.

Before we move on though, I would like to make a quick note: It is true that the positions of an individual on the axes of statism-minarchism and libertarianism-authoritarianism are highly correlated. But because there are individuals who advocate for greater coercion but through means other than the state, I argue the breakup of these two axes is correct.

“All Politics are Authoritarian”

In this way, we can now understand what Zippy means when he claims all politics are authoritarian. We have established that the true libertarian-authoritarian axis is centered not on social attitudes or statism, but rather on coercion. So, why does that mean that libertarianism isn’t a valid concept? Is it not true that there are systems that coerce more and systems that coerce less. From a certain point of view, sure. But when we step back, we realize this difference in coercion is not actually meaningful.

In his post, “Everyone is an authoritarian; some authoritarians are sociopathic,” Zippy notes that:

Politics is the art of authoritatively resolving conflicts by discriminating between people and enforcing the resolutions. This can only be done from a particular, discriminatory, substantive understanding of how things ought to be done and of what things are unacceptable: from a particular understanding of the good

Effectively, even the concept of libertarian freedom (freedom as the maximization of potential choice and therefore the minimization of “coercion”) is a specific ethical stance. And any attempt to “coerce” individuals to change the status quo must be resisted (therefore leading to a paradox where the concept of minimization of coercion requires coercion. Basically coercing to eliminate coercion). So, there is no such thing as an ideology free of coercion. Nor is there an ideology that views coercion as bad.

So, why can’t there still be a gradient of coercion? Wouldn’t there be systems that are more coercive and less coercive inherently? In fact, no. There aren’t. Why? Because what determines how coercive an ideology is isn’t the ideology itself, but the people the ideology is applied to. Let’s take a look at an example:

Imagine there is a small town of about 200 people. In this town, farming is an integral part of life so during the summer everyone is asleep by 9pm in order to wake up early to get working. Everyone except the night policemen that is. Now, the night policemen want the ability to question someone for being out late because the only people out late would be from out of town. (Bear in mind that the police have not yet noticed anyone out late. It is merely a precaution) So, the police advocate for a curfew of 10pm during the summer. Everyone is already asleep at 9pm and so they say “sure, doesn’t matter to us. Keep us safe.” The behavior of the inhabitants of the town doesn’t change. Theoretically they are being constrained, but there is no actual shift in their behavior.And yet, what happens if a family moves in who are night owls? Perhaps genetically they can get away with 6 hours of sleep per night without bad effects and so they go to sleep at 11pm. What if they wanted to be outside past 10pm? I would argue that the law that previously did not change the behavior of the town’s inhabitants now DOES actually coerce the new family.

So, is the curfew itself coercive in the absence of any individuals to apply it to? I would argue, no. I would argue that something is not actually coercive unless it has an effect on your actual actions. And true, every little potential coercion will affect how you think and even if you aren’t personally coerced in an actual manner, the greater the number of coercions the greater your uneasiness will likely be. So, we could even argue that any and all laws are potentially coercive. Apply the laws in the right (or I guess in this case, wrong) environment, and a law or norm or value that had no effect on the behavior of individuals in society A now becomes coercive.

And why it’s important to distinguish between actual and potential coercion is that all norms, values, and political decisions are potentially coercive. All you have to do is apply them to an individual who does not agree with them. So, to claim that a specific policy is coercive is to not grasp what coercion is. When people say this, they really mean “that policy is coercive to me/people I care about and/or support”. But that doesn’t make that policy coercive while other policies are not coercive. Coercion can only be determined by an individual, based on whether or not the policy allows the individual to keep living the way he/she would had the policy not been enacted and subsequently enforced. Since politics necessarily discriminates between interest-holders in a social conflict, it can be rationally understood that all politics are authoritarian, in that all politics are potentially coercive and will be actually coercive whenever an individual who disagrees with the political decision encounters said decision.


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