A Good Taxonomy


Most political taxonomies strike me as overly artificial and forced, but here is a thoughtful and historically informed, yet concise and helpful, taxonomy of the various understandings of the relationship between state and society by Daniel McCarthy.  Dan’s categories help deliniate some of the divisions here on The Porch as well.  For example, my own views would fall most accurately along the continuum between anarcho-capitalist and conservative-traditionalist (though I would posit a more genuinely American version of prairie-agrarian-Jeffersonian-traditionalism as distinct from an Old World-ecclesial-traditionalism), while the views of many here, including our Distributist friends, strike me as falling into the categories of reformist social democrat.  While we may make common cause against certain Classic Liberal centrists, we are miles apart on a more fundamental level.

To gauge the distance between Nisbet and Molnar accurately, it may be useful to draw back and look at three general views of state and society that have won currency since the French Revolution. The three do not correspond exactly to the philosophies of liberalism, socialism, and conservatism, but there’s a rough match. The “liberal” view of state, society, and the individual holds that society is naturally harmonious, with the interests of diverse individuals (who are the reality behind such secondary institutions such as the family, church, etc.) coinciding to the benefit of all. Crime and war are therefore aberrant and pathological rather than systemic and recurrent. The place of the state, if it has any place at all, is to suppress these incidental eruptions of violence and maintain a set of legal rules that apply equally to all — which is to say, the law is not a battlefield. The latter-day anarcho-capitalist variant of this view says that the state is not in fact necessary to maintain rules and suppress sporadic violence; even those functions can better be performed by non-state agencies.

The “socialist” view, by contrast, holds that society is persistently (if not naturally) disharmonious, divided into classes of exploiters and exploited. Institutions reflect this fundamental social division, with the state, established churches, and property in land being instruments by which the exploiters extract the very lifeblood of the exploited. The social struggle is primary, institutions are merely tools, and it may be possible — through reform or revolution — for the exploited class to turn the instruments of oppression against their oppressors. In the utopian Marxist vision, the need for tools of exploitation finally disappears altogether once the exploited no longer have to use them to defend themselves or to achieve justice against their exploiters. But for now, the state either reflects the demands of the oppressor class (according to the more radical opinion) or else is an arena in which good and evil originating in the socioeconomic sphere must contend.

By way of an example of this “socialist” view, consider the fight over corporate spending and “campaign finance reform.” Modern “liberals” — that is, reformist social democrats — believe that through free and fair elections the public should be able to put in power honest representatives of the people’s (i.e., the exploited class’s) will, who will then use the state to restrain the exploitative tendencies of the private sector (which likes to cheat workers, pollute the environment, etc.). Corporations tend toward evil, in this picture, because they represent the few who have more wealth or power than the many (as a result of exploitation or, at any rate, some kind of unfairness), while democratic government supplies a means by which the many can keep the few in check. But democratic government constantly has to be guarded against perversion into non-democratic government — through the influence of corporate corruption, for example — which would turn the tables and allow the state to become once more not a defensive mechanism for the many but an extractive mechanism for the few.

The radical or anarchist variant on this “socialist” view of society and government says that government and other long-established institutions inherently favor the exploiting class, indeed are inseparable from their interests, and must therefore be abolished rather than reappropriated. The left-anarchist criticizes the anarcho-capitalist for wanting to close only one of the channels of oppression, the state, while leaving others, such as land ownership, untouched. Indeed, left anarchists who believe (as Noam Chomsky seems to do) that the state more amenable to democratic pressure than are other institutions may even accuse the anarcho-capitalists of creating a worse system than the one that already exists by removing a potentially public institution and giving more power to private interests.

The third view of society and state roughly corresponds to conservatism, but overlaps with a few other philosophies or ideologies as well. This is the view that society is naturally disharmonious, but can be brought to a degree of harmony through the action of certain institutions, particularly the state. The “liberal-conservative” variation on this view says that ultimately reconciling the conflicting interests within society is beyond any state’s power, therefore the best that can be achieved is a temporary suppression of conflict by balancing forces. This is, of course, quite similar to, but less optimistic than, the pure “liberal” view of society and state — the difference comes down to how persistent and regular one believes social conflict to be. The fascist or nationalist variation on this view says that the coercive power of the state can successfully harmonize society, if only by eliminating foreign influences and disruptive “intermediary” institutions. Finally, the “traditionalist” variation on this view is that perfect harmony cannot be achieved, nor can much long-term peace be achieved by balancing competing interest groups within civil society, therefore all power must rest in the hands of established authority (church and state).


  1. For me one noticeable aspect of Daniel McCarthy’s taxonomy of political philosophies into the three broad streams of liberalism, socialism, and conservatism is the disagreement of these streams as to whether human society is fundamentally harmonious or disharmonious. I believe a new politics is forming which denies that there is any point in trying to resolve this question. At heart this new politics takes as its leitmotif that we are stuck in a continuous process in this universe where life is locked in a struggle to defeat entropy. This process may have a universal underlying balance but as far as human society and our planet are concerned we are not controllers of it and we consequently have to use any method we can think of to achieve homeostasis. This means if centralized political and economic power threaten entropy then use the tools of rule of law and devolution of these powers as appropriately as possible and not rule out the use of either. America certainly can no longer afford its un-governability by clinging rigidly to particular political philosophical views of human nature and society. It badly needs cohesive pragmatism in the form of inductive rather than deductive logic.

  2. Caleb, how does your conception of where your understanding falls within McCarthy’s taxonomy relate to the particularities of the Kansan people and land?

    I am wondering whether particular understandings of the relationship between society and State are more fitting for certain regions (say Northern California vs Kansas) than others, or whether there are more universal–or, perhaps more modestly, more American–characteristics which would suggest a single better understanding of the relation between state and society. Though, I suppose Tocqueville has much of the ground covered with respect to the American character.

    It would be interesting to hear FPR contributor reflections, or perhaps the beginnings of such reflections, on their own places in this respect. What sorts of things about your people or place makes certain political and cultural institutions better than others?

  3. At a New England Town Meeting I once attended, the assembled (quite a few that night because insurrection was in the air) proceeded to tell the State of Connecticut to Pound Salt on a big budget local road “improvement” that was to require the imminent domain taking of a few low cost houses/rentals and then, right after that, we also told the State to mind their own business on a mandated addition of a second Probate Judge because the current one was quite adequate.

    This country would be a better place if there were more well-attended Town Meetings. Sometimes these meetings are Shanghaied by aggressive Special Interests but they are LOCAL special interests whose victims have memory…and use it the next chance they get. Terroir Baby…from such things fine civil vintages doth occur.

  4. Sabin, Have you read the last chapter of P.J. O’Rourke’s “Parliament of Whores?” It’s the best description of a town meeting I have ever seen. And I’m a town meeting guy from the word go.

  5. Personally I think us who share the conservative view of society that those like Nisbet, or Kirk or Burke, do are not particularly covered by McCarthy’s description. In reality we tend to consider that society can be both harmonious and disharmonious and in fact is almost always a mix of both in any particular society. Society includes individuals,the intermediate social associations, society and culture. When there is a balance between these which us Burkeans tend to consider as a balance of autonomy and conformity. I don’t think McCarthy’s description really covers this. The differences between liberal conservatives and more traditionalist variants really is between slight increases of conformity and influence of certain institutions above the individual.

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