Four Models for the Size, Direction, and Structure of Government
March 16th, 2022
By Peter Hill
Four Models for the Size, Direction, and Structure of Government
A model or paradigm is a pattern of thinking, a way of organizing our thought. It is a shortcut that helps us to reach conclusions quickly and rather reliably. This essay presents four models that help us to organize, and analyzie, our thought about government. The first two are common. You have probably seen them in popular media or the classroom. The third and fourth are less known, but I think they are also very useful to help us see what we expect of government.
This collection of essays is from the perspective of a conservative. This section, however, is not so much about being progressive or conservative, as about the nature of government and our expectations for it. It helps us analyze government, without evaluating whether what government is doing is actually helpful or harmful. Thus, these models may help identify ourselves and others on various political spectrums. By themselves, these tools are “neutral” – they do not tell us whether a particular location on the spectrum or a particular public policy is good or bad, beneficial or damaging. As such these are purely descriptive. They do not tell us what government ought to do.
Each has faults or is incomplete in some way. Taken together, however, they are useful analytical tools.
Model 1: The Horseshoe Model
This may be the most common model. The left tip of the horseshoe is the “far left” while the right tip of the horseshoe is the “far right”. The bend in the middle is where political “moderates” find themselves, half way between far left and far right. Anyone on the left side might be characterized as being a leftist, while anyone on the right side might be characterized as being a rightist. Note, however, that for many in the media, anything not progressive is likely to be characterized as “right wing” or “extreme right wing”. Even the socialist wing of the Democratic Party is likely not be to characterized as “leftist” or “socialist” but as “progressive.”
The far left is made up of communists. The far right is made up of fascists and Nazis. Although they are at the ideological extreme of the horseshoe, they are closer to each other than to the moderate middle. This explains why fascists and communists, although they hate each other, share many characteristics. They tend to militarize their nations, nationalize (take over or highly regulate) their economies, deny basic civil liberties such as due process and the protection of private property, develop into police states which put many of their own people to death or in prison for political or speech crimes rather than traditional crimes, have large surveillance and secret police forces to spy on and arrest their own people, and identify as a collective whole rather than as individuals or families. The focus of identity tends to be “the Party (for Communists) or “the Nation” for Fascists. Everything – individuals, private organizations, churches, businesses, families – are made subordinate to and subject to the state. The goal of the communists is to have everyone equal – a classless society. The goal of the fascists is to have strong national power in a unified nation. This model emphasizes the direction of government, the goal a government is trying to reach.
Far Left Far Right
Communists Fascists and Nazis
The Moderate Middle
On the left side just below communists we would find “socialists.” They support many of the goals and tools of communists, but generally permit a few more civil liberties. Between socialists and moderates we would find “progressives” who would permit more civil liberties, such as some free speech, the right to vote, and some economic liberty.
On the right side just below fascists we would find “rightists.” They often emphasize nationality, sometimes limited to a particular and favored ethnic group. They generally support economic controls on large businesses, but permit some liberty for small businesses, churches, individuals, and families, so long as these do not oppose the government. Like socialists, they oppose free speech and freedom of the press, and use government to limit free speech, a free press, and free thought. Between “rightists” and moderates are “conservatives” who permit more civil liberties, including economic liberty and the independence of families, individuals, and private organizations. They also emphasize smaller, less intrusive government.
Moderates are defined negatively. That is, they are not “for” anything in particular. They are simply not “rightists” or “leftists.”
This is a helpful model. But it is incomplete or misleading in some ways. For example, libertarians believe in minimal government and maximum individual liberty. But where are they located on this model? They are the opposite of communists and fascists, but are not “moderates” who are in the middle on this model. The model does not really have a place for them. And why are the far right and far left so similar if they are at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum?
A second model might help.
Model 2: The Continuum or Spectrum Model
This model may remedy some of the defects of the first model. It locates various ideologies on a continuum that does not measure the direction of governmental power, but the amount of government power. While the first model measures the direction of government, this model measures the structure of government, i.e., how much power or coercion the government uses to regulate everything else – families, businesses, private organizations, individuals, and churches.
The model reflects a continuum in which one extreme has no governmental power at all – anarchy (i.e., “no rule”), and the other extreme has total governmental power – totalitarianism. This model does not distinguish between totalitarian Nazis and totalitarian communists. Most of us would not care much whether it was Nazi secret police, or communist secret police, who arrested, imprisoned, and executed us for nonconformity with the government’s goals. Dead is dead, whether inflicted by a Nazi 9mm Luger or a Communist 9mm Makarov pistol.
This model is helpful because it has a place for every ideology. Note that as government increases, liberty disappears, but, theoretically, equality grows. (This is not absolutely true, of course. Much of the socialist ruling class in workers paradises live in luxury while most of the people live in poverty. But most people are equally miserable and afraid.) If our great political value is equality, we can find ourselves moving toward that section of the continuum. If our great political value is liberty, where people make their own choices as individuals, families, or businesses, we can find ourselves moving toward the opposite section of the continuum.
I also use the term “liberal” in this model. That term is used by many today, but I tend to avoid it because it is misleading. “Liberal” today is used to describe people who want to use the power of government for “democratic” purposes, promoting equality and security (such as income security) at the expense of liberty. But its historical origin referred to those who favored individual rights of protection from the government, such as those found in the Bill of Rights. Nowadays those who have the same position are called “conservatives”, so today’s conservatives are the liberals from the 18-19th centuries.
I refer to what most today call liberals as “progressives.” Progressives want to use the coercive power of government to increase equality. Progressives are often conflicted, wanting on the one hand to use expansive, intrusive governmental tools to root out inequality, yet also wanting to create some private space where government may not intrude. Thus, they have one foot in the old liberal tradition, and one foot in the socialist tradition. Generally, however, as seen in this model, they advocate more governmental power, whereas conservatives are closer to the libertarians in advocating for less government power. This model reminds us why conservatives tend to use the terms “liberty” and “republic” more, and progressives tend to use the terms “democracy” and “equality” more.
As we will see in later essays on the Constitution, the federal government was largely libertarian early in our nation’s history. It regulated or coerced very little of society, and let the other social spheres (e.g., family, businesses, churches) develop on their own without assistance or hindrance.
This model is helpful, but shouldn’t we distinguish between Nazis and Communists, as the first model did?
Model 3: A Social Sphere Model
This model is derived from the ideas of Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch newspaper editor, university founder, pastor, and Prime Minister 100 years ago. The pictorial model is mine, but the ideas are Kuyper’s. According the Kuyper, society is composed of many component parts. Each of these parts or spheres has its own existence and independent identity. None of these parts should be subordinate to, or absorbed by, another part of society. Among these social spheres are such entities as the state (i.e., government), the family, schools, private clubs, individuals, labor unions, businesses, churches, and so on. Kuyper was a Christian, and considered that this was the way God had created and developed society. This idea is called “sphere sovereignty” or “sphere independence.”
It means that the church should not dictate to the state or take over the state, much less elevate or depose politicians and rulers. The state should not dictate to or take over a business. A business should not dictate to or take over the family. Each sphere is independent. For Kuyper, the state could intervene in another sphere when a crime was committed, (e.g., if there is child sexual abuse in a church), but otherwise should pretty much leave the other social spheres alone.
All of these spheres overlap, but each sphere must maintain its own independence. In the past, churches tended to intrude on the other spheres. Consider some practices in the Middle Ages in which churches claimed to be able to raise up or dethrone kings. In the past, businesses, individuals, or families tended to intrude on the other spheres. Consider the example of slavery, where an economic relationship swallowed up all the other spheres of a slave’s life. Consider “company towns” from the past where a company affected every other sphere, running stores, separating families, building churches and operating schools, regulating the lives of individuals, etc.
This model might be pictured as follows:
Note that an individual’s identity might be found in several spheres. I might operate a business or be an employee, be a member of a church, and be a family man. Yet each role has a distinctive, independent aspect to it. To the degree that one sphere seeks to take over other spheres, to that degree that sphere is overstepping its bounds. Today, that sphere is usually the government. It is increasingly regulating all the other spheres, and often in great detail and depth.
Note also that Kuyper did not say exactly how much these spheres should overlap. For example, he did not say that the “government sphere” should overlap a good deal or only a little with the other spheres. But he was clear that at some point a large degree of government intrusion into another sphere was illegitimate, harmful, and even wicked.
This model is both descriptive (i.e., what society and government actually do look like) as well as prescriptive (i.e., what society and government ought to look like.) And it reminds us that what we have in common is society, not just these other social spheres. Society is bigger than any particular social sphere.
Model 4: Society and Governmental Coercion
How much is government regulating society? How intrusive or expansive is it? How much is it taxing, prohibiting, licensing, fining, requiring, prosecuting, mandating, imprisoning, inspecting, subsidizing, permitting, or otherwise creating burdens for some activities, and benefits for other activities?
This last model shows how government is only part of society, but also portrays that government might be more expansive or more limited in different societies. In this sense it is descriptive. But it is not prescriptive – it does not tell us how expansive or limited government should be.
Here is a portrayal of a society in which government is more intrusive. Governmental regulation and coercion take up a good deal of the “society” sphere. If it took up the whole sphere, we might characterize that society as totalitarian because nothing would be left outside the government sphere. In effect, government would equal society.
Here is a portrayal of a society in which government’s role is more limited, and the unregulated part of society is larger than in the progressive/socialist model. There is more liberty, or freedom of action, in this model for other aspects of society. If the “governmental regulation” sphere were even smaller, we might chactersze that government as being libertarian.
Each of these models is helpful in some way. All are, perhaps, incomplete or even inaccurate in some way. Together, however, they help us to analyze government. They show where we are in a political spectrum, and where our government is. They show the direction we want our government to go in, whether left or right, expansive or limited, intrusive or restricted. Progressives and conservatives may be able to agree that these are useful tools or models, but, of course, would disagree on where the lines ought to be drawn. Conservatives, understanding that liberty does not flourish, and may not even exist, under a powerful government, emphasize liberty and limited government. Conservatives want the lines to be drawn so as to constrain government from interfering very much in the other social spheres; constrain government from absorbing more and more wealth; and constrain government from regulating families, businesses, individuals, churches, and the other social spheres to a great degree.
If this is what you desire, you are a conservative.
© Peter Hill, 25 Jan 22