Every state is founded on force.
--Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk


Politics, for this discussion, refers to the unequal distribution of power between groups and individuals within a state.[1] While we usually measure power by wealth, power can also be expressed in other ways, for example: authority, as in the military, or status, as in a class system.

The modern state is a compulsory association that organizes the distribution of this power. A government requires an administration to exert its control. Understanding one’s political philosophy first requires you to decide what you think the goals of government should be[2], then to decide how to best achieve these goals.

Your IdeologyEdit

In our American democracy, ideology is most commonly classified as “right-wing” conservative or “left-wing” liberal. These uni-dimensional terms are so poorly defined as to be useful only as epithets. A more useful method is given as The World’s Smallest Political Quiz. Take it now.

Once you have a sense of where you fit in the political spectrum, it is useful to ask yourself why you believe this to be the best philosophy. Most of us grow up believing what our family believes. We uncritically adopt this default position and then work backwards to justify our beliefs.


If, however, one agrees to measure her beliefs against the utilitarian[3] standard, then she[4] will find herself in a new place in political debate. With colleagues of goodwill, discussion can move from "what" are the important goals (the greatest good...), to "how" to best achieve those goals. It is the "how" that differs dramatically by political philosophy.

Americans can generally be grouped in their political philosophies as liberals, conservatives, libertarians, and, because you live in the singular education environment of a college campus, communists. It worth spending some time exploring what each group believes.


Origin and First TransformationEdit

Since the Civil War, American liberal[5] thought has undergone two evolutions from its origins in the European socialist, anarchist and communist movements. In the wake of the Great Depression of the 1930’s and a world at war, FDR argued that rights are not meaningful unless one has the resources to exercise them. He called these the Four Freedoms in his State of the Union speech of 1941: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear, throughout the world. These certainly exceeded what the constitution had mandated: protection of free speech, and set an internationalist view of foreign policy. The Roosevelt era fundamentally changed the relationship of Americans to their government. Henceforth, government would insure them from unemployment, serious illness and an impoverished old age. Government would go from spending 10% of the GNP before Roosevelt to 20% of the GNP after World War II.

Second TransformationEdit

The second evolution of American liberal thought occurred during the 1960’s. In a setting of general economic prosperity, the birth control pill, civil rights and the Vietnam War, a new view of morality emerged. It challenged the concept of a "universal" moral order that was external to us and made demands on us, and replaced it with a morality based on the sovereignty of the "inner self". Gone was the authority of one’s parents, teachers and leaders[6], to be replaced by learning to be "true to one’s self". It reached its political apogee in Johnson’s Great Society, lost its energy with the end of the Vietnam War and crashed into the counter-reformation that brought Reagan to the presidency.


  1. Morality: this is to a large extent defined by each individual for himself. We should dig deep into ourselves and listen to an interior authentic voice of natural goodness.[7] One is not allowed to judge the morals of anyone else.
  2. Human Nature: Humans are naturally good[7] but lose that goodness due to harm caused them by their family or society. If all children could be raised in ideal circumstances, then mankind’s ills could be cured. At their core, liberals are utopians, believing that we can make a "just" society.
  3. Virtues: Diversity, Multiculturalism, Social justice, Tolerance
  4. Happiness: Below average. It has been stated that this may be due to their chronic disappointment that none of their political plans make things better[8]
  5. Rate of Cultural change: Rapid rate of change is desirable. The injustices and oppressions of society are bad enough that they warrant taking great risks in changing our present cultural norms.



Conservatives believe that there are universal and fixed human attributes. There are, therefore, universal laws that will apply to all humans, in all places at all times. That is why conservatives put great emphasis on the past. They believe that there are universal absolutes for truth, beauty[9] and virtue. That is why conservatives care about studying the "classics", believing that for a work to survive its own narrow time and place; it must appeal to some universal in human nature. It is in studying these works that the unformed mind can create a template against which to judge contemporary works.

Human NatureEdit

Conservatives believe that humans have a dual nature: good and evil. They believe that a society must not only bring out the best in individuals but also to suppress the base and destructive elements. For example, capitalism channels the trait of self-interest into material betterment of the whole society. Conservatives do not excuse evil behavior as the result of harm caused by social injustice; they consider evil an intrinsic part of human nature from which the innocent must be protected. Lastly, conservatives believe that the family, with a biologic mother and father, provides the best moral environment for raising healthy children. Families require the support of civic institutions such as churches and schools to achieve these ends. Government has a legitimate role in strengthening these institutions.


  1. Morality: there are absolutes in right and wrong. They are the same in all major religions for a reason: they are universal. Most conservatives believe that these may or definitely have been given to mankind by a supreme being. Even if agnostic, a conservative is comfortable with someone else’s belief that they are God-given. For this America, the Ten Commandments will do very nicely [10]
  2. Human nature: humans have a dual nature and are capable of good and evil. It is the role of families and society to create the "virtuous"[11] individuals necessary to sustain a self-governing society. While correction of bad behavior is desirable, the first obligation of society is protection of the innocent. This latter issue will be re-visited in the discussion on abortion.
  3. Virtues[12]: Patriotism, Civility, Personal responsibility, Family, Community
  4. Happiness: Above average. When you have low expectations of human nature, you can only be positively surprised by your fellow man.
  5. Rate of Cultural Change: Rapid change may be dangerous. America has created the greatest amount of good for its citizens of any country in the world. There is real risk in thinking that this system can be changed on one part without that affecting other parts, because of the Law of Unintended Consequences.


A good working definition of Libertarian is that an individual has the right to be left alone. One is free to think and do as one wishes, as long as it causes no harm to anyone else. The purpose of government is to protect the individual from harm by others, enforce the legal code and perhaps create a stable currency. After that, the voluntary behavior of free individuals will lead to the best economic efficiency which itself leads to the best social welfare. Social institutions, the building blocks of culture, will inevitably form if there is no restricting political pathology. Libertarians believe there is no such thing as a “victimless crime”. One’s body is one’s own, and the there should be no prohibitions, for example, against gambling, prostitution or drug use. Government should not protect us from personal risk such as cigarette smoking or unproven medical treatments. While a Libertarian might personally wear a seat belt or a motorcycle helmet, he would not want the government to tell anyone else to. There is some variability in thought on such things as taxes (theft of property versus necessary evil), war (harm to others versus self-defense) and abortion (the body is sovereign versus fetal protection). Libertarians believe in property rights, which differentiates them from anarchists. Libertarians believe in free markets, which differentiates them from socialists. Libertarians believe that government should stay out of one’s private life, which differentiates them from conservatives.[13]


  1. Morality: A personal issue
  2. Human nature: Bad people exist, government must protect us.
  3. Virtues: A personal issue
  4. Happiness: mind your own business.
  5. Rate of cultural change: individuals will have to adjust. This is not an issue for government to regulate or mitigate.



Modern communism emerged from the socialist movements of the 19th century. As the Industrial Revolution created manufacturing centers, there emerged a new class of poor, urbanized workers, living in wretched conditions, the proletariat. The socialists blamed these conditions on capitalism. The foremost of these critics was Karl Marx[14] to end this “exploitative” nature of capitalism by revolution of the workers.


Communists believe in the abolition of property rights and that all means of production belong to the community (i.e. the government). The philosophy of Communism has been summarized as "from each according to his ability; to each according to his need."[15] Communism was a term initially used interchangeably with socialism. After the murderous behavior and poor economic performance of Stalinist Russia and Maoist China, current socialists do not tend to identify themselves as communists. Most American socialists now see limited capitalism as a necessary tool to create taxable wealth[16] and property rights as a necessary part of capitalism.


  1. Morality: “A means can be justified…by its ends” Trotsky 1920’s
  2. Human nature: see Rousseau[7]
  3. Virtues: "united discipline and conscious mass struggle against the exploiters"--Lenin, Address to the 3rd Russian Congress, 1920
  4. Happiness: Self-emancipation of the working class.
  5. Rate of cultural change: violent revolution

Exercises Edit

The purpose of these exercises is to deepen one’s understanding of the political thinking of others. While it is fun to digress into what you may think, remember that the purpose of these exercises be able to categorize the political philosophy of others.

  1. "It takes a village to raise a child" is an African folk saying often invoked by Liberals. Hillary Clinton used part of it in a book she wrote called It Takes a Village. How would a Conservative, a Libertarian and a Communist modify this statement?
  2. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, is Boromir a Liberal or a sinful Conservative? Is Aragorn a Libertarian? Can we compare him to George Washington? Are the Orcs representative of Communist society in Stalinist Russia or Maoist China? Is the Hobbits’ Shire the Liberals’ idea of a "just" society? If you don’t know the story of Lord of the Rings, by Tolkien, look up the names in Wikipedia.
  3. "Bong hits 4 Jesus": A high school student in an Alaska hung a banner with these words across from his school’s front door. The day before a town parade, the school principal ordered the sign taken down as she thought it violated school anti-drug policy. The student demanded his constitutional right to free speech. Discuss and classify the following Supreme Court opinions:
    1. It is a "dangerous fiction" to pretend that parents hand-over to school administrators the authority for what their children may say or hear. The only speech that should be forbidden is that which threatens "the physical safety of students" Drug promotion qualifies.
      --Samuel Alito
    2. Precedent allows for schools to ban "disruptive" behavior. This now includes "promoting illegal drug use."
    3. Most court cases about schools come from the 19th century. They discuss the idea of the public school as places "to control stubbornness, to quicken diligence, and to reform bad habits" (North Carolina, 1837), "develop a core of common values" (1843), and preserve "decency and decorum" (Vermont, 1859). Therefore, the school’s role is certainly one of in loco parentis, in that they and parents broadly agree on how a child should be raised. What schools need least is court interference in this difficult job.
      --Clarence Thomas
    4. Students will test the limits of acceptable behavior in a myriad of ways better known to schoolteachers than judges; school officials need a degree of flexible authority to respond to disciplinary challenges."
      --Stephen Breyer
  4. Classify these quotes:
    1. The profit-worshipping economy to this day eludes controls that would protect majorities of citizens in this country and around the world.
      --James Carroll in the Boston Globe, page A11. 7/30/07
    2. The park includes a small memorial component- a modest-sized plaque will commemorate the Armenians who perished in the 1915 genocide and those victims of all genocides that follow. The American immigrant experience is one of diversity, and recognizing this diversity only strengthens us. The historical fact of genocide reminds us that the more we celebrate and memorialize our diversity, and the more tolerant the world will become, the less likely we are to repeat that terrible history.
      --Pasqua Scibelli in the Boston Globe, page A11, 7/30/07 requested space on the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston.
    3. How long are we going to let insurance companies and drug companies run this country?
      --John Edwards, campaigning for President in New Hampshire, July, 2007
    4. We never rate any films or any issues as more important than another film or issue.” “We never declare one human-rights issue more important than another
      --Bruni Barres on how her Human Rights Watch decides which films to highlight at their 19th Annual Film Festival. 2007
    5. Married women are 10% more likely to say they feel free than single women. Church-going women are 14% more likely to feel a great deal of freedom than those who never go.
      --Arthur Brooks, Professor, Syracuse University, in WSJ 7/12/07.
    6. I don’t want a progressive[17] evangelical movement any more than I want the conservative one that we have now.
      --Kim Candy, president of NOW, 2007.
    7. Whenever you find a man who says he doesn't believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later.
      --C. S. Lewis in The Case for Christianity
    8. Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.
      --C. S. Lewis


  1. State, definition: a territory in which government has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force (Max Weber). Note that the ideology of anarchy is based on the supposition that force can be made unnecessary.
  2. Refer to Wikipedia: Justification for the State
  3. See Evaluating Political Discourse
  4. Use of pronouns: it is deeply irritating that there is no third person singular pronoun that refers to both genders. He or she will be used randomly throughout to refer to all individuals.
  5. It is aggravating that American Liberals co-opted a term used by the Founding Fathers to mean that one was committed to three basic personal freedoms: economic, political and religious. In this “classical” liberal view, understood in the historical context of European kings and the political Catholic Church, individuals gained freedom by limiting the scope of government. This is opposite to the views of Modern liberals.
  6. Nicely captured in the 60’s aphorism, “never trust anyone over 30”.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 The patron saint of “natural” goodness is usually given as Jean Jacques Rousseau, who argued in the 1760’s that man, in a state of nature, is naturally good. It is civilization and society that corrupts him, causing a negative influence on his “positive self-love”. Rousseau had five children by his common-law wife and placed each in an orphanage at birth. Rousseau argued that he would have made a poor father and that the children would have a better life in the orphanage. What his children thought is not known
  8. Happiness is a complex concept, well worth reviewing. For our purposes, we will mean satisfaction in one’s life. Happiness can be quantified:
    Happiness = Reality ÷ Expectations
  9. A good example is the Golden Ratio (Phi) of about 1.61, which is a universal constant throughout aesthetics.
  10. Many religious conservatives refer to America as a Christian nation. This is incorrect. We are a nation of laws as defined by the constitution and can have no national religion, as per the First Amendment. We are, however, a nation of Christians, where about 80% of us identify ourselves in someway as connected to this faith.
  11. The Founding Fathers’ definition of “virtuous” generally included the ability to give up some portion of one’s autonomy for the common good. Similarly, an essential part of “happiness,” as in “the pursuit of happiness, included service to others.
  12. The Cardinal Virtues are: Fortitude, Prudence, Temperance and Justice. The Christian virtues are: Faith Hope and Charity. Compare these to the Catholics’ cardinal sins of: lust, greed, gluttony, sloth, wrath, envy and pride (also known as the seven deadly sins).
  13. Dinesh D’Souza gives this amusing story in Letters to a Young Conservative of a conversation he overheard: The conservative said, “I am distressed by the idea of fornication in public parks.” The Libertarian replied, “I am distressed by the idea of public parks.”
  14. See Political Ideologies and the Purpose of Government
  15. The phrase was first used by a French utopian socialist, Louis Blanc, in 1840 and co-opted by Marx in 1875. The basic concept may be seen in the New Testament in the Acts of the Apostles, where Luke describes the original post-Jesus congregations: “And all that believed were together, and had all things in common. And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. (Acts 2:44-45). “Neither was there any among them that lacked…(for) distribution was made unto every man according as he had need” (Acts 2: 34-35). These passages are very important to Christian socialists and Christian communists. See: Wikipedia: Liberation Theology
  16. Modern socialists would have much in common with Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who was responsible for raising money for Louis XIV’s many wars and his palace at Versailles. Colbert said, "The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing".
  17. "Progressive" is a term Liberals like to use for themselves, as it doesn’t carry the negative connotations of “Liberal”. It reminds one of a C.S. Lewis quote, “we all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”