A Framework for Categorizing Governments

One of my favorite things is exhaustive, mutually exclusive categorizations. This was true of me even as a teenager, I just didn’t recognize it yet. So when I was taught about different types of governments in my Canadian high school social studies class (democracy, parliamentary system, capitalism, socialism, fascism, communism, etc.), it really bothered me that I couldn’t plot them all on a spectrum to compare them. Many years later, I think I’ve solved this conundrum. I have identified 5 spectra governments can be plotted on, and the best part is that they are exhaustive and mutually exclusive:

1. Political spectrum: Who makes the laws
(autocracy/single person <—-> democracy/everyone)

2. Legal spectrum: How much the laws are spelled out beforehand
(rule of man <—-> rule of law)

3. Economic spectrum: Locus of decision making about the distribution and use of resources
(planned economy/centralized <—-> capitalism/decentralized)

4. Welfare spectrum: Degree of wealth redistribution
(zero <—-> full)

5. Liberty spectrum: Degree of freedom of speech, religion, relocation, job, drugs, sexuality, etc.
(zero <—-> full)

A few comments on these:

Some of these spectra interact. By this I mean that if a government sits at one end of one spectrum, this affects where it is likely to sit on other spectra. For example, an autocracy is more likely to sit closer to the “zero” side of the liberty spectrum because autocrats often limit liberties to maintain their power.

Most of the general government categorizations we think about are silent regarding multiple spectra. For example, when we think of socialism, we usually only think of two of the spectra: the economic spectrum (government ownership of the means of production, so it’s on the “centralized” side) and the welfare spectrum (lots of wealth redistribution). These two characteristics could be instituted by very different governments and still technically be called socialism, such as by a democracy that has a very well-defined body of laws and a ton of freedom about everything else, or by an autocracy where a dictator rules by the law of himself and allows very few freedoms about most things. It helps me understand different government ideals (such as socialism and fascism) better when I try plotting them on these five spectra to see where they land on the ones they have opinions about and also to see which ones they are silent on.

Much of the confusion that occurs when discussing the merits of different governments comes from confusing/mixing these spectra. When you use a single term to refer to multiple spectra (socialism, communism, fascism, etc.), the different spectra seem to get mixed together and the conversation loses clarity. Someone may be talking about their interest in socialism because they feel that significant wealth redistribution is the morally right thing for a society to do, but they may also believe that capitalism/decentralized is the most efficient way to organize an economy to generate sufficient wealth to be able to carry out that welfare. You have to identify the different spectra individually.

A constitution, when seen in the context of this framework, is simply a document that establishes the initial structure of a government and provides hard end points for how far that government can shift toward one end or the other of these five spectra.

A person’s ideas about how to fix healthcare are inseparable from their opinions about government more generally, so our conversations about both will be more productive when we communicate clearly which spectrum we are talking about.

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