A Taxonomy of Right Wing Thought

[Author’s Note: this post based on an old Discord rant]

This is just a low effort post going through a brief taxonomy that I’ve been thinking about when interpreting right wing intellectual thought. It isn’t super well researched and doesn’t get into comprehensive arguments. As I’m not sure I’ll go into much more depth on this topic anytime soon, and it’s been a while since I made a post related to politics, I decided to post it anyway. I do have a longer and more thorough blog post in the pipeline which will most likely come out after this one, if I can get it in a state I’m satisfied with. Additionally I have gotten several recommendations for right wing intellectuals I should look into more from Jefferey Arana, in particular Thomas Sowell, Andrew Sullivan, Douglas Murray, Michael Shermer, Jason Riley, and Glen Loury. I am most optimistic about Thomas Sowell from what I’ve heard, but as he’s on the libertarian end of the spectrum he might not be anything too new or different from my usual intellectual diet, which already contains a decent number of libertarians. In any case once I dive more into some of these figures, I might have a chance to revisit this topic. Also this post has a ton of Wikipedia links, but it’s current year so we’re probably fine. Now without further ado:

I have noticed for a long time that the political right has many internal tensions and, if taken as a single unified ideology, is fairly incoherent. While some of this is partisan conformity, more charitably some of it is just the way coalitions work. While I feel that, as someone on the inside, I understand the tensions in left wing thought intuitively enough, it has often felt like in order to really sympathize with and understand right wing America, I need to take the different threads feeding into it more separately than they are often presented in casual partisan discourse. Given this, I recently developed an interest in building up a full taxonomy of different right wing ideologies that all feed into the mix, so I can review the spread of arguments (as well as dissect which partisans of the ideology are more opportunistically incoherent in their arguments and who is more principled).

I will not be considering overtly religious arguments, as I feel that they usually break down into a combination of one or another of the threads here, especially Aristotelian conservatism, and much less interesting “it’s in the good book” type stuff. If you do want an interesting breakdown of the interaction of Christian and conservative thought in America, I recommend this excellent J. J. McCullough video (McCullough is debatably a conservative himself) which seems reasonably well received as fair by Christian conservatives.

I have overall split right wing thought into three rough major categories, each split into three of their own subcategories, for nine categories overall. They are, along with a brief overview of what I see them as believing, as follows:


Burkean: Perhaps the most famous strain of intellectual conservatism, it roughly says that existing institutions/values have a long history of memetic selection, and rapidly replacing them with a system that seems legibly better is likely to end in disaster for reasons that won’t be obvious at first.

Cohenian: Roughly the idea that institutions/beings/objects with intrinsic value ought to be protected above and beyond their intrinsic value, so for instance it is bad to destroy and replace something valuable with something else just as valuable, all else being equal, whether that’s a person, least controversially, or a building, institution, or tradition, more controversially (Cohen has the proviso that injustice is not worth preserving, but then conservatives will often just believe different things are unjust).

Aristotelian: The idea that different things have essences or teloses by their nature, and they are better in proportion to their exemplification of this ideal - so just as a hammer is a good hammer just in case it is good at hammering nails, a man is a good man just in case he conforms to the masculine virtues and lives a “natural” life.


Hayekian: Roughly that a decentralized market economy is necessary for large scale efficient production, because price signals and incentives coordinate the needed production information in a way that centralized economic bureaucracies lack the knowledge or incentives to replicate.

Nozickian: Roughly the idea that everyone has basic authority over their own domain and person, and only real contracts as opposed to hypothetical social ones are morally valid - and so public property is an incoherent concept and taxation or regulation of private property is rights violating, leaving little role for the state except as an occasional necessary evil.

Randian: Based in the idea that the right action for every person is pursuing their rational self-interest, which will consist in personal virtues like self-reliance and self-respect. As a result only capitalist contracts as opposed to state redistribution or charity is truly an enobling way to make a living, because it is the system in which someone only helps you if doing so helps them.


Mussolinian: Roughly the purpose of the state isn’t to serve, protect, or represent the interests of individual citizens, but to promote the interests of a “people” or “civilization”, usually centered in a specific country or race. This means the preservation of aspects of glory or national character and culture at the expense of any conflicting personal freedoms or the interests of anyone outside of “our people”.

Landian: This view, like the Aristotelian, views the “will of nature” as a basic good, but instead of seeing it as the provider of some stable telos to constituents, views it as a larger scale informational/thermodynamic evolution, which prefers to make a landscape of “fitter” systems. It is viewed as basically desirable to accelerate this, through for instance eugenics, capitalism, and even AI takeover.

Hobbesian: Unlike the Mussolinian or Landian views, this one does prioritize the welfare of the individual, but views the purpose of the state to be social control and stability. The original version appealed to skepticism that any state that didn’t involve a strict hierarchy with one person at the top would ultimately fail, but the more recent NRX variation is closer to the idea that systems without such an absolute hierarchy wind up instead beholden to the whims of emergent distributed systems, like marketplaces of goods and ideas, and that the more human touch of an individual absolute leader will ultimately be wiser and less cruel.


I see some version of each of these implicitly but inconsistently invoked at times by different right wingers, and have very different levels of sympathy for each.

I have basically no sympathy for any of the fascist ones, though I tend to think the Hobbesian one is at least more stupid than it is evil. I should add that I label these fascist because I am trying to characterize the motivations of fascist thought through these, not because I am trying to characterize these ideas as inherently fascist. I very often see non-fascist conservatives appeal to a milder version of what I called “Mussolinian fascist” thought for instance, notably many MAGA conservatives, and don’t think this means they are all secret fascists. I also equivocate between “fascist” and feudalism/monarchism here, even though the difference is very important to some people in this category.

Out of the rest I have a significant degree of sympathy for both Cohenian conservatism and Hayekian libertarianism. On paper there I things I like/agree with in both Burkean conservatism and Nozickian libertarianism as well, but the more you look at the details of each, the more they seem to fall apart or become relatively irrelevant to the real world.

Burkean conservatism is put in a bind when you consider how much society has been consistently and radically changing since Burke’s time. Memetic selection is deeply broken, any recent institutions one might want to preserve out of conservatism are likely pretty new in the grand scheme, and those that aren’t likely don’t differ that much in principle from the great many that have been recently overwritten without catastrophic consequences. Some of the trends/systems are older, one could try to be conservative about very broad ideas like “enlightenment values”, but many of these mean respecting trends conservatives often want to slow down, like social liberalization. Libertarianism fares better; While it is debatable whether the grand trends of recent history are moving in this direction (Marxists claim this for themselves, and Utilitarians like myself can make a similar case), they are in the running in a way conservatives aren’t. Most people don’t bite the bullet that the last few hundred years have been a detriment, and those that do tend to move to the Hobbesian fascist view.

Nozickian libertarianism makes an intuitively appealing moral claim, centered on things like “stealing is wrong”, “people should be free to live their lives how they please”, and “you have to actually sign onto an agreement to be part of it”. The trouble, quite well known at this point and well known to Nozick himself, is initial acquisition. Maybe someone should be able to use their property how they want, but how does it become their property? Simple, it was given to them by someone whose property it already was. You can’t regress forever however, and other political philosophies will view natural resources (or pretty much everything) as, in a state of nature, no one’s property or everyone’s property. This is where the distrust of hypothetical contracts becomes necessary, because it can rule out the idea of something like collective property, since no actual persistent and complete “collective” signs onto it.

The initial acquisition of private property doesn’t seem much less contrived though, all the less so when you consider that the whole idea of the initial acquisition process is purely hypothetical. Usually nothing like it ever happened, and when arguing in favor of privatizing currently public property it certainly didn’t happen. There is even something of a joke in the idea of libertarians going around to currently public property and homesteading it into their own property because public property is a fiction. In reality you don’t see libertarians taking what they please from the post office because it isn’t anyone’s private property yet. Considering this, it’s hard for a Nozickian to look down on defenders of public property theories in a way that will be very convincing to those who aren’t already sympathetic.

The closest you can come to rescuing these two, in my opinion, is with some more moderate variations. For instance, replacing the Burkean version of conservatism with “Chesterton’s Fence”, where rather than saying that you should trust old institutions before your own explicit reasoning, you are just asked to understand the history of that institution before deciding you have a better idea. Or replacing Nozick with some version of personal autonomy based ethics, which is reluctant to engage in things like paternalism against clearly personal decisions, but which doesn’t place much fundamental weight on the idea of “private property” as a moral primitive. Nozick’s frequent interlocutor Judith Jarvis Thomson was arguably in a camp similar to this.

With Aristotelian conservatism and Randian libertarianism on the other hand…I kind of hate them, I have very little sympathy. Maybe this is why I’ll never be a good virtue ethicist. I actually have so much contempt for the naturalistic right wing philosophies, i.e. Aristotelian conservatism and Landian fascism, that pretty much half of my blogpost on the meaning of life is dedicated to trashing them.

Other ones have really interesting tensions that speak to tensions at the heart of the intellectual right. Cohenian conservatism, for instance, has obvious tensions with libertarianism, since capitalism optimizes for profit, which a libertarian would at least hope is a proxy for deeper values, even where this optimization destroys already valuable things. An old university will break with interesting old traditions if it can attract more applicants with newer ones, old beautiful buildings can be torn down to make way for more efficient or profitable ones. Employees can be fired if more efficient applicants show up. This is not lost on Cohen (Gerald Cohen specifically), who was in fact a socialist, and a bit of an odd one out on this list.

There are similar tensions between the three major empirical ideologies, which make claims about how the world works rather than more unique claims about what it should look like. Burkean conservatism should make you want to preserve old institutions, while Hayekian libertarianism favors the evolutionary flow of capitalism. Hobbesian fascism favors strict central control while Hayekian libertarianism favors distributed systems of power.

Even more strange is the apparent pipeline between Hayekian libertarianism and Hobbesian fascism. How could Hayek imply Hobbes? I think the most likely explanation actually presents a really interesting critique of the Hayekian view in general. If you spend long enough with the Hayekian view of libertarianism, you might notice some strange things about how its emphasis on decentralized production clashes with its endorsement of capitalism specifically. Capitalism often consolidates monopoly powers, or creates huge corporations with centralized power structures which run much of the economy 1. Likewise, if the markets are the important part, why not question corporate structures? What’s wrong with a market of co-ops, for example? And if efficient incentives for profit are important for the information aspect of the economy, shouldn’t all companies be publicly traded without a majority shareholder so that individual judgement doesn’t interfere with pure profit incentive?

Asking questions like these might lead you away from pure capitalism towards heterodox economists like Henry George or Glen Weyl. On the other hand if you think these are concerns pure capitalism can answer, you might answer it by emphasizing the importance of a hierarchical ownership structure more, and the distributed economics less. Take this far enough, and it might lead you to the NRX ideal: What if a company owned a country, and it was ruled by a CEO monarch? Wouldn’t that be the best state?

Anyway, this taxonomy has helped me make sense of right wing ideas and tensions a fair bit when thinking about it, so I hope laying out a rough sketch of these thoughts can be helpful to others.

  1. Ed. Note: This is why I and others have been longing for an SSC Scott book review of The People’s Republic of Wal Mart↩︎

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