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Sliding Scale of Libertarianism and Authoritarianism

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"Speaking generally, it is a mistake to suppose that the absence of law means the absence of tyranny. Take, for example, the tyranny of fashion. The only law concerned in this is the law that we must all wear something in the presence of other people. [...] But does this mean that a woman can wear what she likes? Legally she can; but socially her slavery is more complete than any sumptuary law could make it."

As stated in the Straw Character article, in the real world, everyone is the hero of their own story, and this extends to their beliefs, especially political. This can influence authors' work to lean in one way or the other.

In Anglophone politics the x-axis of the political 'compass' concerns whether a society's total wealth should be distributed by markets, employment, and competition (furthest 'right') or equally divided among everyone (furthest 'left') or somewhere inbetween. Hypothetically, the formermost society would be the product of an invidiously individualistic value system, and the second the product of absolute altruism.

This article concerns the y-axis, which places societies between the extremes of being totally governed by government (furthest 'top', 'authoritarianism') or by something(s) else (furthest 'bottom', 'libertarianism'). At the latter end of the spectrum one finds rule by corporation(s), or by collectives, or communes, or computer programs, or even nothing but individual people - or some combination of those things. The 'libertarian' end of the Sliding Scale of Libertarianism and Authoritarianism contains its own Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism, with rule-by-corporation firmly at the cynical end and rule-by-individuals at the other: if every government agreed to legislate itself out of existence we could have corporate rule within hours (however ineffective initially), but even the most fervent anarcho-capitalists admit that our culture would have to change a lot for rule-by-individuals to work in practice even after a long transition period.

To summate:

  • Authoritarianism: rule by government, to the benefit of all society (furthest left), the one (furthest right), or something inbetween
  • Libertarianism: rule by entities other than government, to the purposes listed above

Compare Order Versus Chaos.

Please note: This list is ranked with Libertarian examples near the top and Authoritarian examples near the bottom. The lower on the list, the more Authoritarian the example.


  • This page does not document the purpose of the level of control by government/control by non government entities. It only notes where a society is on that scale of total government/total non-government control.
  • Seriously, no arguments about the economics of this trope or Real Life examples: fictional works only. The Other Wiki has more than enough examples, and the Flame War edits to show it.


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Most Libertarian — rule by non-government entities, with little or no governmental control

  • The Known Space story "Cloak of Anarchy" is about having areas called "Free Parks" where the only rule is no violence: a surveillance system stuns both the aggressor and the victim for a few minutes if it happens. When someone destroys that system, accidentally locking the gates in the process, everything degenerates quickly.
  • The North American Confederacy in The Probability Broach carries its libertarianism to almost ridiculous levels. When they discover that a faction is smuggling nuclear weapons from our timeline in order to set up a dictatorship, they refuse to act because the right to keep and bear arms is sacred. Incidentally, this is not a parody; the NAC is the author's ideal society.
  • Luna in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, both while it is "ruled" by a Lunar Authority which only expects grain exports from its citizens and lets them handle their own affairs otherwise, and during the period between freedom from the Lunar Authority and recognition by Earth.
  • Glory Road also features a Libertarian Utopia, although its inner workings are only vaguely described.
  • Galt's Gulch in Atlas Shrugged is a free-market anarchy. The world outside of it, on the other hand, is anything but.
  • The planet Anarres in The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin is a libertarian socialist society where a state, government, prisons, and even money don't exist. People do jobs simply because they want to help keep things running and the only punishment that exists is social stigma. However by the time of the novel it has become increasingly authoritarian which is what motivates the protagonist to leave. (And yet, it turns out, way less authoritarian than any of the surrounding cultures, which eventually brings him back.)
  • Ken MacLeod's Fall Revolution series gives us not one but two anarchist Utopias from the opposite end of the spectrum. One utopia is a capitalist utopia where corporations control everything, while the other is a communist utopia where people directly trade with each other without bosses through co-operatives.
  • A∴A∴, the secret society beyond all secret societies in the Illuminatus!-trilogy believes in absolute freedom of thought and action. They very subtly influence the society in order to maximize individual freedoms, but they're crippled by their primary dogma that forbids them any direct interference with the normal society. Though their leader is old and wise enough to know that in the long term almost everything will work out, even if it means waiting for the civilization to collapse and rise again.
  • The Across Realtime series by Vernor Vinge (and particularly the novella "The Ungoverned") features ungoverned civilizations. Most of the public pays for protection from a private company, and promises to obey something resembling laws as part of that agreement. But many of those companies are really more like crime insurance. And the people who don't sign with any protection agency are respected. Heavy self-defense weaponry is common, though boasting about weapons of mass destruction can get you lynched. Vinge has stated he believes in this sort of society, but that to work it needs most of the public to be actively thinking about their long-term interests.
  • The Culture of Iain Banks' novels is an interstellar post-scarcity anarchist society in which there is no government and no formal laws. Fashions, fads, customs and etiquette are the closest thing it has to them, and they play a big role in its citizens' lives (often simply to alleviate boredom). As Banks described in a newsgroup post:
    The Culture doesn't actually have laws; there are, of course, agreed-on forms of behaviour; manners, as mentioned above, but nothing that we would recognise as a legal framework. Not being spoken to, not being invited to parties, finding sarcastic anonymous articles and stories about yourself in the information network; these are the normal forms of manner-enforcement in the Culture. The very worst crime (to use our terminology), of course, is murder (defined as irretrievable brain-death, or total personality loss in the case of an AI). The result — punishment, if you will — is the offer of treatment, and what is known as a slap-drone. All a slap-drone does is follow the murderer around for the rest of their life to make sure they never murder again.
  • In the Great Ship universe, there is very little restriction on what passengers of the Great Ship may do. So long as one pays their taxes and doesn't interfere with the other passengers or the activities of the Ship, they may do almost anything. Anything that somehow violates the few laws is punished by centuries (a minor inconvenience) in the brig or by catapulting the offenders off the ship via a railgun towards the nearest inhabited planet.
  • Anarchaos, a novella by sci-fi writer Donald E. Westlake, features the titular planet, which was entirely colonized by devoted anarchists. However, their anarchist society quickly collapsed into chaos (as the name implies), with zero rules. Murder, slavery and robbery are common, unremarkable activities. Something of an Author Tract against anarchism, but in spite of that a good read.
  • In Jennifer Government, the Expanded States of America have become an anarcho-capitalist society where everything from road repair to the emergency services are privatized. People don't even get to have surnames unless they or their families are employed. The CEOs of the biggest companies have so much power that they can arrange to have some of their own customers killed on the release day of a new product as part of a guerrilla marketing campaign. Meanwhile, with the abolition of taxation and most laws, the government only has the power to investigate crimes against private property and life, and only the funding to help those who can afford to pay. The poor are looked down on as lazy and stupid, and the only assistance they get are from non-profit religious organizations.
    Live-Action TV 
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation:
  • Ron Swanson of Parks and Recreation is a self-described Libertarian. In his own words, "My idea of a perfect government is one guy who sits in a small room at a desk, and the only thing hes allowed to decide is who to nuke. The man is chosen based on some kind of IQ test, and maybe also a physical tournament, like a decathlon. And women are brought to him, maybe... when he desires them."
    Tabletop Games 
  • Slaad from Dungeons & Dragons and proteans from Pathfinder, fittingly for embodiments of chaos.
  • Extropia in the game Eclipse Phase.
    • Libertarians colonize planetoids in the Asteroid Belt. Everything is based on the free market. When visiting, you are strongly advised to hire your own security, insurance, etc. A micro-credit system governs every interaction, and there is no central government, only slightly dominant companies.
    • The Anarchists scattered across the outer solar system are only slightly less libertarian with a Post-Scarcity economy distributed by A.I.s but still no government. The Titanian Commonwealth is a slightly centralized direct democracy with the same economic model.
    Video Games 
    Web Comics 
    Western Animation 
  • Carried to its logical conclusion in an early episode of The Simpsons, when Springfield takes a self-help guru's message too far. Everyone only does what they want and waives any kind of responsibility. Hilarity Ensues.

Authoritarian-Light — rule primarily by non-government entities, contested by a weak government

  • Earth in Known Space has Population Control but very few laws... because the mental capability for lawbreaking was culled from the human race as a result of cutting up executed convicts for organ transplants, meaning eventually all laws carried the death sentence so as to provide the public with transplants. Once they actually bothered to develop quality synthetic organs, the need for transplants disappeared, but the damage was done — "flatlanders" are pretty much stupid lemmings.
  • Ankh-Morpork from Discworld is run by Manipulative Bastard extraordinaire Havelock Vetinari, a dictator who prefers to arrange matters so he hardly ever has to exercise his absolute authority. The Patrician of Ankh-Morpork is theoretically an absolute dictator who rules for life — but that's not necessarily a long time, as any Patrician whose actions are Bad For Business eventually discovers.
  • Most of Robert A. Heinlein's "good" societies that aren't anarchist, though given his distaste for democracy most are government types that would normally be a bit higher on the scale.
    • Starship Troopers: The Terrain Federation only allows military (and other risky forms of civil service) veterans to vote. However, unlike every real country that has service as a requirement for citizenship (i.e. Switzerland, Israel) it is not mandatory and they never institute a draft (Heinlein felt conscription was despicable). Rico's nonvoting civilian parents were quite wealthy.
    • Secundus in Time Enough for Love was founded as a "constitutional dictatorship" where the chairman has few powers and the people, "bless their flabby black hearts", have none.
  • The solar system at the beginning of The Unincorporated Man. In the incorporated system people are legally composed of shares, a percentage of which they own themselves, five percent of which are controlled by the government, some of which start out being owned by their parents but which can be bought after they reach legal adulthood and some of which can be purchased by anyone including themselves. The goal of virtually everyone is to attain "majority", owning 51% or more of themselves. However laws are few and far between. By the second book, The Uninicorporated War the inner planets are becoming increasingly authoritarian while the Belt and outer planets are debating whether to retain a reformed version of the original system or become more libertarian.
  • In the Jump 225 trilogy, there's a social divide between "libertarianism" and "governmentalism," but this is largely illusionary because each individual can choose the government that they want to subscribe to, so even the governmentalist governments lack coercive and redistributive authority. There are some limited global taxes to ensure the functioning of the market economy, however (largely paid by large, old corporations or "memecorps"), and there's a statist Defense and Wellness Council that has authority over public safety. As the trilogy goes on, the DWC becomes increasingly authoritarian in their attempts to gain control of the MultiReal technology.
    Live-Action TV 
  • The Earth Alliance in Babylon 5. At first glance it is a respectable republic but there is many a Government Conspiracy. It slid up the authoritarian scale after the assassination of President Santiago and inauguration of his Vice-President Morgan Clark, becoming hardcore authoritarian and Orwellian by late season three and season four.
  • The Federation from Star Trek, which tries to strike a balance between its ideals and combating enemy civilizations like the Borg.
    • Exactly how far down this list they fall depends on your reading of Starfleet, which seems to have ridiculous levels of power, authority, and jurisdiction compared to real-world militariesnote . Civilian citizens are rarely seen exercising much freedom, but they're also rarely seen.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Traveller is an odd-ball compared to the other examples here. Despite its massive battleships and its lavish aristocracy the Imperium actually has a libertarian ideology and style of government, necessitated by the vast space it rules over. However the Imperial government will not take nonsense and can play pretty rough when it wants to. Local worlds vary in their "control rating" as do states outside the Imperium. Commerce is regulated but not particularly restricted and the Imperial law deals mostly with crimes regarding interstellar commerce (piracy, etc), crimes in specifically Imperial territory (normal crimes in a Starport), and crimes specifically against the Imperium (treason, murder of a Noble or his retainers while in Imperial service, etc), and so on. The Imperial government however interferes little in local customs unless it feels them outrageously abominable and even allows minor local wars to be fought as long as they don't make too much of a mess. It would probably be classed as libertarian normally but authoritarian at given times and places.
  • The Planetary Consortium of Eclipse Phase is an oligarchy posing as a democracy controlled by the Hypercorps.
  • BattleTech while most of the Successor States operate in Elective Monarchy, some of them are quite fair in their rule. In the Federated Suns nobles hold most offices but the commoners have rights and the ability to remove corrupt officials.

Authoritarian-Moderate — rule primarily by government, contested by weak non-government entities

  • The Ministry of Magic from Harry Potter is initially well-meaning, but largely incompetent and extremely paranoid about the secrecy of magic, thus setting up a byzantine mess of rules and show trials and generally being a pain in the toosh for the protagonists. By the seventh book, however, it's nothing more than a front organization for the (extremely authoritarian) Death Eaters.
    Live-Action TV 
  • The Alliance from Firefly is a free and democratic society, but with a huge number of rules that they are very serious about enforcing. Like every government, good and bad, the Alliance has some dirty laundry: it practices human experimentation on its citizens without their consent.
  • The Klingons, Romulans and Cardassians from Star Trek, which are authoritarian but at least encourage competition for power.
    • Klingon society may be a bit more Authoritarian than the other two post-TNG. Since their hat is honor and combat, they tend to value personal achievements and abhor personal failures as a society. While there is a large cultural placement on the clan you come from, personal Honor is still a major factor in rising in their society. Contrast with the Romulans, who similarly have a high value on personal achievement, but are much more devious about how such achievement is won, and Cardassians, in which the individual is valued for his loyalty and service to the state (to a degree that the Judicial system isn't about proving guilt, but proving the lesser sentence is the most just. If you're before a Judge, then you must be guilty because the state said so).

Most Authoritarian — rule by government, with little or no non-governmental power

    Comic Books 
    Films- Live Action 
    Live-Action TV 
  • The totalitarian and collectivist Borg from Star Trek.
  • The Order from Deathspell Omega's The Furnaces of Palingenesia is explicitly based on the Nazi Party, though it incorporates aspects of several other authoritarian movements throughout history of both the left and the right. As with most cases, it's a dystopia, and the band's sentiments are explicitly anti-authoritarian, as confirmed in a rare inteview from mid-2019; the rule of the Order also leads to a collapse of civilisation so severe that there will not even be ruins to indicate it ever existed. The album also has harsh words for both capitalism and authoritarian communism; virtually the only political philosophy the band does not condemn, in fact, is nonviolent anarchism, which may plausibly be interpreted as their political stance via process of elimination.
    Tabletop Games 
  • Alpha Complex from Paranoia — only there, your pathetic lives belong to the Computer.
  • Formians from Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. (And Bee People in general.)
  • The Imperium of Man from Warhammer 40,000. However, the Imperium is, by necessity, hugely decentralized, on account of the huge number of worlds. Because of this, the Empire allows individual worlds a great amount of latitude in governance (each planet has a planetary governor, but the way each planet selects it's governor runs the gamut from free, open elections to hereditary dictatorships to monarchies to oligarchies to Trial by Combat or just whichever tribal warlord was winning the previous time Imperial officials visited). The Imperium does, however, always enforce tithes (basically planetary taxes to the central government; including a quota of ten percent of a given tax cycle's best Planetary Defense Force recruits to the Imperial Guard, a certain amount of raw resources or finished products and the most non-negotiable all psychic humans to the Black Ships for processing to see whether they are stable enough to be recruited or too unstable to be used as anything but fodder to the Astronomicon, though the average human is quite happy to be rid of psykers due to the horrendous risks a miscast or just a particularly bad day carries and the psychic tithe being held back usually means there something very shady going on) and religion, mainly in the persecution of heretics and psykers (as aforementioned, most people are quite glad to be rid of them just by default, let alone after the Imperial Cult's dogma). Also of note, the Imperial Cult is imposed only in the general sense of the God Emperor of Mankind being worshipped, individual planets have their own beliefs due to the sheer impossibility of imposing universal rules except the most basic (those being: only the Emperor is to be worshipped, Saints can be secondarily venerated, kill all aliens -governmental Realpolitik is not a topic for public discussion-, no heresy and always obey the Imperial Tithe and the basic Lex Imperialis law code).
    • The entire philosophy of the Tau Empire is "for the greater good." This involves concentration camps and things for all who disagree on what the "greater good" may be. Ironically, in the setting they are one of the most progressive races.
  • In Eclipse Phase the Jovian Junta Republic is essentially a Latin American military Junta on the moons of Jupiter. They're also one of the few polities in the solar system that attempt to make 20th century capitalism work with Nanofabricators.
  • BattleTech has three examples among the major factions:
    • The Draconis Combine (House Kurita), a state with fascist trappings where the military has more authority than civilian rule, and citizens don't have rights, only duties to the Coordinator.
    • The Capellan Confederation (House Liao), a Imperial Chinese / Communist-style regime where the state is all and the individual is subservient.
    • The Clans, authoritarian societies centered on a caste system in which the Warrior Caste is in charge, though in most Clans civilian castes - especially Scientists and Merchants - exercise quite a bit of unofficial power (and civilian caste assignments are based on educational scores rather than birth).
    Video Games