• Victor C. Bolles

Slanted Society

Well, I’m convinced. The task that I now have to do is to convince you guys. And what’s more, get you guys to go out and convince others so that we can begin constructing a consensus of opinion on how to move forward.

More and more people whom I hold in high regard for their intelligence and diligent research are coming to very similar conclusions about human nature and how it applies to politics and economics (which are two inextricably related concepts). The most recent example is found in Manuel Hinds’ recent book, In Defense of Liberal Democracy, where he describes a world split between vertical and horizontal societies. As I noted in a recent commentary (Vertical War, published March 15, 2022) vertical societies are unidimensional where economic and political power is concentrated at the top and all authority in the society comes from whoever controls that power. Vertical societies can be very efficient because orders from on high are implemented immediately by those down below. But because the supreme authority cannot be disobeyed, bad ideas are implemented with the same intensity as good ideas (Putin’s invasion of Ukraine being a prime example). And because good ideas from people below the supreme authority are ignored and not allowed to develop, vertical societies lack innovation than can improve productivity. Without the competition of ideas, these societies become rigid, and entropy leads to an eventual collapse as was the case of the Soviet Union.

Horizontal societies, as described by Mr. Hinds, generate authority from the people within the society. Such societies strive to avoid concentrations of power and so separate political and economic power, with the government holding political power and the private sector holding economic power. Economic decisions and innovative ideas are generated across the broad spectrum of the population and, because many of these decisions and ideas are poorly conceived or downright bad, horizontal societies are not very efficient. But some of the ideas are good, even revolutionary, and so horizontal societies are very creative and productive. Problems in horizontal societies can arise when the private sector tries to capture political power or when government tries to control economic power. But horizontal societies are flexible and when the distribution of power becomes unbalanced, reforms can be more easily instituted to rebalance the system than in vertical societies.

This description of the allocation of political and economic power, reminded me of Thomas Sowell’s book, A Conflict of Visions, Ideological Origins of Political Power. Dr. Sowell also envisions a bifurcated world divided between what he calls the constrained vision and the unconstrained vision. The constrained vision sees people as flawed and driven by self-interest and such vision requires the creation of procedures to manage and sometime counterbalance the proclivities of the people within the society. Such procedures avoid concentrations of power and allow a wide sector of the population to participate in economic and political decisions, similar to the horizontal societies described by Mr. Hinds. The unconstrained vision believes that intelligent people can improve societies to create the economic and social outcomes determined by the leaders to be optimal. In order to achieve these optimal outcomes, economic and political power must be concentrated at the top of the society resulting in one of the vertical societies described by Mr. Hinds.

But this bifurcation of human society goes beyond the political and economic spheres. NYU Psychology Professor Jonathan Haidt revealed in his book, The Righteous Mind, Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, that left-wing liberals and right-wing conservatives have different moral axes. Liberals gives priority to caring and sharing while conservatives also include loyalty, sanctity and liberty in their priorities. And these moral axes are not shaped by the ideologies followed by these groups, but rather the other way round. Peoples’ ideologies and preferred economic systems are shaped by their moral beliefs. And these moral axes or beliefs may be inherent rather than inculcated. Stanford neurobiology professor, Robert Sapolsky, in his book, Behave, The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, observes in other primate species the beginnings of moral axes as well. Grooming other members of the group or troop is a form of caring and monkeys express outrage if they think they are being treated unfairly. Dr. Sapolsky also notes that while most primate species are either hierarchical trophy species or pair-bonding species, humans exhibit aspects of both behaviors. And Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham hypothesizes in his book, The Goodness Paradox, the Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution, that our pre-historic ancestors struggled with this split human personality as well.

So mounting evidence from multiple fields of inquiry including philosophy, economics, politics, neurobiology, psychology and biological anthropology are all pointing in the same direction. The human race is divided between two main categories of personality types (and probably many subcategories), communalistic and individualistic personalities. And these personality types transcend different races, ethnicities and cultures. Dr. Sapolsky has pointed out that Asian people coming from communalistic cultures can adapt and thrive in the Western culture of America. A possible reason for such a result could be that individualistic people whose natural personalities were suppressed in their Eastern communalistic culture could adapt more easily to Western culture. Likewise, it is apparent that in this country there are many people with communalistic personalities that have problems adapting to the individualistic American culture.

All this mounting evidence from scientists and university professors has convinced me that these personality types with different moral axes are an inherent part of human nature and successful societies must accommodate both types (or all types) of humans. Otherwise, these groups would be in constant conflict, which is a fate that our country and the rest of the world appear to be lurching toward. Professor Wrangham hypothesized in his book that this is exactly what occurred in our prehistory when communalistic hunter/gatherers tried to wipe out type A individuals in their tribe. But whatever the outcome of those prehistoric struggles, it appears that the two personality types with their different moral axes continue today.


The Founders of America and the Framers of the Constitution set about to create a more horizontal society based on the Enlightenment notions of individual liberty compared to the vertical monarchies and empires that dominated the world prior to the founding of America. In the Constitution, they created a dispersed and multilevel form of government and included checks and balances intended to forestall the accumulation of government power. This horizontal concept attracted immigrants from across the globe who longed for liberty and felt confined and limited by their vertically oriented mother countries. This multidimensional society was incredibly dynamic and extremely prosperous and quickly developed into a world power and eventually the dominant superpower.

The dynamic power of horizontal societies has been clearly evidenced by the dramatic growth of China. As a vertically integrated empire over several millennia, China had been the preeminent political and economic entity of the pre-modern world. But it was the preeminent vertical society among other vertical societies. As the Western world converted to a more horizontal society, the economic and political power of Europe and the United States quickly surpassed stagnant China which remained mired in vertical poverty. After the death of Mao Zedong, China changed all that by converting its vertical economy to a more horizontal economy. The growth of China’s economy and its ability to exert regional and even global political power has been phenomenal – proof of the economic advantages of horizontal societies.

China has been able to implement a horizontal economy while maintaining a vertical political structure. For several decades the Communist Party of China has stayed in the background as China’s economic power increased, adhering to Deng Xiaoping’s dictum, “hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile.” But China could only maintain the Jekyll and Hyde persona for so long (as I described in my 2019 Commentary, Xi’s Dilemma, using a different but complementary analysis). The Communist Party of China is now trying to rein in what it considers the excesses of a horizontal society as it clamps down on its most successful entrepreneurs and their private sector companies.

But while the Chinese reversal to a more vertical society places their future in doubt, the Chinese example also shows that liberty loving individuals exist in all societies and that more than two thousand years of vertical Chinese empires could not wipe them out. But all societies also include order loving communitarians, as well. So, a just and prosperous society must adjust to accommodate both the communitarians and libertarians within society.

At their extremes, vertical societies become tyrannies and horizontal societies become anarchies. In order to create a just and prosperous society accommodative of all citizens the extreme forms of such societies must be mitigated by an allocation of power between the public and private sectors. Governments are granted the power to force citizens to adhere to the Rule of Law and also to force citizens to cede a portion of their property in the form of taxes to cover the operating costs of government. Individual citizens have very little power over government, which is why the Framers limited the powers of government.

But some individual citizens can accumulate great wealth. The power of this great wealth to exercise authority over other individuals in the society is limited so wealthy individuals and private sector groups attempt to exercise power by capturing government (which citizens have authorized to exercise power). Even anarchy enhances the power of government. It was the anarchy of the French Revolution that led to the creation of the Committee of Public safety that initiated the Reign of Terror.

So, a just and prosperous society cannot be totally vertical or horizontal. It must maintain an uneasy balance between the extremes and have the ability to limit government power as well as the ability to capture government. The government must have power to enforce public order and the citizens must retain enough power to limit the government’s ability to increase its power. The extreme wings of the left and right at work today in America both seek to increase the power of government as a means to achieve their agenda. They both seek to destroy or enfeeble the democratic institutions that disperse political power in America.

Our slanted society, neither fully vertical nor horizontal, must learn to work cooperatively. Increasing the power of government to achieve social justice goals while ignoring the liberties of free peoples is not sustainable. Focusing on economic growth while ignoring the inequalities this creates is also unsustainable.

I would prefer a more dynamic free and open horizontal society. You might prefer a more stable and just vertical society. I am unlikely to change your preferences nor you mine. But I am convinced that we can learn to live together. Because we have to.

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