Super-Models: Jerry Pournelle

Previously, we talked about Hans Eysenck’s 1953 method for mapping political ideology. Eysenck was one of the most respected psychologists of the 20th century, but as we saw, there were deep flaws in his work. This week, we’re going to talk about… a science fiction writer?

Jerry Pournelle is almost certainly best known at this point as a sci-fi writer, having had a fairly prolific career writing for Baen Books. By the time he passed in 2017, Pournelle had written with stars in the field like Larry Niven, but he had also served in the Reagan administration, and been an early pioneer in casual computer usage. He also had a PhD in Political Science. I, on the other hand, almost minored in Political Science. But no one has managed to stop me from talking yet, so apologies in advance.

Pournelle created his chart while working on his dissertation, and right away, you can see how radically different it is from Eysenck’s model.

From Baen Books via the Internet Archive

This was part of Jerry Pournelle’s doctoral thesis, and there are some genuinely interesting ideas here. The ‘Statism’ axis is easy to understand: The furthest left point is “the State is the ultimate evil,” while the furthest right is “State-worship,” which is honestly a surprisingly solid (if too limited) description of fascism. Rationalism, meanwhile, is described by Pournelle thus:

“Attitude toward planned social progress” can be translated “rationalism”; it is the belief that society has “problems,” and these can be “solved”; we can take arms against a sea of troubles.

From The Pournelle Political Axes discussion on Baen Books, via the Internet Archive.

Pournelle completed his dissertation in 1963. His stated goal was to upend the traditional left-right model. Instead, I think he more found a more novel – and more accurate – way of describing the same basic ideas that Eysenck did. Rationalism maps more easily onto progressivism than Eysenck’s ‘Radicalism’ axis, though it isn’t quite the same thing. Rationalism, as I understand Pournelle’s take on it, is actually a combination of progressivism and elitism — the idea that the rational mind, the the brightest among us, can solve society’s ills. We’ve talked at length about the flaws with Eysenck’s tough- and tender-minded axis, so I don’t want to reiterate that, but I think that “attitudes towards the State,” while still flawed, is a more coherent and measurable axis.

While Pournelle’s chart is more complex and philosophical than a standard conservative/progressive big government/little government chart… it is also a clear forebear of the standard conservative/progressive big government/little government chart, just with the axes flipped. However, I don’t consider government size to be an effective or interesting measurement on these types of charts. He argues, for instance, that socialism is a fairly extreme form of statism — equivalent to fascism, even! — and yet, there are both big government and small government socialists. A popular argument among communists is whether there should be no state at all, or a weak transitional state that will be phased out over time, or a strong central state planning the economy. Depending on which ‘type’ of communist you are, that would make you either an extreme statist, a rational centrist, or an Ayn Rand libertarian. And anything that conflates council communism with libertarian capitalism has some obvious issues, by my mind.

Even more so than Eysenck, Pournelle seems* to have fallen prey to the allure of pure theory. In his dissertation, he expresses confusion as to why 19th century anarchist Max Stirner and 20th century objectivist Ayn Rand were typically divided on the Left and Right continuum, despite what he sees as the similarities in their philosophies. Both reject the State to varying degrees — though I’m hard-pressed to say that Rand rejects the State completely given ideas like this:

If physical force is to be barred from social relationships, men need an institution charged with the task of protecting their rights under an objective code of rules.

This is the task of a government

Ayn Rand, “The Nature of Government” on pg 109 in The Virtue of Selfishness


The proper functions of a government fall into three broad categories, all of them involving the issues of physical force and the protection of men’s rights: the police, to protect men from criminals–the armed services, to protect men from foreign invaders–the law courts, to settle disputes among men according to objective laws.

Ayn Rand, “The Nature of Government” on pg 112 in The Virtue of Selfishness

Phrased like that, Rand appears to be a typical hardline conservative more than anything else, having more in common with fascists than with anarchists.

For instance, contrast those opinions with Stirner.

Take hold, and take what you require! With this the war of all against all is declared. I alone decide what I will have.

Max Stirner in “The Ego and His Own”


I do not step shyly back from your property, but look upon it always as my property, in which I need to “respect” nothing. Pray do the like with what you call my property!

Max Stirner in “The Ego and His Own”

I’m pretty sure if someone said that to Ayn Rand, she would have had a heart attack. This is because Rand’s egoism was tied specifically to capitalism — to her, private property was sacrosanct. Stirner was a more complex and sometimes even contradictory figure, one I’m so far from an expert on that I feel legitimately bad even talking about him. But he was decidedly against capitalism, against hierarchy. He was, in a very real sense, an anarchist. Rand was definitively not that.

So it’s true, as Pournelle says, that both Stirner and Rand would like to minimize the State — but the way they would do so, and the society they would like to build atop that is radically different. This is why I believe that the size of the State is not a particularly important metric when discussing ideology; what matters is what that State does or can not do. While ‘State Worship’ is a great description of Nazism, it’s also not really the most important aspect of it, you know? Like, when I think of Nazi Germany, I don’t think, “Boy they sure wanted a big State.” I think, “Boy, they sure had incredibly rigid hierarchies of racial purity that they enforced with radical dehumanization and extreme violence.”

This is part of why I don’t think “attitude towards the State” is a particularly helpful metric. A gigantic State with robust social welfare and a weak police and military is radically different to live and work under than a gigantic State with minimal social welfare and an incredibly powerful police force and military. When talking about political ideology, I think it is important to focus on the day-to-day conditions of life that will be brought about — and, in my opinion, the size of the State simply does not have as measurable or defined an impact as the purpose of the State.

Both Pournelle and Eysenck, among many others, were proponents of ‘the Horseshoe theory’, though I don’t think it had been named yet when Pournelle was working on his dissertation. In it, he describes the theory perfectly:

It is obvious that, in many respects, the extremists at either end of the political spectrum resemble each other more than they do the Center which is presumed to lie, in some inexplicable manner, between them.

Jerry Pournelle in The American Political Continuum: An Examination of the Validity of the Left-Right Model” pg 10.

The horseshoe theory is often illustrated like this:

From Wikipedia

This, to me, is another example of Pournelle being so swallowed by theory that he forgot the politics is a real thing that actually exists. Pournelle recognized that the placement of a ‘center’ was completely arbitrary, but couldn’t resist the its allure. Both oppose liberal democracy, sure, but that’s where the similarities begin and end. They oppose it for different reasons, in different ways, and towards different ends. If anything, I find the Horseshoe theory more wrong than a simple left-right spectrum.

If the Horseshoe theory were correct, for instance, than how would one explain what is happening in Portland and Kenosha? On the one side, activists on the far Left are putting their bodies on the line to defend their communities. In Portland, people young and old on the left and far left are openly fighting cops. Horseshoe theory would suggest that the far Right would join them in that fight, seizing on the opportunity to fight the liberal democratic order. Instead, the opposite happened: The far Right teamed up with the State and fought the Left. I’ll go into more detail about the Horseshoe theory in the future, but suffice to say: It’s bullshit.

Nevertheless, Jerry Pournelle was an interesting guy. He constantly had one foot in the past and one foot in the stars. It’s fascinating to see the same guy who co-wrote Lucifer’s Hammer with Larry Niven discussing Aristotle’s influence on political theory. I think it’s fair to say that Pournelle was smarter than me, and more educated in the history of political theory. But I also think to say that, while I agree with – and was influenced by – his ideas, I ultimately disagree with his conclusions. Pournelle seems too drawn in to the abstractions of political philosophy, too comfortable, and (as with Eysenck) not terribly familiar with the political philosophies of the Left to speak about them with any sort of accuracy.

Thanks for reading. I hope you found something interesting here. Next time, we’ll be diving into a slightly more influential libertarian tool, the Nolan Chart, and to first ‘political quiz’ meant to gamify political persuasion.

*Unfortunately, while Eysenck’s political and psychological work remains readily available, Pournelle’s does not. I was able to read the beginning of his dissertation, which I found interesting, but not able to dig into his own philosophy as much as I would have liked! If I find access to his dissertation in some manner and find that I was unfair towards Pournelle’s ideas, I’ll either update this or make a second blog post.

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