Independence Day Post: On Tyranny

In honor of Independence Day, I want to do this post about the concept of tyranny, specifically authoritarian and totalitarian governments.  Given the current circumstances, these terms are getting thrown around quite a bit.

First of all, let’s discuss some background regarding the nature of humans and the role of government.  In Federalist 51, James Madison wrote the famous quote: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Basically, since we as people can’t be depending upon to do the right thing because of our self-interested nature, sometimes we need to be coerced, hence the need for government.  However, since government is made up of those same self-interested people, if left on its own, government would become tyrannical.  This is a major foundation of our government.

Conservatives recognize this (or at least they should).  Where, hyperbolically speaking, liberals might think that if we all just hold hands and sing “All You Need is Love” than the world will improve itself, or that on the other hand, if we just give the government more power, they can fix everything.  Conservatives (should) view both of these scenarios with extreme skepticism.  Unfortunately, many conservatives now seem to only focus on the second part, the limiting the government part.  Many seem to forget that ALL people operate in self-interest, and that’s why we need a government, and some rules and regulations, in the first place.  It’s the flip side of the same coin.

Now to move into the discussion of authoritarian and totalitarian governments.  We need to establish the difference between the two. Authoritarian governments control all aspects of civic operations without accountability, yet common people’s day to day lives can go on relatively normally.  Totalitarian governments attempt to control all aspects of everyday life for the citizenry, generally speaking.

History and common-sense show that for a totalitarian regime takes hold, it must first start as an authoritarian government.  (This is for governing one’s own country.  Invading and occupying forces are different.)  If a government comes to power and immediately tries to implement totalitarianism there will be too much resistance from the citizenry, unless civic operations are already under control.  For this reason, dictators and authoritarians almost always start out as populists.  They want to gain the support of the common people, so they don’t try to control them as first.  In the Roman Empire, this was known as “Bread and Circuses.”  The aim was to keep the general population fed and distracted, so they wouldn’t care about the accumulation of power within the upper echelons of government.  Machavelli adviced as much in The Prince, stating that it was better to keep the common folk happy than the nobles, because the nobles may want power and the common people can be turned against them.

This is why it would make no sense for a wannabe authoritarian to immediately enforce arbitrary and unpopular controls on the people.  It would erode their support and lose power before they ever solidified it.

A common discussion point is that the current crisis and the responses amount to tyranny of an authoritarian government.  So next, I want to look back at some history of how actual authoritarian/totalitarian governments responded to crises.

First of all, let’s look at a relatively minor or fake crisis being used to gain power.  The most obvious example is the Reichstag Fire in 1933, soon after Hitler became Chancellor.  He then blamed the Communists for the fire and used emergency powers to arrest Communist Party Members.  He also used his powers to switch out and install Nazi party loyalists at varying levels of government.  The Nazis did NOT use this to implement totalitarian measures on common citizens.  That did not happen until a few years later.  The goal was to solidify control of governmental institutions.  Another example was the Egyptian State of Emergency that lasted for over 30 years after the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Again, this was used to solidify political control, not control standard routines of life like shopping and non-political business.  Instead, it was used to target political enemies.

On the other hand is how authoritarian/totalitarian governments respond to actual crises where the citizenry are in danger.  A great example is the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Soviet Union. In this case, the Soviet Union did everything possible to deny that a problem was happening, and when that story couldn’t be maintained, that they had everything under control.  The idea was to maintain calm so as not to lose support of the people and cause panic. They did not use the crisis as an excuse to crack down on common people.  Similarly, in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, the local Chinese authorities went to the doctor that was trying to sound the alarm.  They reprimanded him and forced him to sign a statement that his earlier claims were false.  Again, they initially tried to deny that anything was wrong.  They didn’t implement draconian measures until it became obvious that they could deny it no longer.

China has learned from history and has realized that totalitarianism is a losing proposition.  They saw how badly it went for the Soviet Union and continues to go in North Korea.  After the Tianenmen Square protests and crackdown in 1989, they went for the “bread and circuses” approach.  The Chinese Communist Party has basically allowed the citizens to partake in capitalist consumerism and enjoy those fruits, so long as the people do not question how the government operates.  Thus maintaining power and control for the party.

As I’ve stated in an earlier post, it is extremely difficult (although not impossible) for a fractured federal system like ours to fall under authoritarian rule.  And trying to do so by forcing unpopular restrictions on the populace would almost certainly be doomed to fail.

This isn’t to say that the process has been perfect and that some officials may have exceeded their authority.  And those instances should be addressed and rectified.  However, in the middle of an unprecedented crisis, we need to come together and not get spun around the axle about process.  And we can’t rely on individuals to do the right thing, because as Madison knew, and as conservatives know, men are not angels.

To bring this together with Independence Day, it is important to remember the need to come together as a community.  One of the things we weren’t taught in school is how much the colonies/states-  argued amongst each other and were looking out for each individual self-interest.  In fact, the Continental Army was on the verge of desertion and disbanding because soldiers weren’t getting paid because the individual states were not doing their part to help the cause.  Washington was barely able to keep the army together to keep fighting through his personal connection with the men.  If it hadn’t been for that, the colonies self-interest and unwillingness to sacrifice for the common good may have led to us losing the war and us not celebrating our independence this weekend.  As Ben Franklin supposedly said when signing the Declaration of Independence:

“We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”