Freedom and Tyranny
by Monty Perilin, Economic Noise
Freedom and Tyranny
Freedom and tyranny are opposite ends of a continuum. They compete for the same space. More of one means less of the other.
Proponents of big government complain that tyranny is a loaded term designed to inflame. Some are so foolish as to argue that more government means more freedom. These people do not understand the incompatibility between force and freedom.
Thomas Jefferson provided a simple test:
When the people fear the government, that’s tyranny; when the government fears the people, that’s freedom.
By Mr. Jefferson’s standard, few would claim that tyranny does not dominate today. But there are more sophisticated means of judging today. A recent study ranked the United States, the former bastion of freedom, behind more than forty other countries on a freedom scale. This regular survey has consistently shown the US falling against other nations, many of whom themselves are declining in freedom (just not as rapidly as the US).
The issues of freedom versus tyranny are as old as man. James Turk explains:
… authoritarians and other sociopaths seek one thing above all else – control. Some are satisfied with just dominating the local PTA, but others want to dominate the world. It is just a matter of degree, but these people exist. And they will do whatever they can to smother the rights of others, which recurs time and again throughout history.
Philosophers through the ages have grappled with this problem. There has never been a real-world solution that has been permanent. At best tyranny is held in check for some period of time before advancing. Tyranny advancing is tyranny strengthening. Higher levels of tyranny advance faster than lower levels. Freedom is overpowered and eventually distinguished if the process is not stopped.
The rise and fall of nations and civilizations is little more than the battle of freedom versus tyranny. Gains in freedom bring improvements. Gains in its evil opposite, tyranny, bring retrogression — declining standards of living, strife and ultimately collapse.
Solving the tyranny problem is difficult. Describing it is easy: How does one empower a supra-agency and then prevent it from abusing its power?
Two recent articles dealing with this issue were recently featured on this website. Both took different approaches:
- Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard by Nelson Hultberg
- Power Corrupts and Government is Power by Brian Wilson
Nelson Hultberg, deals with the philosophical anarchical positions proposed by Rand and Rothbard. He rejects them primarily on the basis that no supra-agency would prevent private efforts (think gangs or organized crime) to form and plunder.
Mr. Hultberg depicts ranges of government on a scale from tyranny (totalitarianism) to anarchy (no government). Using the Aristotelian-mean approach, Hultberg argues that the mid-point between the extremes is optimal. Why this approach is valid is unclear.
The approach is reminiscent of that of King Solomon’s offer to “cut the baby in half” (the Aristotelian mean?) in order to satisfy competing claims for the child. Solomon’s bluff succeeded in identifying the true mother, but it is hard to see how bisecting the tyke would have been a solution.
If Hultberg’s premise that the mean between two extremes is valid, it is easily shown to be faulty. Would you split the difference where the two extremes were good and evil? Is there a compromise between these two? Even if this mean were definable, would such compromise improve matters?
Think about applying this method to selecting a level of government. Most people would agree that one extreme, tyranny, is evil. Few would agree that no government was good (although two very great thinkers, Rand and Rothbard are in this few). Why would compromise or halving the difference be appropriate here? Even if the approach were deemed correct and the mean determinable, how would it be used to establish a government, its purposes and its agencies?
Hultberg’s approach yields some unspecified level of limited government. But, as a mid-point between two extremes, why don’t we call it “limited tyranny?” Lord Acton might favor this terminology because he knew the danger and perversions associated with power:
Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely
The problem is that no level of government (tyranny) is stable. Limited government is to tyranny what partially pregnant is to a baby. Both are temporary conditions. Both progress to finality. Limited government becomes tyranny and partially pregnant becomes a baby.
One cannot be partially or limited pregnant. Nor can one have a government that is limited. Limited government is a euphemism for limited tyranny. Regardless of whether you refer to government as limited or not, it grows to unlimited tyranny. It is the nature of power. Power involves three givens:
- Power granted is always used.
- Power granted is never relinquished willingly.
- Power is always used to obtain more power.
Brian Wilson’s article is in the Acton, Rand, Rothbard et al camp. It recognizes the dangers of granting power and where it inevitably leads.
Thomas Jefferson, one of the key architects of the US government, worked to design constraints that would prevent government from expanding and gaining power. Jefferson understood the corruption of power and where it inevitably led, even under the “best forms of government.” Despite helping craft one of the most brilliant documents in history, Jefferson knew it was insufficient. He knew there was no hope of containing government and its demand for more power. He also knew there was no hope of government ever relinquishing power willingly. This wise man knew of only one remedy, about which he was blunt and simple:
Every generation needs a new revolution.
Mr. Hultberg argues that government is necessary. (So did Ludwig von Mises, although size and responsibilities were much diminished in Mises’ vision). Hultberg reaches his conclusion because he doesn’t believe the anarchical world of Rand and Rothbard is workable. In the absence of designated authority, Hultberg fears the rise of criminal entrepreneurship — private entities plundering citizens. However, Frederic Bastiat (image on the left) argued that was exactly the effect of government and its laws.
Both Wilson and Hultberg’s articles are worth reading. Hultberg believes that limited government is better than anarchy. Wilson prefers anarchy (which should not be confused with lack of order or chaos) because there is a chance of avoiding tyranny.
The dilemma is to accept some form of limited government, knowing where it leads, or to try the path not taken. The first choice guarantees, depending upon how well government is constrained, years, decades or perhaps more than a century of growth in tyranny. At some point the tyranny becomes unbearable. Economic wealth stagnates and then reverses. People realize that they no longer have freedom and their life is worse than that of their parents. (These are signs currently present.) At some point and it is impossible to predict when, Jefferson’s revolution puts Leviathan back into a properly sized box. The process then begins anew.
The second choice is more risky, at least in terms of the uncertainty associated with it. Is it possible to have a country without what we conceive of as a government? Would anarchy turn into chaos? Rand, Rothbard and other thoughtful people did not think so. The issue is put into perspective by the Robert Higgs’ quote to the right.
Even in the Rand or Rothbard world, many of the functions of government would be preserved. Privatization would occur. Courts and protection services would be provided as well as many of the other functions. While this approach might sound crazy to many, these functions can likely be done better and more efficiently than they are today. Does anyone believe the government does anything well except enrich itself at the expense of the productive? Plunder is its aim; the claim of necessity is its disguise.
Most people are risk averse and unwilling to accept anarchy. Some likely consider it a pursuit of the perfect (which may not be attainable) at the risk of giving up the good. But the good is transitory. The good is self-liquidating. Leviathan, even in its infancy, dissipates the good to grow ever more powerful. When Leviathan becomes fully grown, whatever is left of the good disappears quickly.
Next year the economy may or may not be better than this one. However, almost certainly your freedom will be less. Most people will not notice. Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water that is heating up, the changes go unnoticed. Look back over ten years, however, and you will likely notice the changes. Those old enough to look back twenty or more years should be shocked at what has happened to their freedom and their country. Or look at the broad span of history. Is their any evidence of any government that has not consistently moved toward tyranny?
My position is simple: I don’t want to be led; I want to be left alone! I am therefore in favor of taking a hatchet to government and then using poison gas to eliminate whatever the hatchet missed. However, I am also realistic and do not expect to see any such change in my remaining time on this sphere.
The erosion of freedom and wealth will continue. Jefferson’s revolution will eventually occur. That might come in the next five years but I doubt it. For it to occur so soon it would have to be triggered by some economic or massive geopolitical event. Either or both are possible, perhaps even likely. Whether the event trigger a political revolution or not is a different issue.
It will likely take more time and more tyranny for people to “go Jefferson” on their government. A hundred years is a nice round number and guess as to when that happens, although no one should attempt to predict such events. Whenever it happens, people will be surprised and blame their ancestors (us) for allowing matters to decline so far.
There is little point in trying to convert to a no-government world. The concept is too alien for most to accept. Complacency still reigns. Even when the citizenry is convinced that massive change is necessary, Leviathan and its allies will fight against any proposed change which would alter matters.
The Federal Government is about 25% of the economy today. Those dependent on it probably represent another 25% or more. No, I am not talking about welfare or social security recipients. I am talking about the major corporations, unions, big media and financial institutions that benefit from the cronyism and special protections. Removing government as we know it would require these cronies to change the way they do business. Some would be able to do so while others are so dependent on government protections that they have lost the ability to compete in truly free markets.
There is no point going against this power structure. Better to beat your head against a wall. It is less dangerous and likely will not hurt as much.
I am trying to develop an article as to how to attack this establishment and finding it harder than I thought. Hopefully I will have something forthcoming.