What is the secret of successful despotism? Is a successful despot someone from another planet imposing his or her will on the unwilling masses? Or is the successful despot the answer to the unspoken wishes of a people seeking to be saved from the vicissitudes of life? Any attempt to answer these questions must take both factors into consideration.
Our next problem is to decide which party to explore first -- the tyrants or the subjects. Given that the tyrant arises from the people, studying the people themselves should be a good place to start. According to Daniel Defoe (1661-1731) "All men would be tyrants if they could." Of course, some men do become tyrants or despots, but most don't.
In any case, as someone once observed, "a tyrant can only beat you with your own arms." A single person can only beat up a few people. It requires a lot of help if one is to terrorize a whole nation. Therefore, we will first seek out where all those arms come from.
The People's Contribution to Tyranny
According to Arnold Toynbee, there are nine steps to the rise and fall of a civilization: "The release of initiative and enterprise made possible by self-government ultimately generates disintegrating forces from within. Again and again, after freedom brings opportunity and some degree of plenty, the competent become selfish, luxury loving and complacent; the incompetent and unfortunate grow envious and covetous; and all three groups turn aside from the hard road of freedom to worship the golden calf of economic security. The historical cycle seems to be: from bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to apathy; from apathy to dependency; and from dependency back to bondage once more." 1
Benjamin Franklin once observed "They that give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Wresting an existence out of the elements of the earth can be uncertain and scary. Consequently, it is popular to try to find ways to force others to carry the burden of life on our behalf. As it turns out, there are only two ways this can be accomplished. The first is to use force as an individual against other individuals. This is usually called crime. The second is to pass laws that accomplish the same ends in the name of "social justice."
Ultimately, it is common for people to assume that government can solve problems individuals cannot solve. Given that private citizens only have tools while government officials have guns, such a belief can be summed up thusly: "People with guns always make better decisions than people with tools."
In this century two human laboratories have volunteered to offer examples of how people sell themselves into slavery while worshiping at "the golden calf of economic security": Russia and Germany. (There are many more examples, but for the purposes of this article, these two will do.)
Russia's submersion into the experiment of communism was more forced than Germany's descent into fascism, but a certain common character type is still worth noting. "Lenin was aware of the enormous advantage the submissiveness of the Russian masses gave him: 'how can you compare the masses of western Europe with our people&emdash;so patient, so accustomed to privation?' Whoever reads what Madame de Stail said of the Germans over a century ago cannot but realize what ideal material they are for an interminable mass movement: 'The Germans,' she said, 'are vigorously submissive. They employ philosophical reasonings to explain what is the least philosophic thing in the world, respect for force and the fear which transforms that respect into admiration.'" 2 Such a fear and respect for force can only lead to a split psyche which alternates, in Transaction Analysis terms, between a critical parent and an adaptive child. And of course, fear is anger subdued. "Often, when we are wronged by one person, we turn our hatred on a wholly unrelated person or group. Russians, bullied by Stalin's secret police, are easily inflamed against 'capitalist warmongers'; Germans, aggrieved by the Versailles treaty, avenged themselves by exterminating Jews; Zulus, oppressed by Boers, butcher Hindus; white trash, exploited by Dixiecrats, lynch Negroes." 3 Although the people suffer at the hands of their oppressors, they are as likely as not to defend them. "Slavery, restrictions, and monopoly find defenders not only among those who profit from them but also among those who suffer from them." 4
In Germany, a long history of government being looked upon as the great savior had transpired before Hitler came onto the scene. Bismark established the first national health care system in the 1870s in order to diffuse the growing popularity of the Socialists. By the 1920s, the Weimar Republic was immersed in its experiment with democracy. To the surprise of many, instead of creating a loving brotherhood of all, special interest warfare prevailed. "In order to not be eaten alive by the next round of legislation, virtually everyone joined or identified himself with a group (since an isolated individual had no chance against large, vocal blocs). And every group knew only one policy: to demand new economic benefits from the government and/or new legislative sanctions against the other groups." 5
After awhile, people started becoming disillusioned with the noble institution of democracy. Some went so far as to say, "[This is a] robbers' state! . . . [W]e will no longer submit to a State which is built on the swindling idea of the majority. We want a dictatorship. . . ." 6
This progression of events did not surprise everyone. Professor Alexander Tyler summed it up well: "A Democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until a majority of voters discover they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury. From that moment on the majority always votes for the (political) candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result, that a Democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship." 7
The Tyrant's Contribution to Tyranny
So what happened in Germany? A man named Hitler promised to meet everyone's needs politically. Even though the vote had already failed, people were not willing to give up on the dream. "The bottom wanted the top cut down; the top wanted the bottom put down; the middle class were capable of both feelings, depending on the direction in which they were looking. . . . The Nazis promised everything to everybody." 8
This wasn't true only in Germany. In Russia, Ouspensky observed: "And as often happens in such cases the right word came from the wrong side. The bolsheviks pronounced the word 'peace.' First of all because it was a matter of complete indifference to them what they said. They had no intention of meeting their promissory notes, therefore they could issue as many of them as they liked. This was their chief advantage and chief strength." 9
Anyone who is ruthless in the application of force and fraud has a decided advantage once a culture has elected to have force be the first rule in human relations. We have the choice to either compete in the arena of production or in the arena of coercion. Once the shift has been made, a new type of person rises to the top. Generally, these experiments start with noble ideas such as "charity for all." However, in such a society, the focus shifts from wealth to power, and, as observed by former communist sympathizer Max Eastman, "the new rulers by getting power would manage to get most of the money as well." 10
Stalin played on this truth effectively. ". . . once the top level of the Party had accepted as their due high wages, secret provisioning facilities, private sanatoriums, it was already in the trap and there was no way to backtrack." 11 "To arrest each member of the Central Committee required the sanction of all the others! That is something the playful tiger thought up. . . . And they all . . . signed their names. And that was how the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) shot itself." 12
Tyrants are typically daring men with big dreams. Whereas they would fail miserably in common business ventures, they thrive in an environment that has chosen coercion as the first rule in human relations.
Where is America Today?
America is at an interesting turning point. Whereas the 1890s were called the "gay 90s," the 1990s could be called the "shrill 90s." People are turning to political action for every conceivable problem, and they are becoming very touchy and easily offended. Such uncivil behavior is antithetical to the maintenance of a civil-ization.
As it turns out, America has followed the model of social organization offered by Mussolini and Hitler: government control of the means of production. People are allowed to hold title to property, but they are told in minute detail how to use it. This is called a mixed economy&emdash;part private, part public. "In a mixed economy, one of the two elements gradually withers away. That element is not the state. . . . America had beaten the Fascists. It had stamped out Hitler. But it was turning into the Weimar Republic." 13
Is it possible for America to escape the same fate? Only if we "use the light of historical experience to analyse how the dialectics of absolute justice can deceive the best-meaning philosopher into the expectation that justice-forever can be produced out of injustice-today."14
If we are not to travel down the same path, the ideal of forced perfection must be replaced with an acceptance of voluntary imperfection. Otherwise we will wake up one day to discover that our ballots have been replaced by bullets.
1. Quoted in Warren Hackett, Its Your Choice (New
Rochelle: Americas Future, Inc., 1983), pp. 16-17.
2. Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (New York: Harper & Row, 1951), p. 144.
3. Ibid., p. 88.
4. Frederick Bastiat, translation by Dean Russell, The Law (Irvington-On-Hudson NY: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., 1990) p.13.
5. Leonard Peikoff, Ominous Parallels (Briarcliff Manor, NY: Stein & Day, 1982), p. 173.
6. Quoted in Ibid., p. 178.
7. Quoted in Fred Holden, Total Power of One in America (Arvada, CO: Phoenix Enterprises, 1991), p. 312.
8. Leonard Peikoff, op. cit., p. 180.
9. P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1949), 344-345.
10. Quoted in Susan Love Brown, et. al., The Incredible Bread Machine (San Diego, CA: World Research, Inc., 1974), p.118.
11. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago Two (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), p. 332.
12. Ibid., p. 332.
13. Leonard Peikoff, op. cit., p. 273.
14. Leslie Dewart, Introduction, From Anathema to Dialogue: A Marxist Challenge to the Christian Churches (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), p. 22.