Few people in our modern world today begin thinking about politics with a focus on tyranny. Which is strange, given the fact that the most murderous tyrannies in all of human history have all emerged within the last century.
I won’t bother you with the numbers. I’ll just summarize: Whatever instances of human injustices or human pain and suffering you find to be intolerably wrong and unacceptably high in number, they’re tiny by exponential magnitudes compared to the human injustices, pain, and suffering that have been unleashed by the power of governments over their own people.
ALL TYRANNY IS GOVERNMENT TYRANNY
Virtually all of the academic social sciences in American colleges and universities, as just an example, encourage students to identify and study various human problems—whether those problems are real, imaginary, overstated, understated, or misstated—and then advocate for government solutions—whether those solutions are effective, ineffective, constitutional, unconstitutional, helpful, hurtful, just, or unjust.
There is nary a word of concern, within the halls of higher education, about the continuous aggregation and expansion of government power. Any mention of a mechanism to limit and direct government power, such as the United States Constitution, is usually dismissed by academics as old, out-dated, racist, sexist, or otherwise immoral and un-progressive.
Yet we know that all tyranny is government tyranny. And we know that the worst tyrannies have been modern tyrannies. So wouldn’t those facts alone warrant a special focus on the dangers of growing government power in the modern world?
TYRANNIES: ANCIENT VS MODERN
Ancient tyrannies differed from the modern version in two key respects:
1. The state of technology in the ancient world made it difficult—logistically, technologically—to kill, control, or harm large numbers of people.
It takes large numbers of people, after all, to control the lives of large numbers of other people. And in the ancient world, most people kept busy just trying to grow or catch some food and stay alive. There simply were not hordes of men available to control hordes of other men around the clock.
2. This meant that the aims of ancient tyrannies were much narrower than modern tyrannies: Ancient tyrannies were more or less satisfied to shake down some folks for payment by way of threats government violence, and otherwise leave people alone for the most part.
That’s why in the ancient world there was no such phenomenon as totalitarianism—the attempt to control all areas of human life, for large numbers of people, including businesses, the economy, education, religion, entertainment and popular culture, and human thought itself.
Ancient tyrants simply did not have the technological means or manpower to construct and operate totalitarian regimes.
RAISE THE GOAL OF TYRANNY, AND EXTEND IT TOO
But modern tyranny is different. It’s much worse. Because it’s much more extensive. Because it promises much, much more.
Tyranny, now, in the modern, highly technological world, can be totalitarian. The worst tyrannies of all time have happened in just the last century, and they’ve all been totalitarian tyrannies.
Modern technology has created so many efficiencies that now a few people with the aid of a few machines can do what used to require large numbers of people. That means today, because of technological efficiencies, some can produce the necessities of life, while many others can be enlisted in the service of totalitarianism—controlling all areas of human life, for large numbers of people, including businesses, the economy, education, religion, entertainment and popular culture, and human thought itself.
In short, the recipe for modern totalitarian tyranny is: Fewer farmers, more government bureaucrats.
That allows modern tyrannies to aim for goals of control much wider and much deeper and much higher than anything dreamt of by ancient tyrants.
Every modern totalitarian tyranny has emerged by promising human progress and social improvement, if not human and social perfection, by means of scientific-government management and control over all areas of human life. That’s precisely how increased government power came to be associated with the ideas of progress and improvement and even perfection.
The promised goals of every totalitarian tyranny, in other words, are high. And highly desirable. That’s why modern totalitarian tyrannies begin as popular governments, supported by the will of the majority, and often super-majorities, which governments claim to channel and serve. Who, after all, does not want human progress and social improvement, or perhaps even human and social perfection?
The problem is that governments never produce the promised results. Because they cannot.
WHAT GOVERNMENT IS AND IS NOT
Some governments, sometimes, can be fairly effective at protecting the persons and property of citizens. But not always. That’s why, even for this limited purpose, citizens are wise to be prepared to protect themselves and their own property and not rely entirely on government for that protection. Because sometimes government fails to be there for protection when a citizen most needs protection.
Still, it’s good to have a government police force and criminal justice system, if they’re just and transparent. It’s good to have civil government courts that can enforce contracts between citizens and resolve disputes about them in ways that are just and transparent.
In general, however, government, because of what it is—the monopoly on legalized force!—is best at stopping things, stomping on things, smashing things. Government is good at saying NO!
Government does not produce anything. The incentives built into government bureaus—control and confiscation—are not the incentives that fuel invention, innovation, or the entrepreneurial attempt to provide products, services, and experiences that other people value and that make other people happy.
Yet providing valuable products, services, and experiences that make other people happy is key to human progress and social improvement. And thus we should look outside of government, not to it, for those desired human goods.
INS AND OUTS
The history of modern totalitarian tyranny is the history of peoples looking to government for that which can be found only outside of government. Instead of free people inventing, innovating, and working productively to help other people, those in totalitarian tyrannies say: “Trust us, in government, to solve your problems and improve your lives—all we ask in return is total scientific-government management and control over all areas of your lives.”
When the people say in response, “Thank you for the offer, but no!” they are standing on the firm ground of individual freedom. And the only practical obstacle that stands in the way of that total scientific-government management and control over all areas of human life is individual freedom.
So perhaps the academic social sciences in American colleges and universities, to go back to our earlier example, might begin teaching the dangers of unlimited, total government power as they encourage students to identify and study various human problems and consider what solutions might be best? Because, after all, the most murderous tyrannies in all of human history have all emerged within the last century.