The Descent into Tyranny

When you lean over in a canoe on a river, the boat tilts but then rights itself. But if there is too much pressure on one side, the canoe tips past a certain point and becomes a capsized canoe. It has flotation pads at both ends, so it doesn’t sink, but the situation of the canoe has changed from a floating maneuverable craft to a newly stable, but sad, state.

The tipping point from one condition to another can occur unexpectedly to those who have never experienced a capsizing. People in developing nations are not surprised when their government turns over. But those of advanced democracies grew complacent, even though we know that democracies that appear stable can capsize. Between 1850 and 1930, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Ottoman Empire turned into tyrannies. Since the year 2000, there has been a massive increase in the number of people living under tyranny, with fully 80 percent of the world’s population living in countries that Freedom House classifies as not having “free” government systems. In fact, as of 2021, 58 countries, with 38 percent of the world’s population, are now classified as full-on “not free” systems, having collapsed into tyranny.

It is tempting to think “it can’t happen here.” But Americans are more concerned about that than they have been in decades. In July, a CNN poll indicated that 48 percent of respondents think it is “likely” or “somewhat likely” that state actors will successfully overturn the results of a US election because their party did not win.

We, the present authors, are worried that putatively upright countries today are in danger of descending into tyranny. A tyranny—once capacities for control and despotism are constructed, in some cases including expansive government employment, dependency, and largesse—can be nearly impossible to reform. The key to the descent into tyranny, and the stability of tyranny once it is achieved, is this: Tyrants use tyranny to fortify their keep and to protect themselves against the sanctions due them for their crimes.

Calling tyranny “stable” may seem paradoxical. Tyrannies suffer from chaotic upheavals and violent paroxysms. But the state of tyranny itself is stable, like a capsized canoe. Ordered liberty is better for everyone—aside, perhaps, from the despotic faction and their affiliates. It is difficult to restore the rule of law once it is debased. Rectification would call for changes in personnel, operations, and attitudes. The relative power and privilege of the despots would disappear with rectifications. Tyrants use the tools of tyranny to protect themselves against the sanctions due them.

How can that faction be so base and corrupt? It’s hard to understand the psychology of depravity and delusion; some say Satan is at work. And if we are feeling hopeful about God’s goodness deep inside the despot, consider yet another difficulty: Even if more virtuous reformers persuade the despots of the errors of their ways, there may be no way for them to credibly guarantee that the despots will escape sanctions, such as forfeiture of ill-begotten wealth, prison sentences, or execution for their crimes. The inability to commit to clemency may make it impossible to admit to wrongdoing and “cut a deal.” Also, there is, in any case, the disgrace that comes with the restoration of liberal norms and condemnation of the fallen.

What prevents systems from capsizing are the virtues of liberality and liberalism (in the sense christened in the 1770s). So long as enough people disapprove both of illiberality, as systematized, for example, at Twitter, Facebook, and Google-YouTube, and of anti-liberalism, the system can right itself and avoid capsizing. Election integrity is vital, of course.

We are accustomed to thinking that modern democracies are always like a pendulum—a swing far in one direction is balanced by a swing back in the other direction. But the descent into tyranny can mess with the whole pendulum mechanism, preventing the counter-swing. We are concerned that the mechanisms that, thankfully, have thus far prevented us from reaching the tipping point and capsizing are being dismantled. The dismantling is being done to some extent intentionally, by despots and wannabe despots, who act variously from greed, depravity, delusion—God knows what!

Politics is always a matter of lesser-evil, but our point is not directed at only the greater-evil. In the US context, we observe illiberality and anti-liberalism among some who vote Republican and some who vote Democrat. The people who advocate the seizing of control of the government often do it for (what they see as) the best reasons: achieving the good society. One function of liberalism is to call out, and oppose, the governmentalizing of social affairs, even when it is done with the hope of putting the “right” people in charge.

Some of the founding fathers of liberalism can help us understand how to oppose tyranny. The thinkers David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke represent the original liberalism that now is aptly called not only “classical” but “conservative.” Hume, Smith, and Burke opposed radical alteration in the institutions of government. The original liberalism is conservative when it comes to altering the polity drastically.

However, the conservative element of conservative liberalism depends in part on how liberal status-quo institutions are. Events from 1830 to 1865 in the United States are a sharp illustration of why a liberal does not always oppose fundamental reform. And they illuminate our main theme: the hazard of descending into tyranny.

The institution of slavery was simply inconsistent with liberal values. Tensions grew after the founding period, with many intellectual voices in the South pointing out that “all men are created equal” asserted clear precepts about personhood and citizenship. The system descended to further evils in the period following 1831. What precipitated the change were movements and growing recriminations against the slaveholders, for being unjust. The slaveholders responded with more injustice. They could not control voices in the North, but Southern governments could control their subjects. Slaveholders and government resorted to “cancel culture” and heightened oppression, to protect the profoundly illiberal and anti-liberal institution of the legal enslavement of human beings. The system passed a tipping point into a more fully institutionalized system of repression, with the outlawing of voices advocating abolition and a code of conduct that made any questioning of slavery socially unacceptable.

Liberalism involves a self-correcting system of propriety that calls out violations of liberal norms in defense of liberal institutions. In the face of illiberal institutions, the liberal must sometimes be a challenging voice; in the context of liberal institutions, the liberal looks like a conservative, calling out initiatives corrosive of norms and a presumption in favor of liberty. The United States is unique, or was until recently, in having a framework that allowed a “fusion” of conservatives and libertarians: the status quo to be “conserved” was a liberal coalition built around “all men are created equal” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

What we see among the Southern slaveholders and among despotic actors in governments today is the use of despotism to perpetuate their position and to shield themselves from the just correction of their injustice. As long as they hold the whip, the injustice may not only persist, but grow worse and worse. The fate of the slaves in the slave South was horrible indeed. The shackles grew tighter. Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service is hiring. If we do not figure out a way to defuse despotism, our own future may be slavery for all.

The horrors of WWI and then communism, socialism, and fascism led some to believe that liberal civilization was soon to perish entirely. However, from 1939, some people, in many nations, waged a war against totalitarianism, in a movement mobilized under the banner of “freedom” or “liberal democracy.” After WWII, the Cold War was not just against the Soviets, but against the spread of authoritarian ideology. In our future, will there be Winston Churchills and Václav Havels to resist the despots? Or will the governments of all the major powers belong to a network of tyrannical governments?

It is not just dystopian fiction—Orwell’s 1984, Richter’s Pictures of a Socialistic Future, Huxley’s Brave New World, Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron”—that has furnished us with the image of a once-liberal civilization now capsized. Some of the great liberal writers have warned us against the very real march toward a capsized civilization, writers including Alexis de TocquevilleHilaire BellocC.S. Lewis, and F.A. Hayek. May we heed their warnings. They told us that the governmentalization of social affairs is a tool of would-be despots, and that it hatches despotism even if not by design. We must bravely speak out against the governmentalization of social affairs and against the unjust sentiments and beliefs that forward it.

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