How does tyranny arrive and survive?
A juvenile answer is that devilish persons somehow seize the levers of power while the nation’s people are innocently going about their business. Wearing sinister smiles and twirling the tips of their moustaches in dastardly fashion, the tyrants unilaterally impose their criminal wills upon the populace.
The People soon realize that their dictators are venal and vile, but there’s little they can do other than silently submit. The People are enslaved. Their only hope for emancipation is the intervention of a superhero – a courageous peasant, perhaps, to lead a revolution, or a noble foreign government deploying its military worldwide to protect humanity from evildoers.
I describe this answer as “juvenile,” and it is certainly so. But this answer nevertheless captures the greater part of the attitude of many adults. According to this attitude, tyranny is blatant, pure, and obvious to everyone – almost cartoonishly so – and therefore it is never accepted voluntarily. Tyranny is unalloyed evil that is pressed down mercilessly upon the unfortunate masses.
In the minds of us enlightened denizens of 21st-century democracies, tyranny is the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France. It’s the Nazis and Fascists of 80 years ago. It’s Stalin and Mao and Saddam Hussein. It’s Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un, and the Taliban today.
To those of us who conduct real and regular elections, tyranny seems to be confined to such regimes – regimes distant in time or place and, hence, culturally remote from us.
Tyrants Are Always Believed
These past and distant regimes are indeed tyrannical. Yet the popular attitude toward them is dangerously immature. Every tyrant convinces large numbers of the people under his rule that he uses force exclusively for the greater good. Tyrant wannabes who fail to convince The People of these wannabes’ noble purposes never grab the power they crave. Too few of The People submit.
Each actual tyrant points to some problem – perhaps real or perhaps fabricated yet unfailingly exaggerated – the persistence of which will inflict on his beloved People unprecedented harm. He persuades The People to obey him in his pose as a courageous and caring visionary unafraid to use whatever powers he must in order to save his People from the terrible perils that otherwise await them. And he insists that his exercise of power must be broad and bold, unchecked by legal or ethical niceties which would only prevent him from saving his flock.
Quaking in fear of these terrible perils and hopeful for the promised salvation, The People submit. Sheeplike.
Many people, of course, recognize and even chafe under the dictator’s arbitrariness and the harshness of his diktats. But believing these diktats to be necessary for the greater good, most of even these people meekly comply. “The end result tomorrow will be worth the pain, suffering, and indignity today. We have no good choice but to obey our leader” – so goes the thinking.
Thus does actual tyranny arrive and survive. It arrives and survives always with the acceptance – and often also with the enthusiastic approval – of large numbers of its victims. These victims thus do not sense that they are living under tyranny. Tyranny is what happens to other people – to people less enlightened or much less fortunate than us – to people whose oppressors, unlike our own familiar leaders, rant crazily in foreign tongues, often while dressed in military costumes.
Tyranny, it is believed, does not happen to us, for it’s not really tyranny if its stated goal is our salvation – if it promises to protect us from dangers that we are assured are real, large, and looming. And those few ideological freaks who recklessly insist on calling our saviors “tyrants” do not appreciate the need for quick and decisive action from the top. These freaks should be ignored, and perhaps even forcibly silenced.
Tyranny, again, doesn’t happen to us. We, after all, are complying voluntarily with our leaders’ commands, knowing that these are for our own good. If we were suffering the oppression of tyrants, we’d resist. We are, don’t forget, a proud people. We are enlightened, democratic, and free. And so because the vast majority of us are not resisting our leaders’ current rule, this rule cannot possibly be tyrannical. Q.E.D.
Our leaders, in short, aren’t tyrants. They’re public servants who we must trust if we are to be saved.
Or, so all who are tyrannized conclude.
Hygiene Socialism Is Tyranny
Because tyranny always enjoys its victims’ widespread support, most people living under it are unaware of their ghastly fate. And so it is with today’s tyranny of hygiene socialism. Believing that Covid-19 lockdown orders, mask mandates, and school closings are necessary to prevent unspeakable loss of life, people obey. This is no time to allow nitpicking about the rule of law, or about concerns with matters other than Covid, to obstruct our leaders’ valiant efforts to save us!
Yet as with all tyranny, the truth will eventually emerge. In the future, people’s eyes will open to the exaggerations, half-truths, distortions, and outright lies used to excuse today’s tyrannical restrictions. Someday people will look back on 2020 and see it as a year in which tyranny darkened the globe.
Our children and grandchildren will shake their heads in amazement that the adults – the “adults” – of 2020 were so credulous as to fall for the hysterical overstatements and the deceits and duplicity used to justify this tyranny. They will be aghast that in 2020 so many reporters, pundits, and politicians swallowed whole and without question the over-the-top predictions of mad scientists such as Neil Ferguson and his Imperial College colleagues. The jaws of our progeny will drop from puzzlement when they ponder the news media’s atrociously poor and biased “reporting” on Covid-19. And our descendants will simply resign themselves to being unable to understand fully how and why we allowed ourselves to be engulfed by such tyranny.
And then our children and grandchildren will pat each other on the back, confidently relieved by their knowing that they will never be so gullible as were those of us in 2020.
Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with American Institute for Economic Research and with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University; a Mercatus Center Board Member; and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University. He is the author of the books The Essential Hayek, Globalization, Hypocrites and Half-Wits, and his articles appear in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, US News & World Report as well as numerous scholarly journals. He writes a blog called Cafe Hayek and a regular column on economics for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Boudreaux earned a PhD in economics from Auburn University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.