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Symptoms of Tyranny

November 28, 2000

In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the historian Edward Gibbon says of the first Roman emperor:

“Augustus was sensible that mankind is governed by names; nor was he deceived in his expectation that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom.”

Two thousand years later, mankind is no less deluded by flattering words. The American people still think they live under their Constitution, because the U.S. Government tells them so. Of course that same government also tells them what the Constitution means, and the meaning keeps changing, and with every new meaning the government increases its own power.

And few people see the logical absurdity of letting a government decide the meaning of the very document that is supposed to limit that government’s powers. Could anything be more irrational? If the federal government can change the Constitution, which was allegedly “unalterable by the government,” why bother having a written constitution at all?

Sometimes logic needs to be supported by experience. But Americans have forgotten their own history, so they can’t remember, and therefore can’t imagine, an alternative.

Tyranny seldom announces itself. A tyrant doesn’t have to be a dictator wearing a uniform and a funny mustache; he may be a suave and affable fellow, professing his love for “the people” and offering free lunches. In fact, a tyranny may exist without an individual tyrant. A whole government, even a democratically elected one, may be tyrannical.

[Breaker quote for "Symptoms of Tyranny": Despotism 
without dictators]An infallible sign of tyranny is a welfare state, which is inevitably accompanied by high taxes. Most tyrannies subsist less by committing atrocities than by creating dependents. The trick is to get as many people as possible getting their income from the government. Since governments don’t produce wealth, they can pay benefits to dependents only by imposing taxes on productive people, thereby forcing one part of the population to support another. The parasitic segment of the population will always be loyal to the government, reinforcing its power.

Franklin Roosevelt knew this when he created a national welfare state. He once predicted confidently that “no damn politician” would ever succeed in repealing “my Social Security system.” And like most successful tyrants, Roosevelt was charming and popular.

Another mark of tyranny is paper money. Once upon a time, a “dollar” meant a fixed amount of specie, or precious metal. The government could no more change its value than it could change the length of a week.

But it’s essential to tyranny to be able to manipulate the value of money. Paper money, not backed by gold or silver, is perfect for this purpose. It gives the government enormous economic leverage over the entire population. An unstable currency, whose value is at the mercy of the state, is the equivalent of a constitution of unstable meaning, which allows the government to decide what rules it will operate under.

Tyranny is also marked by the centralization of power. This is not only a sign but in a sense the substance of tyranny. The collapse of the old federal separation of powers, in which most powers were retained by states and localities, has been accompanied by a vast increase in the powers of the federal government (which is no longer truly federal); and much of the new power is exercised by judges and bureaucrats who are both unelected and hard to remove. The growth of bureaucracy and administrative law has made the executive branch of the federal government infinitely stronger than it was under the Constitution.

The old federal republic is well on its way to becoming a monolith. The centralization of power, the evisceration of the Constitution, the issuing of funny money, and the expansion of the welfare state are some of the insidious steps by which we have moved from freedom to tyranny without realizing it.

The word tyranny sounds melodramatic. Americans think their political system is immune to it. They associate it with stereotypes of nasty dictators, forgetting the many other forms it may take.

But the authors of the Constitution recognized tyranny as the prevalent condition of mankind and a constant danger even to free men, especially when they forget how fragile freedom really is.

Joseph Sobran

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