Our Poison'd Chalice

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Jefferson thought Napoleon "a ruthless tyrant, drenching Europe in blood…" The history books recount the stories of any number of merciless men of power. Clive Foss has a book on the 50 most ruthless tyrants, figures like Pol Pot, Napoleon, Caesar, Tamerlane, Idi Amin, Nero, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao Zedung. Readers can, if they wish, find replacements. Apologists for state power can excuse these sadistic killers, wish they had been even more savage, count them as exceptions, worship them as heroes, or place them on statist pedestals.

It is easy to understand that the human being in possession of too much power over a people is a very large time bomb waiting to go off. The big bombs that have already gone off are easy to spot. In a way, this is too bad. It takes our eyes off the explosive, which is not the particular detonator, not the tyrant, but the tyrant’s power.

There are two ways to prevent tyrants from gaining explosive power. The first method is to have a handbook that tells us how to identify an incipient tyrant so that we can stop him or her early while he is building his bomb. In some cases, the evil one announces his intentions. Some are devious enough to play a part and fool people. Others offer themselves up as saviors. Yet others engineer a rise to power by all sorts of means. If there were such a handbook or such knowledge, wouldn’t we have known about it in the twentieth century? Yet many of the worst tyrants lie within memory.

The second method is to have (a) law and (b) government that do not allow concentrated power in the first place, and (c) place everyone under that law. The law itself should limit the power that any man or group of men can have.

If we understood what that law was and what it meant, then we’d have our handbook for avoiding tyrants and tyranny. For a tyrant sooner or later must break one or more of those laws or convince us that we can or should break them.

The objects upon which government can lawfully act should therefore be limited. Government should administer that fixed law, not invent or make up new law. All those who have governing responsibilities should be subject to that same law.

There are two more safeguards to control governing power: voice and exit. Voice is open speech. Exit includes physical withdrawal from governance and the ability of those governed to withdraw their support and financing of their governing agents.

These are necessary conditions. They are not sufficient because it takes human beings to control tyranny.

It will be thought by some, maybe many, that our current law and government are acceptable, or that we cannot do better or much better than the U.S. Constitution, or that we are in the process of perfecting this democracy or whatever one wishes to call this form of political government that we currently have. There are those who are satisfied with this big and powerful state of ours, as long as it is more or less democracy. They think this system is just the ticket to redeem the human race from its miseries, or that there is no better alternative. They have a great fondness for the American system of state. If some other states misbehave in a really dreadful and obvious manner, like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, they chalk it up to a host of special circumstances. The U.S. is regarded as different and better.

These comfortable and self-satisfied attitudes support tyranny. If one wonders how the average German could have supported Hitler, wonder how the average American can support our pastiche of unbridled laws. Wonder how President Bush and his coterie were able to launch a criminal war in Iraq in full view of all of us and with the unswerving support of Congress. There are better ways.

The imposition of tyranny when the power is available is a matter, among other things, of averages. The batting average for tyranny in U.S. government is well over 0.500, which no major league batter has ever achieved. For every Grover Cleveland, there are several Franklin Roosevelts. For every tax cutter, there are several tax raisers. For every stable-money man, there are several inflationists. De-regulators, for some reason, are hardly ever to be found. The U.S. had some periods of relative peace, as from 1814 to 1860 (the Mexican-American War excepted) and again from 1865 to 1898. But the list of war makers, also known as great men or great Presidents, is depressingly long nonetheless. They have increasingly found ways to finance their wars.

Walter Bagehot wrote: "You may talk of the tyranny of Nero and Tiberius; but the real tyranny is the tyranny of your next-door neighbor." The tyranny of the U.S. state has the support of large segments of the public. We live under a kind of semi-totalitarian democracy or semi-fascism. It threatens to become full-blown. We do not see the tyrant inside each of us. Abraham Lincoln once said, "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power." In our paradoxical democracy, the people have power, far too much power. It shows up in Congress and the Executive having far too much power. Yet they have far too much power over the people as well.

The big bad tyrants take our eyes off the far more common but no less destructive tyrannies that occur all the time. Thomas Bailey Aldrich wrote: "The possession of unlimited power will make a despot of almost any man. There is a possible Nero in the gentlest human creature that walks." A completely unrestrained democracy is the unlimited power of a majority of "any man" become despot. It is a noticeable tyranny. But even a less than completely overbearing democracy is filled with continual explosive devices going off. We are used to them and no longer notice.

Wherever there are states, there are stifling government bureaucracies that suppress freedom and free exchange. They are surely tyranny. Democracies are no different in this respect than dictatorships. The reason, noted earlier, is that voting can take place on just about anything we decide to vote on. Instead of the law being the law, we are the law, and we are tyrants. We tyrannize ourselves.

It has been the case again and again that when states move toward free markets — yes, this can and does happen — their economies boom. This is perhaps some sort of rare event, and maybe that’s why the outcome is often called an "economic miracle" as if it were supernatural. This is unfortunate language, because the causes are perfectly natural and man-made. Tyranny does not bat a thousand, and the occasional good leadership slips in. When it does, the human race bounds ahead. West Germany thrived after 1948 because Ludwig Erhard "abolished the price-fixing and production controls that had been enacted by the military administration. This exceeded his authority, but he succeeded with this courageous step." Deng Xaioping introduced market reforms and stimulated "an industrial revolution in China." Even Lenin had to introduce the New Economic Policy to overcome previous state nationalizations and controls over farm and factory. Within a short time, entrepreneurial "nepmen" emerged. Placing money and banking on a sound basis, or at least a sounder basis, is frequently an important step in these transformations as is avoiding war.

All we need to do is bring down tyranny’s batting average and we’ll be better off. This is a tall order because the basic law of the land, the U.S. Constitution, both as written and as interpreted, allows unlawful political government, that is, tyranny. It is a tall order because we too are the tyrants.

The tyranny we now have is wrapped up in a package regarded as attractive, with a ribbon that reads DEMOCRACY on it. John Adams said: "Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide."

Adams was, of course, not quite accurate. Democracy is an abstraction. We are the democrats in this democracy. We are the ones committing suicide, whether quickly or by degrees.

"If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly. If the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch,
With his surcease, success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, —
We’d jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips."

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is a retired Professor of Finance living in East Amherst, New York.

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