Government and the Stockholm Syndrome

Most libertarians find it difficult to understand how large numbers of people can put up with government tyranny; and in fact, not just put up with it, but support it. On the opposite side of the issue, many non-libertarians cannot understand how libertarians can criticize government and government programs which have widespread public support.

The question of why people support tyranny is explained quite easily by “The Stockholm Syndrome.” The Stockholm Syndrome is so named because it was first systematically explored in 1973 following a hostage situation at a bank in Stockholm. Afterwards, the former captives defended their brutal captors, refusing to testify against them in court and raising money to help pay for their legal defense. The captives had convinced themselves that the political agenda of the terrorists was really correct and that hostage-taking and bank robberies were really the only way to achieve their supposedly laudable goals.

Far from being an aberration, psychiatrists and social scientists have, in fact, found that the Stockholm Syndrom is almost always the case in hostage situations which last more than a few days. There have been other famous examples such as Patty Hearst who joined her kidnappers. The Stockholm Syndrome appears to be a deep-seated psychological survival instinct.

Psychiatrists have identified a few basic aspects of this apparently strange phenomenon. It stems primarily from a person's feeling of relative helplessness, and a feeling that one's survival depends on not upsetting an irresistible force that could punish him. A person starts to try to rationalize the situation in which he finds himself. It is hard to fathom meaningless violence, or to live in fear of being killed or punished for no reason. The victim tries to convince himself that the captors are not sadistic beasts, but that they are quite rational and would not do violence to a person unless they had a good reason. Small acts of kindness (such as allowing the hostage to eat) tend to reinforce the hostage's desire to see the captors as decent people who would not harm a captive unless that captive did something stupid. That helps a captive feel like he is really to some degree in control of the situation, by being a “good” hostage, rather than feeling helpless.

Invariably the victims go out of their way to try to placate their captors, or people who have power over them. When the captors complain how just their cause is, the captive who fears punishment will not argue with the captor, he will say something like, “I'm sure you really do have a lot of legitimate grievances.” Under the pressure of the situation people actually begin to empathize with the hostage takers.

All of this can perhaps be explained much more simply by saying that when people encounter a circumstance which they cannot change, they try to convince themselves that the situation is not really unbearable. It is understandable why people do this. It is hard (and probably unhealthy) to go through life angry. For the slave who feels that he cannot escape it is comforting to think, “Oh well, I really don't have it so bad.”

When we recognize that a common psychological response to oppression is to attempt to justify that oppression, it is no longer a mystery why people justify confiscatory taxation, and other forms of government tyranny over them. People find themselves confronted with a seemingly irresistible force in the government. Assuming there really is no way to resist the government taking your money, people could respond by thinking, “Those damned politicians are stealing half my money, but there's nothing I can do to fight back.” On the other hand, they could think, “Oh well, I don't really have it so bad, and after all, government does build the roads.”

The fact is that most people do not want to go through life feeling helpless and oppressed. It is far easier psychologically to convince yourself that you are not really oppressed at all, and that you send the government half your money because you WANT to, not because you HAVE to.

One could argue, of course, that the Stockholm Syndrome requires a feeling of helplessness, and perhaps people in society are not as helpless vis–vis the government, as are hostages vis-a-vis their captors. Yet, in either case fighting back requires courage. To refuse to obey unjust government edicts when they are able to be resisted, nevertheless involves the risk of punishment or arrest by the government. It is a common psychological response when confronted with this type of choice to simply convince yourself that you have no choice. It is usually easier to convince oneself that “resistance is futile” then to admit that resistance is possible but dangerous. It is more comforting to think, “I had no choice” then to admit, “I could have resisted, but I was afraid.”

Given that the Stockholm Syndrome is so common and apparently responsible for people's support of tyranny, how can we overcome it? Unfortunately there is no easy answer. However, as Libertarians it is important for us to be able to counter the argument, “If government is so oppressive then why don't more people realize it?” Other than that, all we can do is encourage people to resist the effects of the Stockholm Syndrome. Most people are not able to resist. It takes a remarkably strong will to resist justifying your own oppression. Perhaps all we can say to those who have fallen into it is to ask them, “Are you going to be strong enough to see oppression for what it is and resist it, or will you be like the coward who goes through life pretending your oppressors are not so bad?”

November 22, 2002