On the Sensation of Tyranny

by Don Boudreaux on December 14, 2020

in Archived writings, Country Problems, Current Affairs, Seen and Unseen

In my latest column for AIER I argue that tyranny is normally recognized as such only from the outside, including from the future. When tyranny is in progress, very many of its victims do not realize what is happening to them. A slice:

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.

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