Symptoms of Tyranny
November 28, 2000
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
And few people see the logical absurdity of
letting a government decide the meaning of the very document that is supposed to
limit that governments 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 cant
remember, and therefore cant imagine, an alternative.
Tyranny seldom announces itself. A tyrant
doesnt 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
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
dont 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
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 its 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 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.
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