Democracy and the Road to Tyranny

“There is the kind of State that seeks always to extend its administrative powers and functions into all realms of society, always seeking a higher degree of centralization in the conduct of its operations, always tending toward a wider measure of politicization of social, economic, and cultural life. . . It builds up a sense of the absolute identity of State and society – nothing outside the State, everything in the State.” (The Quest for Community, Robert Nisbet)

This passage was written by the American sociologist Robert Nisbet to describe a nation on the path to totalitarian rule.

As a form of government that first emerged in the 20th century, totalitarianism was primarily exemplified by two regimes – Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. The rise of totalitarianism, and the misery and suffering it produced, revealed to the world the grave dangers that arise when government power becomes too extensive. But while most people are aware of the atrocities committed by the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, few seem concerned that the growth of government power in the West today could lead to anything remotely similar.

Rather many believe that the existence of democracy acts as an effective barrier to the rise of overly oppressive regimes. But is this really the case? Or is democracy, as currently practiced in the West, promoting the rise of tyranny rather than preventing it?

The purpose of this video will be to examine this question. In the process we will look at two potential threats which face modern democracies – namely a tyranny of the masses and the rise of what has been called a soft totalitarianism resulting from the incessant growth of centralized government power. As we will argue it is the latter threat, not a tyranny of the masses, which is the most serious in the present day.

Democracy is such a revered institution that many see it as responsible for much of the prosperity and stability experienced in the world today. With the dominance of this one-sided view, it may be surprising that many great minds, including Plato, Aristotle, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Lord Acton, were critics of democratic rule. Some have gone as far as to suggest that modern democracy, rather than being a protector of freedom, provides fertile ground for the rise of tyranny.

Bertrand de Jouvenel in his book On Power expressed this view:

“Conceived as the foundation of liberty, modern democracy paves the way for tyranny. Born for the purpose of standing as a bulwark against Power, it ends by providing Power with the finest soil it has ever had in which to spread itself over the social field.” (On Power)

To understand how democracy, far from preventing tyranny, can pave the way for it the common notion that democracy is somehow synonymous with freedom must be dispelled. In a democracy one is given the opportunity to partake in the political process through voting or running for office. In exchange for being permitted these rights one is expected to obey the will of the majority. But being required to obey the will of a majority can be just as antithetical to freedom as being forced to obey the will of a lone tyrant.

As the economist John Wenders put it:

“There is a difference between democracy and freedom. Freedom cannot be measured by the opportunity to vote. It can be measured by the scope of what we do not vote about.” (John Wenders)

The threat that arises when a society accepts that a majority of people, through their votes, can force minorities to behave in a manner other than their choosing, is known as the ‘tyranny of the masses’. Benjamin Franklin famously referred to this when he wrote:

“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what they are going to have for lunch.” (Benjamin Franklin)

However, as was mentioned earlier a tyranny of the masses may not be the most serious threat facing the West. Rather the structure of modern democracies minimizes the potential impact that the will of the majority exerts on social and economic affairs. To understand why this is the case the distinction must be made between two types of democracy: direct democracy and indirect democracy.

Direct democracy involves people casting votes on specific issues, usually by means of a referendum. Under this type of democracy one could properly say that the majority rules and thus the threat of a tyranny of the masses is real. But this is not the type of democracy in existence in the West.

Rather Western nations are indirect democracies whereby people vote for politicians, and the elected politicians are given the power to decide on the issues at hand.

Indirect democracies minimize the amount of power vested with the people as compared with a direct democracy. In fact, popular participation in modern Western democracies – save for occasional referendums – basically amounts to nothing more than favoring one or another of the major political parties who share more similarities than differences.

Elected politicians are not required to behave in a manner they believe is consistent with the will of their constituents, nor are they required to keep the promises they made to get elected. Rather politicians once in power are far more influenced by lobbyists, special interests and their own personal gain. This issue, of minimal power in the hands of the people, is compounded by the fact that in Western democracies there exists a vast, and ever-expanding number of unelected bureaucrats, who are responsible for many of the rules and regulations which govern society.

However, this belief that voting puts ultimate power in the hands of the people remains widely held even in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. In fact this illusory belief has created a situation where, as the philosopher Hans Hermann Hoppe wrote:

“Under democracy the distinction between the rulers and the ruled becomes blurred. The illusion even arises that the distinction no longer exists: that with democratic government no one is ruled by anyone, but everyone instead rules himself. Accordingly, public resistance against government power is systematically weakened.” (Hans Hermann Hoppe)

This weakened resistance which arises from the belief that power resides with the people has paved the way for Western governments to subsume control of ever more areas of social and economic life and it is this centralization of power, not a tyranny of the masses, that may be the greatest threat to Western nations.

To comprehend the dangers that arise, and the misery that ensues, from unbridled centralization of government power one must only look to the history of the many countries that moved too far in that direction in the 20th century – be it Soviet Russia, Communist China, Nazi Germany, Cuba, or North Korea. These countries centralized power and controlled the lives of their citizens to a degree never before seen in history and to a level which obviously exceeds that experienced in the modern West.

But the centralization of government power seen in Western democracies today is not different in kind from the centralization of power seen in the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, but rather differs only in degree. In fact, some suggest that those who live in modern democracies are subject to a what can be called a soft-totalitarianism in contrast to the more brutal 20th century version of totalitarian rule. Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw this type of rule and described it in his great work Democracy in America:

“After having…taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting…it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupifies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.” (Democracy in America, Alexis de Toqueville)

Prior to the rise of totalitarian rule social relations among people were dominated by a multiplicity of different institutions and associations which were independent of government – such as markets, guilds, churches, private hospitals, universities, fraternities, charities, monasteries, and most importantly the “primal community of the family”.

These independent associations and institutions, while providing great societal benefits also acted as barriers to the expansion of government power. Thus the destruction and replacement of these more diverse forms of community with relationships between the individual and the state was a crucial step for the rise of powerful centralized governments and the totalitarian rule that centralization breeds.

As Robert Nisbet wrote in The Quest for Community:

“It is not the extermination of individuals that is ultimately desired by totalitarian rulers. . . What is desired is the extermination of those social relationships which, by their autonomous existence, must always constitute a barrier to the achievement of the absolute political community.

The prime object of totalitarian government thus becomes the incessant destruction of all evidence of spontaneous, autonomous association…To destroy or diminish the reality of the smaller areas of society, to abolish or restrict the range of cultural alternatives offered individuals. . . is to destroy in time the roots of the will to resist despotism in its large forms.” (The Quest for Community, Robert Nisbet)

In places like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia the destruction of institutions independent of the state was done quite rapidly and with the use of much violence. The same process, however, has been occurring in modern democracies, such as Canada, the US, and England but at a slower pace and with less violence. Rather than using violence, these countries have relied primarily on propaganda, the effectiveness of which has drastically increased with the development of modern technology:

Propaganda”, wrote Noam Chomsky “is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”

But what must be emphasized is that the dangers of centralization remain no matter the speed at which it proceeds. Nor do the dangers disappear just because voting allows those in Western countries to choose whom is granted the immense power associated with the highest offices of government.

As Lysander Spooner famously wrote:

“A man is none the less a slave because he is allowed to choose a new master once in a term of years.” (Lysander Spooner)

Eventually centralization of government power creates a so-called turnkey tyranny where one must continually trust that the elected politicians, and the bureaucrats they appoint, will not abuse the immense power at their disposal. However, as the powers granted to one’s government increase, so does the likelihood for abuse of this power. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn warned in his book The Gulag Archipelago

“Unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty”. (The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn)

But even if one trusts in the goodness of one’s politicians the fact remains that governments cannot effectively manage economies, and that politicians are never wise enough to take over and decide social issues for millions of diverse individuals. Rather a society in which the government takes over and controls ever more areas of life is also a society which is very susceptible to collapse. For as James Kalb put it:

“If all social order becomes dependent on the administrative state, when that becomes terminally corrupt and non-functional everything goes.” (The Tyranny of Liberalism, James Kalb)

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