Democracy versus Autocracy: A False Dichotomy

A ruling ideology likes to divide the world into black and white. A state religion divides the world into believers and infidels. Communist ideology divides the world into socialists and imperialists. An ethno-nationalist ideology divides the world into our people and others (for example: Romans and barbarians, Chinese and barbarians, whites and coloreds).

The reigning ideology of the United States is democracy. We celebrate the victory of democracy over monarchy every 4th of July. We learn a historical narrative of how America followed a long, ascending path toward being more enlightened and democratic. During the time once allotted for an opening prayer, students now pledge allegiance to the republic.

American ideology thus divides the world into democracies and authoritarian regimes. Democracies are good, authoritarian regimes are bad. The United States does whatever it can to undermine authoritarian regimes. The U.S. grants money to the “democratic” opposition, broadcasts pro-democracy information, demands pro-democracy concessions during trade negotiations, harbors and glorifies dissident leaders, and occasionally wages war against autocracies.

This dichotomy is pure cant. It is a stunningly poor model for understanding the nature of government. It was a bad model of the world for Romans to group together Berbers, Parthians, Celts, and Germanics all as one type of people, “barbarian.” Similarly, it makes no sense for us to group together all non-democratic regimes as being one type of government, “authoritarian.”

Let us examine the errors in the democracy versus authoritarian framing.

Error #1: In practice, being a “democracy” has little to do with popular power

In common usage, being a “democracy” means that the government is allied with the United States and accepts the soft power of the State Department and associated international institutions and NGO’s. Germany of 1910’s had mass suffrage elections that really mattered. Germany of the 2000’s is mostly ruled by unelected bureaucrats in the EU and in the German civil service. It is arguable which is more “democratic.” But by U.S. ideology the answer is black and white: the Germany of 1910’s was an authoritarian regime that was illegitimate and had to be destroyed.

True popular rule is impossible, in the same way that rule by an 11-year-old monarch is impossible. A majority of citizens or a child monarch can go through the motions of ruling. They can sign off on policies, they can throw tantrums and occasionally force others to react. But the machinery of government and the real power will be in the hands of savvy, full-time operators. Power will reside with those who have the knowledge, skills, and connections to actually get things done. The Iron Law of Oligarchy applies.

Error #2: It is nonsense to group together all non-democratic regimes as one category for the purpose of analysis.

There are a plethora of non-democratic systems: monarchy, fascist dictatorship, aristocratic republic, merchant republic, corporate oligarchy, military tribunal, colonial viceroy, socialist dictatorship, communist party junta, property holders republic, timocracy, civil service system, tribal elders system, etcetera. These systems are as different from each other as they are different from any democracy. The government of Hong Kong and the government of North Korea have virtually nothing in common. The sins of North Korea in no way delegitimize the non-democratic government of Hong Kong.

There is a common form of argument that goes: authoritarianism is bad because Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Communist North Korea were authoritarian and did horrific things. Country X (Hong Kong, China, etc) has an authoritarian government. Therefore it is bad. This argument is fallacious. Imagine the following chain of logic: Heathenism is bad because heathens like the Aztecs engaged in human sacrifice. Buddhism is heathen (ie, non-Abrahamic). Therefore Buddhism is bad. Such a logic chain is absurd, yet people make similiar claims when talking about authoritarianism all the time.

Believers in the dichotomy also put far too much emphasis in formal designs and written constitutions. They accept the American mythology that the nation’s success was due to the genius of the written Constitution. Believers ignore how much of the Constitution was contingent on the particular debates, culture, and power blocks of America during that time period.

In reality, much of the success of a government is due to the role of the particular leaders, particular people, and particular places. If you have a mostly illiterate nation, divided 60%/40% into two tribes, then majoritarian democracy is a really, really bad idea. But if you have a homogeneous, educated, and savvy populace, with a network of private institutions, and a high-trust culture, then many forms of government will work quite well. Much of the purported success of democracy is really survivorship bias. Countries with the most human capital and strongest civic institutions can survive the chaos and demagoguery that comes with regular mass elections. Lesser countries succumb to chaos, and then dictatorship.

That Churchill (mis)quote

It is particularly irksome when someone responds to a critique of democracy with the statement: “Well, as Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

First, this is actually a misquote. Churchill was actually giving a speech in favor of protecting the undemocratic House of Lords, and he was quoting general sentiment, not making the claim himself. His quote goes (emphasis mine): “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Second, it is not at all obviously true. Is the universal suffrage government of Philadelphia really better than the merchant republic government of Venice, or the corporate oligarchy of Hong Kong? The argument needs to be made. Those repeating the “least worst” nostrum do so without any sort of actual thought.

Third, there is no one form of government that is “better” in all particular circumstances. There are many local optimums to the problem of government, depending on the path dependent evolution of that particular nation.

Error #3: The dichotomy framing causes us to misdiagnose the maladies of our time

According to the dichotomy, democracy is the font of goodness, dictatorships are the source of badness. Any example of corruption or tyranny in America is always an example of not enough democracy. If we are unfree, it must be that somehow the government has become dictatorial. The cure is always more democracy.

The historical narrative is that evil government acts are usually orchestrated top-down by someone with absolute power. Lord Acton is oft quoted: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

While such top-down evil has happened, in most of the worst instances of tyranny, the oppression was due to insecurity of the leaders at the top, factional fighting, mobs, or a security apparatus operating outside the authority of top-down command-and-control. The oppression is often sideways and peer-to-peer. There is often a sense in which the entire thing is outside of any person’s control. The revolution devours everyone, even its own, without anyone able to stop it or inject sanity. The oppression is neither due to the wishes of the majority, nor to the wishes of the top down ruler. Rather the tyranny is at the hand of fractured, unaccountable parties that are wedded to the instruments of power.1

Democracy, Authoritarianism, and Historical Examples of Tyranny

With the above noted, let us examine some historical examples of tyranny, and note how they often do not fit the narrative of being top-down, command-and-control, abuses of absolute power.

Tyranny in Revolutionary America

The American narrative is that the English monarchy was evil and repressive, and that the American patriots were fighting for liberty. What this narrative omits is that the American rebels engaged in orders of magnitude more offenses against liberty than the colonial British government committed.

Chapter 8 of Stanley Fisher’s True History of the American Revolution is a stunning account that should be required reading for all those interested in a more accurate version of reality. Here is an excerpt:

The loyalists were becoming more decided and outspoken, and events seemed to be increasing their numbers. The rough element in the patriot party looked upon them as enemies to be broken up and disorganized as quickly as possible. Disarming parties visited loyalist houses and took away all the weapons; and it was a method well calculated to check union and organization and prevent the loyalists from taking advantage of their numbers. Such a method would not perhaps be so effective in modern times when fire-arms are so cheap and easy to procure.

In their scattered, individualized condition they became more and more the prey of the rough element among their opponents. Everywhere they were seized unexpectedly, at the humor of the mob, tarred and feathered, paraded through the towns, or left tied to trees in the woods. Any accidental circumstance would cause these visitations, and often the victim was not as politically guilty as some of his neighbors who, by prudence or accident, remained unharmed to the end of the war.

Those patriots of the upper classes who for many years had been rousing the masses of the people to resist the principle of taxation and all authority of Parliament were now somewhat aghast at the success of their work. The patriot colonists, when aroused, were lawless; and, while clamoring for independence, violated in a most shocking manner the rights of personal liberty and property. In the South, as soon as the rebellion party got a little control, a loyalist might be locked up in the jail for the mere expression of his opinion; and in the North, too, when the rebellion party got control in a county they were apt to use the jail to punish loyalists.

In Berkshire, Massachusetts, in that same summer of 1774, the mob forced the judges from their seats and shut up the court-house, drove David Ingersoll from his house, and laid his lands and fences waste; they riddled the house of Daniel Leonard with bullets, and drove him to Boston; … Men were ridden and tossed on fence-rails, were gagged and bound for days at a time; pelted with stones; fastened in rooms where there was a fire with the chimney stopped on top; advertised as public enemies, so that they would be cut off from all dealing with their neighbors. They had bullets shot into their bedrooms; money or valuable plate extorted to save them from violence and on pretense of taking security for their good behavior. Their houses and ships were burnt; they were compelled to pay the guards who watched them in their houses; and when carted about for the mob to stare at and abuse they were compelled to pay something at every town.

There is much more, go read the whole thing, it is free online.

A more recent book Holy Madness by Adam Zamoyski covers both the American Revolution in addition to other revolutions from 1770 to 1870. I highly recommend reading the whole book. Here is Zamoyski writing about tyranny in the American Revolution:

Coercion and bullying of loyalists turned into legal persecution after the Declaration of Independence. Committees of Public Safety established themselves in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, passing sentences in kangaroo courts. Passive loyalists were deprived of their civil rights. They were prohibited from collecting debts, buying or selling land, or, in some cases, practicing their professions. Loyalists who spoke out or published their opinions could be fined, imprisoned and disfranchised. Those considered to be dangerous were imprisoned, ill-treated or exiled. With time, confiscation of property became general. In outlying or frontier areas, lynch law replaced such niceties. Even so, large numbers flocked to serve in loyalist units. Rebel slave-owners took preventive measures, locking up their slaves and even deporting them from the vicinity of loyalist areas or British garrisons. But the blacks nevertheless rowed out to British ships, joined loyalist or British forces, and fought with enthusiasm against the rebels.

In the end, Zamoyski writes that the revolution “helped purge the colonies of active loyalists, many of whom were killed, and a further 80,000 of whom emigrated.” So much for fighting for life, liberty and property.

Do you recall the extent of this reign of terror from your PBS documentaries and grade school history? Like I said, every country has its cant and its origin myths. America is no different. The greatness and purity of our democratic revolution is our origin myth.

Tyranny in Maoist China

The cult of Mao was also not entirely a top-down affair. The top leadership instigated the cult, but it spun out of their control:

As the cult spread and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution deepened, however, the party lost control over its symbols. Leese refers to this as the period of “cult anarchy;” I would compare it to the point at which monetary authorities lose control of the money supply, leading to runaway hyperinflation. Different factions of Red Guards started using Mao’s image and words in incompatible ways, and new cult rituals emerged from the grass roots, sometimes from the enthusiasm of the genuinely committed, sometimes seemingly as protective talismans against the uncertainty and strife of the period. Everybody appealed to Mao to signal their revolutionary credentials, but there was no longer anyone capable of settling disputes over the credibility of these signals. Mao himself wasn’t much help; whenever he spoke at all, his messages were often cryptic and didn’t really settle any important disputes. The cult was now a “Red Queen” race of wasteful signaling, rather than a carefully calibrated tool of mobilization or discipline, driven by a complex combination of genuine desires to signal loyalty and identity and fears for one’s security. (Leese notes that failure to conform to the arbitrary protocols of the cult put people at risk of being sentenced as an “active counter-revolutionary” and documents many cases in which minimal symbolic transgressions resulted in incarceration or even death).

By 1967, for example, statues of Mao first started to be built, something that CCP leaders, and Mao himself, had discouraged in the past, and still officially frowned upon. The statues were typically built by local factions without approval from the central party, and they were all 7.1 meters high and placed on a pedestal that was 5.16 meters high, for a total height of 12.26 meters. (26 December = Mao’s birthday, 1 July = the Party’s founding date, 16 May = the beginning of the cultural revolution. People arrived at this precise convention for the statues without any centralized direction, merely through a signaling process). Later “Long Live the Victory of Mao Zedong Though Halls” were built on a grand scale, again without approval from the central party. Billions of Chairman Mao badges were produced by individual work units competing with each other, which were themselves subject to size inflation as the larger size of the badges came to be associated with greater loyalty to the CCP Chairman, … badges with a diameter of 30 centimeters and greater came to be produced,” Zhou Enlai would grumble in 1969 about the enormous waste of resources this represented. Costly signaling demands kept escalating; some people took to pinning the badges directly on their skin, for example, and farmers sent “loyalty pigs” to Mao as gifts (pigs with a shaved “loyalty” character).

Tyranny in Russia

There is a myth about the Soviet revolution; a myth that evolved to fit the narrative of authoritarianism is evil, and democracy good. The myth says that the Tsar was a vicious and tyrannical autocrat who oppressed his people and crushed dissidents. His iron fist only generated more anger, which resulted in a violent revolution. This revolution had promise, but unfortunately it was taken over by tyrannical, dictatorial leaders such as Lenin and then Stalin, who themselves became even more tyrannical than the Tsar.

This narrative has flaws on multiple counts. First, the Tsar was hardly an iron fisted autocrat. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn writes:

One might easily imagine a bearded man with a newspaper under his arm walking across a street in St. Petersburg in 1912. Who is he? A deputy of the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Party-in other words, a Bolshevik sitting in the Duma. What sort of paper does he carry under his arm? Pravda. Where did he buy it? There, at the street corner. Of course, before 1905 people were less free, but Vyera Zassulitch, who tried to assassinate the police prefect Tryepov, was acquitted by a jury. Trotsky described how delightful Russian jails were, with what respect political “criminals” were treated by their wardens. Lenin suffered ssylka, exile in Siberia,but simple exile merely meant that one was forced to live in or near a certain village, received a meager pension but was still able to read, write, hunt, and fish. Life in Siberia around 1900 was no worse than life in North Dakota or Saskatchewan at that time. A friend of mine has even seen the copy of the letter Lenin’s wife wrote from Shushenskoye to the Governor in Irkutsk protesting against the insufficient staff she had been allotted.

Nor should one have wrong conceptions about the agrarian situation. At the time of the outbreak of the Revolution in 1917 the peasantry owned nearly 80 percent of the arable land, whereas in Britain more than half of the fertile soil belonged to large estates. (Yet Britain had no violent agrarian movement and Russia had.) Illiteracy was down to about 56 percent, and the schools were multiplying by leaps and bounds. …As a matter of fact, Russia before the Red October was Europe’s “Eastern America,” a country where social mobility was greater than anywhere else, where titles had by no means the nimbus they had in the West, where fortunes could be made overnight by intelligent and thrifty people regardless of their social background. And if one knew how to speak and to write one indeed had total liberty even before 1905.

Simon Montefiore writes in his seminal book, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar:

In 1902, Stalin won the spurs of his first arrest and Siberian exile, the first of seven such exiles from which he escaped six times. These exiles were far from Stalin’s brutal concentration camps: the Tsars were inept policemen. They were almost reading holidays in distant Siberian villages with one part-time gendarme on duty, during which revolutionaries got to know (and hate) each other, corresponded with their comrades in Petersburg or Vienna, discussed abstruse questions of dialectical materialism, and had affairs with local girls. When the call of freedom or revolution became urgent, they escaped, romping across the taiga to the nearest train.

This kind of exile is hardly the punishment of a cruel and vicious tyrant. In fact, if one’s goal was to undermine the Tsarist regime and to strengthen the revolutionaries, it would be hard to design a better system of exile. No regime can treat its enemies so lightly and survive. And it did not.

The narrative of Lenin and Stalin having “absolute power” and thus being corrupted absolutely is also false. We imagine them to be Darth Vader like figures, who could wave their hands and have their subordinates dispatched for disobedience. But before 1935, this was not true. If you read histories, writings, and memoirs, you realize that the leadership was quite fractured, the killings were quite distributed, there were many different committees, each person unsure of their own power.

Lenin was an evil man who gave fiery speeches urging mass killings. But he did not control these killings like a CEO controls a business. He was more in the position of an arsonist or a mob leader. He wants the local communities to come up with their own ways of killing the wealthy. And they did. Lenin wrote:

No mercy for these enemies of the people, the enemies of socialism, the enemies of the working people! War to the death against the rich and their hangers-on, the bourgeois intellectuals; war on the rogues, the idlers and the rowdies!

Thousands of practical forms and methods of accounting and controlling the rich, the rogues and the idlers must be devised and put to a practical test by the communes themselves, by small units in town and country. Variety is a guarantee of effectiveness here, a pledge of success in achieving the single common aim—to clean the land of Russia of all vermin, of fleas—the rogues, of bugs—the rich, and so on and so forth.

As Gregory Maximoff writes in The Guillotine at Work, the revolution went far beyond Lenin’s control:

But something happened which Lenin could not altogether foresee, something which he did not want to happen: while waiting for the tidal wave to subside (and against these elemental forces he was at first quite powerless), he saw that the seizures of enterprises—-industrial and commercial— by the workers went too far, having in fact made a clean sweep of the rather feebly rooted Russian capitalists, industrialists and merchants.

Revolutionary Victor Serge writes in his memoirs that Lenin made an effort not to appear as a top-down dictator:

He was warm, friendly, genial, talking as simply as he could. It was as if he was determined to emphasize with every gesture that the head of the Soviet Government and the Russian Communist Party was still just another comrade – the leading one, of course, through his acknowledged intellectual and moral authority, but no more than this, and one who would never become just another statesman or another dictator. He was obviously concerned to steer the International by persuasion.

Was this just an act? I don’t think so. If you have to act like you’re not a top down leader, that means you actually cannot give direct orders and command publicly, which means you cannot rule like a CEO or a general. The stories of the Red Terror show many elements of distributed tyranny. We have local commanders abusing their power. We see many examples of the madness of crowds, when all people get trapped in signaling how loyal they are to communist goals, and no one can say, “Stop! This is madness” because to do so would get them killed.

Here are a few more vignettes from Victor Serge:

After having had the last Oppositional sympathizers in the Moscow factories arrested, [Mikhail Tverskoy, who was an agent of the GPU] came to us in Leningrad in order, he said, to “help us reorganize.” Without our being able to stop him, he speedily set up a shadow organization consisting of fifty or so workers, only to have it rally noisily to the “general line” within two months, while those who resisted were thrown into jail. This police maneuver was repeated in all working-class centers. It was made easier by the moral confusion of the Communists. Oppositionists and officials outbid each other in loyalty to the Party, the Oppositions being by far the most sincere. Nobody was willing to see evil in the proportions that it head reached.

Another episode shows the power of a local commander:

I remember what happened one day when I was tramping through the snow with one of the regional military commanders, Mikhail Lashevich, an old revolutionary for the last thirty-five years, one of the architects of the seizure of power and a fearless warrior. I talked to him of the changes that had to be made. Lashevich was a stocky thickset man whose face was fleshy and covered with wrinkles. The only solution he could envisage for any problem was a resort to force. Speculation? We’ll put a stop to that! “I shall have the covered markets pulled down and the crowds dispersed! There you are!” He did it too, which only made matters worse.

Serge wrote about the mindset of the leaders:

Finally, the victory of the revolution deals with the inferiority complex of the perpetually vanquished and bullied masses by arousing in them a spirit of social revenge, which in turn tends to generate new despotic institutions. I was witness to the great intoxication with which yesterday’s sailors and workers exercised command and enjoyed the satisfaction of demonstrating that they were now in power!

Much of the killings were done by the secret police and “judiciary” system: the Cheka and its successors the GPU and the KGB. If you read the wikipedia article about the Cheka, it is a maze of different committees, bodies, leaders, and factions. The Cheka is pulled various ways by the fights of the various parties early in the revolution. Each city has its own Cheka, carrying out its own ends: “By late 1918, hundreds of Cheka committees had been created in various cities, at multiple levels including: oblast, guberniya (”Gubcheks“), raion, uyezd, and volost Chekas, with Raion and Volost Extraordinary Commissioners.”

Helmut Andics writes in his general history, Rule of Terror:

The campaign against the Kulaks flooded the prisons . The documents of the Smolensk Party Headquarters, captured by the Germans during World War II, vividly illustrate the conditions prevailing at the time. Things clearly became too much even for the GPU. In February 1930, a report complained that practically everyone was arresting everyone else. Anyone connected with the collectivisation acted as policeman on his own account. Another report suggests that the Committees of Poor Peasants and the Workers’ Brigades brought from the towns were following the motto: ‘Drink and eat – it all belongs to us!’ The wave of arrets threatened to bring on anarchy. In May 1933 Stalin and Molotov issued a secret order against all those ‘who wish to carry out arrests, but strictly speaking have no right to do so.’ This more or less put an end to the arbitrary exercise of private justice. Organized Mass Terror, however, went on and now acquired economic importance.

Victor Serge writes of the Cheka: (emphasis mine)

Already the Cheka, which made mass arrests of suspects, was tending to settle their fate independently, under formal control of the Party, but in reality without anybody’s knowledge. The Party endeavored to head the Cheka with incorruptible men like the former convict Dzerhinsky, a sincere idealist, ruthless but chivalrous, with the emaciated profile of an Inquisitor: tall forehead, bony nose, untidy goatee, and an expression of weariness and austerity. But the Party had few men of this stamp and many Chekas: these gradually came to select their personnel by virtue of their psychological inclinations. The only temperaments that devoted themselves willingly and tenaciously to this task of “internal defense” were those characterized by suspicion, embitterment, harshness, and sadism. The Chekas inevitably consisted of perverted men tending to see conspiracy everywhere and to live in the midst of perpetual conspiracy themselves.

Again, the Cheka was not under the control of a Darth Vader-like dictator. It was not under the control of a bunch of evil oligarchs.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes an episode that again demonstrates the madness spiral. Note that the presiding secretary is as much a prisoner to the system as the people he is presiding over. If he was a real corporate executive, this would not have happened. It was because no one was in control that this could happen:

Here is one vignette from those years as it actually occurred. A district Party conference was under way in Moscow Province. It was presided over by a new secretary of the District Party Committee, replacing one recently arrested. At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). The small hall echoed with “stormy applause, rising to an ovation.” For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the “stormy applause, rising to an ovation,” continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin.

However, who would dare be the first to stop? The secretary of the District Party Committee could have done it. He was standing on the platform, and it was he who had just called for the ovation. But he was a newcomer. He had taken the place of a man who’d been arrested. He was afraid! After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who quit first! And in that obscure, small hall, unknown to the Leader, the applause went on —six, seven, eight minutes! They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks! At the rear of the hall, which was crowded, they could of course cheat a bit, clap less frequently, less vigorously, not so eagerly—but up there with the presidium where everyone could see them?

The director of the local paper factory, an independent and strong-minded man, stood with the presidium. Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! And even then those who were left would not falter… . Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved! The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel. That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him: “Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding!” (And just what are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to stop?)

By the late 1930’s, Stalin had gained control and was much more of a classic top-down dicator. Stalin of course was a very nasty fellow, and engaged in much brutality himself. But, it is a mistake to think of dictatorship being a cause of the brutality. Rather, a war, a revolution and a cult rebellion caused the breakdown, and once that process started, only a nasty and brutal leader would ever emerge on top.

Regicide rarely increases liberty

The misdiagnosis of repressive dictators means the treatment is all wrong. America demonizes dictators such as Saddam in Iraq, Assad in Syria, or Qadafi in Libya and supports efforts to overthrow them. But these efforts do not result in liberty, they result in civil wars and more tyranny.2 Liberty rarely comes from revolution. Historically, liberty comes from 1) local civic groups and militias protecting their own rights 2) the settling of new frontiers and 3) strong regimes mellowing out over time.

The tragedy is that just as a regime starts to mellow and relax, that process allows agitators to arise and cause trouble. Louis XVI was much more liberal than his grand-father. Thus, paradoxically, Louis XVI was the one overthrown for being a tyrant. He tolerated Voltaire and other anti-monarchist liberals and he played along with the mob rather than firing on them immediately. Zamoyski writes:

On 17 July [1789] Louis XVI drove into Paris without pomp, virtually unattended and simply dressed. He came to the Hotel de Ville to meet the representatives of the Paris Commune, who proffered him one of the tricolor cockades. He received it with ‘sensibilité’ and pinned it to his hat. When he had gone, the representatives voted to erect a statue to him on the site of the Bastille, whose demolition had begun. Without a vote, and without a decree, the tricolor cockade was adopted overnight as the emblem of the nation — to be sported even by the monarch, who had never worn any emblem other than a crown on his head.

In his surrender, he signed his own death warrant. Note that this is not how Deng Xiaoping treated the Tianming protestors. Note that the Chinese regime still survives and the country prospers, while the French regime was destroyed and the country embroiled in chaos, bloodlust, and war mongering. Yet our American ideology says that Deng Xiaoping was the villain for firing on the mob.

To this day, millions of Parisians celebrate the storming of the Bastille as being some great statement about the triumph of liberty. Who was imprisoned in the Bastille? Zamoyski tells us:

When the Bastille’s cell doors were thrown open on 14 July 1789, no more than seven prisoners emerged. Four of them were judicially convicted forgers. Two were lunatics, one of whom believed he was Julius Caesar, and they soon found themselves locked up again at Charenton. The seventh was the Comte de Solages, whose sexual depravity had so alarmed his family that they procured his incarceration.

National myths, indeed.

The English Civil War in the 1640s provides a similar example. As Brinton Crane writes in the Anatomy of a Revolution:

Nothing can be more erroneous than the picture of the old regime as unregenerate tyranny, sweeping to its end in a climax of despotic indifference to the clamor of its abused subjects. Charles I was working “modernize” his government, to introduce into England some of the efficient methods of the French. Strafford was in some ways but an unlucky Richelieu.

But once the Parliamentarians defeated him in battle and lopped off this head, the usurping legislators proceeded to institute a tyranny far more extensive than any king had carried out – including going so far as to ban Christmas!

Tyranny and the Catholic Inquisition

Even our common beliefs about the Catholic Church and the Inquisition appear to be false. The narrative is that before the enlightenment, liberalism, and democracy, people were repressed by an evil Catholic Church. But it turns out that most religious violence is peer-to-peer, and the Catholic Inquisition was often an attempt to moderate and control this instinct:

One of the most enduring myths of the Inquisition is that it was a tool of oppression imposed on unwilling Europeans by a power-hungry Church. Nothing could be more wrong. In truth, the Inquisition brought order, justice, and compassion to combat rampant secular and popular persecutions of heretics. When the people of a village rounded up a suspected heretic and brought him before the local lord, how was he to be judged? How could an illiterate layman determine if the accused’s beliefs were heretical or not? And how were witnesses to be heard and examined?

The medieval Inquisition began in 1184 when Pope Lucius III sent a list of heresies to Europe’s bishops and commanded them to take an active role in determining whether those accused of heresy were, in fact, guilty. Rather than relying on secular courts, local lords, or just mobs, bishops were to see to it that accused heretics in their dioceses were examined by knowledgeable churchmen using Roman laws of evidence. In other words, they were to “inquire” — thus, the term “inquisition.” … Most people accused of heresy by the medieval Inquisition were either acquitted or their sentence suspended. Those found guilty of grave error were allowed to confess their sin, do penance, and be restored to the Body of Christ. The underlying assumption of the Inquisition was that, like lost sheep, heretics had simply strayed. If, however, an inquisitor determined that a particular sheep had purposely departed out of hostility to the flock, there was nothing more that could be done. Unrepentant or obstinate heretics were excommunicated and given over to the secular authorities. Despite popular myth, the Church did not burn heretics. It was the secular authorities that held heresy to be a capital offense. The simple fact is that the medieval Inquisition saved uncounted thousands of innocent (and even not-so-innocent) people who would otherwise have been roasted by secular lords or mob rule. .. The power of kings rose dramatically in the late Middle Ages. Secular rulers strongly supported the Inquisition because they saw it as an efficient way to ensure the religious health of their kingdoms. If anything, kings faulted the Inquisition for being too lenient on heretics. Kings justified this on the belief that they knew better than the faraway pope how best to deal with heresy in their own kingdoms. These dynamics would help to form the Spanish Inquisition — but there were others as well. Spain was in many ways quite different from the rest of Europe. Conquered by Muslim jihad in the eighth century, the Iberian peninsula had been a place of near constant warfare…In 1483 Ferdinand appointed Tomás de Torquemada as inquistor-general for most of Spain…

The first 15 years of the Spanish Inquisition, under the direction of Torquemada, were the deadliest. Approximately 2,000 conversos were put to the flames. By 1500, however, the hysteria had calmed. Torquemada’s successor, the cardinal archbishop of Toledo, Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, worked hard to reform the Inquisition, removing bad apples and reforming procedures. …. Staffed by well-educated legal professionals, it was one of the most efficient and compassionate judicial bodies in Europe. No major court in Europe executed fewer people than the Spanish Inquisition. This was a time, after all, when damaging shrubs in a public garden in London carried the death penalty. Across Europe, executions were everyday events. But not so with the Spanish Inquisition. In its 350-year lifespan only about 4,000 people were put to the stake. Compare that with the witch-hunts that raged across the rest of Catholic and Protestant Europe, in which 60,000 people, mostly women, were roasted. Spain was spared this hysteria precisely because the Spanish Inquisition stopped it at the border. When the first accusations of witchcraft surfaced in northern Spain, the Inquisition sent its people to investigate. These trained legal scholars found no believable evidence for witches’ Sabbaths, black magic, or baby roasting. It was also noted that those confessing to witchcraft had a curious inability to fly through keyholes. While Europeans were throwing women onto bonfires with abandon, the Spanish Inquisition slammed the door shut on this insanity. (For the record, the Roman Inquisition also kept the witch craze from infecting Italy.)

Dear reader, if the mob accuses you of being a witch, would you rather be tried by the mob, or by an Official Inquiry of trained legal scholars?

Tyranny in Modern America

More and more folk are realizing that America is not the unique bastion of liberty that grade school and PBS documentaries portray it to be. But Americans are still trapped in the beliefs that tyranny in America is due to the lack of democracy, that the oppression is a result of an “imperial executive” or a dictatorial conspiracy of some sort. Right-wingers demonize the “liberal elites” and “central planners.” Left-wingers demonize corporate oligarchy.

But most offenses against liberty in modern America are not top-down. The violations of liberty occur due to a tangled web of government and private power. Violations occur at the hands of a thousand different independent bureaucracies, lobbies, monied interests, judges, activist groups, prosecutors, criminal gangs, bullies, mobs, civil servants, and politically protected private citizens, each working their own agenda.

When a police officer roughs up an innocent youth who happened to be standing on the wrong street corner, that is not a top-down order from a dictator. Rather, it happens because the police officer has civil service protection. A mayor or police chief cannot fire a cop the way a CEO can fire a surly customer support representative. The tyranny comes from a vacuum of top-down authority.

In places where the police and authority are absent, there is rule by violent gangs. Sudhir Venkatesh described how gangs in Chicago collect taxes and brutally enforce their rule. In Baltimore, when the police withdrew after six cops were arrested for the Freddie Gray incident, murders doubled and the streets are no longer safe. In inner-city schools, violence comes at the hands of other students, because the court system prevents teachers from touching unruly students to break up fights. If official authorities refuse to use violence, then they will cede the streets and hallways to disorganized, bottom-up violence and oppression.

Repression of free speech also happens peer-to-peer. Saying anything that anyone can plausibly construe as being racist or sexist now puts you at risk of losing your job. Examples can be as trivial as the two programmers who were fired because they made a slightly off-color joke about “dongles”, (apparently, such a joke was sexist and threatening). See this long list of people who were bullied or purged from their job for believing the wrong thing.

When it comes to the difficulty of opening a factory, again, the friction does not come from a top-down dictator. It comes from a broken system of property records so you don’t even know who owns the vacant lots you want to buy. It comes from going through a half-dozen community boards, negotiating hundreds of regulations, dealing with a half-dozen agencies ranging from the EPA, EEOC to OSHA.

This kind of democratic repression is nothing new. Here are two quotes from Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s excellent book Liberty or Equality. First he quotes Tocqueville:

I do not know a country where there is in general less intellectual independence and less freedom of discussion than in America. .. . In America the majority builds an impregnable wall around the process of thinking. The Inquisition was never able to prevent the circulation in Spain of books opposed to the religion of the majority. The majestic rule of the majority does better in the United States; it has removed even the thought of publishing them.

The second quote comes from the American James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans, who wrote in the 1830’s:

It is a besetting vice of democracies to substitute public opinion for law. This is the usual form in which masses of men exhibit their tyranny …… Although the political liberty of this country is greater than that of nearly every other civilized nation, its personal liberty is said to be less. In other words, men are thought to be more under the control of extra-legal authorities, and to defer more to those around them, in pursuing even their lawful and innocent occupations, than in almost every other country. .. . It is not difficult to trace the causes of such a state of things, but the evil is none the less because it is satisfactorily explained

Protecting liberty is a hard problem that will require hard, clear thinking to solve

Figuring out how to protect liberty is a really, really hard problem. Figuring out how to reform the sclerotic and increasingly totalitarian American system is also a really hard problem.

We will not be able to solve these problems if we lump together all non-democratic alternatives into the same category as fascism, and call them evil and illegitimate. We will not be able to solve these problems if we cling to childish, black-and-white notions about the nature of government and tyranny.

There is much to be learned from alternative systems. The Venetians had a massively successful aristocratic republic. Their system used a combination lottery and election to help avoid the corruption and public choice problems that plague majoritarian systems. Perhaps such a system could be useful in a country filled with tribal strife.

Perhaps hybrid arrangements might give us the best of all worlds. City management could be franchised to for-profit companies, just as the owner of building complex hires a property management company. The company would be hired by the city council to efficiently manage the parks, roads, zoning, sanitation, and public works. But the company would not have the power to pass laws. If the government wants to make it a felony to unlock your smartphone, the law would have to pass a referendum of all citizens. Such a system like this might be able to combine the efficiency of hierarchical share-holder management, with even greater protections for liberty than our current system.

The point is not that we should have a revolution and install a dictator. The point is not that everything would work great if we just had the one true system. The point is that we need to think practically about what governing systems would work well for our own cities, states, and countries. We should stop being seduced by every activist mob that claims it is fighting for the people. We should stop lighting fires in foreign countries, and stop fomenting revolution against decent or improving regimes, just because they don’t conform to our ideology of democracy. We should use our faculties of reason, ground our political knowledge in history and psychology, and reform our government systems based on what is likely to work, not based on what is ideologically pure.

  1. Of course - there are cases of pure top-down command-and-control oppression - the Holocaust was such a case.

  2. This is not to say that tyrannicide is never the answer. It is a shame the plots to kill Hitler failed. My point is that the answers are not always easy. You have to compare the brutality of the regime with what is likely to happen after. Who will fill the power vacuum?