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Tyranny and oppression

There is of course such a thing as “tyranny.”

In addition to the video game (which gets more high-ranking listings under the term than anything else), of course.

It has a couple of real and useful meanings. The most typical definition will call it a “cruel and oppressive government or rule.” Or (in Merriam-Webster) “cruel and unfair treatment by people with power over others.” There’s also a definition related to a form of government: “a government in which all power belongs to one person.”

The conventional libertarian view – that less government equates to more freedom – is based on a bedrock idea, that government is the only source of power. Or, to put it another way, that it is the sole source of the power to oppress.

That’s the source of the idea that government is tyranny and is oppression – that you can measure tyranny and oppression cleanly by “how much” government there is.

It’s a simple enough idea, on its face, that a lot of people accept it without reflection. But if you reflect on it for even a moment, you find a long string of problems.

While governments obviously can be oppressive (there have been no lack of such cases through history), you also can find oppression in all sorts of other places.

Businesses can oppress. Ask the employees of many businesses, or in many cases the vendors or even customers of many businesses. That’s especially true where there are monopolies but easily can be true even in places of competition. It can be true when people fall deeply into debt to private entities (as many people have in the case of medical bills). Businesses can place crushing pressure on each other.

So can religions. You don’t have to go back to the Inquisition, either. Try living (or doing business) in a community dominated by a church group that is not your own, and check your freedom meter.

So can families. You needn’t get very radical about this to see the point; family members can manipulate others in the group in highly oppressive ways.

Nor are these the only kinds of social associations where oppression can happen. (Watch the Marlon Brando movie On the Waterfront, which is about labor union corruption – read: oppression.)

Would people generally or the country be better off if we eliminated business, or religion, or families, or other social groupings? No one I know of would suggest that (leaving aside the fact that most would be nearly impossible to eliminate anyway; efforts by powerful entities through history have failed to destroy any of them). They do much more good than bad, but since they are composed of fallible human beings, they are all imperfect. We take the flaws, we accept that there will be problems, and we correct them where we need to, but we accept these parts of our society because they provide so much good.

Government is the same.

The origins of tyranny are complicated. They can emerge not from too little but from a whole lot of freedom.

Essayist Andrew Sullivan outlined1 Plato’s argument about how this can happen, and why democracies are vulnerable to it. As democracies mature, he suggested, they tend to extend more liberty to more – and kinds of – people, not just governmentally but culturally. Norms become relaxed, and eventually people who have been in an elite in society themselves come under attack.

At some point, as Sullivan reads Plato, a political figure takes advantage of the insecurities in such a society: “Eventually, he stands alone, promising to cut through the paralysis of democratic incoherence. It’s as if he were offering the addled, distracted, and self-indulgent citizens a kind of relief from democracy’s endless choices and insecurities. He rides a backlash to excess – ‘too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery’ – and offers himself as the personified answer to the internal conflicts of the democratic mess. He pledges, above all, to take on the increasingly despised elites. And as the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, a democracy willingly, even impetuously, repeals itself.”

How do tyrants arise? Historically, often through dynamics not so different from that: When people feel disconnected, insecure, out of touch, worried and with a lack of confidence in themselves.

The book On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder2 contains chapter titles that offer instructions on dealing with tyranny, actual or prospective. They include: “Do not obey in advance. Defend institutions. Beware the one-party state. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Remember professional ethics. Be wary of paramilitaries. … Be kind to our language. Believe in truth. … Contribute to good causes. … Listen for dangerous words. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.”

If you get into actual trouble, from powerful sources, for doing these things, consider that a warning sign: Tyranny might be lying ahead.


2Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Tim Duggan Books, 2017.

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