Are All Governments the Same?

Here’s a radical proposition: The US government is no better or worse than any system of government in history.  In fact, all government systems are the same.  Governments do not differ in quality based on the rules, structures, or procedures they employ.

To support this proposition one would have to demonstrate that there is something besides the system of government that determines how oppressive a state is, since there are obvious and dramatic differences in levels of tyranny and quality of life under different governments.  The correlation between certain forms of government and lower levels of oppression causes many to believe the former cause the latter, and that if you just get the structure right you can avoid bad rules and limit extortion.  I don’t think the form of government matters much.

Any kind of state can be brutally oppressive.  Monarchy, democracy, and all forms of republicanism in between are capable of and have engaged in massive acts of violence and oppression.  All these forms also have examples of far less oppression than the historical norm.  It’s not the structure or the ways rulers are chosen or laws are passed and enforced.  So what is it?  What determines how oppressive a government is?

Belief.  That’s it.  It’s not that people get the government they want or believe in, it’s that they get the government they are willing to put up with without resistance.  It’s not just explicit, stated belief, it’s belief as demonstrated by action or lack of it.  How governable are the people?  That will determine how much government they get.  Not how much they want or claim to want.  Not what they idealize as right.  What they give in to.

It is obvious that all governments are run by small minorities who cannot command great populations unless a great number are willing to carry out and enforce their orders and a great number are willing to obey the enforcers.  Etienne de La Boetie described this phenomenon beautifully in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude .  David Hume shared the same understanding of the origin of state power, as did Ludwig von Mises.  Yet most scholars and laypeople ignore this fundamental fact.

We get distracted in debates about procedure or arguments about the form of government or particular rulers or parties.  These are all just particular manifestations; the outgrowth of our own willingness to submit.  The US has been one of the freest countries in history not because of the Constitution but because the people happened to be some of the hardest to govern.  The Revolt against relatively benign British rule is evidence of a low tolerance for being governed by the early European inhabitants of the continent.

The great tragedy, as Boetie points out, is that once subjugated by whatever means (and it is always a means that involves convincing people they have to put up with it for some emergency or expediency), each successive generation tends to tolerate more oppression.  The existence of the oppressors is not an affront when you’ve never lived in a world without it.  The steady churn of propaganda and normalization of deprivation take hold.  This is why famous abolitionist Harriet Tubman said she could have freed twice as many slaves, if only they knew they were slaves.

Add to the propaganda and acceptance the fact that a great and growing number of people work directly for the state and make their living and gain their social status as its operatives.  An army of self-interested bureaucrats and their loved ones are in the long term more powerful than an army of soldiers.

It is not the rule of law that will save us from tyranny.  It is not a new parliamentary procedure or Constitutional amendment.  It is not an election.

The insight of scholars like Boetie reveal that the ultimate freedom from oppression is when we, “Resolve to serve no more.”  Be ungovernable.  Camus said, “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”  Walk away from the bread and circuses.  Ignore the patriotic pomp.  Don’t work for the rulers.  Build the kind of life and society you want to live in.

Frank Chodorov, a libertarian activist and thinker, put it this way:

“If a prominent politician hires a hall to make a speech, stay away; the absent audience will bring him to a realization of his nothingness. The speeches and the written statements of a political figure are designed to impress you with his importance, and if you do not listen to the one or read the other you will not be influenced and he will give up the effort. It is the applause, the adulation we accord political personages that registers our regard for the power they wield; the deflation of that power is in proportion to our disregard of these personages. Without a cheering crowd there is no parade.”

It doesn’t require revolution by force.  That is only replacing one tyranny with another.  Imagine a law the proposal of which would be so deeply offensive that no political figure would dare bring it forward.  That is the mindset.  Now ask about why the constraints placed on politicians in this case, and the fear they have for acting, aren’t the same for every law they propose?  When they are, full freedom will reign, no matter what formal pieces of paper say.