How Democracies Become Tyrannies

American Thinker | Ed Kaitz | Feb. 16, 2009

Back in 1959 the philosopher Eric Hoffer had this to say about Americans and America: “For those who want to be left alone to realize their capacities and talents this is an ideal country.”

That was then. This is now. Flash forward fifty years to the election of Barack Obama and a hard left leaning Democrat Congress. What Americans want today, apparently, is a government that has no intention of leaving any of us alone.

How could Hoffer have been so wrong about America? Why did America change so quickly? Can a free people willingly choose servitude? Is it possible for democracies to become tyrannies? How?

The answers to these questions were famously addressed in a few pages tucked within the greatest masterpiece of the classical world: Plato’s Republic. On the surface, and to most reviewers of Plato’s writings, the Republic is a dialogue on justice and on what constitutes the just society. But to careful readers the deeper theme of the Republic is the nature of education and the relationship between education and the survival of the state. In fact, the Republic is essentially the story of how a man (Socrates) condemned to death for “corrupting” the youth of Athens gives to posterity the most precious gift of all: the love of wisdom.

In the Republic, two young men, Glaucon and Adeimantus, accompany the much older Socrates on a journey of discovery into the nature of the individual soul and its connection to the harmony of the state. During the course of their adventure, as the two disciples demonstrate greater maturity and self-control, they are gradually exposed to deeper and more complex teachings regarding the relationship between virtue, self-sufficiency, and happiness. In short, the boys begin to realize that justice and happiness in a community rests upon the moral condition of its citizens. This is what Socrates meant when he said: “The state is man writ large.”

Near the end of the Republic Socrates decides to drive this point home by showing Adeimantus what happens to a regime when its parents and educators neglect the proper moral education of its children. In the course of this chilling illustration Adeimantus comes to discover a dark and ominous secret: without proper moral conditioning a regime’s “defining principle” will be the source of its ultimate destruction. For democracy, that defining principle is freedom. According to Socrates, freedom makes a democracy but freedom also eventually breaks a democracy.

For Socrates, democracy’s “insatiable desire for freedom and neglect of other things” end up putting it “in need of a dictatorship.” The short version of his theory is that the combination of freedom and poor education in a democracy render the citizens incapable of mastering their impulses and deferring gratification. The reckless pursuit of freedom leads the citizens to raze moral barriers, deny traditional authority, and abandon established methods of education. Eventually, this uninhibited quest for personal freedom forces the public to welcome the tyrant. Says Socrates: “Extreme freedom can’t be expected to lead to anything but a change to extreme slavery, whether for a private individual or for a city.”

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2 thoughts on “How Democracies Become Tyrannies

  1. How could Hoffer have been so wrong about America? Why did America change so quickly? Can a free people willingly choose servitude? Is it possible for democracies to become tyrannies? How?

    Part of the answer to this must lie in the debasement of the Republican Party. If the Democrats were the party of Obama and the Republican Party was the party of Ron Paul – then replacing the Dems with the Republicans would provide a clear, absolute repudiation of the nanny state and its replacement with a set of diametrically opposed policies. This would be akin to the major transformation wrought in Britain by putting Thatcher in office, or Ireland as it became the Celtic Tiger, or even replacing Gorbachev with Yeltsin.

    Unfortunately, the Republican Party keeps signing on to, and protecting, every statist initiative that bubbles up in the minds of Democrats. Instead of cleaning house after an election and getting government off our backs, Republicans consolidate and extend the state which they inherited.

    Examples? The TSA, which Bush opposed and then supported, prescription drugs as part of Medicare (we opposed, then did it), Steel Tariffs, the bank bailout, the radical expansion of police powers after 9/11, No Child Left Behind, the Katrina response (made the Feds king on every kind of disaster), and so-called ‘free speech’ zones which keep protesters away from high-profile events.

    The opposite of Obama is not Steele, or McCain, or Bush. The opposite of Obama is Ron Paul. The opposite of Democrat is a segment of Republicans who are thoroughly liberty-minded, and pro-capitalist. That segment is only a small minority in a party that cheered No Child Left Behind to the rafters at the ’04 convention.

    That is the real crux of this. We can’t reform Democrats, but we can reform ourselves. You don’t meet statism by offering statism lite. You don’t meet socialism by offering an alternative form of the same poison. You offer freedom, and private enterprise. And you mean it.

    That is how we get out of this mess.

  2. I agree with George.

    A lot of Republicans and even conservatives have been captured by the siren song of the federal government’s sole natural resource…power. While many Democrats see the federal government as a mechanism by which they can implement their social engineering projects, so do Republicans see this power as a means to their own agendas. Unfortunately, doing so goes completely in the face of the GOP’s stated principles of less government, more personal responsibility, and greater individual freedom.

    There is a reason why the leftists continually triumph over the Christian viewpoint when using federal power as a weapon in the culture wars. Many leftists believe only in this world, and by definition the only thing that matters is power. The worldview of those on the right often consists of a life after this one, with this world as only a precursor to the real meaning of life. Christians render unto Caesar; leftists become Caesar. This is the nature of things.

    The only way to win is to remove the mechanism by which all these things – abortion on demand, atheism, quotas, historical revisionism, et. al – are shoved down our throats. The siren song of power must be rejected. Without power, Nancy Pelosi is just a harmless nut. But in a world where D.C. controls your child’s curriculum, your medical care, your banking system, and your income (via taxes), Pelosi has more control over your life than you do.

    Reduce the size and power of the federal government – lip service won’t do it.

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