The following is adapted from a speech delivered at a Hillsdale College reception in Overland Park, Kansas, on November 18, 2021.
Here are two questions pertinent to our times: (1) How would you reduce the greatest free republic in history to despotism in a short time? and (2) How would you stop that from happening? The answer to the first question has been provided in these last two disastrous years. The answer to the second has begun to emerge in recent months. Both are worthy of study.
Reducing a Great Republic to Despotism
To establish despotism in a nation like ours, you might begin, if you were smart, by building a bureaucracy of great complexity that commands a large percentage of the resources of the nation. You might give it rule-making powers, distributed across many agencies and centers inside the cabinet departments of government, as well as in 20 or more “independent” agencies—meaning independent of elected officials, and thus independent of the people.
This much has been done. It would require a doctoral thesis to list all the ways that rules are made in our federal government today, which would make for boring reading. The truth is that very few people not directly involved know how all this works. Although civics education is practically banned in America, most people still know what the Congress is and how its members are elected. But how many know how the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) came to be, under what authority it operates, and who is its head? Here is a clue: it is not Anthony Fauci.
Admittedly, this new kind of bureaucratic government would take—has taken—decades to erect, especially in the face of the resistance of the Constitution of the United States, which its very existence violates. But once it has been erected, things can happen very fast.
What, for example, if a new virus proliferates around the world? There have been procedures for dealing with such viruses for a long time. They begin with isolating the sick and protecting the vulnerable. But suddenly we have new procedures that attempt to isolate everybody. This is commanded by the CDC, an element of this bureaucratic structure, and by a maze of federal and state authorities, all of which see the benefit to themselves in getting involved. The result is that large sections of our economy were closed for months at a time, and citizens placed under the equivalent of house arrest. This has not happened before. The cost of it, and not just in monetary terms, is beyond calculation.
To set up a despotism capable of pulling this off you would need the media’s help. Those controlling the media today are trained in the same universities that invented the bureaucratic state, the same universities the senior bureaucrats attended. The media would need to be willing to suppress, for example, the fact that 50,000 doctors, scientists, and medical researchers signed the Great Barrington Declaration. That document reminds people that you cannot suppress a widely disseminated contagious virus through shutdowns and mass isolation, and that if you try, you will work immeasurable destruction of new kinds—unemployment, bankruptcy, depression, suicide, multiplying public debt, broken supply chains, and increases of other serious health problems. Some of the signatories to this Declaration come from the most distinguished universities in the world, but never mind: their views do not fit the narrative propagated by the powerful. They have been effectively cancelled, ignored by the media and suppressed by Big Tech.
You would need some help from business, too. As far as influence is concerned, “business” is dominated by large institutions—those comprising big business—whose leaders are also educated in the same universities that conceived bureaucratic government and trained the bureaucrats and media heads. This provides a ground of agreement between big business and the bureaucratic state. Anyway, agree or not, businesses are vulnerable to regulation, and to mitigate the risk of regulatory harm they play the game: they send lobbyists to Washington, make political contributions, hire armies of lawyers. If you are big enough to play the game, there are plenty of advantages to be won. If you are not big enough to play the game—well, in that case you are on your own.
Amidst the unprecedented lockdowns, imagine there comes an election, a time for the people to say if they approve of the new way of governing and of this vast, unprecedented intrusion into their lives. Then let us say that in several states the election rules and practices are altered by their executive branches—the people in charge of enforcing the law—on their own, without approval by their legislatures. Say this brazen violation of the separation of powers takes place in the name of the pandemic. One does not need to know what percentage of votes in the final tally were affected to see that this is fishy. No sensible person would place control of the election process in one party—any party—or in one branch—any branch—of the government, alone. In some crucial states, that was done.
Finally, to sustain this new kind of government, you would need to work on education. You might build a system of centralized influence, if not control, over every classroom in the land. You might require certification of the teachers with a bias toward the schools of education that train them in the approved way. These schools, poor but obedient cousins of the elite universities, are always up on the latest methods of “delivery” of instruction (we do not call it teaching anymore). These new methods do not require much actual knowledge, which can be supplied from above.
As far as content, you might set up a system of textbook adoption that guarantees to publishers a massive and captive market but requires them to submit proposed books to committees of “experts,” subject of course to political pressures. You might build a standard approved curriculum on the assumption that everything changes—even history, even principles. You might use this curriculum to lay the ground for holding everything old, everything previously thought high and noble, in contempt.
Doing this, incidentally, deprives the student of the motive to learn anything out of fashion today. It is a preparation not for a life of knowing and thinking, but for a life of compliance and conformity.
This is by no means an exhaustive account of what it would take to build a thoroughgoing tyranny—for further instruction, read Book Five of Aristotle’s Politics or George Orwell’s 1984. But it gives an idea of a mighty system, a system that seems unassailable, a system combining the powers of government and commerce, of education and communication. Money and power in such a system would accrue to the same hands. The people who benefit from the system would be the ruling class. Others would be frustrated. And such a system would tend to get worse, because the exercise of unchecked power does not bring out the best in people.
Any elaborate system of government must have a justification, and the justification of this one cannot simply be that those in the ruling class are entitled on the basis of their superiority. That argument went away with the divine right of kings. No, for the current ruling class, the justification is science. The claim of bureaucratic rule is a claim of expertise—of technical or scientific knowledge about everything. Listen to Fauci on Face the Nation, dismissing his critics in Congress as backward reactionaries. When those critics disagree with him, Fauci said recently, “They’re really criticizing science because I represent science. That’s dangerous.”
The problem with this kind of thinking was pointed out by a young Winston Churchill in a letter to the writer H.G. Wells in 1901. Churchill wrote:
Nothing would be more fatal than for the government of states to get into the hands of the experts. Expert knowledge is limited knowledge: and the unlimited ignorance of the plain man who knows only what hurts is a safer guide, than any vigorous direction of a specialised character. Why should you assume that all except doctors, engineers, etc. are drones or worse? . . . If the Ruler is to be an expert in anything he should be an expert in everything; and that is plainly impossible.
Churchill goes on to argue that practical judgment is the capacity necessary to making decisions. And practical judgment, he writes in many places, is something that everyone is capable of to varying degrees. Everyone, then, is equipped to guide his own life in the things that concern mainly himself.
Another thing about the experts is that they are not really engaged in the search for truth. Instead, the powerful among them suppress the obvious fact that there is wide disagreement among the experts. There always is.
God save us from falling completely into the hands of experts. But God has given us the wherewithal to save ourselves from that. So let us move to the second question posed above.
How to Defeat a Rising Despotism
In answering the second question, I will tell two stories that are suggestive…..
Continue reading this article from Hillsdale College at Imprimis.
Larry P. Arnn is the twelfth president of Hillsdale College. He received his B.A. from Arkansas State University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in government from the Claremont Graduate School. From 1977 to 1980, he also studied at the London School of Economics and at Worcester College, Oxford University, where he served as director of research for Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill. From 1985 until his appointment as president of Hillsdale College in 2000, he was president of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. From October 2020 to January 2021, he served as co-chair of the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission. He is the author of several books, including The Founders’ Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government.
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