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Inviting the Avoided Tyrant

6:00:00 AMJosh Merlo

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To look at any section of history is to watch a grand drama play out. To simplify the great tapestry of history to a general theme, the past is a struggle of those in power to remain in power, those out of power to gain power, and those who are trapped between these combatants to keep enough power to not be too adversely affected when a new ruler arises. To take a familiar example, look at the American revolution: the colonists fought to gain self-determination, frustrated by the overreaching and neglectful governance of the British. For its part, Britain had no desire to part with sovereignty over the lucrative eastern seaboard of North America. The other European states that involved themselves in the conflict aided the colonists to shift the balance of power away from the British. The British were those in power afraid to lose their position of dominance. The Americans were those out of power seeking to better their station. France, Spain, and Prussia were the spectators who manipulated events in an attempt to jockey to better positions within the political labyrinth of Europe.


di Tito I.jpgTo the political realist, this constant scrambling for territorial control, strength in arms, strength in population, and other real facets of the nebulous term “power” is natural. Statecraft (again, in general) is the art of making yourself as powerful as can be without offending someone else enough that he uses his own power to crush you. To rule well, then, is to gather strength to oneself, to protect oneself from outside aggression and internal sedition, to become secure. This paradigm is not something modern or recently-developed. Names such as Kissinger, Morgenthau, Roosevelt (Teddy, that is), Hamilton, Hobbes, Machiavelli, and others can all be credited as having been political realists. Of course, one of the problems of realism is not-uniquely modern either: the over-emphasis of security.


At face value, security is something good, something to be desired. No one wants to live in a country that is constantly facing invasion. No one wants to live in fear of riots in the streets and rampant acts of violence. No one wants to be conquered by an aggressive and debauched tyrant. How, then, can these unwanted outcomes be avoided? The security paradigm of modern political realists proposes a solution: by shoring up weak spots within a state, within a society. To stop a foreign invader, build up an army. To stop sedition, build a strong central police force. To stop espionage, create a counter-intelligence force. Other examples of what the security paradigm might recommend are abundant. The point to be made is that this paradigm emphasizes the increase of the policing powers of a state. With this emphasis comes the possibility of tyranny.


Any time power is gathered in one place, abuse of such inevitably follows. Lord Acton’s adage can here be remembered. Realism, which so correctly predicts that man will act self-interestedly, and so seeks to curb the effects of that self-interest in hostile states, cannot prevent the self-interest of actors within a state that are granted the necessary requisites to resist other states. In simpler words, realists must sacrifice individual rights for communal security. This, in principle, is the avoiding of foreign tyrants through the creation of domestic ones (or the avoiding of domestic tyrants through the creation of different domestic tyrants). Realism, then, lends itself to the creating of the unwanted tyrant by the very methods used to prevent tyranny.


Wright I.jpgIs this, by itself, a condemnation of realism? Not at all; the alternatives to such a theory suffer their own fatal flaws. Instead, the idea that realism can indeed breed demagogues can be seen as a warning. Furthermore, this same idea can be seen as a sort of proverbial sword posed above the collective necks of a society attempting to gather power to itself. Become too weak and be conquered; become too strong and be overthrown from within. Either option is one that should be avoided, but to do so is easier said than done. But, then again, is tyranny such a bad thing? This is, of course, a drastic challenge to the Western democratic tradition. That being said, it still has not been established whether rebutting that tradition is as much of a crime as it is made out to be. Recall Huxley’s Brave New World. Rather than the overt oppression of Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s dystopia features a world brought to peace through the repressing of art and science and the stratifying of society. What is the foundational belief of the entire governing body, however: “ ‘Stability,’ insisted the Controller, ‘stability.’ The primal and the ultimate need. Stability. Hence all this.’ ” (1) The Controller is quite a realist. After all, is not stability the reason for Hobbes’s tyrannical leviathan? Is not stability the reason men abandon their natural freedoms and surrender their individual rights to the state? Perhaps, then, what might be better said of realism is this: better the devil one knows that the devil one doesn’t. To express this more eloquently, one might remember Milton: “Better to reign in hell …” The tyranny of one’s own state is to be preferred to the tyranny of another. In joining a society, by agreeing to hold to its laws, man make a contract to allow the state to usurp certain rights that would normally be supreme. Realism’s invitation to tyranny, then, is to be expected, and, moreover, to be embraced. A government that curtails freedoms for the purpose of security, safety, and stability is a government that is fulfilling its obligations to its citizens. To open the door to domestic tyranny is simply to allow for effective governance.
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  1. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, (New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1932), 43.
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