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The Roots of Dictatorship and Freedom
by Diana Mertz Hsieh

Date: 4 Dec 94
Forum: Washington University in St-Louis, Argumentation class
Copyright: Diana Mertz Hsieh

Throughout history, most governments have used their power to extort obedience and wealth from subjects, with little regard to their welfare, yet governments have existed which protected citizens from harm rather than enslaving them. These vastly different roles of government in human life lead to the question "How does each form of government arise"?

Governments have typically presented a much greater threat than criminals to the citizen's lives because governments can raise revenue though taxes and mobilize armies. The threat of invasion, as well as the need to protect citizens from criminals, has often made such power in the hands of the government necessary, although, as John Hospers notes, "the very means by which alone [government] can be effective [in protecting citizens against criminals] make it vulnerable to the abuse of power" (13). In order to exploit its citizenry, a government must have a strong center of power (generally in the form of a supreme leader) and exert control over the daily lives of citizens. Destructive governments, from the brutal reigns of some absolute monarchs to the fascist regimes of Hitler and Mussolini, have exacted an amazing amount of control over the affairs of the nation as a whole and over individual lives. Even the United States is not immune to criticism on the grounds that it is consolidating more power in the federal government and interfering in the lives of individuals by requiring by law actions that were once open to individual choice. For example, caring for the poor, which used to be left to voluntary donations to charity, is now covered by a national welfare program, which citizens are forced to support through their taxes. Although the Unites States is a far cry from dictatorship, there seems to be a dangerous trend towards greater state control over the lives of individual citizens.

But the above explanation of how governments will be able to abuse power only scratches the surface, for dictators can neither obtain nor maintain power through sheer brute force because eventually a more powerful dictator will overwhelm their regime. In other words, the abuse of power requires moral backing as well as the exertion of force (to control those who are unconvinced by the moral arguments). Political leaders must appeal to political principles to demonstrate the morality and rightness of their actions. In the time of absolute monarchs, kings justified their right to the throne by asserting that it was the will of God that they were born king, and such a form of government was accepted for centuries because people believed the argument. Later in history, Mussolini's fascism unequivocally held that the individual existed solely for the good of the State, and anyone who agreed that individuals were not ends in themselves could not legitimately oppose his reign of terror. In everyday politics in the United States, it is clear that principles play an important role; for example, the push for universal health coverage wholly depends upon the claim that Americans have a "right to healthcare."

The necessity of referring to principles gives new insight into the real causes of dictatorship and limited government, because each system must rely upon a distinct set of philosophical principles to defend the legitimacy of the system and of the actions taken by the leaders. Since the philosophical grounding of a system of government also needs to be consonant with commonly-accepted philosophical ideals in order to be accepted by the populace, significant shifts in popular political philosophy will give rise to immense changes in systems of government. For instance, it was specifically Locke's revolutionary vision of the legitimate government as the protector of the rights to life, liberty, and property which gave rise to the American system of limited government.

The increasing exercise of power by the United States government in the lives of Americans must then be the result of a shift in political ideology, and indeed it is a change in the conception of rights that has gradually led to changes in the functions of government. First "welfare rights" and "group rights" were introduced as legitimate rights to be protected. Then, because these right were neither compatible with the traditional "liberty rights" of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, nor compatible with each other, all rights were subordinated to the "common good." This focus on the common good destroyed the clear purpose of government, and allowed leaders to justify almost any action by reference to the good of the whole.

The term "liberty rights" refers to rights that entitle people to live their lives as they choose, without unwanted forcible interference from others. The right to property, for example, is the right to "work for [property], to obtain non-coercively, the money or services which you can present in voluntary exchange" (Hospers 7). All of the rights in the Bill of Rights -- those of free speech, due process, etc. -- are liberty rights. "Welfare rights," in contrast, refer to rights that entitle one "to possess and enjoy certain goods, regardless of one's actions" and "to have the goods provided by others if one cannot earn them oneself" (Kelley 8). For example, the "right to healthcare" is a welfare right, for it says that people are entitled to have healthcare provided to them by others if they cannot or will not provide it for themselves. The introduction of welfare rights into a system of rights will necessarily destroy liberty rights, for the people who have an obligation to provide the goods in order to satisfy the welfare rights of others no longer have a right to their own time and property when someone else needs it. So, at the introduction of positive rights into a system of negative rights, inherent conflicts will arise that must be adjudicated by reference to some higher principle.

The introduction of "group rights" also results in unresolvable conflicts with "individual rights." "Group rights" are rights that are possessed by a group of people (such as by women, blacks, or gays) simply by virtue of belonging to that group, whereas "individual rights" are rights possessed by all individuals by virtue of their status as autonomous beings. The implications of the introduction of group rights are not at all obvious, and in many cases what could be mistaken as "group rights" have just been agitations for the inclusion of certain groups of people (like women and blacks) into the framework of individual rights. The agitations by feminists in the late 19th century and early 20th century for the vote and property rights were generally not based on a desire for rights as women, but rather for rights of women as individuals. But since that time, there have been numerous attempts to get specific rights for groups, often through programs such as affirmative action. Such group rights violate individual rights because the law no longer regards all individuals as equal; some citizens will receive greater legal protection on the basis of sex or ethnic heritage. In implementing group right, the judiciary most often resorts to attempting to "balance" individual and group rights, which means that the judiciary can only attempt to minimize the damage to individuals and members of the group, since one type of right can't be protected without violating another. These attempts at balancing only create unresolvable conflicts between classes of people, heightening ethnic antagonism and perpetrating injustice, since the rights of one group will be protected at the expense of the rights of another group.

As a result of the introduction of welfare rights and group rights into the framework of traditional individualistic liberty rights, political philosophers had to find some means to resolve the inherent conflicts, and they did it through reference to the "common good." The notion of the primacy of the common good is not new; in fact, many Enlightenment thinkers justified individual rights through appeals to the common good because they believed that the best means of achieving the common good was through the unequivocal defense of individual rights. But the recent introduction of welfare and group rights compromised the inalienability of individual rights, and so reference to the amorphous "common good" has became the only way to arbitrate between the inevitable conflicts between rights. But determining the "common good" without reference to other political principles is extremely difficult (if not impossible), and so political leaders were left with virtually no guide to the legitimate action which could be taken by the government.

The inevitable result of the lack of a clear role for government is a usurpation of power by government officials, which citizens, to the extent that they agree with the legitimacy of welfare and group rights, cannot oppose. Crooked government officials could now refer to the common good to justify almost any action, and the more honest officials no longer had any clear principles to guide their policies. Thus the door to the abuse of power was slowly opened, and since that time, the government has centralized power and exerted increasing control over the lives of citizens. It seems clear that the only way to combat the abuse of power is by arguing for limited government power and protection of the liberty rights of all individuals. Nothing less will protect individuals against the destruction that criminals and the government has the power to inflict.

Works Cited

Hospers, John. "What Libertarianism Is." The Libertarian Alternative: Essays in Social and Political Philosophy. Ed. Tibor Machan. 3-20.

Kelley, David. "Altruism and Capitalism." IOS Journal 3.5 (1994): 1+.

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