We have met the enemy, and he is us. — Pogo
Tyranny can only exist because people are willing to support the contention of governments that they have nearly unlimited power over people but can be trusted to use it appropriately. Yet people are always surprised by tyranny, especially when it sneaks up on them. Government tells them that they are a free people, and the people for the most part believe what the government tells them, until government turns on them, and then it becomes clear that the confidence in the “good will” of government was sadly misplaced. This has occurred repeatedly throughout history, yet people are still surprised when it happens to them.
What to do to prevent tyranny? Examine the role of coercion in society, and see what limits to it should exist. Then make sure those limits are adhered to. The basis of the political philosophy called libertarianism is the examination of coercion in human society, and an attempt to determine its best limits. Often this is expressed in the Non-aggression Principle (NAP), a principle of natural law.
Here is one of many definitions of the Non-aggression Principle: “No one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.” — Murray Rothbard (as cited in the Wikipedia article on the Non-aggression Principle).
The principle first of all acknowledges that coercion is necessary at times in human society, which is an acknowledgement of the weakness of the human person. It is the recognition that there must be hard consequences to certain evil actions.
To propose that coercion in human society ought to be severely limited, as this principle surely does, is a further acknowledgement of human weakness. To extend the right to use coercion against another beyond the scope of the NAP is very nearly the definition of government as we have known it throughout history. Taxation is the use of coercion contrary to the NAP. Nearly every law created by legislatures is contrary to the NAP. All of this coercion exists because people became convinced that it was alright to allow governments such expansive power, probably under the notion that, with the controls of democracy, they could keep it from getting out of hand.
But what they didn’t count on was democracy not working as advertised. They didn’t count on a host of special interests getting control of the government, making democracy nearly powerless to restrict the power of government over the people. But that is what happens, whether the special interests are the upper nobility of ancient England, the landed classes of South America, or the mega-businesses that find government power useful.
So, in the end, government power grows, and the people are inevitably the losers. It seems that we are slow learners. We continue to allow government lots of power over us, because we presume that it is really for our own good, there really is no alternative, and somehow we will be able, this time, to control government which, as George Washington put it, is “like fire, … a dangerous servant and a fearful master”.
The solution to tyranny is just this: to limit coercion in society to its bare minimum, as put forth in the Non-aggression Principle. To continue to deny human weakness, to continue to assume that, this time, we will be able to control the blazing fire that is government, is hubris and willful self-deception.