If government is force, how are we to avoid tyranny?

By Craig Knoche

Plato’s Republic sought to answer the questions what is justice and why should one be just. The explicit backdrop of that dialog is the unjust execution of Socrates by the Athenian democracy. Early in that dialog, the sophist Thrasymachus argues that justice is merely the will of the stronger. It is understood that the ‘stronger’ could be either a single dictator (autocracy/monarchy), a small group (oligarchy), or a majority of the people (democracy), and that the rulers will is to consolidate all authority in the interest of satisfying their own desires rather than the welfare of all.

Tyrannical rule is explained by that feature of human nature to favor one’s own, a tendency manifest in our affinity, in successively declining order, to family, clan, neighborhood, city, and nation. Further recognition of this human tendency is the explicit aim of those who seek a utopian society to actively suppress the natural affinity for one’s own in favor of the collective.1 A modern Thrasymachus would argue that the utopian enterprise is futile in that political entropy argues for the degradation of governmental authority into the ultimate state of tyranny. Suffering under tyranny is the nature state of humankind!

To our modern ears, we understand how rule by only one or the few can be tyrannical, yet we are also accustomed to praising pure democracy while failing to appreciate how it too can be tyrannical. Neither Plato’s Socrates nor Aristotle made this mistake.

Two examples illustrate Plato and Aristotle’s distrust of decision-making of a pure democracy, one in which all governmental authority is vested in the voting public. In the immediate aftermath of the spectacular victory in the sea battle of Arginusae off the coast of Asia Minor in 406 BC, where the Athenian’s destroyed over two-thirds of the combined Spartan and Persian fleet, the Athenian generals, upon returning home victorious and expecting honors, were instead received by the Athenian people outraged at the inability of the generals to have recovered their dead due to rough seas. Swayed by the demagogues Callixeinus and Euryptolemus, all 10 generals, the most talented military officers of Athens, were sentenced to death. Within the year, the Athenians were decisively defeated in the sea battle of Aegospotami, largely due to the inexperience of their new generals. The Athenians shortly regretted their decision and turned against the instigators of the executions.

The second example is the trial and execution of Socrates in 399 BC, perhaps the most famous execution second only to that of Christ. Coincidentally, Socrates was one of the few Athenians who refused to support the trial and execution of the generals of Arginusae.

The founding fathers of the United States were confronted with the challenge of designing a new governmental order. They were strongly influenced by their immediate experience with the tyrannical English monarch, George III, as evidenced by the long list of grievances against his rule enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. They also knew from their study of Ancient Greek and Roman history that tyranny was not unique to monarchies, but afflicted oligarchies, democracies and republican representative democracy as well.2 They also acknowledged and accepted that man’s nature tends toward self-interest and tyrannical rule, and that there are limits to man’s perfectibility to moral and civic virtue.3 So how can one preserve the virtue of democratic popular sovereignty yet avoid its historic tendencies toward fickleness and tyrannical behavior towards the minority?

Their solution was based upon two fundamental ideas, viz. that “the causes of faction [competition for self-interested power] cannot be removed . . . relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects”4 and “the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands . . . may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”5

The solution includes:

  • Representative, rather than direct democracy (aka Republicanism) – to encourage decision making on the part of those who presumably are more dedicated and learned.
  • Separation of powers between legislative, executive, and judicial branches, each with specific enumerated powers – to avoid the tyrannical characteristic of centralized power.
  • Federalism – to further delineate and limit powers between the national, state, and local governments
  • Judicial review of legislation to a natural law – so as to establish a legal standard above and against which progressive, man-made law can be judged.6
  • Limited government – to ensure that government has only those powers explicitly granted by the sovereign citizens
  • Bicameral legislature – to both recognize yet temper the passions (fickleness) of the people
  • Habeas corpus and trial by jury – to ensure that the government can be held to the principles of the constitution and prevent oppression by the government.7

Presently, the US has the world’s oldest and longest running constitutional democratic republic, however, every one of the constitutional principles is under assault. And just as a living being requires energy to oppose the forces of entropy, so too does our constitutional order require energy to sustain it.

  1. Cf. Description of Robert Owen’s utopian paradise New Harmony (1824-1826), in Heaven on Earth (2003) by Joshua Muravchik; Karl Marx’s rejection of the traditional family described in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) by Friedrich Engels; the call by the Marxist founders of Black Lives Matter to disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family; and by the necessity of noble lies to the establishment of the perfect city in Plato’s Republic Book III.
  2. Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist Paper no.9, explained that legislatures in some states were already trending toward tyranny of the majority
  3. “It is not safe to trust to the virtue of any people.” – Letter from Alexander Hamilton to John Jay, November 26, 1775; “We must take man as we find him.” – James Madison’s account of Hamilton’s remarks at the Constitutional Convention, June 1787; “A nation of philosophers is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato” – Federalist Papers, no.49, James Madison
  4. Federalist Papers no.10, James Madison
  5. Federalist Papers no.47, James Madison
  6. Cf. US Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights
  7. Thomas Jefferson letter to James Madison, 1787.

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