The Uses of Tyranny

Given the libertarian cachet of the software “Open Source” movement, I was taken aback, when reading through the Git source-control system manual, to discover that the model used to prevent incoherent updates was labelled “Dictator and Lieutenants.” Linus Torvalds, the acclaimed “Dictator” of the Linux kernel, is famous for abusive tirades on the discussion boards. I guess that it fits.

The Greeks used the word “tyrant” without any negative connotations. Tyranny was a practical response to the fact that most people are going to do what feels good to them in the moment. If a society is going to grow, somebody has to take charge and force them to move in the same direction – what we typically think of as getting them to “work together.” That’s going to make some of them unhappy, and unhappy people complain, and eventually band together to defend their liberties.

The reaction of the tyrant is often to interpret such claims as a threat to the society as a whole, which justifies brutal suppression. That has led, in the modern era, for us to view “tyranny” as an evil thing. But if consensus (the alternative to tyranny) really generated more power in ancient times, then we wouldn’t have had a 2000-year gap between the democracy of Athens and the democracy of the United States of America. Even so, the latter nearly failed the transition from tyranny during the distrustful era of the Confederacy.

What are the preconditions for a transition from tyranny to consensus? Widespread understanding of the forms and practices of government is one, which requires universal public education. Codification of citizen rights and creation of institutions to defend them are others. We might also uphold renunciation of political aspirations by the leaders of the agencies that manage coercion, such as the police and military.

Even in modern societies, these preconditions are somewhat tenuous, and the rights of freedom are all too often abused as libertine privilege. For this reason, many institutions still revert to the model of tyranny. Someone has to be in charge, and preventing the dilution of that individual’s authority is often critical to the success (or even survival) of the institution as a whole.

This presents a real problem to women, I believe, who are often psychologically predisposed to consensus. They tend to get people talking, find out what they need to be happy and effective, and raise alarms against the practices that prevent those results. They undermine the practices of tyranny, and so are pushed aside in order to preserve the integrity of the institution and its tyrant.

The cracks in human tyranny are becoming impossible to ignore, however. Controlling the thought processes of the creative knowledge worker is to contradict their purpose – they are supposed to come up with new ideas. The growing number of women in the workforce has already been mentioned. And the political strategy of non-violent dissent, which became so pronounced in the Communist countries, broke down all the practices of tyranny by pushing responsibility for failure back up to the leadership. “I’ll do it if you show me exactly what you want done” eventually left many with time to moonlight in a second job.

But pushing tyranny out of our lives, I believe, is going to require a sea-change. For the average citizen, we need a moral framework that enables people to regulate the assumptions of rights as privileges. I raised my sons with the mantra that my goal was to make them “able, healthy and happy”, and that to have all three was almost impossible. When we got down to negotiation of “I need”, I clearly articulated the difference between needs (healthy) and wants (happy), and declared that unless I saw a personal commitment to “able”, I was unlikely to accede to their desires for the latter. In the long term, happy depends on health, and both depend upon the ability to create value for others.

And for those at the top of the food-chain?

As a scientist and engineer, I am privileged to work among a community that does not require political structures to arbitrate consensus. Nature is its own tyrant, with its diseases, predators, and disasters. It also has a set of unalterable rules that beat down our most narcissistic flights of fantasy. It provides plenty for us to struggle against.

I believe that we are entering an era in which that struggle will be unavoidable for most of us. This means a change from “extensive” social orders, that grow through predatory acquisition of resources, to “intensive” social orders, that require effective performance from every member to avoid universal hardship. In that future, the imposition of will by the tyrant will no longer be enough to ensure institutional survival, unless couple with compassionate concern for the well-being of individuals. The indulgence of privilege by individuals will be punished by nature, requiring of each of us a commitment to our fellow citizens. The combine constraints on tyranny and anarchy will make the destructive political dialog of our era a luxury that we can no longer afford. Loud-mouths will be told to pick up a shovel and work, or go and shout in the wilderness.