The Abuses of Tyranny

As I considered in The Uses of Tyranny, communities lacking experience in self-management often call forth people with over-sized egos to lead. Even when they are reviled, as was King Juan Carlos in Spain, the psychological bond is deep. Many Spaniards wept upon learning of his death, for fear of what the future might bring.

In the case of monarchy, at least there is some institutional structure passed on from generation to generation, which means that the monarch is bound, at the very least, by dependency on people who actually know how to get things done. This is something seen in growing up, and helps to check the ego of the ruler.

For nations undergoing dramatic social change, such as occurred after the retreat of the colonial powers, no such institutional checks exist. Leadership is established through visceral struggle, and held largely through intimidation and fear. Once the opposition has been beaten down, there is no brake upon the ego of the ruler, who may even imagine himself to be a divine favorite. Witness, for example, Idi Amin of Uganda.

Of course, it is rare for such nations to be able to project much power on the international scene. This can make them dupes for more sophisticated partners, such as negotiators from multi-national corporations. The convenience of the dictator as single point-of-contact are tempting to those negotiators. It is little known that militant Islam actually was born in Northern Africa, where the people used the ethics of the Qu’ran to structure their criticism of exploitative resource extraction. When Western governments and multi-nationals propped up the abusive regimes, jihad was declared against the West as a whole – and deservedly so, under the circumstances.

So perhaps the grossest abuse of tyranny is the tendency of tyrants to form privileged clubs that prop each other up. The ultimate downfall of such clubs is that they devolve into echo chambers, with the tyrants agreeing upon self-serving policies that cannot actually be implemented by the communities they control. This occurs in two parts: first, the tyrants become divorced from reality, and then they destroy social cohesion and resilience in their attempts to coerce their impossible outcomes. Such was the downfall of the planned economies in China and Russia.

It was this realization – that institutional structure was the ultimate victim of tyranny – that prompted Western philosophers to concern themselves with the creation of institutional forms that mitigated against tyranny. This has manifested not only in the constitutions of governments, but in the legal framework of corporate governance. Separation of powers is visible in the three branches of US government, but also in the allocation of responsibilities between corporate boards and executives. One of the primary benefits of these arrangements is survival of institutional memory, which means that situations that seem new and exciting to the surging tyrant are just old hat to the grey-beards in the institutions.

It is amusing to watch this psychology unfold in Putin’s relationship with the West. Putin paints Obama as his primary adversary, and broadcasts propaganda that projects the image that tensions will dissolve when he leaves office. As a tyrant, Putin does not understand that the West has a huge number of historians and policy analysts in corporate, academic and governmental circles that have studied Russian history, and recognize this view as the view of Stalin and Kruschev and Brezhnev and Andropov. Attack Obama all you want, and circulate as much propaganda among the European public as you want: our institutions have played this game before, and will win it again.

Understand, Putin: you are who you are because Western nations agreed to trade with Russia, providing you with the opportunity to siphon hundreds of billions of dollars into your personal accounts. Do you really think that they don’t have the means to discipline your international adventurism?

And what our institutions also remember is that, following Juan Carlos and Stalin, their nations adapted to the experience to establish systems that regulated tyrannical behavior. When that occurs, the tyrant’s legacy is erased. Yes, Vladimir, you are a big noise now in the world. You’re able to force a lot of people to think about you. But you’re on the wrong side of history. Your destruction and perversion of the institutions of the Russian state ensure that you will leave no lasting mark.

And hear as much, Koch brothers! How much money are you spending to force people to do what makes you money? And how much more could you make if you invested, as did Henry Ford, in their capacity to participate in new markets and opportunities?