How Tyrants Get People to Give Them Power

History has discernible patterns.

As an example, this is John Ponet writing in the year 1556. He's talking about William the Conqueror in 1066.

"He spoiled the nobility of their goods and possessions, made them slaves, and his own slaves lords: and upon the commoners he put immense taxes and impositions. He took from the people their weapons and harness, and made a law that no man should come out of his house after [eight o’clock]..." (Short Treatise on Political Power)

These same tactics occur in every age.

The tendency toward forms of government also has patterns. Patterns of power.

Niccolo Machiavelli describes the classic cycle in his "Discourses on Livy". A single ruler is able to unite people and is thus a king. The next few generations become tyrannical kings. Nobles resist and overthrow the tyrant. The next few generations become tyrannical oligarchs. A populist movement rises up and overthrows the oligarchs. The leader becomes a king, and the cycle repeats. It doesn't work that well. Every now and then you end up with a decent government, but it's short and rare.

But, we can learn from these cycles. For instance, the Founding Fathers saw the errors in that cycle and followed the advice of Machiavelli, creating a system of checks and balances.

We have some patterns happening in Michigan right now.

How do you take power away from people as a ruler?

Starting a war is a classic strategy. All societies give special powers to leaders in times of war. Dictator was an official title in the Roman Republic for use during military emergencies.

A large amount of infectious disease is another great way. Famine works well too. If people are afraid of dying from a disease, or starving to death, they want someone to protect them, tell them what to do, and save them. And a king, queen, dictator, emperor, pharoh, caesar, or czar fills that role for them. (Pathogens and Politics: Further Evidence That Parasite Prevalence Predicts Authoritarianism by Damian R. Murray, Mark Schaller, and Peter Suedfeld)

If the culture is in such a place that many people feel that their lives are meaningless, then there are two main ways to escape that. As psychologist Viktor Frankl has pointed out, they are: conformism and totalitarianism. A tyrant needs both. (The Will to Meaning)

On a somewhat similar note, psychologist Erich Fromm pointed out in his book "Escape From Freedom" what societies do when they're feeling powerless. There are three primary options: authoritarianism, destructiveness, and automaton conformity. When people feel weak they attach themselves to something more powerful. Or, they destroy what makes them feel weak. Or, they destroy themselves so they no longer exist. Or, they blend in with everyone else to feel a little less afraid and a little more powerful. All three of those can be useful for the person that seeks to acquire power.

Estienne de la Boetie, in the year 1577, wrote about three reasons that people willingly obey a tyrant. One, if you're born into that system you're used to it. Two, if your religion tells you to be overly obedient without qualification. And three, a proliferation of fear. It's that third one that's the most useful for gaining new power. (The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude)

The patterns are clear to see. If you are afraid, if you feel powerless, if you feel like your life has no meaning, if you're scared of a disease, or of starving, or of a war, then there is probably someone taking your liberties away right now.

The answer is just as clear. But it's not easy. The individuals of the society must overcome fear. As psychologist Jordan Peterson is fond of pointing out, you don't overcome fear by becoming less afraid, you overcome fear by becoming braver. The political structure must include the will of the people as a check and balance, so that the people have real power to prevent tyranny. People must discover meaning in their lives. And people must face the inevitable hardships of life with courage and fortitude.

These define the human struggle. These are our obstacles, and our path forward.


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