The words of this title come from this WSJ article by Bret Stephens. In his article, Stephens discusses this past weekend’s popular votes in Venezuela and Russia.
In one case, would-be dictator Hugo Chavez failed to do a good enough job of fixing the election, so that his reforms, which would have pretty much made him president for life, were rejected 51%-49%. Not one to worry, however; Chavez has promised that he will ultimately succeed in implementing his desired reforms without changing them one iota.
In the other case, Vladimir Putin did a much better job of fixing the election so that his party won 64% of the vote, and other Putin allies won another 16%. International chess champion and Putin opponent Garry Kasparov complains in this article that his Other Russia Party and other dissidents were illegally shut out of the election. (Kasparov was jailed for five days on a trumped up charge in the days before the election.)
Despite charges of “voting irregularities” in favor of the tyrants in both of the cases, Stephens says that Putin in particular enjoys “genuine popularity, which seems only to have been enhanced by the perception that the West increasingly fears and mistrusts him.” Much the same could have been said about Chavez until recently when the country started experiencing food shortages as a result of his leftist policies.
The question Stephens poses is why so many people throughout the world are more favorably disposed toward tyranny than democracy. He suggests that, while it is vogue to cite culture, it ultimately “explains nothing.” He also says that the argument that dictators buy their popularity with “bread-and-circus tactics” and “dirty tricks” serves only to beg the question of why the people buy it, particularly when they have access to external sources of information.
Frankly, freedom is scary. It places responsibility for our actions squarely on our own shoulders. And liberty can be unpredictable. In fact, it can be downright chaotic at times. This is particularly true for societies freshly transitioning to freedom. Indeed, Stephens contends, “Russians and Venezuelans alike elected their current leaders with bitter memories of democracy.” And both leaders have delivered well on their promises.
I grew up during the Cold War. The horrors of life behind the Iron Curtain were made clear to us. We were exposed to rulers from behind the Iron Curtain via the media, but none of these could be trusted. The only other people from behind the curtain we got to see were dissidents that had escaped. These people obviously had an axe to grind, so they painted awful pictures of life in their native lands.
I naively thought that people in the benighted countries would welcome a reprieve from their heavy-handed masters. But as the USSR and the Eastern Bloc started to crumble, media started to get through the chinks in the curtain. I was dumbfounded that many denizens of these bleak climbs were fearful of liberty. They wanted stability. They preferred the oppression they knew to a free but uncertain future. They had been well indoctrinated.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. People can be beguiled into supporting tyranny to free them from the burden of making and living with their own choices. Of course this plays well into the hands of those that willingly snatch power in these situations.
In the Book of Mormon, the Nephite society transitioned from a monarchy to a more democratic model upon the advice of their king. “Therefore they relinquished their desires for a king, and became exceedingly anxious that every man should have an equal chance throughout all the land; yea, and every man expressed a willingness to answer for his own sins” (Mosiah 29:38). But in the three decades following this, they fought three significant wars against those that sought to bring back a strong monarchy. A Nephite governor is later quoted as equating the spirit of freedom with the Spirit of God (Alma 61:15).
I think Stephens makes a valid point when he suggests that tyranny “springs from sources deep within ourselves: the yearning for a politics without contradictions; the terror inscribed in the act of choice.” But the desire for freedom also springs from deep within. And, if you believe the Book of Mormon governor quoted, a desire for freedom also comes from God, while the scriptures repeatedly emphasize that bondage comes from forces opposing God.
Simply because a majority of people vote for something does not necessarily imply democratic freedom. Indeed, tyrants can be and have been elected by the voice of the people. But this only happens when democratic institutions are weak or nonexistent. Long before Hitler came to power in Germany, democracy had broken down and socialism had taken control. F.A. Hayek wrote (here, p. 76), “Hitler did not have to destroy democracy; he merely took advantage of the decay of democracy and at the critical moment obtained the support of many to whom, though they detested Hitler, he seemed the only man strong enough to get things done.”
After Hitler came to power, he was initially quite popular. Indeed, he stabilized the economy. But his ruthlessness became his hallmark. You can see parallels of this same thing in Russia and Venezuela.
The kind of democratic institutions that support freedom do not spring up overnight. They exist in the hearts and minds of the people and are brought into being by their will. These institutions come from the people’s thumos, as explained in this 2004 WSJ op-ed. Indeed, anyone can have freedom, but they’ve got to pay for it. And it requires vigilance to maintain it. For freedom can be voted away little by little.