Resolved: Human Government is Despotism

by Jack Curtis

First, what is despotism? Per a dictionary definition: oppressive absolute power and authority exerted by government. Next, what is government? From the same source: the governing body of a nation, state, or community. Apparently, a despotic mayor is at least a theoretical possibility. So, onward!

Can we not say that all human government exists primarily because, while we are much more successful in groups, too many of us unfortunately cannot be relied upon to behave consistently in a fashion generally acceptable to a group? And secondarily because grouping evolves a need for services generally unavailable from group members? That gives us the police and the Department of Motor Vehicles or if you prefer, the U.S. Army and the Internal Revenue Service. We are trying to remain pretty basic here.

So: human government is a smaller group of people imposing a selected standard of behavior upon a larger group of people by means of force or threat of force. If you hold that the governed own a free will, then imposed behavior is despotic, is it not? Our governor may be a saint who intends only our good but if he imposes his will upon us against our wishes, is he not a despot? Are there any human children who will not claim that their parents oppress them? “Oppress” can become a bit slippery, no?

But, someone objects, democratic governments are not oppressive because they rest upon the consent of the governed. Oh? So the man being pulled off a bus by the police for not wearing a facemask in public consented? Well, no but the majority of voters consented; that’s how democracy works! Hmn … So doesn’t that say then that democracy is only despotism by majority?

But that is an unfair example, someone says. The police were exceeding their authority and the bus passenger has the courts to protect him! He does in theory, but in a country where the majority presently live from paycheck to paycheck, how many bus passengers can afford a lawyer?

So despotism comes down to the Will of Heaven if you are Chinese or the consent of (a majority) of the governed if you are Western. Is that not simply some variation on the rabbit, the fox, the wolf, and the lion sitting down to discuss what to have for dinner?

All human government is to some degree despotic; if it were not there would be no need for organized force. The more realistic issue seems to be: How much despotism should be tolerated in return for the benefits of human organization? And, with homo sapiens involved, that depends upon whom you ask.

Given human behavior, there is no human who will not at some point, seem despotic to some other human. Assemble humans into a group and award them power and that becomes guaranteed. All human governments are despotic; were it not so, they could not fulfill their function. The more honest issue is their degree of acceptance by the governed. That appears to be a variable, increasing or decreasing according to the degree that the perception of the governed sees their own or the interests of their governors being served. If those interests were generally perceived to be the same, no governors would be needed, right?

So, all human governments are despotic to someone; it comes down to ow many of the governed are affected. That number varies with time and events right up until there is a new government, at which point, it begins again.

Note that this applies to any form of government: democracies that inevitably degenerate into oligarchy, socialists who live and die behind barbed wire and liberals whose rule of law degenerates into dictatorship. Human government must be despotism because, if it were not so, there would be no need for it.

Jack Curtis is a CPA and the author of Training Figure Skaters. He also holds a BS in Poli Sci, a MS in Public Administration (Philosophy minor) and blogs at jcurtisblog.