Freedom in Autocracy and Democracy

In America, some of us have mistaken autocratic government as freedom. Conservative societies know that true freedom is possible only in well-regulated societies where democratically enacted laws and legal procedures outline acceptable behavior. Without laws that regulate the limits of behavior, societies are at the mercy of the powerful. In extreme dictatorships of the right, or left, autocratic “laws” dictate the lifestyle of their subjects. In autocratic systems, a demagogic leader convinces his followers that they can express their individual freedom by joining his herd of followers. If one crosses the will of the leader, there is no recourse to an independent legal system. His followers have the illusion of freedom through identifying with his actions. Demagogic leaders do not trust the freedom of their followers. One need only look at the fate of those who dissent in North Korea, Russia, and China. Gun owners should note, those regimes do not trust their subjects with the freedom to own guns. On the other hand, democracy represents a system where citizens express their freedom within a framework of laws enacted in a deliberative and democratic process.

The counter argument to communist and fascist dictatorships is not a countervailing strongman autocracy. While we identify communism and fascism as extremes of the left and right, they arrive at the same place in their subordination of the citizen to autocratic power, the suppression of free expression, and the undermining of the legal system to serve as the enforcer of autocratic state power. Under autocratic systems individuals are free of their responsibility as authentic, thinking, and acting, citizens. They become members of a herd following the whims of a leader they have glorified. The lessons of WW II and the Cold War should not be just the horrors of Communism and Nazism, but the dangers of autocracy in general.

Democratic nations are not easy to construct. They have histories of deliberation, documents, laws, and precedent that need to be respected. However, they are not static, but demand the attention and care of a concerned citizenry. Just as individuals are defined by their past thoughts and actions, so are countries. Knowledge of an accurate, and factual, history of one’s country is vital. Nations, after all, are made up by human thinkers. The act of drawing lines on a map and saying those born inside, or have gone through a legal naturalized process, are citizens of that territory, is a human invention with a history of about 250 years. The United States is one of the oldest “nations” on earth. It was created when our constitutional founders created a nation of “citizens” rather than of “subjects.” How does one know what “nation” one belongs to? We invent symbols and cultural forms of identity. Pieces of colored cloth are revered, songs are sung, rituals are followed, a litany of heroes and stories that create a feeling of loyalty. These are taught and performed by the community in public settings. If we had been born several hundred miles north of Marathon County, we would have a whole different set of symbols leading to a Canadian identity. A nation becomes a reality through its history. Nations, like people, grow and change. They have successes and make mistakes. They are not the same today as they were in the past.

Winston Churchill once said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Our forefathers had the wisdom to set up a government based on law and checks and balances between three branches of government. While inefficient in producing speedy change, it does provide the means to have in-depth consideration of legislation. It also provides legal means for well-meaning people to prevent parties of wealth, ideological extremism, exclusive religious beliefs, or followers of a cult of personality, from taking power for their own purposes. Individual freedom, in a democracy, is when citizens have concern, and take on responsibility for the welfare and governance of all the citizens of their “nation.”