Do We Want a Government of Laws or Men?

We just celebrated Memorial Day honoring the sacrifice of so many Americans fighting Fascism in WWII. Fascism is a highly personalized authoritarian system. Why should people obey an authoritarian? Their power relies on expressions of loyalty. One approached medieval kings with bows and paeans of praise. They were raised on thrones so that they were literally higher then the supplicants approaching them. Any violation of these protocols suggested that an individual harbored disloyal ideas and had to be dealt with in a severe way. Law is what the authoritarian says it is. They, themselves were above the law and not subject to their prescriptions and consequences.

Algovernment of laws does not depend on who fills the office of president or prime minister. They govern with the legitimacy of an electoral process and a legal framework. Their power is limited by the laws of their democratic system. The people of the country are not subjects, at the mercy of their “leader,” but citizens with the responsibility to take part in the government they elect. To be a “subject” is passive. In an authoritarian society you are ordered to obey and punished if you don’t.

In a democratic society, a “citizen” is active, responsible to pay attention, take part, hold officeholders accountable, and vote in elections. The democratic “leader” must deal with minority opinions, respect them, and use their political abilities to get legislation through the process of representative voting. Their approach to governance must follow the legal framework of a constitution and legal precedents. It may seem boring and slow compared to the quick actions of an “authoritarian,” but it is a conservative system that values the liberty of a free people.

One does not have to look far in our contemporary world to see the effects of authoritarianism. Vladimir Putin in Russia has consolidated his hold on the Russian government. He has used appeals to Russian nationalism, the glorification of the Great Russian Slavic race, the co-option of Russian Orthodox Christian hierarchy, and control of the military and police to support his assumption of authoritarian (dictatorial) power. What has he done with his power? He has not built a successful economy but survives by selling off Russia’s natural resources. Putin has also launched a reckless war of conquest. He has become one of the richest men in the world, governing over a corrupt system supported by loyal oligarchs. Those oligarchs survive by constantly demonstrating their loyalty to Vladimir Putin. He represents a model for other potential authoritarians on how to take over a country and become fabulously wealthy. Victor Orban of Hungary, among others, have learned from Putin’s example.

Our WWII “Greatest Generation,” fought valiantly against the idea of an authoritarian system. Hitler and Mussolini represented the government of men rather than laws. They glorified in their magnificent titles, “Il Duce” and “der Fuerher” and the sense of invincibility they projected to the masses. They were winners…until they brought their countries down to near total ruin.

Following WWII, the U.S. faced the authoritarian regime of the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Again, democracy, and governments based on laws and democracy, outlasted authoritarian system. The Soviet economic, social, and political system was limited in its ability to grow and adapt by the limitations of the men at the top.

Now, we have our romance with the wealth of one-percenters and large corporations, giving them tax breaks and the unlimited use of money as political power, and influence over society. With enough capital, ideological messages can become ubiquitous, and as the old adage says, if a lie is printed often enough, it becomes an article of belief, and men will die for it. Money and power tend to corrupt. Lots of money and power, especially concentrated in the hands of an individual or a family, are a serious cancer in a society. Read Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward about the effect of authoritarianism in the Soviet Union. It is through free discussion and debate that democracies test competing ideas and find the compromises that move a society forward.

They must, however, have the courage to fight against those elements of society that desire an authoritarian leader to rule over them. In that way, liberal democracies are a very conservative system, moving slowly and carefully toward a more fair and just society.