The Little Dictators

by | May 21, 2006 | POLITICS

America is the land in which productive individuals were largely set free of the coercive power of the government. The result was the most prosperous nation the world has ever seen. But, over the past two generations, our freedom has been subordinated, in myriad ways, to the “Little Dictators” among us. The language of despotism […]

America is the land in which productive individuals were largely set free of the coercive power of the government. The result was the most prosperous nation the world has ever seen. But, over the past two generations, our freedom has been subordinated, in myriad ways, to the “Little Dictators” among us. The language of despotism is proper to them, for they wield the force of the government and demand obedience to their commands. To disobey them is to risk loss of career, property, and even life.

Who are the Little Dictators? Here are some real examples I have known; you can probably think of others. The local building inspector is one; he decides whether I can live year-round in the cottage I bought. Others include the fire inspector who decides whether a small day-care center–barely able to stay open–has to spend $10,000 for a fire door to cover a residential-type kitchen stove; the planning commission that decides whether I can build a house on my lot; the bureaucrat who collects money for permission to drive a car; the health inspector who says he is not sure whether he will allow a house to be built in this part of town; the zoning board that decides a restaurant is OK on this lot, but not on that one.

Their names are friendly; their power immense. One I knew, “Jim,” had final say over whether a 42-story office building in a major city could open. Another, “Marty,” said he did not care that his failure to read a blueprint had cost a small business $10,000–“that don’t matter” were his words. Another, an inspector named “CJ” (the initials have been changed to protect his victims) was asked whether building requirements had changed “in his town”; he said, “I haven’t decided. I’ll let you know.” Another, “Frank,” showed up smelly and unshaven at the final inspection of a new high-tech manufacturing plant, and delayed its opening for three days pending a test of the fire alarm system’s batteries.

Some personalize everything. “I ain’t gonna allow it,” I heard one decree, as he told a contractor to tear down a stone chimney and start over because the hearth was an inch too narrow. Another told me, “I ain’t lettin’ no more cottages be converted to year-round use. There’s too many now,” as he slapped a red tag on my neighbor’s door. Once I was doing a project at a very remote site, which took hours to get to, including a boat trip. An offical said, to my face, that he’d require our technicians to return as often as he saw fit: “Not everyone can work in my town.” Another made similar demands at a major state university; his son was our competitor, and had lost the bid.

These Little Dictators have the power of government guns to enforce their decisions. To avoid their wrath, a productive individual must suppress his rational judgment, and go by the rules they enforce. They are enemies of independent thought and comrades of conformity. Their whims and their rules coercively substitute for reality in the minds of their victims.

Americans should be up in arms about this tyranny in their midst. But they are not. Many have come to see the world as the Little Dictators wish it to be. Without the security of their decrees, many people would feel dread at the thought of making their own decisions. But this is dictatorship–the dictatorship of petty bureaucrats for sure, but dictatorship nonetheless–and it is growing by leaps and bounds. When Americans regain their understanding of liberty, they will feel a proper sense of outrage against these tin-badge despots, and the legislatures that empower them. But, first they must regain that understanding.

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John David Lewis (website) is a Visiting Professor of Political Science, Duke University. He has been a Senior Research Scholar in History and Classics at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, and an Anthem Fellow.

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