Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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DICTATOR. This word comes from the Latin, as the office which it describes originated with the Romans. The dictator was a magistrate appointed to meet an exceptional difficulty, and who, instead of receiving his investiture from the people as the consuls did, was designated by one of the consuls at the demand of the senate. The dictator had the most extensive powers, and had no colleagues, so that he might have full freedom of action. He could dispose of the liberty, the property and the lives of all citizens, but he needed the authorization of the senate and the order of the people to spend the public revenues. The legal duration of the dictatorship was fixed at six months, but the dictator often abdicated after the disappearance of the danger which it had been his mission to oppose. Thus, certain dictators, like Cincinnatus, exercised their office only during 15 days; others, like Q. Servilius, kept it but a week. The dictator could not leave Italy without losing his rights immediately. After the installation of the tribunes the dictatorship was an arm which the senate employed to defend itself against the people, and when Sylla was invested with this magistracy it had not been exercised for nearly 120 years.


—The legal dictatorship is not found in modern constitutions; all dictatorships instituted since the fall of Rome are dictatorships de facto, which must be carefully distinguished from the ancient magistracy. It is generally in times of disturbance and during revolutionary periods that people, wearied with conflicts, take refuge in a dictatorship, and demagogues are generally the first to propose it as a sovereign remedy.


—Opinions are still divided as to the usefulness of a dictatorship at certain times and to meet exceptional difficulties. It is necessary, therefore, to know the arguments urged against it and in its favor. Montesquieu remarked of dictatorship "The usage of the freest people that has ever been on earth makes me think that there are cases in which it is necessary to draw a veil over liberty for the moment, as one conceals statues of the gods." This thought sums up in a very exact and sufficiently precise manner the opinions of the partisans of dictatorship. They admit, in principle, the necessity of the liberty and independence of individual interests; but in fact, they proclaim that at certain moments of crisis or demoralization, it is necessary for society to bethink itself, and personify itself in a single man, or in an energetic and moral group of men. Once a nation is saved, purified, regenerated, its discords ended, public spirit restored, the man or the group should be dismissed, and the government de facto succeeded by the government de jure. An ordinary government, harassed by factions, thinking most of its own preservation, influenced by its own vicious surroundings, would be powerless, and liberty would not find bases solid enough for its own support; while a dictator, free from every influence, sure of his position, and obeying only his conscience, will not be embarrassed by childish formalities or miserable questions of petty interests. As the commander of a ship gives up his power for a short time to an experienced pilot, the nation should in time of danger permit a firm and able hand to conduct it to the harbor. This opinion on dictatorship is shared by a great number of modern socialists and by the entire school of demagogues.


—The adversaries of dictatorship bring up, first of all, a practical difficulty, the choice of a dictator. If a dictator is only needed for a demoralized or agitated society, are we not to fear that the dictator will be no better than the people by whom he is chosen? Logically, this would be the case, for voting only gives an average of the opinion, the morality and the knowledge of the voters. In this first case dictatorship will be opposed to its object, for, by throwing themselves into the arms of a savior, they will have simply obtained a master. But if we go further, and admit the hypothesis of virtuous dictators, whose sole object is "to compel virtue through terror," it is said that the dictator will become a tyrant, by force of circumstances, while society, far from becoming moral, will sink lower; because, however virtuous we suppose him, he is a man, and every man who acquires the habit of not counting with any obstacle and not imposing any restraint on himself, reaches a degree of willfulness which becomes his own ruin. The second reason is, that a dictator governing by himself alone is a chimera, while the real dictator is necessarily surrounded by a crowd of flatterers, who praise him, excite him beyond measure, and ruin him the more promptly, as no contradiction, no advice can act as a counterpoise to his flatterers. The very virtue of the dictator is a danger to him, in this sense, that it serves him as a pretext while it is used as a mask for the passions of those who surround him. When the dictator is thus demoralized there would be a remedy if regenerated society could deprive him of power. But his surrounding, far from becoming better, has become worse. Under the influence of servitude, public spirit has completely disappeared; every one has acquired the habit of looking at public affairs as something strange, and opposition to the will of the dictator as a senseless revolt; from a bundle of wills a collection of interests and appetites have been created, without connection and without force. Does this crowd deserve liberty? and could it use it? If it was unfitted for it at the moment when the dictatorship was established, is it less so now? and if the dictator found in the general enfeeblement a sufficient reason for assuming power, will he not find similar and better ones for keeping it? He has less desire of granting liberty because he has no longer an inclination for regular government; there is less desire to have liberty because the habit of doing without it has been acquired. No wish to yield, on the one hand; no alertness in demanding, on the other: this is the end. Rousseau summed up this opinion in the following terms: "Thus, it is not the danger of abuse, but that of abasement, which causes me to blame the ill-judged use of this magistracy."


—We do not think that it is permitted to hesitate between these two arguments for and against, and we believe that to prepare a people for liberty, the best means is to give it to them. It is in the rude school of experience that the physical temperament of individuals is formed, and it is in this same school that the moral and intellectual temperament of peoples is formed. Let us leave, then, to wise and enlightened minds a sort of moral dictatorship which people will not deny them; but if they were ten times as wise, let us not expose them to the danger of too great a temptation; and let us not forget that the first rule in politics is, that a power restrains itself only to the extent that it is limited.


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