Recognizing a Tyrant or Tyrant-To-Be
By Pierre Lemieux
Societies are made of more than one individual. If a ruler governed only one individual, it would be easy to find whether or not he is a tyrant: just ask his single subject. Does “society” love its ruler? But in any actual country, the fact that a minority or even a majority of the ruled supports a ruler does not mean that he is not a tyrant. That a society must not be conceived as a single individual is a central feature of the methodological individualism used by economics to analyze society.
These considerations were illustrated by a response to a tweet where I had called Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán a tyrant. Somebody replied:
Have you ever asked some hungarians [sic] what they think of him? They adore him. He’s no tyrant. Angela Merkel is one.
The understanding missing here is that society is composed of individuals who are not necessarily unanimous and that a tyrant can be supported by a large part of the population. My correspondent also does not appear consistent when he adds that Angela Merkel is a tyrant, for surely some Germans adore her.
That a tyrant can be adored by some part of the population and even a large part is illustrated by tyrants of ancient Greece. In her instructive book Greek Tyranny (Bristol Phoenix Press, 2009), Sian Lewis writes:
That the demos [the “people,” especially little people] played an essential part in the creation of a tyrant is very clear in our sources: Sicilian tyrants are elected strategos autocrator, or later, hailed as kings … The consent of the demos was necessary for a tyrant to take power.
Agathocles was the tyrant of Syracuse during a quarter of a century before his death in 289 B.C. He was so popular, Lewis tells us, “that he needed no bodyguard.” Among his gifts to the demos were a cancellation of debts and a redistribution of land. Another example was Gelon I, again in Syracuse, who was acclaimed tyrant by the demos in 479 B.C. He had “summoned the people to an assembly fully armed” (the people could come fully armed) but, as later reported by Greek historian Diodorus, he himself
appeared before them not only unarmed, but without a tunic, wearing only a cloak, and stepping forward he gave an account of his life and deeds on behalf of the Syracusans. The crowd shouted their approval at each deed that he mentioned and were amazed that he had entrusted himself unarmed to anyone who might wish to kill him, so much so that they not only did not punish him for having taken the tyranny, but with one voice hailed him as their benefactor, savior, and king.
On this criterion, today’s rulers must not be very popular. However, as I explained in a previous Econlog post, many factors have changed, including the technology of tyrannicide.
If you define a tyrant as a person who oppresses part of the population, the oppressed part can be a minority or a majority. Of course, it can’t be 100% because the tyrant needs supporters and helpers, which generally include a praetorian guard. Not every tyrant is an Agathocles or a Gelon. A tyrant is a tyrant because he uses political power to favor his supporters to the detriment of the oppressed. Such is the implicit bargain between the tyrant and his supporter. That the tyrant is adored by his supporters is not surprising. The others are more likely to hate him, except if propaganda has made them feel like “patriots” sacrificing for the good of the greater whole.
Defining instead a tyrant as a person who governs arbitrarily and brutally brings us back to the first definition, because the smaller his supporting majority or minority, the more he will have to rely on lawlessness and violence to impose and maintain his rule.
It seems to be a matter of definition and analytical convenience whether or not, or to which extent, the supporters of the tyrant are considered members of a collective tyrant—as in a tyranny of the majority or of a minority—or just supporters.
A tyrant brings some socal benefits—such as order, external protection, public monuments, and infrastructure—that, although serving his own selfish goals, do trickle down to those he oppresses. Mussolini made the trains run on time and, others would add, Hitler fought tobacco. In his book On Power, Bertrand de Jouvenel made that argument, as later did economist Mancur Olson in explaining the advantage of “stationary bandits” (like tyrants) as opposed to “roving bandits.” Whether the benefits of tyranny exceed its costs for the exploited minority (or majority) is not for them to say.
Can a ruler be called a tyrant if he abides by a law (“the law”) that allows him to discriminate against a portion of his subjects? In ancient Greece, the difference between a king and a tyrant was that the former was constrained by laws. But certainly, laws can be tyrannical: just think of American slavery, which was protected by the Constitution. Everything is a matter of degree, and we should say that a ruler is a tyrant to the extent that he consistently favors a given part of the population against another, even if the law allows it.
Thus, recognizing a tyrant is not easy, especially before he has assumed full power. The process can be so gradual that most people may not see tyranny coming; only the last step may be obvious. (See my Regulation review of the recent book edited by Cass Sunstein, Can It Happen Here?) But it is certainly not necessary that the tyrant be adored by no one.