Economics is interested in despotism and tyranny if only because the profile of government interventions depends, at least partly, on the nature of the political regime. Moreover, the recent school of constitutional political economy analyzes alternative constitutional arrangements. Economists have analytical tools to study the consequences of government intervention or non-intervention. It is thus not surprising that a recent issue of The Economist tried to explain “Why America Is Vulnerable to a Despot” (May 16, 2024).

It is true, on the one hand, that the decentralization of American government would make it difficult for a despot to take over the system in violation of the Constitution. For the same reason, manipulation of national election results is very difficult if at all possible. State and local governments (not to speak of the populace) are armed, although not as heavily as the federal government. Most police officers are employed by local and state governments. The federal government itself is a diverse assemblage of power centers that may not all yield to a despot’s will. As The Economist notes, “getting any organization that employs 25,000 lawyers to do one person’s bidding is hard.” Add to this that the 4,540 economists working at different levels of government may not all be willing to ignore their methodology or falsify their numbers, just as Mussolini’s government did not find economists easily compliant.

A federal despot’s attempt at controlling America could also produce a civil war, which, at least in the long run, might not be worse than the French tyranny and sequels that followed the 1789 Revolution.

On the other hand, the magazine The Economist reviews how an elected despot could overcome the checks and balances of the American system. It often appears as if the American presidency has accumulated almost czarist powers. The president is arguably more powerful than his counterparts in many European countries. Appearances to the contrary, he is more powerful than prime ministers in British parliamentary systems. His powers in case of an emergency declared by himself are practically unlimited. The 1807 Insurrection Act allows him (the included “her” would not necessarily be better) to deploy the army or navy in the country if federal law is ignored. The Economist notes:

The Brennan Center, a think-tank at New York University, has identified 135 statutory powers that accrue to the president when he declares a national emergency. These include things like the power to freeze Americans’ bank accounts or, under a law giving the president emergency powers over communications that was passed in 1942, to shutdown the internet (which thankfully would be pretty hard in practice). In theory Congress is meant to review and potentially revoke the president’s declarations after six or 12 months. In practice it is casual about curtailing them. Over 40 emergencies are currently in force. Some of them are more than a decade old.

Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. Franklin D. Roosevelt interned American citizens of Japanese origin by executive order. The temptation has not disappeared. President Joe Biden was able to sidestep a Supreme Court decision on student loans by invoking an emergency. The Defense Product Act is regularly invoked by US presidents, including by Donald Trump during the Covid epidemic. By declaring an emergency, real, apprehended, or fabricated (pushing the red nuclear button would be the ultimate justification), the would-be despot could become a real despot. A large majority of Americans might support him until it is too late, especially if the Supreme Court grants the president immunity from prosecution. Despotism is difficult to imagine without tyranny.

The free press would be a big obstacle. Yet, part of the media might side with the despot. The rest would be accused of being “enemies of the people” and their “fake news” would be met with veiled threats or regulatory restraints. Which business can now survive without appeasing Leviathan? Courts would be attacked as opposing the “will of the people.”

Perhaps all that is too pessimistic. America is quite probably the country that harbors the largest proportion of people with an instinct for individual liberty and some understanding of the two words of the expression. Individual liberty represents a threat to despotism whether right or left. Yet, a would-be despot is unlikely to identify with tyranny, injustice, and servitude; he would claim to defend democracy, justice, freedom, and sovereignty. He would hide behind a majority. The tyranny of the majority is, at best, a multi-person despot.

Classical liberals and libertarians have been crying wolf for more than a century, but the disguised wolf has kept growing. The danger does not threaten only America.

******************************

The danger of despotism. By DALL-E under the influence of your humble blogger

The danger of despotism. By DALL-E under the influence of your humble blogger.