The future of our nation seems gloomy as our markets slide into recession and a pandemic continues to wreck our planet. Unfortunately, if economic insecurity and social unrest persist, the resurrection of twentieth century authoritarianism may be upon us.
Lack of information, especially surrounding the understanding of COVID-19, has induced mass panic. Economies have come to a screeching halt as fear for financial security increases. The food supply is unstable. The future is uncertain.
What we see on the news should not shock us because political theorists have long ago predicted the course of human behavior in situations like ours. Rousseau told us that a lack of information causes panic, but in the modern day case of COVID-19 the panic is being caused by misinformation. Hobbes told us that when moral structures decay, survival will become the sole priority.
Now consider the instability that has been caused by the dissolution of the social contract and the widespread panic as the severity of a crisis sets in. From certain ruin, an individual will step in offering economic security and the restoration of society, in exchange for expansive authority. As Machiavelli shows us, loyalty will be granted to them because the people have been ‘saved’ from disaster.
This cycle may sound familiar because it happened almost a hundred years ago.
A close look at the economic and social conditions of the pre-WWII era offers historical insight into the rise of modern authoritarianism.
Social unrest in Germany following WWI and the Treaty of Versailles angered citizens and feared for their well-being. In line with Machiavelli’s theory, Adolf Hitler gave them a scapegoat and promised a better future as long as he was given total authority. Similarly, economic disparity in Russia birthed the Soviet Union, to which Lenin and Stalin promised a Marxist utopia free of classism.
Even in the United States, we saw the rapid expansion of social programs under FDR in the wake of the Great Depression. Desperate times truly did call for desperate measures, especially when government authority was increased tenfold.
This is not to suggest that we have reached such a radical moment like these historical examples, but to merely show that political theory has been consistent. But with this in mind, it’s hard to ignore similar patterns in our current crisis.
The hoarding of supplies is just a reflection of self-preservation (as Hobbes predicted). We are willing to give away our liberties for a stimulus check and reassurance from leaders who have proven incapable of leading.
Combined with social unrest as protests and riots consume our nation, we begin to watch the moral decay of society. Notice how every revolution has begun with the violent destruction of history and property.
Not to mention the expansion of federal authority to respond to the virus by giving the government increased power to enforce mask wearing, social distancing, and other preventative measures which some are claiming as a violation of individual liberty.
All of this turmoil is creating an eerily similar environment to the one we saw pre-WWII. And like FDR, our Congress today has expanded unemployment benefits and passed a massive stimulus bill in response to the economic fallout caused by COVID-19.
While we are likely far off from authoritarianism in the United States, it would be prudent to err on the side of caution and consider what’s at stake. We need to be careful about the power we are giving to the federal government or any individual during a season of vulnerability. Our liberties are our greatest asset during a crisis, especially when a government is trying to convince us to give them away.
This is also about drawing the line between public safety and liberty. At what point is it less about stopping the virus and more about controlling the population? Your liberty is non-negotiable.
Authoritarianism is an enemy easily defeated by an understanding of our past and perseverance in the face of struggle. I’m certain that the United States can overcome this uncertain moment in time, but we would be mistaken to ignore the warning signs.