"Polite totalitarianism," part one
"Polite totalitarianism," part two
"Polite totalitarianism," part three

From Vol. I, No. 4
of The Last Ditch (December 1994)


Polite totalitarianism
Part four — conclusion



The usual term for the collaborators mentioned in part three of this article is "court intellectuals." Their existence is a double-edged sword for the state. They are necessary because democracy requires that there be free champions of the state who are not its officials and who are not obviously in its pay. Their freedom, however, sometimes takes them "off the reservation." The quest for fame, for prestige, can lead them to attack some element of the system that was counting on their support. Usually, the state is able to transform any straying into a controlled opposition. But even when things get out of hand, the state never loses completely: an unstaged media attack, for example, maintains the precious illusion of freedom.

The true difficulty for the state represented by court intellectuals in a democratic totalitarianism is that it needs them — like the rest of us — to believe they are living in a free society, or to be willing to say they believe it. And to that end, their sphere of activity must not be grossly infringed. Even court intellectuals who believe in the regulation of radio and the suppression of, say, magazines that publish articles on resisting taxes or hiding guns from the BATF will profess the deepest attachment to the tradition and sanctity of the publishing freedom demanded by their particular medium. Their attachment is precisely parallel to the attachment of most businessmen to the free market: regulate my competitors but not me and my associates. [1]

The influence of court intellectuals is felt in society as the expression of their views filters through the culture from journal articles to news reports and commentaries to situation comedies and stand-up routines. The passive minds molded by the state school system will either consume the majority-view pabulum the establishment media feed them or some approved opposition pabulum served up by tame dissidents, or they will slip into a harmless National Enquirer-type marginalization.

The importance of all this indirect direction is that while it maintains the illusion of freedom, it at once sternly instructs us and cynically promises us that there are right ways to go about effecting change (e.g., writing your congressman and voting). As long as most people can be kept within the bounds represented by those "right ways," there is no danger to the state: its permanent hegemony is secured, and there will be no revolution. What change comes about is carefully controlled, and there is no disaffected, independent class to oppose it. Most people understand all of this more or less intuitively: what else does "You can't fight City Hall" mean? Americans, however, have somehow — in a fantastic feat of doublethink — come to believe both that they can't fight city hall and that they are free from city hall, a mental act that effectively functions as a repressor of any revolutionary dissatisfaction. What need of secret police when the ruled themselves do the most effective policing of their most secret thoughts? when the ruled have come to believe it is somehow wrong or unpatriotic to oppose the enslavement that issues from their imagined freedom?

Inefficiency and "self-government"

Having rendered nearly everyone both weak and politically contented, the American state faces, in terms of Emmanuel Goldstein's analysis in Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, only one threat: that it might govern so inefficiently that the underclass and middle class are stirred to rebellion.

There are two kinds of inefficiency to be addressed: (a) the incidental inefficiency of a regulatory and welfare system, and (b) the overall inefficiency inherent in all bureaucratic systems.

(a)  There is usually little the modern state need fear from the first. It may so badly regulate transportation, for example, that food shipments do not reach their destinations, and then there will be riots followed by insurrections. Natural adversity may similarly intervene. But the American experience suggests that both eventualities are likely to be confined to short periods and narrow locales and to be, therefore, relatively insignificant.

The inefficiency of the welfare system is primarily "internal"; i.e., it mismanages the resources put into it. But so long as the monetary system can be maintained, goods and services will continue to emerge from the welfare system's black box. Even a major delay in delivering welfare checks is not likely to provoke food riots throughout the country; whatever danger from the underclass the postal inefficiency might trigger would be confined to narrow locales. Ad hoc remedies could be brought to bear so quickly that any failure would become little more than a propaganda opportunity for the compassion of the current regime and the concern of quickly assembled investigative committees.

(b)  More dangerous to the ruling regime is the truth contained in the challenge that the state cannot even run the post office — how can it run a nation of 250 million souls without losing its grip on them?

Once again, the brilliance of the American system of democratic totalitarianism comes into play. To the extent that people are self-regulated and disinclined to rebel in any important way, the natural inefficiency of bureaucracy is somewhat counterbalanced by the efficiency of free decision. Polite totalitarianism governs more efficiently than jackboot totalitarianism because it never becomes a lumbering, sprawling command economy. It remains a mixed economy. In a deviant parody of the original meaning of the words, a level of self-government is attained which the other major totalitarianisms of the 20th century have never enjoyed.

A development in the technique of regulatory enforcement over the past 25 years highlights the state's ability to experiment and learn, to absorb into its own static self the dynamism of liberty. It is exemplified in legislation such as that creating the EPA and OSHA, in the Americans with Disabilities Act, and in various measures dealing with sexual harassment or discrimination. Specifically, I am referring to the clauses in those statutes that permit civil suits to be brought under them. The implications of that authorization are only now being felt throughout society, bringing socialism to Main Street. [2]

It has taken so long for some of this regulation to filter down to quotidian life because when such laws are first passed they contain clauses that say that the appropriate agencies shall have authority "pursuant to the legislation" to make rules applying the legislation. Those rules are written little by little over the years, formulated first as the agencies direct their attention to high-profile cases that, by and large, serve to further propagandize the need for and the wisdom of the fundamental statutes so that they can enter into that realm of mute commandants. As the rules are written, they shape the force of the legislation, and it becomes clearer how the laws are to be applied; the rules multiply, and gradually civil suits are filed at the most basic levels of commerce.

A barber shop operated by two brothers may — without warning — get a letter from an attorney bringing to their attention that a wheelchair-bound client of hers was recently unable to enter the shop because the front door was not wide enough or because of a step in front of it. A lawsuit is threatened. The brothers are willing to settle out of court, but they will have to remodel their shop (to the tune of, say, $20,000 — a bargain if they can avert a $75,000 judgment against them). There will also be the settlement to be paid to the client ... who will be paying some of the proceeds to the attorney.

The pattern is repeated in a wide variety of settings — and enforcement is now directed for the first time on a large scale against small businesses. With virtually no warning, citizens must suddenly obey rules, not merely at the risk of fine or imprisonment, but at the risk of the transfer of their wealth to their fellow citizens. Unlike fines, civil settlements do not go into the public coffers (where even cranky curmudgeons can suppose their money may be used for the public welfare), but into the pockets of some irate customer or co-worker or employee. Essentially, the state has allowed the most intrusive regulations — the ones most onerous to ordinary shopkeepers who have carved out for themselves a modest but relatively independent lifestyle — to be put on a profit-making basis. Instead of seeing officials trying, like sorcerer's apprentices, to enforce the jots and tittles of a million impenetrably written regulations on a population that still outnumbers them, we are seeing surgical strikes. Like modern demolition techniques, which do not pound incessantly on all sides of a building, successful lawsuits ("dark suits," indeed!) can strike at structural weaknesses and bring down what remains of freedom's edifice more efficiently.

Attorneys need not focus on any clauses other than those most likely to form the basis of successful suits. They are not concerned with the defendant's obedience to a body of laws, but only with his compliance with that part of a law that will win their clients a settlement. And they will not have to see that court decisions are enforced equitably throughout the economy. They will be targeting only those combinations of vulnerability and (relatively) deep pockets. As they perforce expand the power of the state, their rivalrous competition for the dollars of complainants — the sine qua non to bring you to court — may endow them with a streamlined proficiency and competence that will make old-fashioned government agencies look like waddling pachyderms.

And the real beauty of the system is that the investigative branch of this "pettifogger enforcement" is ... your neighbors!

When President Clinton says he intends to reduce the size of government, we must remember that he does not mean that he wants to reduce the power or scope of government. He means that he wants all its functions to be carried out more efficiently, i.e., at less cost (including personnel costs). Pettifogger enforcement may be his ticket to eating his cake and having it, too.

Possibilities and prospects

On the other hand it may be that ultimately the technique will have to be abandoned, if it proves too provocative of the ruled — it is too early to judge this empirical matter. It may be, because the enforcers (local attorneys) deal primarily with regional offices of the regulatory bodies, that this decentralized enforcement will be found to be not as controllable as Washington would like it to be. It may even be that Washington does not yet appreciate the power (or, what is much the same thing, the economic devastation) implicit in this system of governance. (The historical practice most resembling it — farming out tax collection — was often a cause of unrest in the empires that practiced it.) If so, we can expect to see the Permanent Regime withdraw it. But if it does not become a revolution-threatening liability, we shall have seen yet another instance of how the state learns from the market how to rule over the market.

To be sure, the more totalitarian the state becomes, the less of a mixed economy it can be and the more wealth it will sap from the ruled body, so that there is ever less to be sapped. But that means also that there will be less wealth available for the ruled to employ in any kind of rebellion. Rebellion, too, requires wealth, and in the United States, at least, there is little possibility of an outside power supplying the wealth a Resistance might rely on. It is as though the two, the individual and the state — one animate and therefore mortal, and the other soulless and incapable of dying — were in a long-distance endurance race that the state must always win.

In other words, Ludwig von Mises's demonstration that planned economies cannot rationally supply goods and services proves that totalitarian governments cannot, in the long run, produce and enjoy wealth. It shows that they cannot order goods and services efficiently, even to tyrannize. It does not prove that they cannot rule, and it does not show that they cannot destroy the wealth — including that hard-earned treasure we call liberty — that might be marshaled against it. Indeed, such destruction is the essence of totalitarian rule.

It may be that the state as we know it will some day be destroyed. But there is no reason to suppose that it will happen in our lifetime, or even in the lifetime of our grandchildren. We have no way of knowing what skills the ruling classes may acquire, what adaptations to the current structure they may make, what ongoing fine tuning they will attempt that will enable the state to continue to expand and thrive. We cannot know what ebb and flow of permitted, stop-gap freedoms may characterize the future state. [3] Indeed, what might happen before its fall into utter helplessness can occur is that those not actually part of the ruling elite may become so dispirited, so incapable of thought, that the state, red-giantlike, collapses in on itself to become the almost unthinkable, most frightful of all dystopias: a largely voluntary, if not completely, self-governed totalitarianism.

Posted January 16, 2008

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1. Or, Subsidize me, but not my competitors. The Washington Post and the Atlanta Constitution were vigorous champions of GATT. What wonder? Not only does the World Trade Organization created by GATT bring us a step closer to the World Government that liberals love so well, but buried in its interminable paperwork lies a waiver of the FCC fees on the new cellular telephone licenses held by the Washington Post Co. and Cox Enterprises (which owns the Atlanta Constitution). The New York Times estimated the value of that waiver at $65 million. In addition, GATT gives the Post and Cox permanent licenses for their new cellular systems, a right worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

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2. Much of this part of my discussion comes from conversations with my occasional dinner and breakfast companion Roy Pulsifer, a retired federal government regulatory lawyer and administrator.

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3. The Republican Congress will surely instruct us in the art of tactical regrouping.

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