Why Societies Don’t Rebel against Tyranny

EspañolMemes is the neologism coined by British scientist Richard Dawkins to explain the way in which ideas and behaviors are transmitted in society by non-genetic means in contrast with transmission by genes. For instance, a child constantly exposed to home violence may come to accept violence as natural.

For the social media generation, memes take the form of images, videos, hashtags, etc., that spread person to person in the social networks.

In political science, I think of memes as sociocultural genes that help explain how, in totalitarian societies, the presumption of power deposes the presumption of liberty. Why do peoples not instinctively rebel against tyranny? The answer transcends repression.

Usually, the exercise of power alone is not sufficient to preserve an oppressive regime. At some level, there has to be a tacit acceptance, by both the ruled and the rulers that the ruling class possesses some legitimacy to the right to rule. In China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba, the revolutionary mysticism attached to Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il-sung, and Fidel Castro have served to confer legitimacy.

Over time, this legitimacy replaces the presumption of liberty with the acceptance of tyrannical powers as lawful. Contrary to the belief of some, this legitimacy is not undermined by economic or diplomatic engagements with democratic societies. If it did, we would have seen by now, in that totalitarian universe, political reforms favoring individual freedoms and limiting the coercive powers of government.

China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba are regimes with an enormous concentration of coercive power in the hands of the ruling class. This coercive power has engendered the generalized presumption that the rulers are born with the right to command and the people are born with the obligation to obey. In these societies, a long history of physical and intellectual coercion has fostered memes of acquiescence.

Governments are predatory institutions that sustain themselves with coercive power. In a democracy, we grant our consent, and we oblige ourselves to do whatever the government tells us to do or not to do. But, we appreciate that government officials are not deities, nor more enlightened than the electorate. Thus, we embrace a lifetime presumption for liberty. In free societies, our memes inform us that without limited government, democracy is not workable.

Even in democracies there is a danger, as political scientist Tom G. Parker points out, that our consent can be perverted to be infinitely elastic in support of unlimited government. If we vote for a policy or a politician repressing liberty, we have agreed to be bound by the repressing policy espoused by the politician.

If we vote against the policy or politician, we have participated in the process by which such decisions are made, thereby consenting to be bound by the results of the process. And if we do not vote, we also consent by surrendering our opportunity to participate. By this logic, we have consented to a restriction in our freedoms no matter what we do.

In democratic societies, this consent conundrum is managed reasonably well via free, fair, competitive, and frequent elections. It is, however, an insurmountable problem in totalitarian governments where no democratic opportunity exists to replace government officials.

With democratic freedoms, we exercise constant vigilance as an empowered citizenry against the encroaching impulses of a governing class entrusted with monopolistic coercive powers. In democratic societies, this exercise of vigilance promotes the memes of freedom which are wanting in totalitarian systems.

To enshrine freedom in society, capitalism and democracy are necessary but insufficient conditions. In addition, government must be limited. And to this end, of enshrining freedom, our policy making in national and foreign affairs must promote liberty against government intrusion. That is, our policies should be designed to nurture the memes of liberty.

This is why it is so disconcerting to witness, for example, the Unites States unconditionally changing its policy towards Cuba in a way that: (1) bestows US legitimacy to an oppressive regime; and (2) abandons historical US exigency for political freedoms.

It is even more bewildering to witness some Cuban nationals embracing a change that, by design, accepts, without conditions and indefinitely, the constraints on freedom imposed on the Cuban people.

Our political advocacy should always be for freedom, and not for policies that cultivate memes of acquiescence that replace the presumption of liberty with the presumption of power.

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