Meaningful Distinction:

Patrick S. Lasswell Look outward for something to accomplish, not inward for something to despise.
pslblog at gmail dot com
Thursday, September 25, 2003
Arguing with Sean LaFreniere over the tradeoffs of totalitarianism.

The Old Lie of Totalitarianism

"Dolce et Decorum est pro Patria mori", the old lie of imperial powers, "Sweet and fitting it is to die for your Nation." Rejecting this lie has been the cause celebre for the intellectual since the end of the First World War and the exposition of the horrors of industrial warfare at stalemate.

The old lie of totalitarianism is much more prosaic, "Trade your freedom for the desired state." This is a great lie because there never is a trade, only the promise of one. The promise differs greatly by cultures and has taken the form in the last century of stability, prosperity, dignity, revenge, restoration, equality, fraternity, security, purity, and holiness. The only consistent returns on this exchange are oppression, poverty, disease, violence, misery, and death. Genocidal campaigns are the norm in totalitarian states as structurally incompetent governments try to bury their own failures with the most glaring exceptions to their rule. This is as true in Iraq as it was in Bosnia, Rwanda, China, Russia, and Germany.

Totalitarian governments are incompetent by their very nature because reposing all power in the government can only work with an administration that is omniscient and omnipotent. That those are also the qualifications for Godhood is in many cases a selling point, since any honest government admits mistakes. The basic paradox that a qualified God-government would not need a revolution usually does not survive contact with the fanatics who espouse totalitarian views. In that initial bludgeoning down of rational dissent, a pattern of suppressing meaningful feedback is emplaced. In order to obtain and maintain power, totalitarian governments must do away the ability to use power wisely.

In all of this, there are matters of degree. Josip Broz "Tito" managed to run the amalgam of Yugoslavia astonishingly well for many years as a dictator. For all his atrocities, Pinochet did amazing work to make Chile a very modern nation and he did hand over power peacefully if not totally. Franco's Spain did not make much economic progress during his reign, but it was not a bad place to live. I know this because I visited these places while the dictators were in power. I have no love of political strongmen and their ruthlessness, but there are matters of degree. At one end of the spectrum goes Tito at the other end goes Pol Pot and Stalin. The quickest measure of wickedness is the depth of blood the dictator waded in.

There is one more inconsistency that is frequently thrown around in conversations about the Old Lie of Totalitarianism and that is the presumption of efficiency. Totalitarian governments are often described as efficient because a given circumstance or measurement occurs. This is a misuse of the term because what efficiency means is a measure of work done for effort expended. Analysis of the actual condition of totalitarian states consistently displays tremendous waste of effort and inefficiency. Free and open systems that are regularly subjected to honest review are consistently efficient.
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