A Nation of Armchair Dictators


Occasionally a college girl will call me at home and request that I take a political poll. Unfortunately, I'm too polite to simply hang up the phone. The result is an awkward experience for all involved. She pretends that I wasn't put on the list by mistake, and I pretend that there's a 'none of the above' option for every question. It finally ends when she asks whether I'm a Republican, Democrat, or Independent.

'I'm a libertarian.'


The media love polls. I blame it on democracy. Democracy is the insidious lie that tells the common man: your opinion matters. Your opinion is the difference in whether the government steals from Peter or Paul. Your opinion is the difference between war with Iraq and war with Iran. Democracy produces a nation of dictators, each shouting his opinion at the television, directing armies and tax collectors from the armchair.

The armchair dictator has something to say about everything, and his opinions are broadcast everywhere, from interviews on the local news to columns on National Review Online. His battle cry is 'There ought to be a law.' Like a nosy mother-in-law, he has the answer for every aspect of your life. Unlike her though, he is fully prepared to authorize thugs to knock on your door and make sure you do it. He requires permission from the proper authorities before you can make an addition to your house. He forbids you from taking recreational drugs. And he forces you to pay your 'fair share' for the common good.

Engage the armchair dictator in debate, and the result is usually the same: 'If you don't like it, move to Cuba.' If he is particularly vindictive, he might tell you that he's glad libertarians will never win. Tell him that the government's gun control infringes on your rights, and he'll tell you he's happy you can't buy a new firearm with a magazine capacity over ten. Tell him that taxation is theft, and he hopes the government will take more of your money. The armchair dictator loves his government, and he loves his opinions.

I know libertarians will probably never win. But then again, I know that 'winning' and 'losing' is the wrong way to view life. Winning and losing is how Democrats and Republicans (and Independents) view politics and society. In government, they are correct. Government is not productive; it can only give to one person by first taking from another. The government can only serve one armchair dictator's opinions by initiating force on others.

For the armchair dictator, all issues are a matter of public policy. The question is always phrased as, 'what should the government do?' Once I realized I was a libertarian, I no longer asked this question. In fact, the process was akin to a spiritual transformation. Once you realize that your opinion in fact does not matter, the burdens of government are lifted off of your shoulders. For example, someone asked me whether I thought the government should include 'under God' in the pledge of allegiance, and I replied that I had no opinion on the matter. One government outcome is as arbitrary as the next, and only an armchair dictator will advocate one or the other. The libertarian, on the other hand, maintains that the government should butt out altogether.

Libertarians recognize that in the free market, there are no losers. You are not forced to obey anyone else's decrees, and your interactions with others are purely voluntary. But being free also means you must respect the freedom of others. The libertarian requirement that one's rights are inviolate does not sit well with the would-be central planners, though. They have another vision of society, one where interactions are governed and regulated. They embrace democracy because it makes people believe that the government is really us. And when a person believes that separate individuals can form a collective mind to guide society, everything else becomes a power struggle to get one's own opinion as policy. If you want to know who the tyrants are in the country, you can certainly look towards Washington. But you might also look around your hometown and see who is authorizing the criminals and who is asserting what the government should be doing.

Libertarians know that personal opinion is not the correct way to organize society. In fact, there is no correct way to 'organize society.' Organizing society necessarily means central planners and armchair dictators. And it also means winners and losers. Libertarians offer the alternative: your opinion does not matter, and society will do quite well enough on its own. Right and wrong are not a question of public opinion but rather a question of whether one respects the rights of others. Let people live their lives freely, and everyone is a winner.

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Jacob Halbrooks's picture
Columns on STR: 6

Jacob Halbrooks lives in New England.