Authoritarianism, Crime, and Freedom

In January, I took up Donald Trump’s extraordinary promise to bring the crime and violence we know today to a quick end. I argued that this seemingly impossible vow can be fulfilled, but only by dramatically increasing the speed and certainty with which murderers are put to death.

My piece had no impact at National Review Online, where the only published response dismissed it as an “authoritarian screed.” It’s as if NRO had embraced the old liberal saw, “A high crime rate is the price we pay for living in a free society.”

National Review used to have a better grasp of what “authoritarian” means. William F. Buckley, Jr. in 1972 wrote a primer on the difference between authoritarian and totalitarian government:

In Taiwan in Greece and in Spain a human being can: 1) practice his religion, 2) quit his job, 3) join a labor union, 4) leave the country, 5) travel within the country where he wants to, 6) enter into contracts whether to buy or provide a personal service. 7) What he owns is his. 8) He is free to buy all but a very few books, and in fact he can get these by the mildest exertions. 9) He may say anything he wants to say: except that he cannot attempt to bring down the government.

In China you may not practice a religion, you may not change your job without permission of the state, there are no labor unions to join, you cannot leave the country or travel within your country except by special permission. You may not engage in contracts except by leave of the state, which owns all your services. You may not own property, outside the toothbrush category. You may read only accepted works of Communist theology. You may not criticize the state nor, obviously, attempt to bring down the government.

Buckley also mentioned the affirmative duties totalitarianism imposes, which make not being able to own more than a toothbrush seem like a minor inconvenience. Let the great Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn tell it from the inside:

Over and above its physical and economic constraints, [our present system] demands of us total surrender of our souls, continuous and active participation in the general, conscious lie. … We grew used to the idea that we must submit and lie in order to survive—and we brought up our children to do so. Each of us, if he honestly reviews the life he has led, without special pleading or concealment, will recall more than one occasion on which he pretended not to hear a cry for help, averted his indifferent eyes from an imploring gaze, burned letters and photographs which it was his duty to keep, forgot someone’s name or dropped certain widows, turned his back on prisoners under escort, and—but of course—always voted, rose to his feet and applauded obscenities (even though he felt obscene while he was doing it)—how, otherwise, could we survive?

Solzhenitsyn wrote those words around the same time as Buckley’s primer, when Russia was slowly emerging from the totalitarian nightmare into which Lenin and Stalin had plunged her, and when China was still in its depths. Both countries have changed a lot since then. For one thing, people now can come and go from Red China with a freedom the East Germans would have envied, and the Cubans still do. But in China, the people still have to applaud communist claptrap, and they still may not attempt to bring down the government.

For “bring down the government,” read: “eject the party in power.” When the British prime minister loses a parliamentary vote of confidence, that brings down the government, and new elections must be held. When, in the regular elections we have in the United States, the voters throw the bums out and replace Republicans with Democrats or vice versa, that does the same thing. Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, on the other hand, suppress the people’s ability to exercise that basic political right.

Neither totalitarianism nor authoritarianism has anything to do with the prosecution and punishment of crime.

When folks complain about crime, they often say, “Young people today have no respect for authority.” By that they don’t mean, “We want to give up our right to throw the bums out.” It’s absurd to suppose they do. But that’s what’s implied by calling serious crime-fighting “authoritarianism.” This fact may have escaped those who pose as foes of “the police state,” but to crime’s victims it’s obvious: crime is not the price we pay for freedom. It’s the negation of it.

The 18th century English jurist Henry Fielding understood this very well:

Nor can I help wondering that a nation so jealous of her liberties, that from the slightest cause, and often without any cause at all, we are always murmuring at our superiors, should tamely and quietly support the invasion of her properties by a few of the lowest and vilest among us. Doth not this situation in reality level us with the most enslaved countries? If I am to be assaulted, and pillaged, and plundered, if I can neither sleep in my own house, nor walk the streets, nor travel in safety, is not my condition almost equally bad whether a licensed or unlicensed rogue, a dragoon or a robber, be the person who assaults and plunders me?

The idea that freedom conflicts with law enforcement never occurred to Alexis de Tocqueville, who examined our democracy 180 years ago. “In America,” he wrote:

The means available to the authorities for discovering crimes and prosecuting criminals are few.  . . . Yet I doubt that in any other country crime so seldom goes unpunished. The reason for this is that everyone believes he has an interest in providing evidence of crime and in apprehending criminals. . . . In Europe, the criminal is an unfortunate who is fighting to save his head from agents of the government. The people are merely onlookers in this contest. In America, he is an enemy of the human race and has all humanity against him.

That’s quite a contrast to what a more recent visitor observed. Having been exiled from the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn included this in the severe critique of Western society he delivered at Harvard in 1978: “And what shall we say about the dark realms of overt criminality? . . . The culprit can go unpunished or obtain undeserved leniency—all with the support of thousands of defenders in the society.”

In all of history, there are few more courageous challengers to an authoritarian system than Martin Luther. Ordered in 1521 to recant his critiques of certain church doctrines and practices, and knowing that people had been burned at the stake for refusing to obey, Luther replied: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything. … Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me.”

About law enforcement, however, Luther’s views may astound today’s soft-on-crime crowd. Of Genesis 9:6 (“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed”), he wrote: “A murderer forfeits his life, and it is right that he should be killed by the sword.” He affirmed that Christ’s warning to Peter at Gethsemane—“Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52)—“is to be understood in the same sense as Genesis 9:6: ‘Whoever sheds man’s blood etc.’; there is no doubt that Christ is here invoking those words.”

Luther commented further:

If all in the world were true Christians, that is, if everyone truly believed, there would be neither need nor use for princes, kings, lords, the Sword or law. What would there be for them to do? Seeing that [true Christians] have the Holy Spirit in their hearts, which teaches and moves them to love everyone, wrong no one, and suffer wrongs gladly, even unto death. . . . But since no man is by nature a Christian or just, but all are sinners and evil, God hinders them all, by means of the law, from doing as they please and expressing their wickedness outwardly in actions. . . .

If someone wanted to have the world ruled according to the Gospel, and to abolish all secular law and the Sword, . . . what do you imagine the effect would be? He would let loose the wild animals from their bonds and chains, and let them maul and tear everyone to pieces, saying all the while that really they are just fine, tame, gentle things. But my wounds would tell me different. . . . Before you rule the world in the Christian and Gospel manner, be sure to fill it with true Christians. And that you will never do, because the world and the many are un-Christian and will remain so, whether they are made up of baptized and nominal Christians or not.

Luther concluded: “How the secular Sword and law are to be employed according to God’s will is thus clear and certain enough: to punish the wicked and protect the just.” And, in words that could hardly make clearer the distinction between authoritarianism and respect for authority, he wrote:

The Sword is indispensable for the whole world, to preserve peace, punish sin, and restrain the wicked. And therefore Christians readily submit themselves to be governed by the Sword, they pay taxes, honour those in authority, serve and help them. . . . And therefore if you see that there is a lack of hangmen, court officials, judges, lords or princes, and you find that you have the necessary skills, then you should offer your services and seek office, so that authority, which is so greatly needed, will never come to be held in contempt, become powerless, or perish. The world cannot get by without it.

America has been trying to “get by without it” for half a century now. In that time, nearly a million of us have paid for this experiment with our lives. Maybe we should try something different now.

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About Karl Spence

Karl Spence is a retired journalist living in San Antonio. His work has appeared in National Review, the Chattanooga Free Press, American Thinker and at www.fairamendment.us.

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