This question is asked in F.A. Hayek’s book “The Road to Serfdom”. There sometimes arise turning points in history when people demand change in their government, perhaps because of shortcomings and examples of corruption in their current or former representatives in government. Perhaps they see their current system of government as inept or too slow in producing their desired plans and alterations. They fail to remember that governments limited by constitutions are inherently slower to action for good reason. They were designed by prudent, wise and cautious men whose courses were not so easily swayed by popular opinion and false hopes in unproven political experimentation as those of many of our leaders today. Progressives such as President Elect Barack Obama who are assuming or resuming office later this month typify the current rash, impudent wave of reckless leadership that is coalescing into a totalitarian form of government. They ride a wave of popular support for ‘men of action’ formed from this general impatience with traditional, prudent and limited government bound by a constitution. Such impatience leads to a lust for power that culminates in a love affair with totalitarianism, e.g. fascism. History’s examples of concentrated power inevitably leading to horrible abuses of such power are ignored as this infatuation grows and the government’s increasing consolidation of power is further rationalized by a growing need for a power to do good in a world increasingly portrayed in crisis. Hayek explains why such ‘men of action’ assuming dictatorial powers are either unscrupulous to begin with or become as such when he disclaims the belief that “…the most repellent features of the totalitarian regimes are due to the historical accident that they were established by groups of blackguards and thugs.” in the following statements:
No doubt an American or English “Fascist” system would greatly differ from the Italian or German models; no doubt, if the transition were effected without violence, we might expect to get a better type of leader. And, if I had to live under a Fascist system, I have no doubt that I would rather live under one run by Englishmen or Americans than under one run by anyone else. Yet all this does not mean that, judged on our present standards, our Fascist system would in the end prove so very different or much less intolerable than its prototypes. There are strong reasons for believing that what to us appear the worst features of the existing totalitarian systems are not accidental by-products but phenomena which totalitarianism is certain sooner or later to produce. Just as the democratic statesman who sets out to plan economic life will soon be confronted with the alternative of either assuming dictatorial powers or abandoning his plans, so the totalitarian dictator would soon have to choose between disregard of ordinary morals and failure. It is for this reason that the unscrupulous and uninhibited are likely to be more successful in a society tending toward totalitarianism. Who does not see this has not yet grasped the full width of the gulf which separates totalitarianism from a liberal regime, the utter difference between the whole moral atmosphere under collectivism and the essentially individualist Western civilization.
The growth of such totalitarianism isn’t always discernable to some caught in the midst of it. They are all to often flattered into submission by their seemingly benevolent leaders. In their own narcissistic eyes however, this brazen band of would be dictators, believe themselves to be doing mankind the greatest act of service and charity. While for some this might be noble in the sense of a lack of overt hypocrisy, their aspirations are ultimately vain as Frederic Bastiat illustrated in his classic book “The Law”:
The Superman Idea
The claims of these organizers of humanity raise another question which I have often asked them and which, so far as I know, they have never answered: If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind? The organizers maintain that society, when left undirected, rushes headlong to its inevitable destruction because the instincts of the people are so perverse. The legislators claim to stop this suicidal course and to give it a saner direction. Apparently, then, the legislators and the organizers have received from Heaven an intelligence and virtue that place them beyond and above mankind; if so, let them show their titles to this superiority.
They would be the shepherds over us, their sheep. Certainly such an arrangement presupposes that they are naturally superior to the rest of us. And certainly we are fully justified in demanding from the legislators and organizers proof of this natural superiority.