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How does one tell whether one is living in a dictatorship, or almost? The signs need not be so obvious as having a squat little man raving from balconies. Methinks the following indicators serve. In a dictatorship:
(1) Sweeping laws are made without reference to the will of the people. A few examples follow. Whether you think these laws desirable is not the point. Some will, others won’t. The point is that they were simply imposed from above. Many of them would never have survived a national vote.
Start with Roe vs. Wade, making abortion legal, and subsequent decisions allowing late-term abortion. Griggs versus Duke Power, forbidding employers from using tests of intelligence, since certain groups scored poorly. Brown versus the School Board and its offspring requiring forced integration, forced busing, racial quotas, and so on. The decision that Creationism cannot be mentioned in the schools. Decisions forbidding the public expression of Christianity. The decision that citizens can be stopped and searched without probable cause. The opening of the borders to mass immigration.
These are major, major laws grossly altering the social, legal, and constitutional fabric of the country. All were simply imposed, mostly by unelected judges against whom there is no recourse.
Note that there is no practical distinction between a decision by the Supreme Court, a regulation made by an executive bureaucracy, and a practice quietly adopted by the intelligence agencies and federal police. None of these requires public approval.
For that matter, consider the militarization of the police, the creation of Homeland Security’s Viper teams that randomly search cars, the vast and growing spying on Americans by government, and the genital gropings by TSA. Consider the endless undeclared wars that one finds out often only after the troops have been sent. All simply imposed from above.
In principle, elected officials represent the desires of their electorates. In practice Congress barely touches on most issues of concern to the public. Overturning any of the aforementioned types of laws is virtually impossible.
(2) Another measure of dictatorship is the extent to which the people fear the government. A time was when governmental officials in general, and the police in particular, had to be cautious in pushing the citizenry around. A justified complaint to the chief of police brought consequences. Today the police can do as they please, and you have no recourse. The new aggressiveness applies especially to federal police. If you object to excessive intrusion by agents of TSA, they will make sure you miss your flight. In principle you can complain, but in practice the effect is zero.
(3) Dictatorships characteristically watch the citizenry very carefully, using the secret police and encouraging people to inform on each other. Both are now routine. Did you vote to have your email read, your telephone calls recorded, your browsing habits on the web turned over to the NSA or the FBI? No. And you have no recourse.
To one raised in a freer United States, it is astonishing to hear on the subway of Washington, DC constant admonitions to watch one’s fellow passengers and report “suspicious behavior.”
Another source of deliberate intimidation is the IRS. This police agency is not dreaded because people are cheating on their taxes—few are, and those are usually smart enough not to get caught. People fear the IRS because it can arbitrarily wreck their lives, invade their premises, demand endless documentation that few have, and run up penalties and interest for crimes which weren’t committed and which the IRS doesn’t have to prove. You have no recourse. You may win in the end, but tax lawyers are expensive, as IRS well knows, and in any event the intent is not to collect taxes owed but to punish. As has been documented, Mr. Obama’s administration employs IRS for exactly this.
The IRS gains its punitive leverage from the fact that it is impossible to know what taxes you owe and simply pay them. Years back, Money magazine sent a “moderately complex” tax return to fifty tax preparers, from big-league to small potatoes. They produced widely varying results, with only two in Money’s opinion getting the right answer. If tax specialists can’t tell how much you owe, neither can you. This means that in practice you are always vulnerable.
(4) Lack of constitutional government. This is not the same as lack of a constitution. The Soviet Union had an admirable constitution. It just paid no attention to it.
The American constitution says that Congress must declare war in order for our forces to be deployed. This last happened in 1941. The president now sends American forces wherever he wants, whenever he wants.
The Fifth Amendment forbids self-incrimination, which means confessions obtained under torture. Obama’s administration openly tortures prisoners of war, a de facto withdrawal of the country from the Geneva Convention.
The Fourth Amendment provides “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated….” If you are a conservative strict constructionist, you can argue that the Constitution does not mention telephones, the internet, or computers, and that therefore the government has the right to monitor all of these. A liberal might argue that RAM, the internet, and computers are the equivalent of papers etc. It doesn’t matter who argues what. The government spies on all.
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press. Again, the Obama administration uses the intelligence apparatus of the state to monitor the communications of reporters. This is highly intimidating, which is the intent. The fear of being monitored has a profoundly chilling effect on the willingness of sources to say anything to reporters that the government might not like. This is a major step toward the controlled press usual in dictatorships.
Officials in the current administration have said that if you are not doing anything wrong, the monitoring should not cause fear. Only criminals need worry.
This is dangerous for at least two reasons. First is the mindlessness of anonymous and unaccountable bureaucrats. For example, as a journalist I have run Google searches on explosives, on pathogens usable in biological warfare, on the concealability of nuclear weapons, and on the synthesis of nerve agents. Some computer program could kick this out as evidence of probable terroristic intent, and FBI agents would show up with their usual blend of pathological wholesomeness, arrogance, and love of power.
The other reason is that the government inevitably will abuse its knowledge. Knowing the peculiar sexual tastes or amorous strayings of political opponents, or their smoking of an occasional joint, provides great leverage over them. In some circles, this is known as “blackmail.”
If this isn’t quite dictatorship, we are rapidly getting there. Wait a few years.