Author Michael Newton has set out the warning signs on the path from liberty to tyranny. Starting at ancient Greece, he takes the reader on journey through the Roman Empire, ancient Israel, the Soviet Union and the Fascist states of Italy and Germany. Not surprisingly, his last stop is a still free (but not as free as it once was) United States.
This is not an easy book to read. The author has done a prodigious amount of research into ancient societies and the less knowledgeable reader is likely to become discouraged. That’s unfortunate because Newton has much to say of value.
The path to tyranny is clearly marked and the signs, regardless of location, are remarkably repetitive. When free societies permit their economic systems to fall under government control, loss of freedom and penury are not long in coming.
In Greece, Newton writes, “defenders of liberty argued for constitutional government. Constitutions were popular in ancient Greece, establishing the rule of law, guaranteeing the rights of the people, and limiting the power of the government or ruler. With a constitution, the ancient Greeks hoped the tyrants would not be able to rise to power… Unfortunately, constitutions are often ignored by the leaders of the people… To grant themselves new ‘rights,’ the people change, ignore, violate or throw out the constitution.”
Gives you that “someone is walking on my grave” feeling doesn’t it?
Newton traces the decline of Rome as the government increasingly intervened in the economy and imposed taxes to finance its extravagances, the growing bureaucracy and military excursions. Rome’s economy was in shambles, it’s civil society morally degraded and militarily weakened before it was overrun, first by the Visigoths and then the Vandals.
Russia, however, does not really belong in the list of those that abandoned freedom and succumbed to tyranny. Russia has no history of liberty. It went from feudalism and a repressive monarchy to The Union of Soviet Social Republics; one of the most ironic appellations ever attached to a totalitarian state. The Russian people and surrounding territories were terrorized and brutalized in the name of equality and the promise of an international collectivist Utopia.
Newton’s comments on the rebirth of socialism, after its demise in the Soviet Union and the nations it subjugated, are especially insightful. Despite socialism’s bloody and economically disastrous history, under the sway of charismatic leaders it continues to be reinvented and persuasive. He notes that Hugo Chavez has been elected three times by the people of Venezuela.
Newton examines the tension between liberty and equality and provides numerous examples of leaders who persuade their citizenry that government can do a better, more equitable job of managing their lives than they. The transformation from liberty to tyranny is sometimes incremental and sometimes rapid, but the result is always the same.
The author’s survey of American history is subject to debate. He lumps Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and FDR together as expansionist presidents who increased the power of the central government at the expense of the states and the general population. In a book that is concerned with the ideological roots of tyranny, it can be argued that the philosophical divide between Lincoln, and the other two should have at least been noted. But that is a small quibble in a generally sound book.
In the last chapter, the author traces the expansion of American government far beyond the parameters set in the Constitution. He makes a compelling case for restraining government before America travels that well-worn path.