Support the rule of law

The philosopher Hannah Arendt once observed that it was arbitrariness, not necessarily severity, that distinguished totalitarian from law-abiding states. Stalin may have had his Gulags, Hitler his concentration camps, but the key to understanding the exercise of totalitarian power there and elsewhere lay in its capricious, unpredictable application, not its harshness. The operation of law is public, regular, knowable in advance. The eruption of the totalitarian impulse inserts a vertiginousness element of whim. That’s part of what makes it terrifying. In a free society governed by the rule of law, people know where they stand. In the normal course of affairs, most people will never directly experience the coercive power of the state. They are not subjected to harassment at the arbitrary direction of state officials. With the erosion of the habits of liberty, however, everything changes. Now the state tends to regard the people first of all not as its raison d’être but as a potential threat. The result is a sharp contraction of that latitude that free societies allow their citizens.

The tyranny of the law

Confronted with such a tight regulation, can man pretend to be free because the tyranny he is subjected to derives from the law? Of course, the legal power is not called ‘tyranny’ since it appears to be established by the general will in the common interest, and since, in any event, occurrences of arbitrary power are infrequent. But a master’s equity does not mean that his subjects are not slaves … And when their servitude lasts and their thoughts follow their behavior, the state becomes totalitarian and subjection is complete. Since it is legal servitude, the regime is still said to be democratic. Such is the hypocrisy of political language.