The story of Cincinnatus (Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (519 – 430 BC) is one of those stories that resonate down the ages. Put simply, Cincinnatus was a Roman politician and military leader (the Romans didn't consider the two separate spheres) who was appointed Dictator when the Roman Republic faced a potentially fatal threat from a barbarian tribe. Cincinnatus took command, built an army, defeated the barbarians and returned to his farm, all within fifteen days. As such, he is generally considered a model of civic virtue.
However, his story needs to be placed in context.
The Romans were very suspicious of anyone who sought too much power, to the point where anyone who seemed to be too powerful or too popular would be dragged down by the rest of the politicians. Accordingly, they appointed two Heads of State (the Consuls) who would serve for a year, a system that ensured that the two men would watch each other carefully for signs of undue ambition as well as actually running the government. The system was, in many ways, dangerously unstable. A man who felt himself slighted unfairly by the Senate – like Julius Caesar – might go into open rebellion against the might of Rome.
This was not a system that encouraged single-mindedness. The Romans, recognising that this was a major problem when the state was under attack, created the office of Dictator. These men were granted absolute power for a fixed period, then expected to shuffle off into the sidelines of history. They were, among other things, spared the threat of criminal prosecution for anything they did while in power. (It is a curious testament to the system that Sulla, who had taken the post by force, was never killed by one of his many enemies after he returned power to the Senate.) The Roman Dictators were never meant to remain in power indefinitely, unlike modern-day dictators.
And yet, so many people have drawn the wrong lesson from the story of Cincinnatus.
There is a curious agreement among thinkers from both the Left and the Right, although both of them would be horrified by the suggestion that they might have something in common. The Far Right does not object to the concept of an absolute dictator, per se; they expect only that the dictator be a good and virtuous man. Thus, the concentration of unchecked, unbalanced and fundamentally unaccountable power is only a problem if held by a man they do not consider to be a good man. They do not expect the good man to become sullied by the power he holds.
Human history would tend to suggest otherwise. Men of high ideals, good and decent men, have made successful grabs for power, then become corrupted and brought low by their success. Anything larger than a tiny business with a handful of employees cannot be micromanaged by a single person effectively, much less a whole country. Hiccups breed frustration. Dissent and disagreement becomes treachery. All who dare to speak out are crushed mercilessly. Each wave of repression brings on the next wave of repression. And then all life is drained out of the system.
The Romans knew the dangers of granting one man absolute power indefinitely. Those who admire the Roman Republic have not learned the lessons of its fall.
But the Far Left, if anything, has a worse problem. This is the concept of government by party. Instead of a single personage, all power is vested in the hands of the ruling body, often the Communist Party. In Russia, they talked of passing all power to the Soviets, then to the Bolsheviks. But when the Bolsheviks took control, the results were, if anything, even worse than the Tsars.
A living dictator can show empathy – or outright sadism. But a bureaucracy, governed by a committee, can be a great deal worse. In the interests of imposing communism, the Bolsheviks starved, slaughtered and crushed independent peasant farmers right across the Soviet Union. They were so intent on imposing their will that they chose to ignore the simple fact that they were crippling their country’s ability to produce food, ensuring that Russia would eventually have to buy food from the United States. The committee believed it could determine everything, despite being far more detached from the population than any single dictator, and ruined Russia’s ability to create a modern economy.
Both of these examples illustrate the true danger, the willingness to allow power to be concentrated in a single set of hands. Anyone who has done battle with the bureaucracy in just about any country will know how hard it is to get them to admit to a mistake. The people you deal with will either be unable or unwilling to help you. This may not be their fault. A bureaucracy that is trying to run the country will be huge, so huge that the people on the front lines will have no real authority of their own. But the bureaucracy will have no tolerance for its servants who fail to do exactly as they are told. Common sense will take a walk when they are forced to toe the line or get fired. Hence we have problems when a bureaucracy takes a child from his or her parents because that is what the regulations say they have to do, even if common sense says otherwise.
But human nature overshadows both the Dictator and the Committee. They will be tempted – very tempted – to use their absolute power for their own good, not for that of their people. Both will give the best jobs to their relatives, confusing themselves with the state, while milking everything they can from their positions. The Soviet Union was littered with dachas that belonged to Party Officials, each one built from public funds, yet denied to the public.
With all of this in mind, why would someone want to give a person – or a committee – absolute power?