Why Do We Fall for the Strongman Fallacy?

Courtesy of The Nation (nation.com.pk)

It is a disturbing trend that democracy, in times of crises, resorts to its own destruction to save itself. The nation calls for the strongman or the dictator to enact desperately needed change. This has happened before in countries that have adopted the political experiment called mass suffrage with the sentiments of nationalism and statism remaining strongly embedded in the popular psyche. Germany during the 1930s is a key example since the National Socialists, or more popularly known as Nazis, won power through popular political participation. Italy could not be a sufficient example because the fascists of the country won power by force.

Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States of America

Sadly, the United States has fallen victim to the strongman as well with Donald Trump elected to the presidency of the most powerful state on earth. The presidential election last year has demonstrated that a significant number of the American people have not only rejected the Democratic Party and its progressivism but also embraced the proactive presidency and executive branch. With the rise of Trump to power comes the hope that the will of the state would finally reflect the will of the people. Honestly, I think that would not be the case most of the time for the Trump administration.

God Emperor Duterte

When it comes to Rodrigo Duterte, where do I start as a libertarian? Or even as an anarcho-capitalist? There is so much to criticize like his manner of governance. It is so forceful such that state officials and agents have to heed or else face his televised no holds barred fury; basically, political suicide. Being at his business end is not the preferred position to be at and those people who have dodged his outrage are lucky to get a pass. Sometimes his distinctive decisiveness would fade depending on the context and the issue at hand and give up the power of resolution to another political body.

Rodrigo Roa Duterte, President of the Republic of the Philippines

However, the hallmarks of his “governance” of the country are the political bullying and the hardline policy against the illegal drug market, which many have considered as biased against the poor. He does not hesitate to demean his political opponents publicly, whether they be prominent opposition politicians or communist rebels fighting for at least half a century, for criticizing and hampering the policies necessary to realize his vision for the country. It is safe to assume that the threat of a public scolding from the highest state office in the land is enough to fast track his executive measures for legislative approval.

So why did we vote him into the Philippine presidency? We voted for him because we perceived of the country as being in some sort of stasis that encompasses key aspects of public life: political, economic, and social. We thought that the past administration, or political faction rather, has not done its utmost to address the dilemmas that affect us and because of that, we desired an alternative and found it in the strongman who would lead us to the change we want for our country. Nevertheless, the moment we voted him in was the same time we affirmed the disbelief in ourselves to start change autonomously and sustain it for a prolonged of time.

Society and the State

We elect strongmen into high state office with the understanding that they will be able to solve the dilemmas of the country by channeling the concentrated power of the state even if this contradicts an essential political science concept in a republic: the separation of powers. The separation of powers means to divide power amongst the three branches of government to not only act as a bulwark against the dangerous concentration of power that a government branch might undertake but to also establish checks against the limited powers of the branches and ensure the balance of power.

Not many of us know the intent of such a system especially those who have no basic background in political science. Instead, they interpret it as a hindrance to the change the country needs and not as protection against the perils of populism and its sponsorship of the concentration of state power. Reflecting on the concept, its implicit purpose was to empower civil society with addressing the issues we need to face by chaining the state from undertaking immediate action.

Our Human Action

It is critical to ask this compelling question: can the state surely enact change? It can to a certain degree but as stereotypical as it sounds, we should realize that top-down action from the state is not enough to make a change and that its true realization will be dependent on our agency as well.

If we rely unnecessarily on the state to begin and continue the effort towards change then it would be somewhat comparable to submitting to the weakness of our autonomy and agency. It would also express our disbelief in human liberty and action to make a positive difference in the world. Relying on the state for answers in the face of pressing issues is natural and actually understandable since we have grown up with the expectation that the establishment of the state was for the promotion of our welfare. Nevertheless, our dependence on the entity should not be permanent and must eventually fade away as we grow ever more sovereign.

As individuals, we do not have to engineer massive change or even have it sanctioned by democracy itself. Stereotypically, and somewhat annoyingly to all of us, change starts from within us, characterized as being the best of us, and it expands from there. The magnitude of this relative to the entire country may be small if not even insignificantly miniscule although it serves as a foundation for a much larger and more organized endeavor.

I know. I will not deny the fact that what you have read was a roll-eyes platitude and so it would make more sense to illustrate its essence in real life. Let us try to address unemployment with this approach. It is not only a national concern but it is also an intimately personal dilemma, especially for those who perceive of work as a crucial defining component of their lives.

In the face of unemployment, we should not ask for jobs as if we were entitled but we should rather prove to ourselves and to the entrepreneurs whom we wish to work for that we are worthy to become a part of their larger endeavor.

Curriculum vitaes in themselves will not get us the employment we desire; full of our achievements and capabilities they may be. Signaling is just not enough. We need not only to express our genuine desire to work for their cause but also to show them what we are capable of doing. We ought to learn the skills that the jobs we apply for require and maybe even more than what is necessary. We should also demonstrate the best of our work samples crafted by the abilities we have learned and offer to the entrepreneurs something that is unique to us but value adding to their missions. We must not forget to enhance our human capital continually if possible.

How about access to tertiary education (schooling)? How can we get others to become more enlightened and conscious of our country’s realities while at the same time ensuring that they get the credentials (signals really) necessary for employment?

Why not be that alternative provider of tertiary education? We do not have to set up a de facto university campus to educate those high school students under us. We could just encourage them to acquire and read the literary material in their own time, together with their peers who are just as passionate, outside university. We could serve as their tutors and mentors in these reading groups or consultations to supplement their education. This can be the case especially with the social sciences and literature. Pushing the envelope, perhaps such a method can apply to learning higher mathematics and statistics. Heck, as college students, we can even try to setup events at high schools to impart our college knowledge to these students.

However, if books and consultations are not the preferred education means of learners then there is always the internet! Should I even mention YouTube? Not only are the videos efficient at imparting knowledge but entertaining too. I mean, Crash Course Economics teaches the core basics of economic concepts in ten minutes more or less.

Nevertheless, how about the hard sciences and technical-vocational work? Would not the education needed here require more than just YouTube videos and mentoring from undergraduate students? Well, that depends on many factors that fall on the subject, mentor, and student. Perhaps formal schooling is necessary but that does not mean we cannot supplement it with workshops, internships, and apprenticeships that we can provide so that they can experience the application of their knowledge in the larger world.

The last issue I want to breakdown with human action is the heavy traffic we all experience. How can we solve it? We cannot build subways and the accompanying trains on our own (for now… but we can try). However, we can solve the crisis by not being a part of the problem. Instead of joining the mad dash to work or school in our private vehicles at the peak of traffic, why not reduce the vehicle volume by taking public transportation? Why not drive private vehicles before that period of high traffic volume? Better yet, why not dodge traffic altogether by finding means to make money or learn knowledge close to home? Besides taking the common means of public transport for the daily commute, carpooling through Uber, Grab, or any other transport network vehicle service has the potential to reduce the externality-ridden, middle class habit of the one-person vehicle.

Thinking deeply about human action, it has the potential to respond decisively and immediately to a difficulty at an individual level without the need for a statist, national strongman. However, what hinders our capacity to carry out human action is not just the existence and persistence of forestalling norms but also our weak will to act with conviction.

Appreciating Human Action

The state and the strongman who would lead it will not be able to solve every problem we face and even if s/he does then it would take a while and the solutions might not be the most effective or moral measures of all.

Exercising our human action would give us the freedom to adapt to the challenging world and at the same time create value for it. We would slowly grow independent from the state and the need for a strongman to counteract our larger dilemmas as we autonomously exercise our capacity to make decisive actions to address them. Not only would we solve our problems on an individual level but we would also be bolstering our character. Just read Lawrence Reed’s Real Heroes: Inspiring Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction that tells stories of people who were able to create a positive impact for their community and even for the world, all without guidance or support from a state strongman.

A Lone Good Strongman

Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, Roman statesman

To be fair to the strongmen, one of them actually did well but that was over 2,000 years ago and his name was Cincinnatus. A Roman patrician who lived during the time of the Roman Republic, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was a legend to the Romans after him. According to legend, the Romans appointed him dictator for six months to rescue a Roman consular army from a warring tribe. At that time, he was just working on his farm. Not only did he rescue the trapped army from the jaws of death but he also surrendered his absolute powers before his official term ended and returned to his farm.

The civic virtue of the man is almost unparalleled. He could have used the remaining time of his term to murder all of his political opponents but he did not. Instead, he opted to work on his farm rather than purge Roman society and politics of his enemies. Supposedly, he was called again to serve the Roman people and with the same result.

Mind you, this was over two millennia ago and he is one of the many strongmen who existed in human history. Many if not most of whom headed towards tyranny. Not to mention, he might just be a legend to inspire civic virtue in young male Roman citizens coming of age.

Is there a chance that Duterte would become like Cincinnatus? Is it even worth asserting?

Like what you read? Give Jonathan Vegamora a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.