People today are pretty terrified of living in a totalitarian state. Following the 1900’s, when Nazis rounded up and killed millions of Jews and when dictators in South America like Pinochet in Chile made dissenters “disappear”, people have become concerned about the power of the state and the possibility that the state would use violence against the population in order to maintain power and control. Totalitarian states do exist and are still scary (China’s surveillance is particularly alarming, Russian misinformation is a huge problem, and North Korea’s willingness to live in poverty if awful), but it is possible that people have gone too far in terms of their fears of the state in much of the world.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that states have made people and societies much safer, and that stronger states have done a better job of reducing violence than weaker states. He writes, “Hobbes noted that humans in particular have three reasons for quarrel: gain, safety, and credible deterrence. People in nonstate societies fight about all three.” When you live in a powerful state, you can be relatively sure that you cannot use violence for personal gain. States can provide a feeling of safety by patrolling crime in a fair and competent manner. Through deterrence, states can reduce violence. Without a functioning state with the resources to provide credible deterrence, safety, and prevent people from using violence for gain, then individuals can take these things into their own hands. They are incentivized to perpetuate violence against others for their own gain, safety, and deterrence of future violence.
Totalitarian states may be awful, but well functioning and strong states (short of totalitarian regimes) reduce violence and allow people to interact in meaningful ways. We shouldn’t hate the state and constantly be fearful of the state simply because the possibility of totalitarianism is always there. It is easy to imagine a state that has been continually weakened and reduced by its population to become effectively powerless, incapable of stopping violence for personal gain, incapable of providing safety, and incapable of providing credible deterrence against violence. Such a state could be overwhelmed and taken over by a despot who wishes to impose totalitarian governance. Governments need to be strong and well functioning in order to reduce crime and violence. “The reduction of homicide by government control,” writes Pinker, “is so obvious to anthropologists that they seldom document it with numbers.” Somehow we forget this when we are mad at our government for increasing taxes to try to provide important services, improve public conditions, or to try to promote a more representative bureaucracy.
I don’t want to minimize the danger and threat that totalitarian governments pose to the world. I do however want to highlight the absurdity of claiming that any government action within a democracy is a threat that could lead to a dystopian and totalitarian regime of violence. If violence is our main concern, we might want to consider the dangers of an inept government more than the dangers of a strong government.