A website [Pat's Fantasy Hotlist] just posted a quote from Arms-Commander, in which a character notes that “it is better to be a just tyrant who provides freedom than a dead ruler who tried to be fair in an unfair world.” Almost immediately an anonymous commenter observed that “a tyrant, even a just one, can never provide freedom. It’s antithetical to the very nature of the word.”
I was instantly torn between the desire to laugh hysterically, to go postal, or to sigh in despair. After having spent a lifetime studying government and politics, not to mention nearly twenty years in Washington, D.C., in a number of federal positions in both the executive and legislative branch, and after two tours in the U.S. Navy, I think I have a fair understanding of how governments do and don’t work. So…
First… NO government provides “freedom” in the absolute sense. All governments restrict certain practices and behaviors in order to maintain order, because without order, people literally do not have the “freedom” to walk down the streets safely. Even with such restrictions, the order created may not be anywhere close to desirable — except when compared to the state of no effective government at all, as one can currently see in Somalia. The degree of restrictions and how much order is created varies from country to country and system to system, but restrictions on behavior for the safety of others are anything but “freedom” in the ideal sense.
Second, the original meaning of “tyrant” was a ruler who seized power outside of the previous legal system. In that sense, the founding fathers of the United States were tyrants. Now… they justified that rebellion and seizure after the fact by creating a system that was superior to what preceded it. We can call them authors of democracy, founding fathers, and the like, but a significant number were in fact rebelling aristocrats who did in fact sometimes behave like the popular conception of tyrants, and who insisted on enshrining the legality of slaveholding, certainly a local, if not a regional tyranny. Yet they provided more “freedom” than the previous system.
Likewise, “freedom” and even “liberty” have been evolving terms. In the United States, originally “liberty” was effectively limited to white males, and predominantly property owners. Slaves, women, and children had few legal rights. In practice, and in law, “freedom” is the granting of certain rights to certain classes of people, and the less restrictive the conditions circumscribing those rights are, the “freer” those people are judged to be.
Given that, by definition, in practice, there’s no difference in the moral status as a ruler between a “tyrant” and a “legitimate” government. How each attained power may have a moral connotation, but the “morality” or “ethics” of their regimes depend on the acts and laws by which they rule and the results. Franco was a dictator and a tyrant of Spain, yet Spain today is a free and democratic nation that works, as a result of his “tyranny” and reforms. On the other hand, Salazar of Portugal operated a brutal secret police and impoverished that nation.
Tyrants aren’t, by definition, any more antithetical to freedom than any other class of ruler, because all rulers, democratic or otherwise, in order to maintain a civil society, restrict freedoms. Period.