When I was living in Atlanta, I used to see a bumper sticker all over the place: “People shouldn’t fear the government, the government should fear the people.”
This sentiment is quite popular in conservative parts of the US, and it or variations on it (such as “When government fears the people, there is liberty; when the people fear the government, there is tyranny”) are often attributed to Thomas Jefferson. Wrongly, as it turns out–Jefferson never said this.
Now, on some level, there’s a grain of truth here, in the sense that a government ideally represents the will of the people and should be held accountable to them. To some extent, anyway. In some cases, the will of the people is a deeply troublesome and evil thing; the will of the people in the pre-Civil-War Deep South, for instance, held that some people aren’t people at all but rather property, and that’s a will I don’t think a civil society should respect.
But what it misses is that when the government fears the people, the result is tyranny, just as surely as when the people fear the government.
Governments have power. They have police forces and jails. They have standing armies. A person with a gun and a heart full of fear is a dangerous person indeed.
Why do tyrannies exist? They exist because people in power fear losing that power. They fear what happens if the people express their will. Tyrannical governments restrict what they fear. They restrict speech because they fear the power of speech. They restrict demonstrations because they fear the power of demonstrations. A government that fears the people, attacks the people. It handles that fear through force and control. When it sees something it fears, it acts ruthlessly to eliminate it. When a government fears the people, the people become the enemies of the state.
The same holds true for civilian police. A police force that fears the people, treats the people as threats. It shoots the people, even if they’re unarmed. It labels the people “thugs” and “looters.”
The idea that the government should fear the people creates–in fact, it can not help but to create–totalitarianism. The greater the fear, the greater the response to it. A government that sees the enemy around every corner, treats every person as an enemy.
“People shouldn’t fear the government, the government should fear the people.” This idea is a blueprint for evil.
People are people. Governments are made of people. I would like to propose a different bumper sticker: “The government and the people should hold one another accountable. Let them treat one another with respect, so that we may have a civilized society in which all are respected.”
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