The semblance of consent: How tyrants use the illusion of freedom

“Even the vilest dictators feel the need to act out the form of an Enlightenment-style justification of their actions. They do a lot more than staging fake elections. Much of what the tyrant orders people to do consists of pretending that they consent. So in a way, the whole structure of the society is the semblance of consent.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


Transcript of a talk given at the Libertarian International Fall Conference in London, England on 9th November, 20021

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2002

In October 2002, President Saddam Hussein of Iraq held a referendum asking whether his subjects want him to rule them for another seven years. I personally can’t imagine why he’d be in any doubt. Who wouldn’t want to live under a tyrannical dictator who tortures and murders any opposition? Life would be dull without such excitement, don’t you think? Anyway, Saddam’s self-confidence must have been wavering—he’s probably been watching Oprah Winfrey for tips—because he wanted to check that the Iraqi people consent to his rule.

There were 11,445,638 eligible voters. How many of them do you think voted? Yes! Every one of them! Even the sick ones, the ones whose cars had broken down in the desert, and even the ones who would rather die than miss Oprah.

Guess how many voted ‘yes’. In fact, the result shows that the Iraqi people are willing to fight the American invasion—sorry, I mean the UN invasion—down to the last man, woman and child. Moving isn’t it? They would rather die than not live under Saddam’s regime. All 11,445,638 of them voted ‘yes’.

This 100% result was an improvement over Saddam’s previous showing of 99.96%. Who’d have thought it? Unanimous consent! We’ve all been so wrong about Saddam, clearly. He may look as though butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth—or anywhere else—and he may model himself in all ways on Josef Stalin, but really, he’s just like many other Oprah viewers—a sad loser with issues.

You may say, Saddam, that a team effort is a lot of people doing what you say. But when you mobilise an entire country of eleven million people to create the semblance of consent to your rule—when you stage massive public events to demonstrate how much everyone loves you—well, we in the West smell self-esteem issues.

I’m not saying that none of those who voted ‘yes’ love Saddam. I’m sure some of those voters who trampled American flags genuinely hate America. On the other hand for some of them I’m tempted to think they do protest too much.

Did you hear that some Iraqis signed their ballot-papers in their own blood? Jeez, someone should give those Iraqis a good pencil supplier! Hey, if pencils are that hard to come by in Iraq, maybe sanctions are beginning to bite!

The Foreign Office in London said:

“You can’t have free elections when the electorate goes to the polls in the knowledge that they have only one candidate, that candidate routinely murders and tortures opponents of the regime and the penalty for slandering that sole candidate is to have one’s tongue cut out.”

The Foreign Office also tells us that the Pope is Catholic, and that the French language is in widespread use in France.

After the election, Saddam Hussein made a gesture of releasing all the political prisoners in Iraq. That’s the political prisoners he’d previously insisted they didn’t have.

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In the long, sad history of rulers and the ruled, consent is not something that has been particularly prized by rulers. Nearly all rulers have been tyrants, overriding the will of the people they ruled. Everyone took that for granted. For most of human history, nobody could conceive of any different way, and even in most countries today, people barely aspire to anything better. And yet Saddam Hussein has gone to the enormous trouble of organizing all his minions to claim that his rule has the consent of the governed.

He is not the only one. All the great dictators of the 20th century thought it important to have elections mimicking the liberal-democratic institutions they purported to supersede. It is important to modern tyrants to fudge the difference between voluntary and involuntary acts.

Take the Berlin wall. It would be an egregious slur to suggest that it was built to keep people in, wouldn’t it? It was built to keep out Western saboteurs, right? Those wicked agents of capitalism who were the real reason why the glorious Trabant cars weren’t quite up to the standards of the Volkswagen Beetle. Oh, and to keep out us hordes of prospective illegal immigrants, desperate to leave the decadent Western lifestyle behind, and get behind the shelter of the Iron Curtain so we could live on gruel and report our neighbours to the KGB. Everyone in East Germany would have told you that the Berlin wall was built to keep people out. Yet everyone knew that it was really to keep the people in.

We can also see the tyrant’s creation of the semblance of consent in China’s population-control policy of ‘encouraging’ women not to have more than one child. In his shocking book on this one-child policy, Steven Mosher describes in harrowing detail the forced abortions and sterilisations, and the infanticide. Chi An, the Chinese woman whose story he is telling, recalls: “The Party preferred to maintain a pretence of choice when it imposed its policies on the people, but in the end they would stop at nothing to enforce compliance.”2

As we shall see, tyrannical parents also prefer to maintain a pretence of choice when they impose their will on their children, but in the end they too stop at nothing to enforce compliance.

Dictators have always taken political prisoners, beaten them, forced them to recant, imprisoned them and so on. But in China’s cultural revolution, there was an additional twist: the victims also had to pretend that they were on a summer camp, a re-education course of study, during which they admitted their grievous errors and flaws and were helped to improve by the friendly commissars and the firm but fair guards.

Likewise, millions of children in our society are forced to pretend that they’re undergoing education. And that the dissatisfaction that they might feel in school is due to an error or fault in them which they might be helped to overcome (euphemism for ‘suppress’).

Nowadays, children who don’t like school are thought to be out of their minds, and they’re given ‘counselling’ (formerly known as detention). If they are really unlucky, they will be deemed to have ‘Attention Deficit Disorder’ (known in the real world as boredom) and be forced to take ritalin (otherwise known as the chemical cosh).

Many years ago, the headmaster of Radley School defined his job as “coercion … coercion into experience, because no boy in his right mind would do what we require them to do of his own free will.”

So in one generation, we’ve gone from thinking that no child in his right mind would want to go to school, to thinking that no child in his right mind wouldn’t want to go to school.

In families in the old days, fathers used raw power and force, and they thought that was part of the natural order of things. None of today’s sugar-coated parenting. It is not that parents have lost the compulsion to impose their will on their children. It is just that now, they also feel compelled to go to the additional work of maintaining a pretence of choice. As Rousseau wrote, “Let [the child] believe that he is always in control though it is always you who really controls. There is no subjection so perfect as that which keeps the appearance of freedom.”3

You would think, wouldn’t you, that it would not be that easy to create the illusion of free choice when you are putting someone in solitary confinement. But when the dissident Natan Sharansky4 was put in solitary confinement by the KGB, his jailers deemed it to be his own free choice. Why? Because all he had to do to get out was denounce his former views and betray his former colleagues.

By exactly the same logic, parents often deem it their children’s choice when they confine their children to their bedroom in what’s euphemistically called a ‘time out’.

Little Freddy leaves a very life-like fake dog turd on the chair of his horrible old witch of an aunt. The old witch is not amused. Freddy’s mother says: “Do you want to apologize to Aunt Jemima, or stay in your room with no TV?” You might as well ask ‘Do you want to vote yes to Saddam or have your tongue cut out?’

It is not consent, is it? It is the semblance of consent.

Another familiar case of the semblance of consent is what parenting books call “listening to children”. This involves adopting an earnest, sympathetic expression and making noises like “Oooh,” and “Ahh yes” and perhaps declaring gravely: “I hear you saying that…”

Having ‘listened’ to the child, the parenting manuals assure us, it’s now safe to utterly ignore everything the child has said, and make him do what we wanted him to in the first place. The bonus of this approach is that he’ll be so confused by the mixed messages that he won’t even think of complaining.

Speaking of people not complaining—let me return for a moment to Saddam Hussein and his referendum—I saw one Western apologist for Saddam admitting that perhaps the Iraqi referendum left something to be desired. “But look what happened in Florida, with George Bush,” he said. “Only a minority wanted him too.”

Silly me! I should have seen that there’s no fundamental difference between the US political system and the Iraqi one. After all, in both cases there was a dispute about the outcome, with perhaps the minority candidate winning (in one case George Bush, in the other, Saddam Hussein).

Actually, far from being an example of ‘the same thing’ as happened in Iraq, what happened in Florida is the opposite. It shows that the American system is good at creating consent. Not the semblance of consent, but actual consent.

Think about it: The losing candidates not only accept that they are not in power, but would actually fight and die to prevent themselves from being forcibly installed in power.

There’s no such thing as an electoral system that doesn’t have disputed elections, but there are a few systems where, when a disputed election happens, no one is killed.

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Given the great cost of achieving the semblance of consent—to say nothing of the embarrassment of standing up in public and systematically spouting stuff everyone knows is rubbish—the question arises, why do they do it?

One reason is pragmatic. Being a tyrant is hard work. It’s not just sitting back and giving orders and having everyone obey them. Tyrants like our friend Saddam Hussein have to work hard all the time to maintain their position. They have to suppress opposition. And because they have neither the legitimacy nor the creative problem-solving power of a consent-building process behind them, every potential rival sees himself as having the same legitimacy as the existing tyrant. They do not consent to the tyrant’s rule. So tyrants typically have no time or energy for anything other than suppressing opposition.

But most of them share with the rest of us the desire to get along in life with as little conflict as necessary to achieve their vital objectives. The difference between a tyrant and someone who operates by consent is not that the tyrant wants to use coercion wherever possible. No, the mark of a tyrant is to say, “I use coercion only when necessary.” Or as William Pitt the Younger said, “Necessity is the argument of tyrants.”

One way to avoid being opposed is to control the flow of information about what you’re doing, and what you’re enforcing, and whether there’s opposition or not. If people don’t know what you are doing, they can’t oppose it. If they don’t know that there are other people opposing you, they might think it is not worth opposing you themselves; if they can’t coordinate the opposition, the opposition will be less effective.

So to deflect opposition and critical scrutiny of what they are doing, tyrants typically pull the wool over their victim’s eyes. When this strategy of information control is successful, the tyrant can often persuade his victim that the tyrant is his protector rather than the origin of his troubles.

An example of this in the world of tyrannical parenting is so-called ‘natural consequences’—a form of punishment parents use to impose their will on their children while maintaining the illusion that they sympathise with the children and are not responsible for the distress they are causing.

One mother told her child that if he did not put his clothes down the laundry chute, they wouldn’t end up in the laundry and he’d have no clothes to wear. This, his mother assured him, was the natural consequence of failing to put his clothes down the laundry chute. But there are so many other possibilities! The mother could put the clothes down the laundry chute, the mother could take the clothes down by hand, the child could take them down by hand, they could hire someone to put them in the chute, they could buy new clothes, the child could wear dirty clothes… The possibilities are endless.

The mother was using so-called natural consequences to create the illusion that she was not responsible for her son’s distress, and that it would be his own free choice to put the clothes down the laundry chute.

Your typical dictator—say Robert Mugabe—is likewise fond of blaming America or Britain or the Mossad for all the suffering that he himself is causing.

Did I say he himself is causing it? I’m so sorry! What was I thinking?

Obviously the reason people in Zimbabwe are starving has nothing to do with the fact that Mugabe has instituted a Stalinist terror regime, destroyed everyone’s savings, demonised every form of success other than being in favour with him, and absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he’s stolen all the farms and redistributed them to people who have about as much idea of how to run a farm as my neighbour’s dog. (I don’t mean to be insulting—the dog’s only mistaken my leg for a lamp-post twice.)

But really, Mugabe is doing Zimbabweans a favour. He thinks people learn more from adversity than prosperity. The blame for any problems lies with the rest of the world for failing to ensure that Zimbabwe has an equal share of their wealth.

So one reason tyrants like to create the semblance of consent is just the logic of the situation. Deceiving your victims means less opposition.

But being a tyrant nearly always includes a strong element of self-deception as well as this deception of others. Everyone wants not only to be seen as the good guy, but to be the good guy.

This raises an existential problem for any tyrant.

At the height of the regime of President Ceaucescu of Romania, when everything was going wrong in the country and the economy was going down the drain, and opposition was building up, Ceaucescu ordered the publication of a multi-volume leather-bound work praising him as the ultimate human being. Bernard Levin wrote an article Does he know? wondering whether Ceaucescu knew that he was sitting on a dung heap and that all that was under him was fraud and deception. Perhaps there’s no such thing as whether he knew or not.

I wonder if the primary school teacher whose children dutifully say that they are happy, knows that that’s a charade?

Does Saddam know?

Here’s another possible example of self-deception. Young Terry is not home by the time the rest of the family have dinner. When Terry gets home, his mother says sadly: “Sorry, darling! Your dinner’s in the dog. You’re too late.”

Terry turns towards the fridge…

“I’m sorry, darling. The Kitchen Is Closed.” D’oh!

In defence of her action, this mother would deny that she had taken any. It was all Terry’s doing. She would say: “If he were hungry, he’d have chosen to arrive home in time for dinner.”

Does she know? Does she know that Dinner Time is not decreed by God? That for all their faults, the government has not brought in a Dinner Time Act—yet! Does she know that what she’s doing is nothing other than starving her child as a punishment for disobedience?

Tyrannical parents often talk about “giving children choices”. This is code for taking away all possible choices but the one the parent wants the child to ‘choose’, while pretending you’re doing the child a favour. Like asking a toddler who’s playing with his food in his high chair: “Do you want to eat your food or not?” For the uninitiated, this is code for “If you don’t stop playing with your food and eat it, I’ll take it away from you and you’ll go hungry as well as bored.” What kind of choice is that?!

“No, Mummy, I want to play with it. That’s why I’m playing with it!”

The parent’s question is not really a choice at all, it is a threat to punish the child by starving him, but the parent makes the threat in doctored, debased language to make the child—and perhaps herself—think that there are no other options.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Mummy, did you say there were only two possible choices? I’d rather set my heart on having a pea-rolling competition with you. Or how about helping me make a mashed potato mountain? Oh come on, Mummy, don’t be such a killjoy!”

A mother on a parenting discussion list on the Internet, once justified locking her child in his room on the basis that she herself enjoys taking time out and sitting quietly in her room, so why shouldn’t her child?! That is like saying, I enjoy sexual intercourse so what’s wrong with rape?

Someone should tell her that taking time out and serving time are not entirely identical.

Like many parents, this mother felt the need to fudge the difference between voluntary and involuntary acts on the part of her children.

Tyrants have always had an incentive to manipulate information and evade criticism, but the enormity of the effort tyrants today put into this semblance of consent is a novelty of relatively recent times. And I think it has a different explanation. It is, in short, the Enlightenment, the great change that began sometime between the 17th and late 18th centuries and is still under way.

In the Enlightenment, the traditional structures of authority and force and unreason were questioned and then set aside. Our society was perhaps the first since ancient Athens to attempt to put reason at the centre of its political life, and it was certainly the first to succeed for very long.

One of the many innovations of Enlightenment thinking was the idea that making people do things against their will requires justification. And more broadly, that individuals have rights, and that these rights can’t legitimately be violated. Enlightenment ideas changed people’s conception of what it means to be a person, what it means to be a citizen, and what government is. So, from then on, although people didn’t stop being tyrants, they started to justify their actions as being in some sense consensual, in some sense justified by Enlightenment standards.

At the same time as this happened in politics, it also started happening in education and parenting. For the whole of human history up till that point, coercion in education wasn’t thought of as requiring justification: if you were a parent, you were entitled to be obeyed by your children.

But after the Enlightenment, although the behaviour didn’t change at all at first, its justifications changed rapidly. In politics, the justification for force was the greater good of the greater number; or the social contract; in education, the justification was ‘for his own good’. Previously, these would have seemed like empty reasons for something that was obviously true already.

It’s because of the Enlightenment that parents feel the need to justify forcing their children to go to school—for example, so they won’t grow up to be drunken bums or, even worse, Peter Stringfellow.

In one sense, the values of the Enlightenment still only inform the society of a relatively small part of the world—the West. But in another sense, they already completely dominate every society and every culture in the world.

Dictators have always needed some element of consent from the population to remain in power. But nowadays, even the vilest dictators feel the need to act out the form of an Enlightenment-style justification of their actions. They do a lot more than staging fake elections. Much of what the tyrant orders people to do consists of pretending that they consent. So in a way, the whole structure of the society is the semblance of consent. Indeed, most of the ways in which parents5 deal with their children involve, at best, the semblance of consent.

What people in tyrannical societies who want better societies should bear in mind—and what families who want to change to real consent instead of the semblance of consent should bear in mind—is that what is required is a different kind of relationship between the ruler and the ruled. We can’t expect to create a libertarian society unless we are willing to eliminate the corrupting practice of accepting the semblance of consent instead of striving for actual consent, in our personal lives as well as in our political institutions. What is the point in making the world politically free if at home we are in chains?


1. The eponymous paper was published in The Laissez Faire Electronic Times, Vol 1, No 40, November 18, 2002.

2. Steven W. Mosher: A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s fight Against China’s One-child Policy (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993), p. 219

3. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Emile, p. 120

4. Natan Sharansky: Fear No Evil (Random House, 1988) p. 359

5. Just as the political values of the Enlightenment have, in the sense I described above, already permeated throughout the world, even to non-enlightened countries, so the values of Taking Children Seriously have in a sense already permeated conventional educational thinking. It’s just that conventional practice still only values the form—the semblance—while Taking Children Seriously values the substance.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2002, ‘The semblance of consent: How tyrants use the illusion of freedom’, talk given at the Libertarian International Fall Conference in London, England on 9th November, 2002,