That constitution which trusts more than it needs to any man, or body of men, has a terrible flaw in it, and is big with the seeds of its own destruction. Hence arose tyrants, and tyranny, and standing armies: Marius, and Caesar, and Oliver Cromwell. How preposterously do men act! By too great confidence in one man, or a few men, they become slaves.

—Thomas Gordon. Cato’s Letters No. 40, Considerations on the restless and selfish spirit of man, Saturday, August 5, 1721.

The dreadful power of the state must be kept out of the hands of men and instead reside only in the written law. The 70 million dead in World War II can be directly attributed to the discretion granted to Adolf Hitler by the Enabling Act (A law to remedy the distress of the people and the nation, passed by the German Reichstag on March 23, 1933.), while the misery of the hundreds of millions who rotted behind the Iron Curtain for two generations can be directly traced back to discretion granted to the three big men at Yalta. As Thomas Gordon explained: “No man ought to be exempt from the ties of laws; and the higher any man is, the more ties he ought to be under. All power ought to be balanced with equal restraints, else it will certainly grow mischievous: He who knows no law, but his own lust, seldom observes any other.” (Cato’s Letters No. 36, Of Loyalty, Saturday, July 8, 1721.)

The Roman concept of the dictatorship, a temporary leader granted unfettered powers in order to guide the state through a time of crisis, has a superficial attraction—the romance of Cincinnatus returning to his plough after a job well done. However, in reality every person has two selves: his unrestrained impulsive self, and the self which he is forced to be by the society around him. We see glimpses of the unrestrained self in small children throwing temper tantrums and in lunatics when they scream obscenities and lash out at anyone in their reach. In sane people, the unrestrained side is held at bay by self-discipline. What forces us to impose discipline upon ourselves is the need to live among our fellow man. This means obeying the laws and the vast majority of societal norms. But when a dictator is granted unlimited discretion and freed from all accountability, he is taken from the human condition. When this occurs, reversion to the unrestrained state is generally both inevitable and extreme. Thomas Gordon explained:

This cruel spirit in tyrants … is owing to the nature of the dominion which they exercise … the best men grow mischievous when they are set above laws. Claudius was a very harmless man, while he was a private man; but when he came to be a tyrant, he proved a bloody one, almost as bloody as his nephew and predecessor Caligula; who had also been a very good subject, but when he came to be the Roman emperor, grew the professed executioner of mankind. There is something so wanton and monstrous in lawless power, that there scarce ever was a human spirit that could bear it. (Cato’s Letters No. 24, Of the natural Honesty of the People, and their reasonable Demands. How important it is to every Government to consult their Affections and Interest, Saturday, April 8, 1721.)

This applies equally to any official granted discretion over his fellow man. When granted even a small measure of arbitrary power, such as the authority to decide a civil dispute, or to approve a building plan, this causes him, in his own small way and in his own small sphere, to become a Caligula. Clear, codified laws and regulations should be the sole source for deciding legal matters; discretion should be removed from judges and bureaucrats alike.

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove