Do You Have a Totalitarian Impulse?

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Drinking with friends and the Diocletian Test

Do you have a totalitarian impulse?

Ask yourself: “Do I think the government’s goals or aims should take priority over human nature?” Put another way: “Do I think the government’s noble end justifies a bad means?”

The Diocletian Test

In the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Diocletian faced a serious problem: lack of food. One of the reasons: farmers were abandoning agriculture and moving to the cities. The farmers were abandoning the farms because economic prospects in the city were far better and, in many cases, farming couldn’t sustain them and their families.

Diocletian’s solution? Serfdom. Require the farmers, and their kids, and their kids’ kids, and their kids’ kids’ kids, and so on for a millennium to stay on that specific parcel of land and farm it. If you abandon the farm for something better, you die.

The government had a goal (better food production) so it overrode a natural human trait (seeking economic improvement).

Diocletian’s solution, combined with a lot of other reforms, worked, incidentally. It saved the Empire at a time when contemporaries thought the whole thing was falling apart.

Do you applaud Diocletian’s establishment of the institution of serfdom (which, most people agree, was merely a better form of slavery, but still slavery)?

If so, then you can probably assume you have the totalitarian impulse. You, in other words, flunk the “Diocletian Test.”

The Diocletian Test Today

Shift to COVID.

Do you applaud the lockdowns?

If so, I’m afraid you flunk the Diocletian Test and might have the totalitarian impulse.

When it comes to lockdowns, the government has a goal (combat COVID . . . whatever “combat” might mean) so it overrides a natural human trait (to be social . . . we are “social animals,” even the introverts among us).

If you applaud this, you may want to take a serious look at yourself and ask if you are a totalitarian at heart.

I’m not saying you are. I am saying you have an impulse toward it, but just an impulse. I can’t judge anyone’s heart.

From Flunking the Diocletian Test to Becoming a Bastard

Here’s the problem if you flunk the Diocletian Test: You might not stop.

Once you accept the idea that a government goal takes priority over human nature, no amount of force or power by the government seems like too much.

In Diocletian’s case, his goal of food production justified the means: killing anyone who abandoned the farm to seek better employment elsewhere.

The totalitarian impulse, if not checked, takes monstrous forms eventually, leading to all sorts of evils and problems.

Take the example of California and its lockdowns. An increasing number of experts and commentators are beginning to recognize that they haven’t worked. The main reason: People are social. They might be able to deny themselves social outlets for a short spell in a crisis, but to deny that part of human nature for the better part of a year?

It’s simply not tenable.

People will seek social outlets.

In California, that means that, when Newsom shut down all drinking and dining, including at outdoor venues, people started having indoor gatherings, which were far worst for the COVID spread. In the words of one California infectious disease expert:

“We won’t be able to know the exact percentage it drove, but I would say closing outdoor dining certainly did not help and likely hindered efforts to avoid a surge,” said Gandhi. “It shut down in early December, and things did not get better from there; things actually got worse. Restrictions should be about understanding the human condition and keeping places that are safe open. Those of us who argue for a harm reduction approach have the same goal as the lockdownists: We want to reduce transmission, but we understand the human condition and the need to be with people.”

“The need to be with people.”

We are social animals.

It’s a natural impulse.

If you think it should be denied in favor of government policy, then you have the totalitarian impulse.

As mentioned above, that doesn’t make you a bad person. We all have undesirable impulses.

Where you become a bad person is, if you let the impulse grow.

In response to Californians who continue to exercise their human nature and hold indoor gatherings, is your response to outlaw those, too, and increase the penalties for violations? Is your response to send out police to raid private parties like they’re doing in Britain right now and imposing fines?

And if the fines don’t work, are you in favor of increasing the fines to the point that they can’t be paid, putting a lien on the person’s house, and forfeiting it? Maybe jailing people?

Maybe killing them when they leave their homes . . . ala Diocletian?

They’re honest questions. They’re real questions.

Because here’s the thing: When you implement measures that violate human nature, humans will naturally disobey. And when they do, you’re going to have to keep increasing the enforcement and pressure to make them stop.

And that’s when it gets really ugly.

Do you applaud anyway?

Then I’m afraid you flunk, not only the Diocletian Test, but the human decency and freedom test in general.