Dictatorships are much in the news these days. Let us examine three of the newest—or seemingly newest—and most prominent of the dictatorships: one left-wing, one right-wing, and one left-centrist, and see what lessons may be gleaned from them.
The most recent, and most dramatic, dictatorship is, of course, Mrs. Gandhi's brutal takeover in India, imposing a severe press censorship and jailing thousands of her leading political opponents. The one bit of malicious satisfaction we may take in this event is that the New York Times and other Establishment media will not be able to bleat quite so enthusiastically in the future about India as the "largest democracy in the world." For, of all foreign regimes, India's has been perhaps the most beloved in the American Establishment press. As a result of this alleged lovability, a huge amount of American aid has been poured into India in the last three decades, with the consequence of strengthening the hold of India's horrendous statism upon the country.
For make no mistake: India has long been one of the world's most rotten and corrupt polities; a veritable thicket of statism; a mass of controls, subsidies, taxes, and monopolies; a giant boodle for Mrs. Gandhi and the ruling elite. And all this on top of a frozen caste system that still dominates the rural villages where the bulk of India's population lives. As for "democracy," India, since its inception, has lived under the one-party rule of the Congress party, with other, opposition parties relegated to the shadows. Contrary to appearances, the Gandhi coup was not a sudden and inexplicable murder of a strong and vibrant democracy; it was merely the last link of an inexorable chain of grisly events.
A second powerful dictatorship in the news is the military dictatorship over Portugal. This particular military rule is "left-wing," with the army closely allied to the Communist Party of Portugal, headed by the ultra-hard-line Alvaro Cunhal, who, within the spectrum of Communist thought, makes Stalin seem to be a Tolstoyan pacifist. After the false spring of the bloodless Spinola "revolution of the roses," Portugal is rapidly slipping into an all-out military-Communist dictatorship. Recent reports indicate that there still may be time for mass pressure to save Portugal from a pure despotism, but that time is fast running out.
But the crucial question about the Portuguese phenomenon has not really been asked. Portugal had been ruled by a fascist Salazarean dictatorship for half a century. So "right-wing" and hardline did it appear to be that the John Birch Society's annual Scoreboard regularly gave Portugal a close to zero "Communist" rating. How could such a Communist-free country have tumbled so rapidly into a Communist-type regime? And, need we repeat, after a vast amount of foreign aid pumped in by the United States? The full answer is complex, and involves Portugal's disastrous colonial war in Africa, and there is no space for treating it here. Suffice it to point out that the fascist Salazar dictatorship, far from proving some sort of right-wing bulwark against the left, was just the opposite: for the institutions created by fascist dictatorship—the rule of big government, the interpenetration of government and industry, the suppressing of dissent, etc.—created all the necessary conditions for the current left-wing takeover. Partly because of Portugal's backward, feudal polity, partly because Salazar had snuffed out any possibility of the growth of classical liberal opinion or political activity.
It matters very little, then, who runs collectivism or Big Government; the important point is the existence of massive statist institutions, which can be readily adapted to whichever group takes power, and hence to the controlling and repressing of the subject population. Salazarean militarist fascism paved the way, in a literal sense, for militarist-Communism just as the "centrist" collectivism of the Weimar Republic had paved the way for Hitler's National Socialism, and as the Nazi regimes in occupied Europe paved the way for the near-takeover by the Communist-led resistance forces in Europe after World War II. In all these cases, the massive collectivist institutions of statism are shuffled from one ruling group to another.
Finally, there is the right-wing military dictatorship in Chile. In the Chilean coup of the fall of 1973, dislodging the Marxist Allende regime, there were some genuine, popular, revolutionary elements: notably the massive protest of the self-employed truckers against inflation and statism. But the coup was led, and power was seized, by a fascistic military despotism aided, it now turns out, by the omnipresent CIA. And this military despotism has continued in force all the baggage of statism, nationalization, and runaway inflation that marked the Allende regime; the inflation rate, for example, continues to barrel along merrily at an annual rate of nearly 400 percent. On top of the previous statism, the right-wing military clique has merely added the massive use of systematic torture against dissenters and political prisoners. Military officers are in charge of all high schools and universities, the teaching of all "conflictive subjects" is prohibited, and a compulsory nightly curfew is still in effect. Once again, all this has been accomplished to the tune of massive foreign aid by the United States, and in an atmosphere of shuffling ruling elites and groups in the absence of any tradition or activity by classical liberals, let alone libertarians.
For Americans and for libertarians, the lessons provided by these burgeoning dictatorships should be clear. They are, at base, the same lessons as those provided by the debacle of American foreign policy in Southeast Asia. First, that every country, and every people should be allowed to work out their own destiny without interference and meddling by the government of the United States. Not only is this the moral stand to take, but in the last analysis, they will work out their destiny regardless of what we do. Secondly, foreign aid by the U.S. not only mulcts the long-suffering American taxpayer; it will only serve to fasten the chains of any existing dictatorship upon the necks of its subjects. Third, dictatorships and collectivisms, of whatever form, are not bulwarks against one another; they strengthen and reinforce each other by establishing and maintaining statist institutions. And, finally, there is no hope for liberty in any country without the growth and development of Indigenous classical liberal or libertarian attitudes and activist movements within that country itself. The only thing that America can do for the liberty of other countries is to reform itself, and to return to the traditional American foreign policy of abstaining from foreign meddling, and instead to serve as an exemplar and a beacon-light of freedom for the rest of humanity.
Murray Rothbard is professor of economics at the Polytechnic Institute of New York. Dr. Rothbard's viewpoint appears in this column every third month, alternating with the viewpoints of Tibor Machan and David Brudnoy.