Given the seizure of so many powers by the executive branch these past seven years, this is probably not the best time to examine the ancient office of dictator.
But, since reading Niccolo’ Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, I just can’t help myself. In the early 16th century, Machiavelli wondered if study of the Roman republic could yield some beneficial lessons to ease the social turmoil and wars endured by the city-states of northern Italy.
One aspect of his analysis dealt with how the Romans responded to external threats. It shed new light for me on the variety of institutions available to secure free government.
The Roman republic spanned some 450 years. This is objective proof they did some things right; their institutions were strong enough to defend the nation without jeopardizing the lives and property of the people. One such institution was that of dictator.
Like the ancient Romans, I support the establishment of institutions that serve free government.
With than in mind, let’s take a look at a much maligned office.
First off, a dictator is not a tyrant. Yes, an online dictionary and a thesaurus I know of regard them as fairly synonymous. They are not.
Tyrants are outlaws hostile to republican freedom. Tyrants assume, grasp, and otherwise illegally seize powers. They either destroy republican institutions outright, or like Obama, they squeeze the neck of institutions like congress that stand in their way. In time, once free institutions become rubber stamps to the will of the tyrant and sooner or later legitimize his oppression.
In the event of a war emergency, republics typically empower a sitting executive to exercise arbitrary authority to save the nation. That is, unless the republic considers another option outside the structure of peacetime offices and appoints a dictator instead.
Successful dictators are republican saviors. Classic, ancient dictators were freely given enormous authority for a short period of time to deal with specific threats. They did not eliminate or otherwise even harm republican institutions, but operated legally outside of them, and saved them. They issued orders that lapsed as if they never existed once the dictator’s term of office expired. A dictator leaves no imprint on the law. He establishes no precedent. The republican institutions that created the dictator operate in the background as if the dictator didn’t exist.
Republican Rome famously utilized dictators, typically for six month periods. To ensure her normal republican government had nothing to do with the actions of the dictator, Rome’s consuls were charged with appointing the dictator and could not appoint one from among themselves. This is an important point. Rome made sure the dictator had absolutely no effect on civil government, for the consuls, senate and tribunes remained while the dictator directed the nation in war. Despite the fact there were ready made executives at hand in the form of consuls, there was no way these constitutional magistrates were to be trusted with arbitrary rule. With the occasional dictator, the Roman republic and freedom survived for several hundred years.