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30 November 2021

The world has always existed under the sway of tyranny. Freedom is not the norm, but the exception. Our modern lives have accustomed us to become all too used to convenience and our lives being easier than what we were led to believe they were in times past.

Civilisations have always fought against authoritarian leadership, with varying times of stability in between.

Libertas is more elusive than what we moderns think.

In the ancient Roman Republic of First century BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero argued for freedom against monarchy and tyrants. Liberty was the cornerstone of the Roman way of life, having been birthed from the expulsion of one of the most ruthless tyrants ancient Rome had known –  Tarquinius Superbus.

Cicero defended the traditional Republic based upon a Constitution encompassing three mixed forms of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, a system that the modern West inherited. They considered this to be the safety valve against the original simple forms that would ultimately degenerate into corrupt versions of themselves.

He proclaimed that the Senate, the holy grail of leadership and representation, acted as a guardianship, placed on what he described as a “watchtower,” and he was defiant in stressing that it was up to the Senate to protect the freedoms of the people and to avoid anything that would place them in fear.

When Julius Caesar was awarded his fourth dictatorship in 44 BC, the liberators could accept it no longer, and he was stabbed 23 times as he entered the Roman forum.

Bloody and brutal times they were in the ancient world.

Fast forward to the eighteenth century, a time considered the golden era of Enlightenment, Thomas Paine argued against government almost in its entirety, favouring the laws of nature as the greatest of all laws.

Paine argued that government was an impediment to mankind’s natural ability to exist in a perfect civilisation. One of his most poignant statements was, “How often is the natural propensity to society disturbed or destroyed by the operations of government!”

While his view of a self-sustaining and free society may be too extreme for many, that statement rings true with what our societies are enduring today, as every Western nation around the world finds itself strangled under the yoke of increased authoritarian rule.

This is anathema to a liberal democracy. Yet, too many people accept it as an inevitable transition to a new style of world order.

While the Romans sought a stated Constitution that would serve the best interests of their society, Paine didn’t care so much about what form, but rather that it had as its objective to ensure the general happiness of society.

“When, instead of this, it operates to create an increased wretchedness in any of the parts of society, it is on a wrong system, and reformation is necessary.”

So, how far have we come over the past 2000 years? Well, in the twentieth-first century, we argue against government overreach as opposed to no government at all. It could be said that we are attempting to bring the pendulum back to the middle, for we have tempered our acceptance of government, but in a much more moderate form.

Some people would like to see a significant reduction in the size of bureaucracies across the nation, and even the abolition of one layer of government. However, there are very few Thomas Paines’ among us who would prefer to see absolute minimum government.

Currently, the West is stuck in a situation of a two-tiered society, with a global pandemic causing mayhem and confusion about what liberty and freedom truly mean. There appears to be distinct ‘sides’ – one which prefers minimal government and the other which are not deterred with government imposing its tentacles all over their lives.

In this case, there is an argument that the pendulum has swung back to the middle, but from a historical perspective, I argue that it has turned back onto the path toward tyranny. And this is because governments that gain power through scaring people into believing they ought to sacrifice their freedoms for safety, are not governing for the general happiness of society, as Paine argued, and neither are they acting in good faith through their position on the watchtower, as Cicero advocated.

This new technocratic age is proving to be a challenge for any liberty-minded citizen. And just as the ancient Romans argued over the best form of government, attempting to work under the preferred mixed form, so we find ourselves seeking the same as we witness our liberty and freedom being threatened by a totalitarian grab for centralised power.

If we allow government to become “the cause of the mischiefs it ought to prevent,” as Paine stated, we will continue down the road to tyranny and face the same consequences as every age in history was forced to stare down – civil unrest.

While most citizens today in the 21st century don’t wish to participate directly, it needs to remain the goal of every person to preserve the freedom that allows participation by those who do.

It is and should remain, the cornerstone of any liberty-minded society, and must be forever defended.

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Cicero (trans. and ed. D. R. Shackleton Bailey. Rev. John T. Ramsey and Gesine Manuwald). 200. Philippics, Books 7-14, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Paine, Thomas. 2008. Rights of Man, Common Sense and other Political Writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Gerardine is a Roman historian, with a focus on the Republic and her politics, particularly in the area of how the Republic was born from tyranny and morphed once again into a dictatorship under Julius Caesar. She also studied political theory from Greek and Roman times, through to the Enlightenment thinkers who grappled with the best form of government or ways in which societies could live with the best degree of harmony. Australian politics is another area of study, which is currently proving to be poignant given the turbulent and changing political landscape our nation, and the world, is in. Gerardine has worked in both the private and government sectors, including print media, construction, higher education and IT, and for Federal and Local Government politicians in an advisory and administrative capacity. In addition, she has many years of experience working on and managing political campaigns.

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