More On: Putin
Biden was so preoccupied with the Ukraine conflict that he missed Putin's progress in other important places
Big-picture danger does not come from dictators like Vladimir Putin in Russia. Those who live in authoritarian regimes are the ones to blame.
Only Vladimir Putin exists. One man's ability to shake the entire world, more or less on his own, is amazing. He is the corrupt and banal king of a decrepit and backward country.
In private life, there are similar scenarios. Regardless of his or her stature, a crying baby has the capacity to take over a room with his screams. A heckler has the power to draw the attention of an entire theater's audience for a brief period of time. As long as they're willing to break the law and societal norms, criminals can exert their authority over others.
One of fascism's genuine political insights and the reason fascists and fascist organizations reject power restrictions in principle is that all voluntary constraints on power provide advantages for those who do not accept such constraints. Fascists of all stripes, including those who call themselves socialist or communist (Lenin, Castro, etc.) and those who don't use ideological jargon but instead promise national glory, fall into this category.
I've seen in the past that either socialism is the unluckiest philosophy in the history of politics, or there is something wrong with socialism. That's right, of course.
There was a chapter in The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek about why the world is full of Putins: "Why the Worst Get on Top?" When looking at totalitarianism as a whole, Hayek highlighted three elements that lead to the emergence of monstrous individuals. The first is that governing a community does not necessitate the backing of a majority, but rather the greatest politically useful faction.“A numerous and strong group with fairly homogeneous views is not likely to be formed by the best but rather by the worst elements of any society,” Hayek observed:
The higher the education and intelligence of individuals becomes, the more their views and tastes are differentiated and the less likely they are to agree on a particular hierarchy of values. It is a corollary of this that if we wish to find a high degree of uniformity and similarity of outlook, we have to descend to the regions of lower moral and intellectual standards where the more primitive and “common” instincts and tastes prevail. This does not mean that the majority of people have low moral standards; it merely means that the largest group of people whose values are very similar are the people with low standards.
Second, the energy and the certitude of the united cretins will be enough to overwhelm the “docile and gullible, who have no strong convictions of their own . . . [and] who will thus swell the ranks of the totalitarian party.”
And last but not least, a negative program — whether it's directed toward a real or imagined foe — is simpler to sell than a positive one. There must be a strong difference between the group and the outsiders, writes Hayek, in order to bring a group together for a shared goal and cause them all to act as one. Because of this, it is always used by those who are looking for not just the endorsement of a policy, but the unconditional loyalty of large numbers. Upon taking power, socialists in his period, who were theoretically internationalists, he claims became militant nationalists.
The totalitarian environment repels moral men, but, as Hayek notes, it also creates “special opportunities for the ruthless and unscrupulous.” Which brings us to Putin and to men like Putin. Hayek writes:
There will be jobs to be done about the badness of which taken by themselves nobody has any doubt, but which have to be done in the service of some higher end, and which have to be executed with the same expertness and efficiency as any others. And as there will be need for actions which are bad in themselves, and which all those still influenced by traditional morals will be reluctant to perform, the readiness to do bad things becomes a path to promotion and power. The positions in a totalitarian society in which it is necessary to practice cruelty and intimidation, deliberate deception and spying, are numerous.
Men like Vladimir Putin aren't the real threat. Totalitarian regimes themselves pose a threat. A good liberal society may find worthwhile tasks for men like Vladimir Putin in any society. When a society is ruled by totalitarians, men like Putin end up leading armies and nuclear arsenals.
Liberal cultures are not immune to these inclinations. Politics in the United States frequently attracts the most despicable characters our country has to offer, and they rise to power in a similar way to the totalitarian regimes Hayek outlined, by forming powerful coalitions of the most despicable but like-minded individuals. Whether it's the Roosevelt administration's clearly dictatorial and centralizing tendencies or the Trump administration's aim to become Beijing's spitting image, the greatest power of totalitarian nations is their ability to force those who fear them to mimic them. Instead of better men, liberal societies have a system of checks and balances that includes a free press and a rule of law that is enforced by independent courts. The American system has restricted the damage that some remarkably low-character guys have been able to accomplish as president.
The damage that a leader like Putin can inflict in Russia is not constrained by the country's institutions. The bad things he can do are amplified. To put it another way: Even though we might yearn so much for a palace revolution to remove Putin from the picture, it won't be enough to solve our dilemma. You can get Claudius and later Nero from the Praetorian guard by deposing Caligula, but it doesn't restore the republic. The Romans weren't particularly ill-advised. The Germans weren't particularly flawed. The Russians aren't particularly ill-advised. As long as there are men like Putin, the world will have no shortage of them. These people dominate Russia due of the political and social systems it has in place. McDonald's opening in Pushkin Square was not enough to change everything.
Until and unless Russia changes, Putin and others like Putin will continue to be the country's rulers. Properly, all other countries need to plan accordingly.