As we reported last week, the European Union wants to add more emergency powers to its governing toolbox. It remains to be seen exactly what those new powers will look like, but what has already been revealed suggests that the EU government wants to be elevated further above democratic influence.
Since then, the idea of emergency-driven authoritarianism has been given another boost. This one comes from Ross Mittiga, assistant professor of political science at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. In an article for the American Political Science Review, entitled “Political Legitimacy, Authoritarianism, and Climate Change,” Mittiga suggests that the world needs authoritarian governments in order to fight man-made climate change.
Professor Mittiga’s article echoed through all kinds of news outlets, both big and small. This is understandable: the idea of a benevolent dictatorship is as old as the idea of a dictator. Two of the most notorious despots of the 20th century, Hitler and Lenin, were both convinced that their dictatorships were built on virtuous foundations.
Today’s proponents of a dictatorship in the interests of climate management likely frown at being compared to history’s brutal tyrants. Before we examine just how compelling that comparison is, let us remember a timeless observation by C.S. Lewis. A tyranny “sincerely exercised for the benefit of its victims may be the most oppressive.” The reason, Lewis notes, is that the benevolent tyrants will continue to oppress ad infinitum, “for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
It is not a novelty to find intellectuals whose conscience leads them to propose benevolent authoritarianism. As F.A. Hayek explains in his seminal The Road to Serfdom, prior to World War II it was relatively easy to find educated people in the Anglo-Saxon world who were fascinated with tyranny. That fascination subsided with the War, but it never died out. It remained alive among left-leaning academics and political thinkers in the West: as I report in Democracy or Socialism (pp. 81-123), many remained open, even sympathetic to the brutal regimes of the Soviet empire.
The motivation for authoritarianism has shifted in recent years, at least superficially. The alleged need for a dictatorship is now found in “climate change.” In his article in the American Political Science Review, Professor Mittiga puts this new trend into a scholarly form, proposing a crop of legitimate reasons for emergency powers that would merit a dictatorship. Admitting that he proposes government methods “often authoritarian in character and scope,” he stresses that the goal is to “preserve or restore conditions of safety and stability” in society. This, he claims, makes the dictatorship legitimate.
He also suggests that climate change is an emergency that jeopardizes our “safety and stability.” As an example of how that emergency can be translated into actual totalitarian policy, Professor Mittiga suggests that government should “impel” its citizens to reduce meat consumption, which he claims has an “enormous carbon footprint.”
Leaving the questionable argument about the carbon footprint aside, the good professor wants government to “restrict” the consumption of meat, ostensibly by means of enforced nutritional replacement. Plainly, governments in currently free countries are expected to successfully do what the Cuban communist government has tried for six decades. The difference would apparently be that climate-motivated food rations would be configured in the first place to reduce carbon emissions, and only in the second place to feed the population.
The good professor proposes this central planning of a nation’s entire food supply, even if it goes “against the wishes of democratic publics [sic]” or violates individual rights and freedoms.
His next example of how to practice authoritarianism is even less convoluted (p.10):
We may also imagine a censorship regime that prevents the proliferation of climate denialism or disinformation in public media. … [To] the extent that those freedoms have been exercised in ways that have undermined (and continue to undermine) effective climate action, such censorship may be warranted.
Professor Mittiga also proposes a “climate litmus-test on those who seek public office.” Anyone who has any relationship to “climate-harming industries” or who in the past has expressed “climate denialism” should be disqualified from holding public office.
Last but not least, Mittiga wants his authoritarian government to usurp the powers to overturn democratically passed laws that his authoritarians deem to be opposed to “climate policies.”
These measures are merited because, the professor maintains, the scientific conclusions regarding climate change are irrefutable. Apparently, they cannot be questioned because climate science has reached a point of perfection where its practitioners cannot be wrong.
Herein lies perhaps the most egregious fallacy of Professor Mittiga’s entire argument. It combines the arrogance unbecoming of a scholar with the ignorance of a student yet to discover the scientific and political history of mankind. It is no small surprise to see this combination of character traits be exhibited by a person who holds a faculty position at a university.
To suggest that the scientific community can reach irrefutable consensus on anything but basic conceptual and axiomatic structures of a scientific discipline, is to dismiss the most sacred process of the scholarly endeavor itself: the peer review process. Nothing guarantees the integrity of scientific progress like the free practice of scholarly thought; science in all its forms, natural or social, has evolved steadily over the past several centuries precisely because every proposed new finding is subject to the review of one’s peers. It elevates original contributions and refutes flawed research.
The one thing the peer review process does not do is reach the end of history. Yet that is the point where Professor Mittiga needs to be if he desires to build a totalitarian government on the basis of science. He would need to explain why climate science, in the 2020s, unlike any other science in the history of human thought, has suddenly reached the point of perfection.
He would need to do so against a background of a history rife with examples of how science has been proven wrong. One of many reminders of this is the book Science was Wrong by Stanton Friedman and Kathleen Marden, which presents a plethora of examples of when reputable scientists, whose findings were thought to be beyond reproach, were solidly proven wrong.
Another reminder that scholarly work is an unending evolutionary process is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Professor Mittiga’s dangerous amalgamation of arrogance and ignorance, calling for a science-based dictatorship, is in itself not unique. The world’s most devastating examples to date of a scientifically founded dictatorship started with the economic theory developed by Karl Marx. His theory, claimed by Marxists to be a science in its own right, served as the basis for the violent Russian revolution. The state born from it, first led by Vladimir Lenin, became known to the world as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
There is a striking, and disturbing, parallel between Professor Mittiga’s climate-science based dictatorship and Lenin’s Marxist based version. They both use science as moral validation of tyranny. While Marx himself expected capitalism to crumble under its own dysfunction, Lenin thought that it was necessary for the communist party to bring about the downfall of capitalism by force.
Once there, Lenin used his new authoritarian government, reliant on the science of Marxism, to solve by force the alleged problems of capitalism. Much like Professor Mittiga envisions, the Leninist government secured its superiority by banning free speech. Marxism under the Soviet Union, much like climate science under Mittiga’s authoritarianism, was considered so perfect that no critic should be allowed to question it. In fact, the scientific foundation of the dictatorship was so strong that anyone who aspired to hold public office had to pass a scientific, i.e., Marxist, litmus test.
It is not inconceivable that Mittiga balks at the comparison between his climate-based tyranny and the Marxist one that Lenin created. However, since he never places his own argument in the context of history, it is unclear how he thinks the two dictatorships are materially different.
The case for climate-based tyranny is not helped by the fact that the good professor tried to define its “foundational legitimacy.” An authoritarian government is legitimate, he explains, if it can “ensure the safety and security of its citizens.” This means that government a) ensures that people have “continuous access to essential goods,” b) quells “unjustified uprisings or rebellions,” and c) prevents “avoidable catastrophes.”
Climate change is said to belong in the last category, shielded from the rest of the world behind a protective coating of statutory speech restrictions.
We have already noted how throughout history scholarly consensus has been continuously challenged by the exercise of free speech. Let us just suggest, as an experiment for proponents of a climate dictatorship, that they merit their cause as follows. They present three long-term, scientific forecasts of climate change that over the course of time have been proven correct. (Fewer than three would subject the sample to coincidence.) Along those three, they also present three forecasts that have been proven wrong.
If this exercise is too arduous, the humility of the scholarly mind might prevail by means of recalling the 2009 Climategate scandal. Either exercise—the forecast analysis or the reminder of the embarrassment at East Anglia University—should raise pertinent questions about the dangers of elevating science above the forces of peer review and free speech.
Behind all the questions of how science is supposed to reach the point of benevolent perfection, lurks another ominous comparison between the climate dictatorship and Leninist tyranny. Professor Mittiga must explain how to separate “benevolent” reasons for authoritarianism from “malevolent” ones. Offering no criteria for such a selection process, the good professor leaves us wondering if Mittiga can explain why his dictatorship is morally acceptable but that which took power in Chile in 1973 was not. After all, the Chilean military claimed that its ousting of a democratic government prevented a catastrophe.
Perhaps we can help the good professor out of this conundrum. It is, namely, impossible to establish “benevolent” reasons for a dictatorship in a democracy. Dissenting sides of the political spectrum will offer very different examples of tyrannical benevolence. Professor Mittiga will suggest a climate crisis while critics of that narrative will offer high inflation, runaway crime, and government-created supply chain problems as alternatives. Neither side will permit the other side to define “benevolence.”
The only way that the climate-crisis proponents can win is if they abolish democracy in the first place. They would, simply, have to create a dictatorship for the good cause of defining a good cause for creating a dictatorship.
While the proponents of a climate dictatorship try to solve their hen-or-egg problem, another scholar offers some eloquent words of wisdom on scholarly arrogance. In 2016, Nico Stehr, professor of Cultural Studies at Zeppelin University in Germany, wrote an article for Issues in Science and Technology where he highlighted a serious intellectual bias in the arguments for a climate dictatorship. Those arguments, he explained, are based on a “pessimistic assessment of the ability of democratic governance” to solve large-scale societal problems. That pessimism is coupled with an “optimistic assessment of the potential of large-scale social planning.”
Given the inability of humankind thus far in history to plan its own future, Stehr implies, it is dangerous to claim that anyone, at any point in history, actually has that ability. We don’t need to resort to atrocious examples from history; as demonstrated by such brilliant economists as Armen Alchian and G.L.S. Shackle, it is logically impossible for government to plan the economy with any level of prowess matching what humans themselves plan if left to exercise their individual and economic freedom.
Professor Stehr also notes that science is an evolving phenomenon, characterized by uncertainty in its conclusions and findings in much the same way as human society in general. In other words, a dictatorship in the name of science compounds the uncertainties of human society and of science. The risks associated with such arrogance are formidable: if the climate scientists are as wrong as the Marxists were, they will not only destroy the society they set out to save, but may use measures that destroy the very environment they claim to be concerned about.
Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.