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Is an oppressive government better than anarchy?

Question submitted by Raveena, July 9, 2013

Answered by: Gideon Rose, Editor, Foreign Affairs, and Peter G. Peterson Chair, Foreign Affairs

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It depends. Both tyranny and anarchy are bad political options for a country. The political theorist Thomas Hobbes, looking at the ravages of anarchy during England's civil war in the 17th century, famously concluded that life without government was terrible because "there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; … no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, [is] solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short." Hobbes thought anarchy was so bad, in fact, that even an all-powerful state—the Leviathan—was an improvement.

However, having seen over the last century examples of the horrors that all-powerful states can perpetrate—from Germany to Russia, China to Cambodia—it is hard to give them blanket approval or even assume that they are necessarily the lesser evil.

So the question then becomes, just how oppressive is the tyrannical government in question, and just how barren and brutal the anarchy? And even more important, is the oppressive government simply predatory or does it manage to provide some basic public goods (such as public order, education, and commercial freedom)?

The more it does of the latter, the more I would favor it, in part because that would help create the conditions for gradual economic and social development, which might eventually bring political development in their wake.