Ukraine, Autocracy, and America
By David Harmer
Propped up in her hospital bed, her wounded head bandaged, her face pockmarked and lacerated, 27-year-old Olga cradles her infant daughter, Victoria—alive only because Olga had used her own body as a shield.
Not all mothers were able. Attempting escape with her six-year-old, Sofiya, her five-week-old, Vanyushka, and her parents, Irina was intercepted at a checkpoint. Having called the children’s uncle, she put her phone on speaker.
“My God, the baby!” he heard her cry. “How could they do this?” Then, he said, “The soldiers shot the car to pieces. Vanyushka kept crying for two minutes and then he was quiet.” Russian soldiers killed all five.
Some we know by name, others by picture or description:
- Tatiana Perebeinis, the tech-firm executive killed on the street, with her son, Nikita, and daughter, Alise, as they attempted to flee Irpin.
- Marina, the mother who rushed, desperate, into a hospital with her unconscious 18-month-old Kirill, only to wail in grief upon learning that his injuries were fatal.
- The woman pulled from the rubble of the maternity hospital in Mariupol, struck while she was in labor, who lost her newborn baby, then her own life.
Each represents hundreds of Ukrainians killed, thousands injured, millions displaced.
A student recently asked how Vladimir Putin, one evil autocrat, could inflict so much harm on innocent victims when nearly the entire world opposes him.
The wonder, I answered, isn’t that one wicked man can do such damage; subjection to tyranny has been the sad lot of most people in most places through most of human history, up to the present. Rather, the wonder is that much of the world has charted a better course, away from “might makes right” and toward the rule of law—following a trail blazed by the American founding.
Bad men are found in all nations, including ours. Bad tendencies are found in all people, including you and me. We’d like to think that the more power we gain, the more good we can do. But sad experience shows that power tends to corrupt.
That’s why our Founding Fathers were so careful to define, disperse, check, and balance the powers delegated to the national government. They devised a limited government of enumerated powers, with legislators and an executive serving for finite terms, constrained by the Constitution and accountable to the electorate. Taking human nature as they found it, they determined that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” Thus, they separated the national government’s powers among three branches, further divided the legislature’s powers between two houses, and established a federal system in which powers not delegated to the national government were reserved to the states or the people.
“It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government,” wrote Publius in Federalist 51. “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Admittedly, the Founders expected the American people to cultivate qualities of character that suited them for self-government. Federalist 55: “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.” However, the Constitution they created didn’t rely on voluntary self-restraint; it imposed structural restraints.
The government the Founders created was inefficient, cumbersome, and biased toward inaction. That was intentional. Even the most energetic legislator, ruthless executive, or determined jurist finds his will thwarted, hemmed, and circumscribed in countless ways. Those are features, not bugs. Activists impatient with such constraints, who in their zeal to solve societal problems would unleash the power of the state or its officers, risk greasing the skids for greater ills.
That’s one reason the work of Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge is so important. We teach what Publius called “the necessity of auxiliary precautions,” including “all the subordinate distributions of power.” We cultivate gratitude for a Constitution that “divide[s] and arrange[s] the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other” and makes “the private interest of every individual . . . a sentinel over the public rights.”
Putin has his admirers, even here, even now. That shouldn’t be too surprising; affinity for autocracy has a long history, among journalists no less than politicians. (For a pertinent example from nearly a century ago, Google “Walter Duranty, New York Times, Holodomor”; for a recent one, “Tom Friedman, China envy.”) What’s surprising, and gratifying, is that would-be American autocrats and their enablers have never yet overcome Constitutional constraints.
That’s no reason for complacency; our Republic is resilient, not indestructible. But it is reason to admire what the Founders achieved, reflect on how they achieved it, and re-commit to preserving it.
Supporting America’s first principles of freedom is essential to ensure future generations understand and cherish the blessings of liberty. With your donation, we will reach even more young people with the truth of America’s unique past, its promising future, and the liberty for which it stands. Help us prepare the next generation of leaders.