Thomas Hodgskin wonders how despotism comes to a country and concludes that the “first step” taken towards despotism gives it the power to take a second and a third - hence it must be stopped in its tracks at the very first sign (1813)

Thomas Hodgskin

Found in An Essay on Naval Discipline

In his protest against impressment (conscription) and flogging in the Royal Navy, An Essay on Naval Discipline (1813) the ex-naval officer Thomas Hodgskin (1787-1869) argues that the brutal behavior of the officers has a corrupting influence which leads to outright despotism:

When I look around me in society, and see the nations of the earth most celebrated for the rigour and despotism of their government, groaning under the most grievous calamities, while ours from her freedom has had safety ensured to her; can these calamities be possibly traced to any other cause than this despotism, which has destroyed every manly feeling … Can the rise of despotism in any society be ever so well resisted as at first.—The first step it takes gives it additional power to take a second. It goes on thus increasing, till men’s opinions are bound up in its sanctity, and then it is irresistible.

After experiencing “despotism” first hand in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, Thomas Hodgskin began thinking how despotism came to take over entire countries. He came to the conclusion that despotic power first intimidates or “unnerv(es) the arm of the poor man” who would be the “legitimate defender of his country”. It then is able to take the first step to despotism unopposed, which “gives it additional power to take a second”, and then a third, and so on until full despotism has been achieved. This is quite similar to the thought of the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises who wrote in 1950 that a “middle-of-the-road policy leads to socialism”. By this Mises meant that each government intervention in the economy inevitably fails thus leading to a decision to either repeal it or add an additional intervention to correct the failure of the first. The latter step is usually taken leading to full socialism. Hodgskin argues along similar lines concerning the “road to despotism”. His solution is like that proposed by John Adams - “Obsta principiis, nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud”.