THE POWER OF FEAR* (Print Version)
by Serge Rouleau**
Le Québécois Libre, January 15, 2009, No 263.


Fear is an emotion caused by anticipated danger. It is essential to the survival of the human species. It allows us rapidly to identify dangers that threaten our wellbeing and sometimes our very lives. It protects us by forcing us to evaluate a given situation and choose the best way of defending ourselves. If we ignore fear, we expose ourselves to dangers whose consequences can be very serious. Our genetic code, though, predisposes us to fear dangers both real and imagined.

Politicians, more than anyone else, understand this fundamental characteristic of human beings. They cultivate it and exploit it as fully as possible. Whether we speak of a Warfare State, like the United States, or of a Welfare State, as exists in France and Quebec, both types use fear to keep their populations in check. If it is true that modern democracies are dependent on public opinion, it is equally true that public opinion in turn is largely dictated by fear.

Machiavelli famously expressed the simple principle behind this strategy: "Since it is difficult to join them together, it is safer to be feared than to be loved when one of the two must be lacking."

Fear through the Ages

The first governments established themselves through war and conquest. Those among the vanquished who had not been executed or sold into slavery were required to pay a tribute to their conquerors. At the least sign of rebellion, the conquerors threatened to confiscate their goods and reduce them to slavery as well. In this context, paying the tribute was the lesser evil, and thus were born the first taxation schemes.

Those schemes were more akin to slavery than to an equitable tax system, hence the least sign of weakness on the conquerors' part resulted in the revolt of the conquered. If unable to take back their freedom, these redoubled their ingenuity in an effort to contravene the government's extortion. Maintaining the government by force was therefore a costly proposition that was rarely as successful as expected.

Sooner or later, governments allied themselves with religious powers. Sometimes the head of state combined both military and religious power in one person, as in the case of the Pharaohs. Other times, military and religious powers formed an explicit alliance―as in the case of the European monarchs―the better to dominate and exploit the population.

Religious representatives held considerable power. Conniving with the military powers, they dictated which type of behaviour―obedience and submission―would guarantee one a place in the hereafter. Thus, the military power threatened people's safety and lives in this world while the religious power threatened their wellbeing in the next. The combination of these powers created a far more effective force than those same powers had when operating separately.

In time, the use of fear for political ends was refined. Politicians assumed the role of the citizens' protectors. The government's mandate became protecting the population from real and imagined dangers. Often, governments become the source of the dangers against which they promise to protect their citizens. The citizen has no choice: he is protected whether he likes it or not, and from himself too if necessary.

The concept of democracy introduced the notion that government derives its powers from the people and therefore reflects the popular will. This ushered in the golden age of interest groups. Encouraged in their efforts by politicians, they pretend to represent the public interest and demand more government intervention to avoid anticipated catastrophes. They capitalize on people's fears in order to influence public opinion: terrorism, the environment, poverty, epidemics, unemployment, free trade, education, etc. They popularize the notion that the government is the only entity capable of protecting the people. Thus, the government finances interest groups and in return, interest groups clamour for more government. The modern Welfare State is born.

Fear Management

The use of fear as a means of political control must be adapted to the changing realities of different times and different societies. The effect of fear diminishes over time. Unless the predicted catastrophes materialize, doubt quickly enough takes hold. Governments must possess a constantly renewing inventory of dangers to revive the population's fear. In this, its choices are limitless.

The media also traffic enthusiastically in fear. They are quite familiar with big, spectacular headlines that stir up our apprehensions. The theme running through all newspapers and news shows seems to be: another day, another fear. The population is kept in a constant state of anxiety. This strategy commands our attention and camouflages the real problems, making it easier for governments to levy new taxes and pass new laws and regulations.

In Quebec, this strategy functions extremely well. A recent CROP poll, carried out for l'Université de Sherbrooke's research chair in taxation and public finances, concluded that three quarters of Quebecers are somewhat or very much in favour of an increase in the sales tax if the proceeds go to healthcare. Almost seven in ten respondents are ready to pay more if the money goes to education and the fight against poverty. Quebecers understand that over the last twenty years, the budgets allocated to health and education have increased as rapidly as services have deteriorated. Nonetheless, the fear of going without healthcare, or of their children not having access to a quality education, convinces them to choose the apparently least risky option.

The real problem stems from the fact that these services are supplied by heavily-unionized government monopolies. In spite of this, politicians, unions, and the many interest groups that benefit from these monopolies succeed in making Quebecers believe that all problems can be solved by government. By using fear as a propaganda tool, they propose new laws and regulations as solutions. Taxes go up in proportion to the expansion of the bureaucracy with no corresponding improvement in services. We are caught in a vicious circle from which there seems to be no escape: more government creates more problems, which in turn seem to require more government.

At any given moment, opportunists are ready to profit from the fears generated and maintained by governments in order to get rich at the population's expense. Former politicians and civil servants become expert consultants from one day to the next. They author voluminous reports, paid for at great public cost, confirming the foretold dangers. Whole new enterprises are born, and others get richer, thanks to subsidies generated by government programs created with the express purpose of curbing the many dangers which beset us. These same programs subsidize hundreds of non-profit social organizations that exist to help society deal with the stress created by constant fear.

The environment

The Cold War (1945-1990) is an excellent example of the use of fear to elicit popular support. If the perception of danger represented by the communist bloc ever showed signs of diminishing in the public's opinion, the beneficiaries of the American military-industrial complex were only too happy to announce a new danger. We were informed that the Soviets possessed a new warplane, or a new submarine, or a new generation of satellites, and that generally did the trick. As if by coincidence, military budgets increased as a result.

When the communist era drew to a close, there was a period of uncertainty lasting around a decade. Populations demanded that governments reduce military spending, and politicians were in obvious disarray. Finding a new source of danger in order to avoid an eventual loss of power was becoming an urgent issue.

It is just around this time that government, with the help of the UN, declared the environment to be the ultimate source of danger in the 21st century. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), ratified by 189 countries, entered into force March 21, 1994. The Kyoto Protocol, its logical consequent, was signed by 156 countries and entered into force in February

The environment is the perfect domain in which to perpetuate the government's strategy of fear. There have always been natural catastrophes, and there always will be natural catastrophes. Environmental dangers are real, strike without warning, and exist everywhere on the planet. Every hurricane, tsunami, flood, or drought gives politicians the opportunity to remind their population that the government exists to protect them and to help them in times of need. What better way of keeping the population in a state of constant fear of danger on the one hand and benevolence toward the government on the other!


In all times, public safety represents the most efficient form of governing through the use of fear. War is the ultimate threat to public safety. In times of war, the power of the government apparatus is practically unlimited. Politicians, bureaucrats, and military-industrial entrepreneurs understand instinctively that they are lucky to be living through an exceptional period. The opportunities for personal enrichment are limited only by the imaginations of those individuals who hold power. Politicians obtain long-sought-after budget increases. New departments requiring thousands of new civil servants are created overnight. Demands from the military are approved without discussion, and contracts are awarded without tender.

Those who dare question the validity of certain decisions are accused of lack of patriotism, or worse, of being outright traitors. They are harassed by police and abandoned by friends, neighbours, and colleagues. Others who were thinking of denouncing abuses and frauds think twice about doing so.

The tragic events of September 11, 2001 gave politicians the world over an unexpected occasion to ensure the long life of regimes that govern by fear. To make sure the message would be understood by all, George W. Bush categorized the terrorists' actions as acts of war.

Terrorism is an inexhaustible source of potential dangers. Terrorist acts are spectacular and create a strong feeling of insecurity within a society. Most people are convinced that governments are the only entities capable of protecting populations and preventing terrorist attacks. Since 2001, the war on terror has become the avenue of choice for keeping populations in a state of submission.


Politicians have always known that fear is the best way to convince reticent populations to give their unconditional support to the government. Whether to distract the public, to justify more taxes, or to push through unpopular legislation, politicians can always look to dramatic events, actual or expected, for the help they need. Gradually, by maintaining the population in a state of constant fear, the State erodes individual liberties to the benefit of politicians and government bureaucrats.

The process has been greatly accelerated since the September 11, 2001 attacks. People accept just about anything if it is imposed gradually, including the loss of liberty. It is therefore more important than ever to remember the wise words spoken by Benjamin Franklin in 1759: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

* This article was first published in French in QL no 205 – December 10, 2008. It was translated by Bradley Doucet. **Serge Rouleau is Editor of Magazine nagg.