Roman Emperor Caligula is infamously supposed to have said, “Would that the people of Rome had but one neck; I would slit it.” The historian Suetonius reports that he said it in response to a personal insult: at a particular gladiatorial game, the crowd cheered for a representative of the Equestrian Order, the lower class of nobility, which Caligula hated. In that case, we might presume that the statement was hyperbole. Yet if all of the stories of Caligula’s madness are true, he may very well have meant it.

But regardless of whether or not he meant it, and indeed regardless of whether many of the stories of Caligula’s cruelty were exaggerated (as many historians have alleged), it remains true that rulers always have uncomfortable relationships with their subjects; and the more oppressive the regime, the truer that is. It is only natural that an oppressed people should fear and hate their oppressors; and a ruler who has lost the respect and admiration of the people is in constant danger of revolt.

If things start going bad in a country under a monarch, most people will blame the monarch, unless he is exceptionally skilled at placing blame on a minority group that is already hated or feared by the people. But that tactic cannot protect him forever. Nero managed to blame the Great Fire of Rome on a fictional group of Christian insurrectionists, deflecting the accusations of those who (most likely, unfairly) held him responsible—but rumors of his having caused it reemerged in the aftermath, and contributed to his eventual downfall. Because of their image as “private owners” of the political apparatus, monarchs, simply put, cannot get away with as much as modern politicians. So despite the modern idea that democracy results in greater liberty, the case is actually the opposite: as a rule, taxes have been lower, and laws far fewer, in monarchies than in democratic states.

The modern phenomenon of the democratic state has altered the relationship of the rulers to the ruled, but without completely doing away with it. The illusion of political control “by the people” under the slogan that “we are the government” makes the tactic of scapegoating and otherwise dividing the people against one another much easier to accomplish. Few better examples could be found than the two-party system of American politics, in which the effects of political plunder, when they are noticed and correctly identified, are nearly always blamed on the other party rather than on the political system itself. Republicans think that Democrats are to blame for high taxes and out-of-control spending, although conservative saints like Ronald Reagan increased spending to unprecedented levels, which predictably led to higher taxes later on. Democrats blame Republicans and big business for the persistence of poverty, while consistently voting for politicians who increase the wealth of the political class and the businesses they favor.

Considering the tendency of the average power-seeker towards self-aggrandizement and delusions of genius, and the relative impunity with which modern politicians have been able to plunder those within their territories, it shouldn’t surprise us that brazen hypocrisy is a feature of their posture towards the people. Along with the ancient tyrants, they are still paranoid, of course. I see no other way to interpret the militarization of police, the effective repeal of the Fourth Amendment by the ironically-named PATRIOT Act, and the NSA domestic spying programs. Or, to use a more recent example of irony-in-name, the Net Neutrality act, which will allow the government to prevent ISPs from limiting Internet traffic for commercial purposes, while at the same time empowering the decidedly non-neutral government to limit Internet traffic for political purposes. They do fear the people, as well they should. But at the same time, they seem to disdain the people. They seem to think that we won’t notice what they’re up to, and act surprised when we do.

Last week, Liberty.me published a highly popular meme, with the hashtag “#EmpireHumor“, highlighting the White House’s unilateral exemption of itself from freedom of information requests—on the very day that the Freedom of Information Act was being commemorated:

“The irony of this being Sunshine Week is not lost on me,” said Anne Weismann of the liberal Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW.

“It is completely out of step with the president’s supposed commitment to transparency,” she said. “That is a critical office, especially if you want to know, for example, how the White House is dealing with e-mail.”

Ms. Weismann is wrong, though. This is completely in step with a government that both fears and also despises the people. Their fear drives them to ever-greater overreaches of power; their arrogance leads them to think they are invulnerable to public outrage. It’s hard for me to imagine the White House’s decision being made without someone having a good laugh at the expense of the American people; and although that may be a caricature, as time goes on, the government of the United States begins to look more and more like a cartoon villain. There is, of course, nothing funny about the abridgement of liberties and the resulting loss of life and limb by the very real victims of the state. Yet, it remains absurd.

Things may never reach a point at which the power elite yearn for the whole American people to have but one slittable throat, if for no other reason than that the efficiency of plunder in the modern system would present a prohibitively high opportunity cost for doing so. But as the government’s alienation from the people grows, it becomes more obvious; and eventually, it will be so great that even the two-party divide and conquer tactic won’t work anymore. Maybe not in this generation, as there are so many people who have spent their whole lives having their political opinions shaped by the tightly-controlled news networks. But those who are as yet too young to vote don’t watch NBC, CNN, or Fox News. They live in a world where they can discuss anything with anyone, including actual experts, from anywhere, any time; and YouTube comments section notwithstanding, people are starting to gain a greater level of knowledge about more things than ever before in human history, including things the state would prefer remained unknown.

Unless the government wishes to kill the golden-egg laying goose that is the Internet—and assuming they could even if they tried—they will eventually have to face a generation of people with an unprecedented level of political information. Net Neutrality may slow things down, but it won’t stop the process entirely. The inevitable failure of the state in its long-distance race against the market will come. It may not lead to a perfectly free society, but it will bring stark, extensive change. And where there is change, there is opportunity. So let them laugh, for now. It is only the laughter of maniacs who are blind to their vulnerability.