Tech & Rights

Paranoid Government Disorder: A New Global Epidemic?

Paranoid Government Disorder (PGD) is a collective mental disorder characterized by state paranoia and a pervasive, long-standing suspiciousness and generalized mistrust of civil society.

by Peter Sarosi

Péter Sárosi is the former head of the drug program of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, currently the director of Budapest-based Rights Reporter Foundation.

Governments with this organizational disorder may habitually relate to the world by vigilant scanning of civil society for clues or suggestions that may validate their fears or biases. Paranoid governments are eager to expand control and surveillance and reduce individual rights. They think they are in danger and look for signs and threats of that danger, potentially not appreciating other evidence.

Governments suffering from PGD tend to create enemy images, that is, negative perceptions of individuals, a group of individuals and/or other governments based on paranoid delusions. They tend to distort experience by misconstructing the neutral or friendly actions of these groups as hostile or contemptuous.

The scientific literature describes two kinds of enemy images: the internal (perceived as working within society) and the external (perceived as working outside of society). It is a common delusion among governments with PGD that the groups or individuals identified as the internal enemy are the foreign agents of the external enemy.


A possible link between economic crises and this organizational disorder exists, but causation is not proven. Political theories implicate projection of frustration over growing unpopularity and fear of loss of power. Societies with weak civil society, unstable democratic institutions, significant inequality and systemic corruption are at increased risk of developing a government with PGD.


We can diagnose a government with PGD if we detect at least three of the following symptoms:

  1. Excessive government control and surveillance
  2. Tendency to restrict individual rights and freedoms and passing laws restricting the freedom of NGOs to raise funds abroad
  3. Tendency to perceive disagreement as treason
  4. Recurrent suspicions, without justification, regarding the patriotism of vulnerable minorities and/or civil society groups
  5. Tendency to experience excessive importance of the (nation) state, manifest in a persistent nation- and state-referential attitude
  6. Tendency to appeal to the frustrated middle class to exploit their fears and anxieties
  7. Preoccupation with unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about the internal and external enemy


Prevention requires early interventions, such as combating corruption, increasing government accountability and transparency, strengthening independent institutions, cherishing the freedom of the press, reducing social inequality and investing in public education.


PGD is a global pandemic. The prevalence of PDG peaked in the 1930s and then dropped. However, a steady increase has been registered after the 2008 global financial crisis. In the past few years, 20 governments have planned or passed laws restricting the freedom of NGOs. Some of these governments are authoritarian regimes, others were elected democratically. Many epidemiologists believed that well-developed, strong democracies, such as the United States, are immune to this disease, but new trumpological studies have challenged this view.


There are significant challenges in treating governments living with severe PGD because treatment efforts can trigger aggressive reactions, such as smear campaigns and administrative and/or criminal sanctions. Usually change can come from the society itself by civil rights movements, parliamentary election or, in severe cases, revolution.

According to studies conducted in the Middle East, direct military interventions to overthrow governments suffering from PGD can have devastating consequences on the health of the population. However, providing international political support and sustainable funding for civil society can play a role when a government is not prohibiting such measures.

Urgent action on the part of the international community is required to combat the global pandemic. Ending PGD is possible - it is a shared responsibility of civil society and government.

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