Domain Query: Democracy, monarchy, and oligarchy

My opposite number from back home had some interesting things to say regarding my comments on Blackdragon's unusual lapse of reason:
And now you realise why the very idea of Lockean rights is so damaging. Regardless of how vile, damaging or stupid it is, people will defend anything so long as it's framed as a right - and it's a sneaky way to introduce policy changes that would otherwise be unpopular.

No. No more rights. Noblesse oblige, chartered freedoms, duties and allegiances. No more rights. 
I would personally take it one step further: abolish democracy/republic and reinstitute monarchy. We already have an aristocracy that enjoys all the benefits and bears none of the burdens. For someone truly talented and worthy, access to the formal levers of power were never out of the question - either entering the aristocracy through marriage or purchase of land.
I do not go quite so far as this, for reasons I shall outline shortly. First, though, let's take a look at what The Observer got very right.

He is correct to argue that people have taken the idea of natural rights way too far. When John Locke wrote his major work on the subject of the limits of power to monarchy, Two Treatises, his arguments in favour of natural rights started with the philosophical idea that all men are born equally innocent, a state of nature created by the Almighty and none other. What they become after this is a function of their upbringing and their surroundings. From this argument comes the idea that there are certain rights that men retain simply by virtue of their birth. It is in order to protect themselves from each other, to prevent damage to themselves and their natural rights, that men enter into contracts with each other to form governments.

Nowhere in all of this logic will you find the plethora of "rights" that people have arrogated to themselves these days. These include: the "right" to free health care, the "right" to free education, the "right" to tell others how they might live their lives, the "right" to determine how others might spend their income and wealth, and many other petty tyrannical "rights" that come without accompanying responsibility. These aren't "rights"; they're just arguments in favour of getting free stuff without deserving it, at someone else's expense.

The Observer is also correct to point out that, in both hypothetical and practical terms, limited monarchy is basically superior to constitutional democracy in many respects. The work of the anarchocapitalist philosopher Hans-Hermann Hoppe is most interesting in this regard. In his book, Democracy: The God that Failed, Prof. Hoppe outlines the undeniable facts of monarchical rule. Until the rule of Kaiser Wilhelm I in Germany, (Western) monarchical governments were never able to get away with building the kinds of war machines that they have built over the last century. They could never impose a tax burden greater than roughly 10% or so of the national income. They were constrained in their acts by the knowledge that their people would revolt if pushed too far in terms of taxation and destructive warfare. They had good reason to be afraid, given the long and often bloody history of monarchy in the Western world; tyrannical monarchs were often deposed by their nobles, and in England both the signing of the Magna Charta and the Glorious Revolution made it perfectly clear to the ruling classes that the king could not simply rule as he pleased without their consent.

The problems with the Observer's argument against any rights of any kind start with the notion of noblesse oblige. I want to make it very clear that this is a very Western concept. With the exception of the Japanese feudal system, this idea is difficult to find elsewhere in other cultures. Islamic empires, for instance, routinely employed slavery and torture to keep their native populations in line, and were basically in permanent expansion mode for reasons that I have outlined in previous posts. The very concept of chartered freedoms simply does not exist in such cultures.

This was also true in many ways of the culture from which his own is derived- imperial China. Imperial rule in the Chinese mainland was absolute, a reflection of the "divine mandate" that all god-emperors were given to rule over the Middle Kingdom. This concept of the divine right of kings is something that the West eventually came to reject because it proved too unworkable. Too many kings, such as Henry VIII, were able to get away with too much stupidity for too long in the name of their "divine right" to rule over their subjects. Moreover, the results of absolute monarchy in China resulted not in the kind of feudal but technologically stagnant stability of the Japanese shogunate, but in relatively short periods of immense prosperity followed by long interregna filled with chaos and war. I would even go so far as to argue that Singapore's current government, with its insistence on putting power in the hands of one man and in perpetuating the Lee dynasty through time, is doing exactly what China's ancient imperial culture would have done, and with similar results.

Furthermore, to deny that men do have certain natural rights is to permit men to attempt to rule over each other in absolute fashion. To deny, for instance, that men have an absolute right to self-defence is to descend straight into the absurdity of rule based on "might makes right". We have seen precisely how well that turned out under the Fascists and the Communists. To deny men the basic right to live their lives as they please without being told how to live and what to do is to reject the basic premises of a free enterprise economic system- a system that seems completely chaotic on the surface, and yet is more efficient and generates capital and prosperity faster than anything else ever seen.

We are agreed on several things. First, we have gone too far in letting anyone and his dog have a say in how government should function, without balancing that right against an equivalent responsibility. Second, we have permitted governments to far overstep their boundaries. Governments exists for very specific purposes: to protect us from each other, and nothing more. Governments are not our parents, governments are not arbiters of our destinies, governments are nothing more than guarantors of certain basic contractually agreed freedoms. Third, we are now facing a situation in which government collapse, preceding a collapse of the society over which said government rules, is a certainty, potentially within the next 30 years. Fourth, it should be very clear by now that "democracy" is nothing more than mob rule, and if history teaches us anything, it teaches us that the mob is no more capable of acting wisely and with restraint than a hurricane.

How then shall we remedy this situation? The answer lies in the wisdom of the past- specifically, in the idea of a balance of power. There are three historical sources that I draw from in order to construct this form of government.

The first is ancient Sparta. Lycurgus the Law-Giver, a half-legendary figure of authority in ancient Greece, came up with a system of government called the Great Rhetra- a system that was both brilliant and deeply contradictory. The basic theory of government posited by Lycurgus involved significant balances of power, and preserved stability, law, and order through mutually opposing forces. Spartan society was ruled by two kings- heads of the two most important families in Lacadaemon, one junior and one senior- but these kings were far from absolute in their power. They were closer to figureheads than truly powerful monarchs. Even if both kings agreed on something, their will could be overturned by the Ephors*, who held all executive authority but were annually elected and were forbidden from being re-elected. The Spartans also had an "upper house" of their parliament (the Gerousia), which could propose or overturn laws, but could not enforce them, and a "lower house" (the Apella) which could not propose laws but could reject the laws proposed by the Gerousia.

This balance-of-power structure was remarkably stable and extremely effective at preserving the rights of Spartan citizens. It must be stressed here that Spartan society was not a free society. It was a proto-Communist society built on the backs of slaves. Yet its citizens were among the freest in all of Greece- and the most conscious of their freedoms. It is for this reason that the Spartans so deeply distrusted the mob rule of the Athenians, and went to war with them repeatedly in the 5th Century BC. But that is a story for another time.

The second example is from the writings of Cicero himself. Cicero wrote a tract called De Re Publica, in which he outlined the various stages through which governments always oscillate. His argument was that government basically moves between absolute monarchy, then limited oligarchy, then outright mob rule, and finally back to absolute monarchy again, as each stage of government oversteps its bounds and becomes evr more tyrannical. To prevent this, he argued in favour of a similar power structure to that of Sparta's- layers of defence against tyranny, contractual obligations between citizens and society, and strict limits on power.

The third comes, of course, from the Founding Fathers. They took the accumulated wisdom of Sparta, Athens, Rome, and their own homeland (England, not America- the Founders truly believed that they were simply fighting for their rights as free-born Englishmen, nothing more) and distilled its essence into first the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution. The arguments behind both documents are similar: limits on power, perpetually and diametrically opposed power structures, and strict limits placed upon the powers of any one body.

If history teaches us anything, it teaches us that trust in any one concentrated form of power is deadly to freedom and economic prosperity. It does not matter whether you believe in absolute monarchy, absolute oligarchy, or absolute democracy. Each of these forms of government is toxic to freedom by itself. Only by structuring governments such that each aspect is pitted against the other, in a perpetual power struggle, can there be true safety against tyranny.

*Lord only knows how much I love the movie, 300. It's one of the greatest graphic novels ever written, turned into one of the best movies I have ever seen- absolutely unabashed in its defence of manly virtues and freedoms. But let's be very clear about one thing- that whole bit near the beginning of the movie about the Ephors being "diseased, inbred swine" and corrupt old mystics is complete fiction. They were nothing of the sort.


  1. Excellent post. I do have a reply, though.

    I don't expect us to see eye to eye on all issues, but as Aurini says, that's the beauty of the right - we don't need to warren it up like the rabbits.

  2. A small addendum:

    I've reread the original post to jog my memory, and I really do think the core point where we differ is that whether one wants to call things "rights" or "freedoms". We're in agreement with restricting rights/freedoms from people who cannot or will not use them responsibly; the core problem lies with how the inevitable calls for expansion of the franchise are dealt with. The framing of various privileges as rights, like republicanism, inevitably leads to demotism; however, when framed as privileges, they can be rescinded much more easily in cases of abuse. Few would argue against a right to life and freedom, but then why do we put people in prison, if not the death penalty when they show they are unable to handle such freedoms without harming others?

    Essentially put, it's frame control. "No, you cannot have a say in government because you're not of the aristocracy. Buy a land and title, marry an aristocrat's daughter, or perform some service to the king. Having a say in government is a freedom we accord you." as opposed to "You can't deny my RIGHT to vote!"


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