Saturday, August 29, 2009

An analysis of Theories and Practices of Republics

Monarchy, the last defence of Liberty – 2: An analysis of Theories and Practices of Republics

(This is the second of 3 parts, based on a paper I gave to the Prodos - Promoting Capitalism group in Melbourne. Large parts of the following are highly edited and re-arranged quotes from Wikipedia and the great philosophers – follow the links to get full versions and references.)

A republic is a form of government in which the head of state is not a monarch and the people (or at least a part of its people) have an impact on its government. The word 'republic' is derived from the Latin phrase res publica which can be translated as "public affairs".

A further set of meanings for the term comes from the Greek word politeia. Cicero, among other Latin writers, translated politeia as res publica and it was in turn translated by Renaissance scholars as republic. This is not a very accurate translation and the term politeia is today usually translated as form of government or regime. Plato's Politeia thus known as The Republic.

The word "democracy" (Greek: δημοκρατια) combines the elements demos (δημος, which means "people") and kratos (κρατος, which means "force" or "power"). In the words "monarchy" and "oligarchy", the second element arche means rule, therefore democracy should be "demarchy". However the word "dematchy" already existed and had the meaning of mayor. So a new term was invented by Athenian democrats.

In Direct democracy, classically termed pure democracy, sovereignty is lodged in the assembly of all citizens who choose to participate.

Direct democracy stands in contrast to representative democracy, where sovereignty is exercised by a subset of the people, usually on the basis of election. Deliberative democracy incorporates elements of both direct democracy and representative democracy. (States that have the option of citizen sponsored referendum, like Switzerland, are considered to have a type of deliberative democracy. Some states in the United States joined that type after racism was removed from their franchise.)
The idea of a republic first appeared in the writings of Italian scholars of the Renaissance. To describe non-monarchial states writers, most importantly Leonardo Bruni, adopted the Latin word res publica. Machiavelli soon divided governments into two types, principalities ruled by a monarch and republics ruled by the people.

As Machiavelli wrote, the distinction between an aristocracy ruled by a select elite and a democracy ruled by a council appointed by the people became cumbersome. By the time Machiavelli began work on The Prince he had decided to refer to both aristocracy and democracies as republics (the vote being the important thing, not the franchise). Later writers, decided that aristocracy belonged with monarchy (the hereditary element being the important thing, not the vote).

Unfortunately for both groups of writers, most of the aristocracies and republics they are talking about are in fact oligarchies (with the issue becoming one of perspective of power, not type of franchise). Certainly the vast majority of republics have been limited franchise oligarchies of some sort.

Here is the quick and dirty outline of theoretical developments through the eyes of the great political philosophers…

Theory of a Republic

(469BC to 399BC)

According to Plato, Socrates was strongly opposed to the evils of democratic mob rule, and preferred wise philosopher kings - or at least that was his theoretical ideal. When asked about being such a philosopher king he was said to have replied that he felt he could not himself see into men’s minds. In our terms, he apparently felt that he lacked the ‘wisdom of Solomon’.

Socrates two most telling experiences with mob rule have been used by Plato to vilify democracy. In the first Socrates adjudicated at a trial where the mob wanted to lynch some generals for the crime of losing. Socrates tried to argue for reason and justice, but was overruled by the fury of the mob. (They later apparently recanted, and then attempted a similar judicial lynching of the people who had forced the first trial.) Thereafter the mob turned on Socrates himself for ‘corrupting youth’, and demanded he take poison. (Which he did, despite the outraged arguments of his followers, out of apparent respect for the politeia.)

We are left with a picture of a man who respected the politae as an assembly of citizens, but abhorred mob rule as an evil result. Socrates clearly felt that democracy must be only part of a system where the mob rule could be tempered. Preferably by the reason and justice of some ‘philosopher kings’ that he could never adequately define.

Plato (428BC – 348BC)

Introduced the concept that the class structure of the citizen body corresponded to the appetite/spirit/reason of the soul/ body (an argument carried over into the medieval ‘humours’). There are three elements he claimed:
Productive - abdomen.(Workers or masses.)
Protective - chest.(Warriors or Guardians or social elite.)
Governing - head. (Rulers or Philosopher Kings, a very limited percentage.)

Unfortunately he felt that a state which is made up of different kinds of souls, will inevitably decline from an aristocracy (rule by the best) to a timocracy (rule by the honorable), then to an oligarchy (rule by the few), then to a democracy (rule by the people), and finally to tyranny (rule by one person, rule by a tyrant). (See Machaivelli for an outline.)

Plato believed that the noble ideals of a state were no match for the reality of slow degradation of motives by those who rule – whether individuals or groups.

Aristotle (384BC – 322BC)

Developed the concept that a society (City) is a living organism that constantly changes and evolves (which would appear to us to forecast a somewhat Darwinian approach). He did believe however, that any effective attempt to make a working state must be considered first and foremost a ‘partnership of nobility’.

Again we have someone who theorises an ideal, without being able to convincingly explain how it will work against the ‘inevitable degradation’ proposed by his own teacher.

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (3 May 1469 – 21 June 1527)

Emphasised the division between political Realism and political Idealism — thus, The Prince is a manual to acquiring and keeping political power. The Classical ‘ideal’ society is not the aim. (Bringing to mind the joke about later political theorists and economists… “Yes it works in practice, but does it work in theory?”)

The Discourse on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy (an early history of Rome), is a series of suggestions about how a republic should be started and structured, including the concept of checks and balances, the strength of a tri-partite political structure, and the superiority of a republic over a principality.

Machiavelli is however, centrally concerned with how the noble theory of kingship devolves into tyranny; to be replaced by an idealistic aristocracy which then devolves into autocracy; to be replaced by an idealistic republic which devolves into ‘licentiousness’. At which point the people start hunting for a noble king - or dictator - to provide security. (For examples of the ‘democratic’ masses turning to a strong leader in desperation see Cromwell, Napoleon III, Adolf Hitler, and Charles de Gualle.)

Machiavelli designed the first practical balance of power, by arguing that the elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, should be incorporated into such a structure whereby any two can combine to stop the third becoming too powerful.

This has become the default practical basis of all stable and efficient modern states.

Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679)

Hobbes adapted some idea from St Thomas Aquinas to create the ‘state of nature’, He pointed out that without government the lives of men are ‘solitary, brutal and short’. His 1651 book Leviathan established what we now call social contract theory.

To escape the state of nature, men accede to a social contract and establish a civil society. According to Hobbes, society is a population beneath a sovereign authority, to whom all individuals in that society cede their natural rights for the sake of protection. Essentially the State is a Leviathan composed of men, with a life that might be traced from its “generation under pressure of human needs to its dissolution through civil strife proceeding from human passions”.

To make the state work (according to a man who had just gone through the English Civil War), the doctrine of separation of powers should be rejected. The sovereign must control civil, military, judicial and ecclesiastical powers. Any abuses of power by this authority are to be accepted as the price of peace. However, he also states that in severe cases of abuse, rebellion is expected.

Hobbes therefore accepts that states are an exercise in nobility, but cannot see beyond their inevitable devolution. His solution is essentially an absolute monarchy, hopefully kept on the straight and narrow of purity of purpose by the threat of rebellion if (or when) injustice becomes unbearable.

For all the elegance of the logic behind his argument for government as an escape from a ‘state of nature’; his exile with the Royalists after the civil war might be said to have biased his proposed solution excessively

John Locke (1632 – 1704)

Locke's political theory was founded on his own version of social contract theory. Based on reason and tolerance, and with a natural right to defend their “life, health, liberty, or possessions”: people established a civil society to resolve conflicts in a civil way with help from a government.

Locke however did advocate governmental separation of powers; and believed that revolution is not only a right, but also an obligation in some circumstances.

Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689 – 1755)

Montesquieu repeated Plato and Machiavelli in dividing French society into three classes (or trias politica, a term he coined): the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the commons.

Montesquieu’s breakthrough was to see two types of governmental power existing: the sovereign and the administrative. The administrative powers were the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. These should be separate from and dependent upon each other so that the influence of any one power would not be able to exceed that of the other two, either singly or in combination. He thus adapted Machiavelli, to try and make them work together in a state.

He identified 3 social ‘principles’: monarchies (free governments with hereditary) which rely on the principle of honor;
republics (free governments popularly elected leaders), which rely on the principle of virtue; and despotisms (enslaved governments headed by dictators), which rely on fear.

Montesquieu emphasises that the free governments are dependent on extremely fragile constitutional arrangements. He therefore devotes four chapters of The Spirit of the Laws to a discussion of England, a contemporary free government, where liberty was sustained by a balance of powers.

He firmly accepted the role of a hereditary aristocracy and the value of primogeniture, as valuable to constitutional security. (Though a byproduct of his seperation of sovereignty from executive was that while he endorsed the idea that a woman could head a government, he held that she could not be effective as the head of a family!)

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 - 1778)

In Rousseau's philosophy, society's negative influence on men centers on its transformation of amour de soi, a positive self-love, into amour-propre, or pride.

He started from the state of nature, and concluded that the division of labor and need for private property required the human race to adopt institutions of law. He felt that a man is prone to be in frequent competition with his fellow men while at the same time becoming increasingly dependent on them. This double pressure threatens both his survival and his freedom. Only by joining together into civil society through the social contract and abandoning their claims of natural right, can individuals both preserve themselves and remain free.

He believed that sovereignty (or the power to make the laws) should be in the hands of the people, thus expressing the ‘general will’. The notion of the ‘general will’ is central to Rousseau's theory of political legitimacy, but it is an unfortunately obscure and controversial notion. Some commentators see it as no more than the dictatorship of the proletariat or the tyranny of the urban poor. This was not Rousseau's meaning, as he emphasises that the general will exists to protect individuals against the mass, not to require them to be sacrificed to it.

Rousseau was opposed to the idea that the people should exercise sovereignty via a representative assembly. Instead he desired the sort of city state, of which Geneva was a model. He too made a sharp distinction between the sovereign and the government. The government is composed of magistrates, charged with implementing and enforcing the general will. The "sovereign" is the rule of law, ideally decided on by direct democracy in an assembly.

Rousseau and Montesquieu did praise republics, and looked on the city-states of Greece as a model, but both also felt that a nation-state like France, with 20 million people, would be impossible to govern as a republic. Rousseau described his ideal political structure of small self governing communes. Montesquieu felt that a city-state should ideally be a republic, but maintained that a limited monarchy was better suited to a large nation.

Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809)

One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Paine was born in England and lived and worked there until age 37, when he emigrated to the British American colonies. His pamphlet Common Sense (1776), advocated colonial America's independence, and later he influenced the French Revolution. He wrote the Rights of Man (1791), a guide to Enlightenment ideas.

It is notable that Paine was not expressing original ideas in Common Sense, but rather employing rhetoric as a means to arouse resentment of the Crown. Much of what he wrote was received with derision. The Loyalist James Chalmers said, Paine was a political quack; and warned that without monarchy, the government would "degenerate into democracy". Even John Adams called it a "crapulous mass." Adams disagreed with the type of radical democracy promoted by Paine, and published Thoughts on Government in 1776 to advocate a more conservative approach to republicanism.

Possibly the most valuable statement we get from Paine is Of the Rights of Man: “there never did, there never will, and there never can, exist a parliament, or any description of men, or any generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power of binding and controlling posterity through the ‘end of time’.”

In reality Paine was a political propagandist rather than a serious philosopher. But he did a great service in stating firmly that an overly idealized state was dangerous, at a time when the first attempts at wide franchise republics were being overoptimistically designed. It is notable that the far more experienced (in British style representative democracy), and educated (in both historical samples and practical experience of local government) American politicians, took heed of his warning more effectively than the relatively ignorant, inexperienced, and idealistic French.

>John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873)

Mill believed that the right to liberty justified freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state control. Unfortunately he was also an exponent of utilitarianism, which, in its fantasy of ‘the greatest good of the greatest number’, comes perilously close to ‘tyranny of the masses’.

Mill believed that there is an eternal struggle between Liberty and Authority. For him, liberty is a “contest... between subjects, or some classes of subjects, and the government." Mill defined "social liberty" as protection from "the tyranny of political rulers." He introduces a number of different tyrannies, including social tyranny, and also – amusingly - the tyranny of the majority.

Mill is a return to the idealists, and his support for Utilitarianism makes his desire for Liberty a highly unlikely practical outcome (though it certainly reinforce his concept of an eternal struggle!). He did however add to our understanding of the weaknesses of mob rule, social tyranny, and un-circumscribed democracy in general.

There have been dozens of theorists since then, but few have added anything significant to the outline of the debate on how a republic should work (as distinct to endless prattle about the nobility of the ideal). The entire Marxist movement can be written off for instance: both by its practical results, and by the inevitable contradictions of such a phrase as ‘the dictatorship of the proleteriat’. In fact the many attempts at a new viewpoint in the last century or more are generally verbose, tedious, and largely unrewarding. One of the more recent writers who could be considered representative is Rawls (who is all three).

John Rawls (1921 - 2002)

Rawls is a ‘modern’ theorist, who tries to balance concepts of good government with individual rights, while simultaneously attempting a bit of socialist idealism in promoting ‘equality’ for those who aren’t. Despite and enormously complex set of theories and principles and qualifications, he fails to convince. Nonetheless he does define the underlying problem elegantly (which unfortunately simply emphasises the failure of modern philosophers and political thinkers to advance much beyond the limitations of Paine and Mill).

“Liberty can always be explained by reference to three items: the agents who are free, the restrictions or limitations which they are free from, and what it is that they are free to do or not do. The general description of liberty then, has the following form: this or that person is free from this or that constraint to do so and so.”

The distinction Rawls – like so many others – fails to adequately address (despite hundreds of pages of attempting to do so), is how individual liberty can be protected under any system.


So here is a quick and highly simplistic summary of the breakthrough concepts each philosopher made, and the qualifications they identified on their practicality…

Name - Innovatin - Qualification
Socrates - Logic and Justice - Philosopher Kings
Plato - Caste Inequality - Impossible ideal
Aristotle - Living Organism - Flux
Machiavelli- Realistic balance- Inherently unstable
Hobbes - Social Contract - Centralism = corruption = collapse
Locke- Separation of Powers - Necessity of Revolution
Montesquieu - Sovereign vs Admin - Free = unstable
Rousseou - Individual rights - Sacrificing rights
Mill - Contest btwn liberty & authority - Tyranny of the majority

So let us look at the application of the theoretical alternatives in modern states.

The following paragraphs have largely been quoted directly from various entries on Wikipedia.

A: Types of Democracy

A representative democracy that emphasizes individual liberties is called a liberal democracy. One that does not is an illiberal democracy. There is no necessity that individual liberties are respected in a representative democracy.

Today, in liberal democracies, representatives are usually elected in multi-party elections that are free and fair. The power of representatives in a liberal democracy is usually curtailed by a constitution (as in a constitutional republic or a constitutional monarchy) or other measures to balance representative power:
An independent judiciary, which may have the power to declare legislative acts unconstitutional (e.g. constitutional court, supreme court)
It may also provide for some deliberative democracy (e.g., Royal Commissions) or direct popular measures (e.g., initiative, referendum, recall elections). However, these are not always binding and usually require some legislative action - legal power usually remains firmly with representatives[where?].
In some cases, a bicameral legislature may have an "upper house" that is not directly elected, such as the Canadian Senate, which was in turn modeled on the British House of Lords.

(Note, most republics have not been democracies, and many still aren’t).

B: Types of Republics (and Presidential Systems)

The term republic may have many different meanings. Today, it often simply means a state with an elected or otherwise non-monarchical head of state, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran or Republic of Korea. It may also have a meaning similar to liberal democracy. For example, "the United States relies on representative democracy, but its system of government is much more complex than that. It is not a simple representative democracy, but a constitutional republic in which majority rule is tempered by minority rights protected by law".

If the head of state of a republic is also the head of government, this is called a presidential system. There are a number of forms of presidential government.

A full-presidential system has a president with substantial authority and a central political role. The United States was the first.
In other states the legislature is dominant and the president's role is almost purely ceremonial and apolitical, such as in Germany and India. These states are parliamentary republics and operate similarly to constitutional monarchies with parliamentary systems where the power of the monarch is also greatly circumscribed.

In parliamentary systems the head of government, most often titled prime minister, exercises the most real political power.
Semi-presidential systems have a president as an active head of state, but also have a head of government with important powers.

The rules for appointing the president and the leader of the government, in some republics permit the appointment of a president and a prime minister who have opposing political convictions: in France, when the members of the ruling cabinet and the president come from opposing political factions, this situation is called cohabitation.

In some countries, like Switzerland and San Marino, the head of state is not a single person but a committee (council) of several persons holding that office. The Roman Republic had two consuls, appointed for a year.

In liberal democracies presidents are elected, either directly by the people or indirectly by a parliament or council. Typically in presidential and semi-presidential systems the president is directly elected by the people, or is de facto directly elected such as in the United States. In that country the president is officially elected by the electoral college, but by convention the college directly reflects the results of the presidential election. Direct election confers legitimacy upon the president and gives the office much of its political power. In states with a parliamentary system the president is usually elected by the parliament. This indirect elections subordinates the president to the parliament, and also gives the president limited legitimacy and turns most presidential powers into reserve powers that can only be exercised under rare circumstance. There are exceptions where elected presidents have only ceremonial powers, such as in the Republic of Ireland.

C: Variations

Without other qualifier than the term Republic — for example France and Turkey.
Parliamentary republic — a republic with an elected Head of state, but where the Head of state and Head of government are kept separate
Federal republic, confederation or federation — a federal union of states or provinces with a republican form of government. Examples include Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Germany, India, Russia and Switzerland.
Islamic Republic — Countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran are republics governed in accordance with Islamic law.
Arab Republic — for example, Syria its name reflecting its theoretically pan-Arab Ba'athist government.
People's Republic — Countries like China, North Korea
Democratic Republic —German Democratic Republic (no longer in existence) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita) — Both words (English and Polish) are derived from the Latin word res publica (literally "common affairs"). Used for both the current Republic of Poland, and the old Nobility Commonwealth. Apart from the Polish term, it should be noted that some subnational entities with republican governments (e.g. Virginia and Puerto Rico), as well as some sovereign monarchies (e.g. Australia and The Bahamas), also style themselves "commonwealths."
Free state — Irish transitional
Venezuela has been using, since the adoption of the 1999 constitution, the title of Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
Other modifiers are rooted in tradition and history and usually have no real political meaning. San Marino, for instance, is the "Most Serene Republic" while Uruguay is "República Oriental", which implies it lies on the eastern bank of the Uruguay River.

D: Ambiguities

The distinction between a republic and a monarchy are not always clear. The constitutional monarchies of the former British Empire and Western Europe today have almost all real political power vested in the elected representatives, with the monarchs only holding theoretical and rarely used reserve powers. Real legitimacy for political decisions comes from the elected representatives and is derived from the will of the people. While hereditary monarchies remain in place, political power is derived from the people as in a republic. These states are thus sometimes referred to as crowned republics.

There are also elective monarchy - Malaysia where the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is elected every five years by the Conference of Rulers composed of the nine hereditary rulers of the Malay states. While rare today, elective monarchs were common in the past. The Holy Roman Empire is an important example, where each new emperor was chosen by a group of electors. Islamic states also rarely employed primogeniture instead relying on various forms of election to chose a monarchs successor.

The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth for instance had an elective monarchy, with a wide suffrage of some 500,000 nobles. The system, known as the Golden Liberty, called their elective monarchy a rzeczpospolita, based on res publica. An amusing example of an oligarchic republic that was also an elected monrchy!


The theory and practice of republics has not yet managed to reconcile into a ‘pure’ or stable system, and the last century or two of theorists have been unable to find any practical ways around the problems. I would suggest we have plenty of evidence to show that a perfect Democratic Republic is about as realistic as a Soviet Socialist utopia.

The next article in this series of three looks at the alternative system which has actually worked, a Constitutional Monarchy…

1 comment:

  1. (Very late to the party (8 years!) but I’ve only recently discovered you and am making my way through your material—impressed, I am; and I notice you sometimes notice late comments.)
    WRT to JSM and ‘the greatest good of the greatest number’ coming ‘perilously close to “tyranny of the masses”:
    I’ve always interpreted Bentham and Hutcheson’s ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ as a modest, ‘Paradise not being achievable this side of Heaven, if more people are content than not, then a good job well done.’ I suppose it can be interpreted as, ‘If the nine of us beat up that tenth bloke and nick all his stuff, then we’ll be sorted’ but it doesn’t seem the most obvious interpretation (outside of lawyerly circles—not for nothing did Shakespeare write: ‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers’).
    As an old saying goes, ‘Your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins’, which seems fair enough—until the one person swinging his fist demands the rest of the population move out of the way of his swinging fists even as he chases them down the street. And this is what seems to be happening in a gross distortion of individual rights where the entire of Society is expected to transform itself to accommodate the increasingly irrational demands of miniscule self-defined minorities (see, e.g. Canada’s Jordan B. Peterson and his battle to speak how he wishes, and not be forced by law to use pronouns of mentally-disturbed people who self-identify as a gender other than the one they’re born with).