Both at Aretae’s blog and Athens & Jerusalem I’ve been getting into kerfuffles over how to rank democracy among the forms of government. Most discussions of government are marred by bad definitions and bad categorization of regimes. So before continuing further, I thought it time to write out how I think about the various forms of government.
A government is the organization that the people with the most guns declare loyalty to. The government thus is the organization that exercises authority over a territory via the threat of the use of force. A system of government is a set of norms for selecting elites and delegating to them authority. All systems, even democracy and monarchy, are really oligarchical in the sense that power is held by an elite. The Iron Law of Oligarchy explains why. So when we categorize governments, we are essentially categorizing them by the process by which the elite are selected. A pure absolutist monarchy is a system in which a king is selected by inheritance. The monarch then selects the ruling elite ministers. A populist democracy is a system in which the masses use elections to select the ruling elite.
We can divide systems of governments into two basic categories – legitimist versus lawless. In a legitimist government, the rulers are selected by a transparent, commonly agreed upon process (written or unwritten). In a lawless process, the rulers come to power via corruption or violence.
In general, history teaches us that legitimist governments are far, far, far better than lawless governments. In a lawless government the corrupt and violent are rewarded with power, so of course, the rulers are generally evil and bloodthirsty. The Yeats effect applies. The only reason a person should ever throw his support toward a movement promoting lawless government is if the alternative is an even worse form of lawless government. Note that lawless governments can turn into lawful government as they evolve a non-violent succession process. China under Mao was lawless – he took power through violence. But China today is in the legitimist category, as leaders are selected through a non-violent process.
Since I think everyone agrees that lawless government is not a good goal, we will not discuss it much further. We’ll focus our discussion on what is the best form of legitimist governments.
To make the thought experiment more concrete, imagine that we are part of some small committee, lawfully tasked with creating a new government for a country. Maybe we’re Madison in Philadelphia, the U.N. designing post-colonial governments, Lessig working with post-Soviet Georgia, or Bremer in Iraq.
To understand what kind of government we should want, we must first understand the past. The modern political thinker lumps all historical governments into two forms – democratic and autocratic. This is an egregious oversimplification, a reflection of just how ignorant the modern intellectual establishment is of history and philosophy. The modern intellectual is like the devoted Christian who divides the world into only two religions – Christian and Pagan. I used to commit this same sin. I now feel shame that I put structures like the French Ancien Regime in the same bucket as revolutionary tyrannies like Maoist China.
So our the first task as part of our quest to discover the best government, is to define the forms of government in a more coherent way. Here’s my best shot; I encourage all comments:
Open Aristocracy (Merchant Aristocracy)
A very limited subset of the population has the power to select the leaders. This aristocracy is selected by some method that allows for upward and downward mobility. Usually the selection is wealth, sometimes it is combined with education/breeding.
Examples: most cities in the Hanseatic League, Venice, Britain 1690-1833, Dutch Republic, Hong Kong, Singapore, colonial Virginia, Liberia pre-1970’s
A larger subset of the population has the power to select the leaders. But there is not universal suffrage. The subset is usually selected by a property requirement, or maybe a property and literacy requirement.
Examples: colonial America, U.S. 1789-early 1800’s, Rhodesia pre-1980, Britain 1833-1887, various Greek cities, early Roman Republic
Vast authority is vested in a king, emperor or viceroy who comes to power via legal means. Usually the king receives power via birth, but adoption is not too uncommon. The king then selects the ministers who he delegates authority to.
Examples: Louis XIV, Elizabeth I, Marcus Aurelius, Ivan IV, Peter I, Frederick II, Caligula, Petillon in the Belgian Congo, MacArthur in Japan
Authority resides in the hands of nobles who were born into power. There may also be a king, but he does not hold great authority over the nobles.
Examples: Feudal Europe, Manorial England, mid-late Roman empire, 19th century Spain
Unfortunately, this category is a bit of a catch-all. A mixed bureaucracy is a government where various factions share power. These factions may include a hereditary aristocracy, the priests/ideological authorities, civil servants, wealthy merchants, and military generals. Mixed Bureaucracies are hard to generalize about as they can behave very differently depending on the particular elites and the mechanisms by which power is allocated.
Modern China is a good example, as power is shared by the party oligarchy, civil servants, military, and a plutocratic class. France under Louis XVI, with its power sharing based on estates, is another good example.
Examples: European Union, China for most of its history, France under Louis XVI
More commonly known under the term theocracy, but the ruling ideology does not always have to involve a deity. The state is controlled by a caste of people who control the ideology. The current ruling elite selects the succeeding ruling elite based on ideological conformity.
Examples: Byzantium Rome, the Papal States, modern Iran, Ottoman Empire, late Soviet Union, East Germany
Authority is allocated by universal or near-universal suffrage elections. The power of the elected officials is only partly checked by other elements, such as a limited monarch or bureaucracy.
Examples: U.S. 1776 to 1789, U.S. from 1830 to 1932, Britain from 1887 to 1945, Wiemar Republic, France from 1870 to 1914, 1918 to 1945, modern Iraq, modern Afghanistan, Congo for one day in 1960, Liberia from 1978 to 1980, South Africa post apartheid, Palestine,
The ultimate authority of the state is still nominally vested in an elite chosen by universal suffrage elections. But the populism is greatly tempered by a) a state controlled system of education, run by unelected civil servants b) a bureaucracy run by unelected civil servants c) a court system that is mostly unresponsive to elections.
Examples: the modern western nations – U.S., Japan, Britain, most of western Europe,
The defining factor of a tribal/clan system is that the unit of governance and law is based in a group that shares kinship. In some larger clans, the kinship may be more distant, and some very large clans may have sub-clans which are each extended families sharing the same ethnicity. The details of how tribal leaders are chosen varies. Birth, military prowess, age, and popular acclaim are all common selection methods. Justice between members of two clans is decided by the two clans figuring it out, peacefully or violently.
Examples: pre-colonial Africa, most North American Indians, medieval Ireland, medieval Mongolia, Germanic Tribes, modern Somalia
Lawless Systems of Government
I want to briefly want to go over common forms of unlawful governments. This will aide us in our categorizations of historical regimes.
A violent overthrow of the political system that aims to remake society in a right-wing direction.
Examples: Meiji Restoration, Hitler, Sulla
A violent overthrow of the political system that aims to radically re-make society in a left wing direction.
Examples: Mao, Lenin, Pol Pot, 80’s Iran, Gaius Marius
A nominally democratic government, but in reality the elections are rigged. Politicians use a combination of violence, bribing judges, ballot stuffing, etc to win elections.
Examples: Late Wiemar Republic, Mexico, many African and Latin American countries
This is my catch all for any autocrat or junta that takes power illegally, but without a mission to radically remake society. The autocrat may take power by killing the rightful king, military coup, rigging an election, etc.
Examples: Burmese junta, Augustus, Pinochet, Oliver Cromwell, Pertinax, Septimius Severus, Vespasian
Multiple factions violently fight for control of the nation.
Examples: Congo in the late 90’s, Nicaragua in the 80’s, Spain in the late 30’s, Russia in the 1920’s, etc.
Which historical form of government was best?
After defining the forms of government, and matching historical regimes to the forms, we’ll be able to answer the questions about which form is best.
A government can be bad in two ways:
a) it directly provides bad quality of service (infringes on liberty, strangles growth, abuses its citizens)
b) it predictably degenerates into a form of government that provides bad government.
But before we try and answer this question, I want solicit feedback from my esteemed intellectual sparring partners. Do the above categories make sense? Did I mis-categorize any regimes?
I could also use help brainstorming and categorizing historical regimes. Only when we have collected and categorized the data points from history, can we make a strong judgment about which government governs best.
There are a few regimes in particular that I don’t know how to place. Napoleon – revolutionary, counter-revolutionary, absolutist? Kim Jong-il – Absolutist, Revolutionary or Theocracy? Leopold in the Congo – unlawful autocrat or Absolutist?
Is the U.S. of 1890 best considered a managed democracy (due to its very strong court system), a popular democracy (due to its wide open elections), or a degenerate democracy (due to the large amount of corruption)? I’m leaning towards popular democracy, because I think the populist element was strong than the courts and corruption, but I could be convinced otherwise.
UPDATE: I just missed a comment by Aretae on his original post: It’s back to the key to government…and my claim is that Moldbug’s off on a wild goose chase. The issue is what the government doesn’t do…not how it’s organized.
Having just gone off on this wild goose chase, let me defend myself. As Aretae says, the feeback loop defines the system. Government cannot be constitutionally limited, because, by definition, there is no higher authority that can enforce that law. So there are only three levers through which we can achieve limited government in practice a) by designing the feedback/selection process by which the people running the government are selected, b) by widely distributing guns, c) secession/fragmenting the territory over which a government rules. This post is concentrating on method a) of ensuring limited/good government. Perhaps another time we can discuss methods b) and c).