What form of government is the best? Which type of authority best accommodates the nature of man, and his aspirations for advancement, prosperity, and security? These are expansive and brash questions, ventured with some trepidation. As the poet Alexander Pope has said, only a fool would hazard such queries:
For forms of government let fools contest;
Whate’er is best administer’d is best:
For modes of faith let graceless zealots fight;
His can’t be wrong whose life is in the right.
[Essay on Man, Epistle III.6]
But as fools, we are not deterred, and will proceed. We take as our starting point one of the most under-appreciated works of political theory from the Italian Renaissance, Aurelio Lippo Brandolini’s Republics and Kingdoms Compared. This fascinating treatise, unpublished during the author’s lifetime, was composed sometime between 1492 and 1494, and takes the form of a dialogue between the Hungarian King Mattias Corvinus and a Florentine knight and merchant named Domenico Giugni.
The king, Mattias, begins the discussion by posing this question: which would a man rather live under, a kingdom, or a democratic republic? Domenico, coming as he did from the Florentine republican tradition, at once states his preference for republics. Republics are preferable, he says, for three reasons. First, there is greater liberty in a republic. Citizens of a democracy are “subject to no one, and obey no one,” while their counterparts in a monarchy are subject to the king’s whims. Second, there is greater respect for justice in a republic. Laws are less capricious and more justly enforced; as a consequence, the “arts and disciplines” are more likely to flourish.
Finally, a government composed of the many is more stable than the arbitrary rule by a lone sovereign. Policies can be carried through with greater consistency, over longer periods, and are less subject to the inconsistencies of the crown. (I.35).
The king methodically rebuts each of these assertions. He begins by noting that the imagined “free voting” of republics is often an illusion. After Giugni’s winded explanation of the hurly-burly of the republican balloting process and its attendant demagoguery, the king notes, with a twinkle in his eye: “I see from what you’ve said that citizens are sometimes forced to say things they don’t want to say, and sometimes to be silent about things they do want to say.” (I.60). In practice, free voting devolves into little more than a sham:
What disease could be greater, what faction more ruinous, than a situation where bad men can hold their opinions with impunity, and good men cannot hold their opinions without suspicion, and when no difference is made between them? The bad ones are permitted to hide their pernicious views, and the good men cannot openly offer their good deeds. What you say is “free voting” is little more than unjust oppression. (I.63).
By similar arguments, Mattias is able to show that citizens of republics are similarly un-free with regards to taxation, the legal system, and in the choice of magistrates. He concludes with this astute observation:
The republic, I can see, is not free but rather serves itself; the better it is administered, the more it is harassed by servitude and unease. Everyone must watch out for the common good; if someone wants to be a good citizen, he cannot at the same time be safe or tranquil. (I.77).
Having disposed of the illusion of democratic elections, Mattias (Brandolini’s mouthpiece) then turns his attention to the administration of laws. It is a mistake, he asserts, to believe that governments of assemblies are superior lawgivers than individual sovereigns. All of the great lawgivers—Moses, Lycurgus, Solon, Minos, and Numa Pompilia, to name a few—were individuals, not legislative bodies; the best guardians of the law are kings, not venal politicians. Being far removed from the laws, kings are better able to judge their efficacy and weigh their import; and only a king can be as swift and severe in taking punitive action when needed.
Domenico, flustered, offers that at least republics have a better record of conducting commerce and industry than kingdoms; they possess a vitality of trade matched by few kingdoms. Not at all, responds Mattias. Commercial relations bring about as much evil as good, perhaps more; trade, he proposes, is overrated. Commerce is fundamentally actuated by the allurements of rapine. In the mouth of the king, Brandolini places an eloquent condemnation of exploration:
What is this insanity, truly, of sailing to the Ethiopian or Indian Oceans to collect gems or pearls? What irrationality is this, wandering the whole world for the sake of gluttony and luxury? Why do you think [the king chides Domenico] that because we don’t do this, we are detracting from the human race? We don’t detract from trade, we don’t despise society, but we are free of the unbridled lust for money. (II.27)
And in any case, did not the great trade revolutions come about through the actions of kings, such as the sovereigns of Portugal, Spain, or England? Domenico protests that the king has misrepresented him, but to no avail.
Domenico saves his best arguments for the assertion that republics offer more longevity and stability than kingdoms; power derived from an assembly will inherently be more stable than that flowing from a royal scepter. Mattias, of course, begs to differ. Factionalism and intrigue, he argues, multiply with the presence of political parties, and a state cannot have more than one leader at once; the supposed “balance of powers” in a republic devolves into a cabal of the most powerful to perpetuate their control over the nation. Rule by the many becomes something akin to “limbs without a head (sine capite membra).” Many men can disagree with themselves, but one man cannot (plures inter se dissentere possunt, unus non potest).
All in all, Brandolini’s little book is a ringing defense of absolutism, despite his pirouetting around the less savory aspects of monarchial rule. It is certainly true that monarchy has been the most common form of government through history; equally true is that it has produced far more regal mediocrities than it has enlightened rulers. History abounds with idiots wearing the diadem and purple. Yet Brandolini manages to say much about the psychological nature of ruler and ruled, as in this incisive aside, relevant to any age:
Citizens who become deficient in their observance of the law and good conduct, gradually accede to the vileness and ruin of the vices, unless they are corrected regularly, and cultivated like fields. (III.72).
“The three strongest things in nature,” we are told, “are wine, a king, and the truth.” (III.83). Yet pinning down the truth is the problem that always frustrates us; it is a moving target that requires an expert huntsman to capture. Democratic republics in Brandolini’s day had only existed historically in the form of small city-states, where factionalism and intrigue could easily paralyze the workings of government. Brandolini makes no attempt to disguise his contempt for democracy as it existed in Florence and the other Italian city-states. Like Machiavelli, he looked hopefully to a strong, centralized government as an antidote to the fratricidal wars of the Italian micro-republics. Democracy in his day had a middling record, and had earned it.
Modern democracy has really only existed since the French and American revolutions of the late 18th century. Ancient Athens, often cited as a model democracy, extended the right to vote only to fifteen percent of its citizens; the remainder were disenfranchised laborers, foreigners, women, or slaves. Democracy is the most difficult form of government because it requires an educated and engaged citizenry. As mouths multiply and education declines, so do democratic freedoms.
Even modern democracy, as found in western Europe and America, seems to be slowly reverting to authoritarian models, under the steady pressure of technological changes and the loss of privacy rights. What has been most surprising is the ease with which these rights and freedoms have been quietly appropriated in recent decades by many supposed “democratic” governments. Many democracies of the West are hardly worthy of the name, as elections increasingly become a pantomime of oligarchs changing their seats at the dinner table, without offering the common citizenry a meaningful seat at that table.
Perhaps the proper focus in the modern era should be on the results produced by governments, rather than on their outward form. What matters is whether governments respect what Hugo Grotius (an early theorist of international law) called “natural law (ius naturale).” Grotius’s landmark 1625 study, The Law of War and Peace, held that every man, by virtue of living in a society, had certain basic and fundamental rights that his government had to respect. As long as these were respected and honored, it mattered little what type of government ruled over him. This was an idea noble in conception, and often ignored in practice.
The idea of the “monarchy”—or as we would modernly say, the authoritarian state—seems to be poised for a revival, assisted by the growth of technology and the apathy of the ruled. With passivity and acquiescence, the citizens of many Western democracies watch these developments, content to gape at their smart phones and frolic in the pleasure-gardens of a consumer culture. Brandolini may have been right after all.