Saturday, July 16, 2011

Montesqueiu's Guide to Government

While Montesquieu travelled Europe and studied history he examined many different forms of government and observed what characteristics made each successful.  When writing The Spirit of Laws he divided these governments into different classes and judged what motivated the citizens of each government and how each one operated.  In this process, Montesquieu created a new classification for governments. This differed slightly from Aristotle's system, long recognized as the predominant categorical platform for classifying governments.  I have outlined the two systems below:

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Although it clearly influenced the development of our government, The Spirit of Laws is not necessarily written as a guide for producing a successful democracy. Montesquieu also explores others forms of government such as dictatorships, monarchies and republics.

Origin of government: Hobbes vs. Montesquieu

Before we had governments Thomas Hobbes said we lived in a "state of nature" where men were at constant war. Societies were established to protect our property and our rights from this struggle of man against man. For the development of government to occur we needed to surrender some of our liberty and freedom to a sovereign. We did this by agreeing to an unwritten covenant which we are not allowed to rebel against.  In the process we have created a super-being, an artificial man (the prince) to rule over us and preserve our equality and rights by subjugating us. We are all equal because we are all equally subjugated.

Montesquieu did not agree with this idea of Hobbes. He believed that men formed governments out of fear and weakness and that no covenant was required.  In addition, the people could be their own sovereign. Therefore there is no requirement to ennoble a single individual (the prince) with all this power. 

Society takes away equality: Karl Marx vs. Montesquieu

In a "state of nature" all men are equal because they are all afraid. Even if a man is stronger he may not necessarily want to subdue others since he still fears for his own security. However, when we have formed a society this equality is lost - we are no longer equals since there is no common fear, and men may try using this to their advantage.

"As soon as man enters into a state of society he loses the sense of his weakness; equality ceases, and then commences the state of war". This is because individuals become aware of their own strengths and seek to use the state to further their desires. Thus the state needs to be constantly protecting equality by preserving liberty, something that an all powerful sovereign cannot do effectively.  A good refute of Hobbes! 
"In the state of nature, indeed, all men are born equal, but they cannot continue in this equality. Society makes them lose it, and they recover it only by the protection of the laws." The inequality that inherently arises from society is something Karl Marx would have agreed with if he read Montesquieu a hundred years later.  However, Marx did not want to counter inequality by granting more liberty and opportunities, but rather by suppressing those who had property (the bourgeoisie).  So in comparing these two, Karl Marx wants to force equality while Montesquieu wants to give everyone the opportunity to acquire more.

Montesquieu made detailed observations on several different forms of government and in The Spirit of Laws and he outlines the characteristics of each.

A Guide for Monarchies

A monarchy is a society ruled by a sovereign that also has a class of nobles who help the king or queen maintain power. Both nobles and a strong clergy prevent the prince from slipping into despotism by holding him accountable.  The main motivating force for a monarchy is "honor".  The basic guidelines for a successful monarchy include: 1) Setting a value on fortune, not on life, 2) Not looking weak and never appeating inferior to your rank and, 3) Recognizing that honor overrides laws that do not concur with honor.

A Guide to Republics: Democracies and Aristocracies

The word "republic" has a nebulous definition in modern language.  Montesquieu called both democracies and aristocracies republics, since both provide representation. A democracy has equal representation while an aristocracy is representation by the best or the elite of society.  By this definition, our government in the US is largely an aristocracy.

Republics require continued self-sacrifice. The key to a successful republic is to make people love their government; make public interest more important than private. In contrast to an honor-loving monarchy, virtue is the key to a democracy and an aristocracy. A republic cannot tolerate avarice or reckless ambition. In a republic the lawmakers are subjects to their own rules and should therefore have a vested interested in producing the most fair and balanced laws. In the particular case of a democracy the people need to be educated so they can govern themselves and they must love equality as  "...real equality be the very soul of a democracy", even if it is difficult to establish in exactness.

This being said, too much equality can destroy a democracy.  "The spirit of inequality, which leads to aristocracy or monarchy, and the spirit of extreme equality, which leads to despotic power, as the latter is completed by conquest."  The highest level of virtue and ability is required in the citizens of a pure democracy and that is rarely found.  Therefore in a true democracy with perfect equality we will find ourselves subject to poor leaders and bad government. 

Perhaps reflecting this, Montesquieu suggests that voting should be public so that, "The lower class ought to be directed by those of higher rank...".  In contrast, he believes that votes in the senate ought to be secret to prevent intrigue.  In our government the opposite is true, but it is interesting to imagine what it would be like if we had followed Montesquieu's advice in this regard. 
Is an aristocracy better than a democracy?

Montesquieu says that "In a democracy the people are in some respects the sovereign, and in others the subject." In a true democracy anyone can be chosen to direct the administration of the state (selected at random), but only the best are actually chosen as we have seen in ancient Athens. The Athenian law-giver Solon gave the citizens the option of being included in a lottery for a position as a senator or a judge. However, at the end of their tenure the people "elected" were then judged on how well they had done their job. Therefore you would not want to submit your name for a position by lot unless you were sure you were qualified. In addition, everyone had the right to accuse someone if he were found unworthy of office.  This means that everyone had the option of being elected if they chose, but really only the best (or more confident in their ability) were selected.  Therefore, ancient Athens was a proto- or pseudo-aristocracy.  However, I do wish we held our politicians to same standards that then Athenians did. 

I'm one of you...don't you trust me? 
I believe America is an aristocracy, similar to ancient Athens, and I do not have a serious problem with that. Considering that we have "aristocrats" representing us in government, we can see how Montesquieu's next words of advice apply. We have all observed members of our aristocracy pretending to be "regular Joes" by riding motorcycles, drinking beers or wearing hardhats.  They want to appear like us - the hoi polloi, the vulgar masses, when they are of course the ruling class.  Montesquieu's advice is very apropos:

"Aristocratic families ought to therefore, as much as possible, to level themselves in appearance with the people. The more an aristocracy borders on democracy, the nearer it approaches perfection: and, in proportion as it draws toward monarchy, the more it is imperfect."

Continuing with the duplicitous theme: "When they affect no distinction, when they mix with the people, dress like them, and with them share all their pleasures, the people are apt to forget their subjection and weakness". Therefore the perception of inequality causes disorder in aristocracies and our leaders should appear to be "regular people" in order to successfully direct the majority. 

Seperation of Church and State

Montesquieu says that in a republic ecclesiastic power is harmful for a republic, since it interferes with the people's will.  This is in contrast to an monarchy where is plays a critical role in helping the sovereign stay in power.  I imagine several of the Founding Fathers took this to heart where they were preparing our Constitution.

The Death of Democracy

Montesquieu says that many things indicate the decline of a republic or a democracy.  For example, as the penalties for crime increases this correlates with a loss of liberty.  Consider our laws against marijuana use; are they too strict or even useful?  How about California's law of "Three Strikes" ?  Are the penalties justified or are we concealing deeper problems in our society?  Norway is held up as a model a democracy where citizens have cradle-to-grave health care, have a high standard of living and have almost no crime.  Interestingly, the harshest penalty for a crime in Norway is 21 years!  That's it!  Montesequieu's words ring true here.

Montesquieu also states that republics often end in luxury while monarchies end in poverty.  Perhaps the decadence of Republican Rome lead to its acceptance of a dictator. We should ask ourselves if our democracy end in luxury.  Will this be in the wealthy or the masses?  Perhaps it is like what Aristotle said about the important role of the middle class in maintaining a republic - equality is the key.  As long as the middle class is taken care of, we will forget our subjugation by the aristocracy.

"It is a general rule that great rewards given to individuals in monarchies and republics are a sign of their decline; because they are a proof of their principles being corrupted, and that the idea of honour has no longer the same force in a monarchy, nor the title of citizen the same weight in a republic."

Of course since we live in aristocracy we should also consider Montesquieu's words here.  An aristocracy is corrupted if the power of the nobles becomes arbitrary because then there is no virtue. "The extremity of corruption is when the power of the nobles become hereditary; for then they can hardly have any moderation."  Therefore, we need to keep that "death tax" running to prevent our aristocrats from corrupting themselves.

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