The Great Conversation:

By Gabriel Blanchard

It began to be said several years ago that "strange women lying in ponds distributing swords" were becoming a more appealing mechanism of government all the time ...

As we have already published a piece on the state, it may seem strange to also have a separate discussion of government. However, although the words come up in contexts that may make them sound like synonyms, there are vital distinctions between the two. The state is roughly the same thing as society in general, and includes or relates to a number of ideas that are not really the province of government; government is more specific, concentrated upon issues like legislation, administering justice, and relating to other states. A good example of the difference is the contrast between a head of state and a head of government: a head of state can be entirely ceremonial and outlast any number of governments, whereas a head of government directs the actual operations of public servants, as in the difference between the king of Great Britain and its prime minister.

Since states admit of distinctions in more or less every aspect of culture, governments can be classified a lot more narrowly than states can (we would distinguish between a Catholic absolute monarchy and a Hindu one as societies, but the type of government they possessed would be the same). There are multiple ways we can set up our taxonomy of governments, depending upon what we are interested in—from the author of Chronicles’ “he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (or, more frequently, not) to the Human Freedom Index.* The most common classification of governments today is loosely derived from Aristotle’s Politics, and amounts to a threefold system of rule by one person, a few people, or the whole populace, commonly enumerated as monarchies, oligarchies, and democracies.

But, though it’s quite straightforward, there are many purposes for which this schema isn’t satisfactory. Benito Mussolini was the dictator of Fascist Italy, but few people would call him a monarch when Italy had a monarch at the time, King Victor Emmanuel III. We refer to classical Athens as a democracy, yet only a minority of the people could hold office or vote (only native, freeborn males were even eligible: immigrants, freedmen, and women were categorically excluded), and many offices were filled by lot, not election. Words like monarchy and democracy carry with them all sorts of details about how power is received, exercised, limited (or not!), and passed on—and we rarely pause to look for these details. While we need not attempt or claim to solve every aspect of government in one blog post, a couple helpful “starter questions” can get us thinking down the right lines:

  1. What are the important qualifications for being a member of this kind government?
  2. What powers does this kind of government have and not have?

When it comes to the first, a lot of different qualities are desirable in public servants. Intelligence, courage, selflessness, and loyalty to the nation spring to mind. Unfortunately, these are not always qualities that are easy to discover, save in emergencies—when the time for deciding who will make decisions in emergencies has passed. Nonetheless, one way to classify governments is by the qualities they expect of a statesman and how they go about identifying them.

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

Using examinations to find the intelligent is a tried-and-somewhat-true method, typically resulting in bureaucracies. Standardized testing as we know it descends from the imperial civil service examinations of post-classical China.† The main advantage of this is that a well-designed exam does detect intelligence, a quality that is difficult to fake to intelligent people; the biggest drawback is that intelligence alone does not guarantee good character, and a person who is both smart and corrupt can do incalculable damage when given power. In warlike cultures, such as ancient Sparta, prowess in battle is often the most prized attribute. This is again easy to test; choosing it as the “before all else” value is fairly common, though not universal, in what are sometimes called honor/shame societies. The drawback here is that while prowess in battle exhibits a specific kind of courage, it is no proof of the good will or the good sense needed to govern in any other way.

Modern representative democracies, which profess to be based on the consent of the governed, invert the question: the trait they secure by elections is a trait possessed by other people—their willingness that the elected person shall govern them. This holds out the possibility of a highly united, conscientious state, if the public all feel themselves adequately heard by the government; it also runs the risk of reducing governors to the winners of a popularity contest, and worse, of doing so in a field where it is often necessary to make responsibly unpopular decisions.

The weaknesses of all these methods (and many more we have no space for) have something in common: under certain circumstances, the system will turn up bad candidates for governance although, or even because, the system is working properly. This is quite natural, since they weren’t looking for a good candidate for governance—they were looking for a candidate with the trait they had deemed the key to good governance, on the grounds that merely looking for “goodness,” directly, would not actually work.

This has moved many thinkers (especially of the leftist, liberal, and conservative traditions‡) to place limited government at the top of their priorities. This of course lies in the domain of question number two: should government powers be limited, and if so, by what? Nearly everyone will say yes—but a handful will not. Governments can thus be classified as either constitutional (limited) or absolute (unlimited). This division does not neatly correspond to any of the others we have touched on thus far; monarchies are constitutional at least as often as not, not only now but throughout history, while most dictators have taken power thanks to popular acclaim.

These are, of course, only the beginnings of how to think about the practical entity of government. Presumably the best way to understand it would be to try it oneself, but the present author would not wish public office even upon his enemies. Hopefully the next best thing would be to try something from our list of

Suggested reading:
Plato, Laws
Cicero, On the Ends of Good and Evil
Procopius, The Secret History
St. Thomas Aquinas, On Kingship, to the King of Cyprus
John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration
Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, The Complete “Yes Minister”

*”But which ‘Human Freedom Index’,” you ask? Luckily, the Cato Institute, the Fraser Institute, Freedom House, the Heritage Foundation, the United Nations, Wise Voter, and the World Population Review each have the most legitimate Human Freedom Index—we’re spoiled for choice on the subject, really.
†These were open to all students regardless of class, in the hope of netting gifted peasants and weeding out talentless aristocrats. The imperial examination system was one of the most enduring features of Chinese society, lasting from the late sixth century all the way until reforms made in 1905.
‡Though obviously very different, these three groups are all typified by an interest in something—equality, or autonomy, or stability—that large governments have a unique power to destroy.


Gabriel Blanchard has a degree in Classics from the University of Maryland, College Park, and is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

For more introductions to the great ideas of Western history, take a look at these posts on good and evil, infinity, this series on authority, and this one on magic. Be sure to check out our podcast and YouTube channel, too—and thank you for reading the Journal.

Published on 6th July, 2023.

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