The Best of All the Systems
For thousands of years Mankind has been trying to figure out the best way to get along. Every oppressive policy, and every liberating ideology, is at its core an attempt to find a better system. If not a better system for everybody, then at least a better system for somebody.
The attempt to create better systems poses significant questions. How do we reign in human nature? How to we control the bad aspects of our species without smothering the good? Is it worth making sacrifices and compromises for an imperfect system that works? Is it worth causing chaos and discord for the sake of a system that seems perfect, but could never work? These are the types of questions we should ask when we think about government and governance. What is the best way to do the most good for the most people? Or, barring that, what is the best way of keeping people in line?
So far humanity’s attempts at political systems can be grouped into three main categories. There is anarchy, which means no system. There is oligarchy, a system where a few people rule over a much larger population. And, finally, there is everyone’s favorite: democracy. The rule of everyone over everyone else.
Anarchy is the easiest system to understand, and to us humans is also the most puzzling. We may have named it, but people shouldn’t get credit for inventing anarchy. Anarchy already existed fifteen billion years ago. Maybe earlier. Anarchy is older than the Earth or the Moon or the Sun. It is the basic state of nature. Human kind and anarchy are forever incompatible. If anarchy is a blank slate, then Humans are the toddler with a crayon. We scribble all over everything we can, even if we have no idea what we are doing.
All humans scribble, but some of our scribbles are more compelling than others. This is the root of oligarchic systems. A few people have abilities that give them influence over everyone else. Some times it is a council of elites who have power. Other times it is a single monarch or despot. Either way, it means a few have control over the many. This is good if you are part of the few. And, despite popular opinion, oligarchic systems can also be very good for the many. So long as the few are good.
Oligarchy has its problems. Many people assume democracy presents the answer to these problems. There is no distinction between the many and the few if we are all part of the elite. There is no distinction between the many and the few if we are all among the wretches.
True democracy is the rule of everyone over everyone else. On one hand, this sounds like a dream. On the other, is sounds like a dystopian nightmare. If you have problems trusting a few people with power, how can you not have trouble trusting all the people with power? Democracy means everyone is your equal. Democracy means everyone is your boss. Even the people who are terrible.
True democracy is an unstable political system for the same reason pure communism is an unstable economic system. All you have to do is really get to know a few people. If you are honest, then you will understand why those systems are destined to collapse.
But we must have some sort of system. Anarchy is ruined by the mere presence of humans. It is unacceptable for a few to have complete control over the many. Yet it is equally unacceptable to hand the reins over to the mob.
Lucky for us, smart people have been thinking about this for a long time. The nature of any strong system is compromise. There is a compromise between oligarchy and democracy. A way of preserving each system’s strengths without giving in to their flaws. This system of compromise is called a Republic. The many choose the few who rule. Republics are often called representative democracies. But they can just as well be described as democratic oligarchies.
Republics are far from perfect. Being a system of compromise, they are only strong when there is balance. It doesn’t matter what policies a republic pursues, or its status in the world. Republics don’t fall when they are too liberal or too conservative.
Republics fall when only the elite have their say. Republics also fall when the people rise uncontrolled. Usually, one happens right after the other.
(Keep that in mind the next time you vote!)