A Pop Quiz About Government

Photo: The Courier-Mail

We’ve got a pop quiz today, kids.

But don’t worry: There’s only one question, and it’s multiple-guess.

The authors of the U.S. Constitution were greatly influenced by a book called The Spirit of the Laws. It said there were three types of government: republican (including democracy), aristocratic (including monarchy), and despotic.

According to the author, each type of government needs to encourage different qualities in the people who live under it.

A republican government needs to encourage virtue in all of its people. Specifically, that’s civic virtue: The ability to reason clearly about public issues, obey the law, and cooperate for the common good:

“When virtue is banished, ambition invades the minds of those who are disposed to receive it, and avarice possesses the whole community … The members of the commonwealth riot on the public spoils, and its strength is only the power of a few, and the licence of many.”

Aristocratic government also needs to encourage civic virtue, but only in the rulers because only they have political power. The author calls that kind of virtue “honor” to distinguish it from the widespread kind of virtue needed in a republic.

Though the word “aristocracy” literally means rule by the best, in practice, it’s rule by the few: that is, by a small group of privileged elites. In a healthy society, the elites actually are some of the best people, in the sense that they are honest, wise, and virtuous:

“But how are the [elites] to be restrained? … either by a very eminent virtue, which puts them in some measure on a level with the people, and may be the means of forming a great republic; or by an inferior virtue, which puts them at least on a level with each other.”

If a country’s elites go bad, then the country is in danger. It will suffer:

“Ambition in idleness; meanness mixed with pride; a desire of riches without work; aversion to truth; flattery, perfidy, contempt of civil duties … It is exceedingly difficult for the leading men of the nation to be knaves, and the common people to be honest; for the former to be cheats, and the latter to rest satisfied with being only dupes.”

Despotic government is the simplest of the three types. It has no need of virtue or honor:

“As virtue is necessary in a republic, and honor in a monarchy, fear is necessary in a despotic government: with regard to virtue, there is no occasion for it, and honour would be extremely dangerous.”

So despotic governments need to cultivate fear: to keep their subjects in constant terror so that they don’t start thinking too much:

“In despotic states, the nature of government requires the most passive obedience … man is a creature that blindly submits to the absolute will of the sovereign. His portion here, like that of beasts, is instinct, compliance, and punishment.”

All right, it’s time for the quiz. Put away your books. Freddie, give me that cell phone, you know they’re not allowed in class. No cheating. You should make up your own mind. Your own government encourages:

  1. Virtue.
  2. Honor.
  3. Fear.

Pass your quiz papers to the front. Class dismissed.

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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