Winston Churchill famously observed:
Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those forms that have been tried from time to time…
He concedes that democracy has many weaknesses and carries many dangers. While we may deplore the truth of this observation, we can’t argue with it. The second implication is more troubling. We can’t deduce the ideal form of government through reason but can only compare the various forms of government and the different types of constitution in hindsight. The best form of government can only be determined in a synthetic a posteriori judgment. Can there be anything more humbling to our political philosophy? Various systems have been invented and propounded down through the ages but none of them has vanquished all rivals and won universal support, and none of them have been put into practice. Philosophers from Plato through Thomas More to Spinoza have imagined the ideal polity. Before 1776, no democracy had ever survived in any setting larger than that of a city-state. Those city-states may grow to wealth, like Venice, or conquer and subjugate its neighbors, like Rome, or ascended to the highest reaches of arts and letters like Athens or Florence, but no democracy had passed beyond the scope of a few square miles. To any observer, it was obvious that for some reason democracy was impossible in a huge nation-state. Whether in an absolute form as in France, or in a limited form as in England, hereditary monarchy was the best, and perhaps the only form of government for a large country.
If democracy couldn’t work in a large state, and was only possible in a small urban area, its merits or faults were irrelevant. These puny republics could not long survive and were certain to be devoured by huge nation-states ruled by absolute monarchs. If the merits or faults of democracy were solely academic, they were nevertheless interesting. However, the performance of democracies throughout history was less than inspiring. The Athenians condemned the entire male population of Mytilene to death, and then repented only a day later. The Romans could remain free only so long as they remained poor, and power and wealth led to the bloodbaths of Marius, the proscriptions of Sulla, and constant civil war until the Republic died and an Empire was born. This Empire was still not free from strife because they never succeeded in reposing power in one house, that could hand rule down from father to son, and so rival claimants battled over the purple after the death of every emperor. Surveying the course of history, any sensible man could come to only one conclusion, that hereditary monarchy is the best of all forms of government. The argument might run as follows:
It seems foolish and indeed unjust that a land and the everything within its borders, its houses, and fields, and castles, its forests, and lakes, its game and the produce of the fields, can be handed down from a father to his son as an inheritance. While the rights of property entitle a father to bequeath the cottage he built with his own hands, the fields which he made fruitful with his own sweat, the ox he acquired by trading his own barley, to his child and heir, it seems another thing entirely for a king to be able to bequeath an entire country to his son and heir to the throne. That for such a ridiculous transfer to be not only allowed but approved and enshrined by law and tradition seems contrary to good sense. It’s true. Hereditary monarchy is foolish and unjust and ridiculous and contrary to good sense. It’s also superior to any other form of government that has ever been tried.
There have been some towns that grew so wealthy from their trade that they threw off the royal authority and declared themselves to be Free Cities. They sought to rule themselves and to select their own leaders from among their own number. These leaders should be chosen by their wisdom. It has been the ambition of many assemblies that it should form itself from the wisest and best of mankind yet this has proven to be impossible. Who is truly wise. By what mark can the wise man be known and singled out from among his fellows. Short men will acknowledge they aren’t tall, and slow runners, when beaten in a race, will acknowledge the victor to be swifter, and poor men will acknowledge they have less money than rich men. I have yet to meet a man who will own that he is deficient in good sense. Everyone secretly thinks he is wise. No man really in his heart of hearts believes he’s a fool. Consequently, when it is contrived to form as assembly of the wise, every man feels entitled to a prominent seat in that body. Everyone feels entitled but the places are few and the aspirants are many. How, then, is the selection to be made? Many of the most ambitious are of a shorter stature and some of these are men of real ability and they would never countenance that the government be given over to the tall. To be a swift runner seems an admirable and useful trait in a elkhound or a page but of little account in a ruler. To be wealthy, however, although it doesn’t seem to make men better rulers, does certainly make them more likely rulers. The man of lesser means will always be grateful for the charity, the hospitality, the condescension, and the support of a wealthy patron and that support is customarily expected to be returned. The poor man will renounce all claim to his own place in the assembly and back the claims of his patron. The richer the man, the more numerous and zealous his supporters. Any assembly that aims to be an assembly of the wise will soon become an assembly of the wealthy. They defend their place by pointing out that they became rich by being wise and prudent and abstemious, and that therefore their wealth is a result and proof of their wisdom. Now men become rich in many ways, some through ingenuity and hard work and discipline, some through inheritance, some through luck, some through chicanery, some through violence and I will only venture to say that wealthy men are not necessarily or always wise men.
If wisdom cannot be the basis for rule, then it should be the many who rule. Every man thinks he’s wise and he’s frequently mistaken. Every man also thinks he’s one and in this he’s never mistaken. Every man who votes adds one to the total and the power of number seems inarguable. However, when men are brought together into large masses their passions are amplified. Groups of people are quicker and more violent in their passions than when alone and apart. The masses can be turned to mobs very easily. If a large crowd is gathered together it will not be the voice of patience, and prudence, and temperance, and tolerance that moves them. The voice of flattery, of fear, of ambition, of greed will move them. Demagogues turn the poor against the rich by inciting their envy and their resentment, they will turn the native against the foreigner by inflaming their suspicion and disdain. They will seek to bring on wars against old enemies or new rivals, promising glory and riches, and playing on fears of the crowd that they themselves may be conquered. The demagogue will always try to outdo one another in attracting more adherents than the rest until one of them grows strong enough to dominate and will rule alone as a tyrant. The many, when taken together, are fickle, vain, and foolish and they will soon put themselves under a despot.
There is another group that should be considered. The strong, or at least the armed, may not sit idly by and just watch all these absurdities. They will not consent for the state to become the estate of plutocrats or for it to be convulsed or rent by the tumults of the mob, If matters go too far, they may feel impelled to put an end to all this nonsense. And what are they to do then? It is a much simpler thing to overthrow a government than to establish one. Those at the head of an army are accustomed to lead, but they work toward an objective already set out for them. They select the means to carry out an end that that end has previously been determined. They are effective in these missions but once they are not the leaders of an army but the rulers of a state, they have to decide what to do rather than how to do it. Statesmanship is a thankless series of compromises and perplexities and soldiers, having taken on these duties, will be soon eager to give them up, and when they do so they will most likely render them up to one of their own. There will be one of them ambitious enough to aspire to the highest office and bold enough to attempt to discharge its responsibilities. Once placed in a position of power and precedence, he is almost always sustained in this position by his former comrades. When the military takes over the civil authority. nearly always one soldier rises to become a dictator.
Surveying all of these unappealing alternatives, it would seem that a king is far preferable to a cabal of the wealthy, or the rule of a tyrant or dictator. Hereditary succession, when guided by the principle of primogeniture, provides at least a chance if not a probability of an orderly and peaceful succession rather than the results of intrigues, assassinations, or civil wars. There will always be men who think they have the diligence, the capacity, the firmness to rule over their fellows. If they have little influence they will seek to win it, if they have little wealth they will seek to acquire it, if they have no supporters they will amass them, if they have no arms they will find them. The possession of all these is a matter of luck or accident and they can be won or lost by the chances of fortune or the certainty of ability. The possession of royal blood however is final and incontestable. Any man who doesn’t have it can’t hope to win it by gold, or eloquence, or plots, or conquest. So long as the facts of the paternity are attested and established, royalty is the one quality that is inarguable. For this one inestimable advantage, royalty is the surest and most regular basis for succession. If the succession is contested, it will be by only a small number of close relatives and what blood is shed will be confined to this narrow circle rather than the general purges and proscriptions that are endemic in other forms of government.
A king once invested will also be anointed and crowned with every circumstance of pomp and ceremony. This is only right because a king should be held in awe by his subjects by the peaceful expedients of ceremony and tradition rather than dreaded by them for cruelty and violence. It is tradition that not only supports the crown but also confines its powers within well-established limits. The tyrants and dictators that scheme and fight their way to power are a dreadful novelty and none can say what they may or may not do. A king however will hold his privileges but he will also be held by constraints and these will carry the weight of centuries. Kings are born to rule and so they are, at least in station, superior from birth and so they will view their subjects as their children rather than their rivals. Kings do not deign to persecute commoners while no man, however mean, can be completely safe from the jealousy of a tyrant. Anyone not convinced by these arguments has only to survey the register of crimes and wars and follies that is our history to see that a hereditary monarchy is the best, if not the only, way to general peace and prosperity.