Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

MONTESQUIEU: Principles of Government (3: Corruption of Government)

In our previous reading Montesquieu laid out the various kinds of governments people can live under. An obvious question comes up. Which one is best? Just pick the best one and then try to live under that type government. But it’s not that easy. The answer about which one is best depends on many factors. To answer the question wisely we first have to know who the people are, who the rulers are, the climate and terrain of the country, and the peacefulness or hostility of neighboring countries. All these factors help us decide whether we need a republic (either democratic or aristocratic), a monarchy, or the emergency survival-mode option of a despotic government. Under the right conditions any of these governments can work. Under the wrong conditions any of them can fail. Montesquieu uses the term “corruption” to describe the failure of governments. What causes a government to become corrupt and fail? His theory is “the corruption of every government generally begins with that of its principles.” “Principles” means the spirit which ultimately drives a society.
For example, America is a democratic republic. Montesquieu says “virtue” is the spirit of democracy. Virtue in this sense doesn’t mean being goody-two-shoes. It means we all come together and try to achieve goals that support the common good. In America, equality is one of the pre-eminent virtues we think are good for our whole society. Many Americans feel that if we lose the drive to achieve equality, then we’re done for as a nation. The glue, the “virtue” that holds the country together is this common goal of equal status for all Americans. So it comes as a big surprise when Montesquieu says “The principle of democracy is corrupted not only when the spirit of equality is extinct, but likewise when they fall into a spirit of extreme equality.” How can this be? We can understand the decline of America “when the spirit of equality is extinct” but how is it possible that we can “fall into a spirit of extreme equality”? Can America (or any democracy) have too much equality? According to Montesquieu, yes there is such a thing as too much equality. And that is what will ultimately corrupt or destroy your government. How can that happen? Montesquieu says “When the people, incapable of bearing the very power they have delegated, want to manage everything themselves, to debate for the senate, to execute for the magistrate, and to decide for the judges.” Democracy fails when “the people” lose confidence in their Congress, their President, and their Supreme Court.
Many people don’t think America is a truly democratic republic. They think rich people run the country and we actually have an aristocratic republic. Even if this is true, America still has problems and can still be corrupted. Montesquieu believes “Aristocracy is corrupted if the power of the nobles becomes arbitrary: when this is the case, there can no longer be any virtue either in the governors or the governed.” When rules become arbitrary and government is used as a tool by a few people to profit at the expense of the rest, then that country is on the road to ruin. A country can also be destroyed if it tries to change too much, too fast. We don’t live under a monarchy but it may be instructive to note that Montesquieu thinks “Monarchy is destroyed when a prince thinks he shows a greater exertion of power in changing than in conforming to the order of things; when he deprives some of his subjects of their hereditary employments to bestow them arbitrarily upon others…” When a government starts taking away the traditions of the people, then that country is on the road to ruin. When a government starts showing favoritism for one city over another city; or one business over another business, then that country is on the road to ruin. Bad laws are bad for the country but arbitrary laws are worse. They’ll destroy it. For Montesquieu laws should preserve society, not send it on the road to ruin.


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