Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER LXXIV: democracy compared with other forms of government - Modern Democracies, vol. 2.
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CHAPTER LXXIV: democracy compared with other forms of government - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 2. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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democracy compared with other forms of government
As everything in human affairs is relative, so also the merit of any set of institutions can be tested and judged only by comparison with other sets created for similar purposes. All institutions being imperfect, the practical question is which of those that are directed to like ends show the fewest imperfections and best secure the general aim of every political system — the welfare of the nation which lives under it. That form of government is to be preferred which gives the better tendencies of human nature the fullest scope and the most constant stimulus, permitting to the worse tendencies the fewest opportunities for mischief.
Accordingly, to judge democracy aright it must be compared with the two other forms of government to which it was in the ancient world and is still the alternative, Monarchy and Oligarchy. By Monarchy I understand the Thing, not the Name, i.e. not any State the head of which is called King or Emperor, but one in which the personal will of the monarch is a constantly effective, and in the last resort predominant, factor in government. Thus, while such a monarchy as that of Norway is really a Crowned Republic, and indeed a democratic republic, monarchy was in Russia before 1917, and in Turkey before 1905, and to a less degree in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy till 1918, an appreciable force in the conduct of affairs.
The merits claimed for Monarchy as compared with Democracy are the following:
It is more stable, better able to pursue, especially in foreign relations, a continuous and consistent policy.
It gives a more efficient domestic administration because it has a free hand in the selection of skilled officials and can enforce a stricter responsibility.
It enables all the services of the State to be well fitted into one another and made to work concurrently and harmoniously together, because the monarch is the single directing head whom all obey.
It makes for justice between social classes, because the monarch, being himself raised above all his subjects, is impartial, and probably sympathetic with the masses of the people whose attachment he desires to secure.
Of these claims, the first is not supported by history so far as foreign relations are concerned, for monarchies have been as variable as democracies, and on the whole more disposed to war and aggression.
Some weight may, however, be allowed to the claims made under the second and third heads, whenever the sovereign happens to be an exceptionally capable and industrious man, or has that gift for selecting first-rate administrators which sovereigns occasionally possess, as did Henry IV., Louis XIV., and Napoleon in France, Frederick II. in Prussia, Peter the Great and Catherine II. in Russia. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw many reforms in European countries which no force less than that of a strong monarchy could have carried through.
There have been a few kings whose action justified the fourth claim, but modern monarchs in general have chiefly relied on and favoured the aristocracy who formed their Courts, and have allowed the nobles to deal hardly with the humbler classes.
History, however, if it credits some kings with conspicuous services to progress, tells us that since the end of the fifteenth century, when the principle of hereditary succession had become well settled, the number of capable sovereigns who honestly laboured for the good of their subjects has been extremely small. Spain, for instance, during three centuries from the abdication of Charles V., had no reason to thank any of her kings, nor had Hungary, or Poland, or Naples. A ruler with the gifts of Augustus or Hadrian and the virtues of Trajan or Marcus Aurelius can be a godsend to a nation; and if there were any practicable way for finding such a ruler, he and public opinion working together might produce an excellent government. But how rarely do such monarchs appear! If a sovereign turns out to be dissolute or heedless or weak, power goes naturally to his ministers or his favourites, who become a secret and virtually irresponsible oligarchy. In most modern countries, moreover, the disposition to obedience and sense of personal loyalty which used to support a hereditary ruler who could win any sort of popularity, have waxed feeble, nor would it be easy to revive them. The fatal objection to autocracy is that it leaves the fortunes of a State to chance; and when one considers the conditions under which autocrats grow up, chance is likely to set on the throne a weakling or a fool rather than a hero or a sage.
Oligarchies deserve, both because they suffer less from the hereditary principle, and for another reason that will presently appear, more consideration than monarchies. There have been various types. The feudal magnates of mediaeval European countries ruled partly by armed force, partly by the respect felt for birth, partly because their tenant vassals had a like interest in keeping the peasants in subjection. In the virtually independent Italian and German cities of those ages the ruling few were sometimes, as in Bern and Venice, nobles drawing wealth from landed estates or from commerce, sometimes the heads of trading guilds which formed a strong civic organization.1 The conditions of those days are not likely to return in this age or the next, so that in order to compare modern oligarchies with modern democracies it is better to take such cases as the British and French aristocracies of the eighteenth century, or the nobility and bureaucracy of Prussia since Frederick the Great, the last king whose rule was personal in that country, or the groups of men who governed France under Louis Napoleon, and Russia since the Tsar Nicholas I., and Austria since Joseph II. In these countries real power rested with a small number of civil and military officials, the sovereign being practically in their hands. To such cases there may be added in our own time countries like Chile and Brazil, both republics but hardly democracies, for the real substance of power is in few hands. The difference between these last countries and the monarchical oligarchies 1 of Prussia, Austria, and Russia is that in the latter not only did the personal authority of the sovereign occasionally count for something, but that to the power of the civil officials and of the leading soldiers there was added the influence of the strongest men in the fields of commerce and industry, great bankers, heads of railroad and steamship companies and manufacturing undertakings, for the power of wealth, considerable even in the days when Edward III. borrowed money from the Peruzzi in Florence and Charles V. borrowed it from the Fuggers of Augsburg, is now greater than ever.2 Any oligarchy of the future will apparently have to be either a mixture of plutocracy and bureaucracy, or else composed of the leaders of labour or trade organizations; and the wider the extension of State functions, e.g. under a Communistic system, the greater will the power of the ruling few be likely to prove in practice. Being of all forms of government that best entitled to be called Natural, for it springs out of the natural inequality of human beings, it takes the particular form which the economic and social conditions of a community prescribe, military, commercial, or industrial, as the case may be; and however often it may be crushed, its roots remain in the soil and may sprout afresh.
Oligarchy has undeniable merits. It has often proved a very stable government, able to pursue a consistent policy and hold a persistent course in foreign affairs, paying little regard to moral principles. Rome could never have conquered the world without a Senate to direct her policy abroad. She escaped the inconstancies which belong to the rule of monarchs, one of whom may reverse the action of his predecessor, and of assemblies which are at one time passionate and aggressive, at another depressed by misfortune or undecided when promptitude is essential. Rome, and Venice in her best days were prudent as well as tenacious. The two great errors of the English oligarchy, its highhanded action towards the North American colonies in and after 1775 and its failure to pass Roman Catholic Emancipation concurrently with the Parliamentary Union of Ireland with Great Britain in 1800 were not its faults so much as those of King George III., to whom it weakly yielded.
Domestic government has been often efficient under an oligarchy, because the value of knowledge and skill was understood better than has yet been the case in democracies. Unsympathetic to the masses as it has usually been, it has sometimes seen the need for keeping them contented by caring for their material well-being. The Prussian oligarchy, following no doubt in the footsteps of Frederick the Great, settled a tangled land question in the days of Stein, put through many beneficial measures and built up a singularly capable civil service along with a wonderful military machine. Even the government of Louis Napoleon, whose blunders in foreign policy were as much his own as those of his advisers, for he had unluckily taken international relations for his province, did much for the economic progress of France, and left the peasantry contented.
These and other minor merits which oligarchies may claim have, however, been outweighed by its faults.
Class rule is essentially selfish and arrogant, perhaps even insolent, and the smaller the class is, so much the more arrogant. It judges questions from the point of view of its own interest, and seldom does more for the classes beneath it than it feels to be demanded by its own safety. Legislation is stained by this class colour, and administration is likely to suffer from the personal influence which members of the dominant group exert on behalf of their friends.
Oligarchies are apt to be divided into factions by the rivalries and jealousies of the leading families. Where these do not lead to violence, as they often did in ruder ages, they take the form of intrigues which weaken and distract the State, retarding legislation, perverting administration, sacrificing public to private interests.
The pervasive spirit of selfishness and absence of a sense of responsibility to the general opinion of the nation, as well as the secrecy with which business is conducted, gives opportunities for pecuniary corruption. England under Walpole suffered from this cause, so did France under Louis Napoleon, so did Austria, so, and to a greater extent, did Spain also and the Italian Principalities, not to speak of Russia and China, where venal bureaucracies worked the ruin of both countries, creating habits which it may take generations to cure, and destroying the respect of the nation for the sovereigns who tolerated it. England, in the years between 1770 and 1820, is almost the only case of a country in which this weed was quickly eradicated without a revolutionary change.
Lastly, where a people advancing in knowledge and prosperity finds itself ruled, even if efficiently ruled, by a class — and the example of Prussia shows that it may sometimes be so ruled — it is sure to grow restive, and troubles must be expected like those which England, and still more Scotland and Ireland, witnessed during the half century before the Reform Act of 1832. That these troubles did not culminate in civil war, was due to the traditions and good sense of the Whig section of the aristocracy which espoused the popular cause. When aristocracies are seriously divided the end of their dominion is near. It was a scion of one of the oldest patrician families of Rome who destroyed the rule of the Optimates, though for this a civil war all over the Roman world was needed. A people in which the springs of ancient reverence have run dry will trust no class with virtually irresponsible power.
There are points in which a democratic Government suffers by comparison with an oligarchic, for the latter is more likely to recognize the importance of skill in administration and of economy in the management of finance, since it is not tempted to spend money in satisfying the importunities of localities or of sections of the population. It draws as much ability as democracy into the service of the State, for although the upward path is not so open, more trouble is usually taken to discover and employ conspicuous talent; and it is less disposed to legislate in a recklessly vote-catching spirit. The executive vigour with which it is credited is, however, qualified by the fear of provoking resistance or disaffection by the use of force, just as in a democracy the Executive begins to shake and quiver when votes are in question. The selfishness of those old days, when Venice kept her Slav subjects ignorant lest they should be restless, and when the English landowners enclosed commons with little regard for the interests of the humbler commoners, began in later years to be corrected — as in Prussia — by the need felt for keeping the masses in good humour. In the matter of purity, there is, if we look at concrete cases, not much to choose. The German Governments maintained a higher standard of honour among their ministers than some of the Canadian Provinces have done, and among their judges than some of the American States have done. The fear of social censure proceeding from the members of a highly placed profession may be as powerful a deterrent in an oligarchy as is the fear of public displeasure in a democracy.
Crediting Oligarchy with all these merits, it nevertheless remains true that few who have lived under a democracy would exchange its rule for that of an oligarchy; few students of history would honour the memory of a great oligarch like Bismarck as they honour the memory of men like Cavour or Cobden or Abraham Lincoln. Individual liberty has a better chance — even if not a complete security — with the People than with a class. There is less room for the insolence of power.1 The sense of civic duty and the sense of human as well as civic sympathy are more likely to flourish. Government is more just and humane, not because it is wiser, for wisdom does not increase with numbers, but because the aim and purpose of popular government is the common good of all. An enlightened monarch, or even a generous and prudently observant aristocracy, may from time to time honestly strive to help and raise the masses, but wherever power rests with a man or a class, a scornful selfishness sooner or later creeps back and depraves the conduct of affairs. So long as democracy holds fast to the principle that it exists for the whole people and makes its officials truly responsible to the whole people it will deserve to prevail.
So far I have spoken of the Rule of the Few as being the rule of a Class. There is, however, another sense in which the Few may rule and do rule, which needs to be considered, for it is of wide import.
It is greatly to be wished that we should possess in English a history or histories of mediaeval city oligarchies based on a comparison of the civic institutions of Italy and those of Germany, not without references to those of France, Spain, and England in which there was less independence because royal power was more effective. Separate studies on a considerable scale of the history of such cities as Bern and Geneva, Siena and Genoa, Lübeck, Hamburg, Ghent, and Augsburg are also wanting in our language, though they might be made both instructive and interesting. Such books exist for Venice and Florence.
German writers used to speak of Prussia as a Constitutional Monarchy — so Dr. Hasbach throughout his book, Moderne Demokratie — but in actual working it was, down till 1918, more oligarchic than monarchical; and only a superman could have made it a real monarchy.
This element was least powerful in Russia because it contained fewer men of great wealth, and in particular very few who combined wealth with such intellectual capacity as distinguished the German plutocrats.
The satiety that comes of great wealth breeds insolence (Tικτ∊ι γàρ κoρòs υβριν πoλυs óλβos ∊πηται), says a Greek poet who knew oligarchs.