In a republican form of government, there is rule of law. All citizens, including government officials, are accountable to the same laws. Government power is limited and decentralized through a system of checks and balances. Government intervenes in civil society to protect its citizens against force and fraud but does not intervene in the cases of peaceable, voluntary exchange.
Contrast the framers’ vision of a republic with that of a democracy. In a democracy, the majority rules either directly or through its elected representatives. As in a monarchy, the law is whatever the government determines it to be. Laws do not represent reason. They represent power. The restraint is upon the individual instead of government. Unlike that envisioned under a republican form of government, rights are seen as privileges and permissions that are granted by government and can be rescinded by government. ~Walter Williams
Dr. Williams’ main arguments are almost entirely in agreement with my own view of the matter concerning the difference between republic and democracy. He is perfectly correct that the Founders loathed and feared democracy, and that the Constitution formally allows for only very little democratic government in the form of a popular federal legislature. This was to be the balance of the three classical, pure forms of regime in a mixed constitution, as translated from classical political theory by Montesqieu: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. He does perhaps assume too readily that republics will respect the limits of natural law, as opposed to a positive law, and I’m sure we disagree about the existence of any “rights” as such, but he is still correct that republics tend to respect prescriptive rights far more certainly than democracies, as these protections are usually part and parcel of what it means to have a republican form of government. Where I believe Dr. Williams misses something is in his conviction that the republican constitution originally embodied in our fundamental law survived in any significant fashion to our own time.
If a rule of law is one of the marks of a republic, and I agree that it is, then we cannot really claim to have been living in a republic since at least 1932. This was the beginning, as Mr. Garrett so ably argued, of the “revolution within the form,” when the constitutional republic (or whatever was left of it) was gutted and filled with something entirely different. This has tended to delude us into believing that we have remained a republic, even as all the restraints and limits on the exercise of power that republican government implies have been snapped and shattered. Now, far from having a rule of law, we do simply have indirect democracy. The only place where an American today could learn about republican restraint is in history books. It has long since departed from our country.
But I would trace the illness back still further, at least into the early nineteenth century. At that time, extensive enfranchisement might well have seemed to be a guard of constitutional government, as there were whole generations of independent yeomen schooled in a Jeffersonian tradition that inclined them to support the Democracy. Though the federal Constitution remained intact and unchanged, state constitutions throughout the Union underwent rapid change in the late 1820s and 1830s that made government at the state level increasingly democratic. This broadening of politics changed the tone of political discourse, rewarded those politicians willing to embrace popular enthusiasms and generally exacerbated the tensions between the sections. Republics are characterised by moderation and compromise, democracies by political zeal. The democratisation of the states encouraged just such zealotry even on the federal level.
Dr. Williams’ description of a republican constitution is a bit hazy, but this may be partly explained by the fact that res publica, the common or public matter or, as it is translated more often, the commonwealth or state, is itself so potentially all-encompassing and indefinite. The genius of republics is not that their laws are “founded upon reason” as such, but that a republican order (which, incidentally, can coexist in a monarchy) is one that ideally incorporates and balances all interests and provides means for the representation of those interests. Governed by moderation, held in check by law, republics are more rational to the extent that they do not fall prey to the passions and agitations of the mob. The success of the demagoguery surrounding the Iraq war, to take just one prominent contemporary example, ought to demonstrate thoroughly that we live under a degenerate oligarchy supported by such a mob (ochlos).
A republic’s laws may prove to be more agreeable because the legislation has taken those groups affected into account, and it is representative in this sense. It does not necessarily follow that there must be elections, and indeed most pre-modern republics identified by that name or possessing such a form of government were governed by aristocratic and wealthy families. Republicanism, as received by the Founders, was anti-democratic in part because aristocrats and men of means have never had any interest in empowering the equivalent of the demos. The various interests being balanced in a republic are the various interests within an aristocracy.
The Federalist vision for America was the closest to this traditional republicanism, but predictably its political base was only among those prominent families who would have held the power. It is a false Jeffersonian story, albeit a slightly charming one, that the Federalists represented a threat to republicanism in their aristocratic and Anglophilic sentiments. They were, I wager, the last best hope for the long-term success of the constitutional republic, because such a republic could only endure with their sort of politics. Failing that, the Jeffersonian inheritance was a respectable replacement, but was consumed in the inaugural pyre of consolidated democracy.
Today, as ever, it is the narrowing of the aristocracy into an oligarchy by the ambitions of a few that leads these few to invoke popular rights to gain support for themselves against their rivals. The two degenerate forms, oligarchy and democracy, are natural allies, though the oligarchs invariably benefit more from the bargain: Yushchenko the oligarch has profited handsomely from his provocation of the mob, and the mob is about to discover how little it will benefit from Yushchenko’s rule with its promises of austerity budgets and foreign takeovers of local business. Give the Ukrainians a year or two and see how much the people of western Ukraine resent those orange banners they so recently embraced (incidentally, it is just this lack of foresight, resulting from enthusiasm and passion, that makes the people a horrible governor and an incompetent elector).
(It is an irony that in some societies, such as modern Russia, the democratic impulse is towards one-man rule, which is nonetheless preferable to oligarchic rule in its stability and the greater likelihood that the autocrat will address competing interests on a more equal basis in order to keep all at a parity of political power.)
While the American republic was the victim of democratic enthusiasms and distortions, it is not at all clear to me that republics fired by the rhetoric of popular consent can avoid this degeneration. I am reminded of central European liberals, whence have come so many latter-day friends of American conservatism, who berate mass movements for their destructiveness and stupidity, as if these mass movements were doing anything other than expanding the preposterous liberalism of the middle class to broader sections of society! It is the complaint of the respectable subversive against his unruly and truly dangerous son–a tale of the two Verkhovenskys from Dostoevsky’s Demons, perhaps.
Ironically, I suspect that the American people will continue to be governed badly as long as they rely on individuals capable of being elected by them to do the governing–such individuals cannot embody any of the virtues necessary to good government, as they must endear themselves to a crowd, which is by its nature irrational, intemperate and undisciplined. How much more certain is this in an age of particular indulgence and excess? How can there be eunomia in the state, when the governors do not possess it in themselves, as the governors must be somewhat disordered to appeal to the disorderly crowd?