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Are Republics Overrated?

In my last piece, I wrote that one American value worth fighting for was "democratic, decentralized, local government." This caused some confusion among a few readers. Don't I know we live in a republic, not a democracy?

Well, yes I do. "Democratic" is an adjective, not a noun. We live in a republic, yes, but a democratic one. Our legislators are elected by the people. But "democratic" in the sense I use it also means government close to and accountable to the people. Laws and regulations would be made at the local level, not by federal bureaucrats. Longstanding traditions would not be arbitrarily overturned by unelected, life-tenured federal judges.

The USA is and will remain a republic of some sort, and democratic to some degree. It goes against our grain, our history and character, to revert to monarchy. And there's certainly something to be said, in theory, for republican forms of government. Particularly where power is divided, branches check and balance each other, and there are regularly-scheduled elections. This is the type of system Americans think they have, and certainly the republican shell will remain even as the USA slouches toward Empire.

On the other hand, there is something quite dishonest about republicanism. A State is not defined by the number of people it coerces, but by its borders – by the land it controls. When one person in a dynastic family claims ultimate ownership and authority over all the land, that is a monarchy. When the people as a whole claim ultimate ownership and authority over all the land, that is a democracy. A republic is, what, exactly? A small group that temporarily claims control of the land and the people on behalf of … whom? And for what?

Hans-Hermann Hoppe's Democracy: the God that Failed does not target "pure," town meeting-style democracy, but the democratic-republican government of the large, modern nation-state. A democracy in a small town can address real problems in the community, like sanitation, zoning, and street traffic. And a King, as Hoppe wrote, would take a long-term view of his domain, as his wealth is tied to the economic health of his kingdom. But the elected politicians and professional bureaucrats of a republic are not as personally affected by their decisions as are kings or even citizens in a pure democracy. Neither the politicans nor their children will be forced to pay the bills for the unnecessary wars and wasteful entitlement programs they start.

Another problem with the republic is its phony moral pretension. The politicians of a republic rule by the "consent of the governed," whereas a king does not. And political offices are generally open to all of the citizenry, which is not true in a class-based monarchy. This differences somehow prove that the republic is morally superior and thus we give it carte blanche. But, as Lew Rockwell said, "Teachers used to tell school kids that anyone can be president. This is like saying anyone can go to Hell. It's not an inspiration; it's a threat."

Even in the heavily republican, constitutional monarchies of Europe, anyone cannot be King. Such is the distinctness of the American character. Other nations of British heritage that still recognize the Queen as their nominal head of state aren't quite as, well, crazy as we Yanks. Even when they madly pursue socialism and political correctness to worse degrees than we, the average citizen still retains some balance and proportion in their outlook on life. None of them can become a King or a Queen, while any one of us Americans can become President.

Republics lack restraint. The Republic of Rome became an Empire before it had an Emperor. The rise of the British Empire coincided with the rise of Parliament's power at the expense of the King. The rise of the American Empire coincided with greater "democracy" at the national level – an elected Senate, the expansion of suffrage – while the powers of state and local governments closer to the people have diminished. Monarchy is derided as "unfair," and town meeting-style direct democracy is supposedly tyrannical, inefficient, or both. That leaves the modern democratic government as supposedly the "best" and most legitimate form of government. The form which must take over the world.

The republic is dangerous, or at least potentially so, because it is the form of the State that people will most likely let get away with tyranny and murder. Many Americans who would take up arms if a King or dictator taxed 36% of their income, claim in our Republic that that rate is too low. A King who forces children to go to schools which taught them how great monarchy is would face a revolution, yet public school funding remains one of the great budgetary problems in our republican states. A King who would force grandma to suffer in agony rather than let her take marijuana would justly be called a barbarian, yet few American politicians want to appear "soft" on the War on Drugs.

The real danger is the large, centralized State, regardless of its form of government. Let's keep government as small and as close to the people as possible.

March 19, 2005

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