Jacques emailed the blog with the following argument defending autocracy:
Jan [Sobieski] said it would be interesting to hear a defense of autocracy. Here goes. To be clear, it’s only a defense. I don’t claim that autocracy is a good system of government, or better than others. I only mean to defend autocracy against objections to the effect that it’s a bad system, or worse than some other one. The defense is straightforward: no political system is good, or better than others, because no particular system is necessary or sufficient for (or even related in any important way to) any of the goods we might hope to achieve politically. (I’m ignoring logically possible political systems that are just obviously evil or irrational, e.g., systems where anyone with red hair must be tortured to death or systems where no one is allowed to do productive work. And I assume that what we hope to achieve politically is some familiar bunch of things—things like peace, social harmony, prosperity, education, individual freedom, etc.) A good society is simply a society where the people who exercise political power are good—wise, reasonable, virtuous, and so on. There’s no way to define precisely the nature of a good person or group of people, no system of rules for how good people should act in any situation that might come up (other than rules so vague or trivial that they’re useless in real life deliberation). So there’s no particular system that constitutes a good society, or facilitates a good society, or makes it more likely that society will be good.
John Adams said that the US Constitution “was made only for a moral and religious people” and “is wholly inadequate to the government of any other”. That seems right to me. In a society such as the contemporary United States—one that has a huge population of ignorant and brainwashed leftists, parasites, traitors, culturally backward or unintelligent or hostile or unassimilated foreigners, criminals and people who sympathize with criminals—the system encoded in the US Constitution is probably not going to make for a healthy or happy society. Constitutionalists will argue that the problem is simply that the Constitution is not being properly interpreted or applied. Leftist ideologues sit on the Supreme Court, appointed by other ideologues. This just pushes the question further back, though. How did it happen that a country founded on these excellent principles has degenerated to the point where leftist ideologues could attain political power? Why didn’t the Constitution prevent all of that from happening? Now surely that couldn’t have happened if the American people had always been moral, wise, virtuous, etc. But if they had been like that all along, would they really have needed the Constitution or any particular political system in order to have a good society? Maybe they could then have had a pretty great anarchist or socialist or ethno-nationalist society too.
In debates about the 2nd Amendment, we often hear that citizens need to be armed as some kind of protection against tyrannical government. If Trump were to declare himself Emperor for Life, requiring everyone to convert to the Church of Positive Thinking, the militias would descend on DC in righteous fury and restore Constitutional government. But suppose there were citizen militias able to do that kind of thing. How then could the rest of society (or the government) be assured that the militia men wouldn’t get together to impose some tyrannical system of their own? What if they wanted to replace Constitutional government with a permanent military junta?
There’s no systemic or theoretical or principled solution to this problem. In the end, the only real protection against bad outcomes is the character of the people who wield power—those who can credibly threaten overwhelming violence against others who want power. In the hands of the right people, any system can produce a really good society—one where life is good for most people, by whatever standards seem most important to them, or to a reasonable third party. In the hands of the wrong people, any system will produce a really bad society.
I guess autocracy is tyranny (if we assume some non-pejorative definition of tyranny). If the tyrant or autocrat is wise, moral, virtuous (etc.) then it’s entirely possible that his society will be a very good one. Louis IX of France appears to have been a pretty good autocratic ruler. Given the realistic political alternatives at the time, and the broader circumstances within which he had to operate, it seems reasonable enough to hold that his autocratic system was the best deal for everyone in his society. But, of course, we wouldn’t approve of the same system or society if Louis were replaced by Caligula or Stalin. Likewise, I can imagine that the United States would be far better off if the whole current system were replaced by a good autocracy. Imagine that we could resurrect John Adams, for example, and persuade him to take up the responsibilities of Emperor for Life—or until such time as Americans were “a moral and religious people” once again. Given the state of things today, I think Adams might well agree to this—reluctantly and regretfully, like a true philosopher king.
Now I’m sure there are all kinds of objections to autocracy that aren’t addressed by what I’ve said here. Fire away.
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