Can free government be reestablished in a corrupt republic? Is there enough virtue remaining in America 2016 for renewal? For insight, I can’t help but return to a favorite read, Niccolò Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy.*
In this discussion, Machiavelli assumed the republic in question was extremely corrupt, due to either a lack of laws or institutions sufficient to check universal corruption. While he doesn’t explain exactly what he means by institutions, it is clear from context here and the rest of his work that the term encompasses the totality of society and government. In modern parlance, institutions include academe, government, pop-culture, church and all of the shared and common influences on the people. He goes on to say, “just as good customs necessitate laws in order to be maintained, laws require good customs in order to be observed.” By this, republican society and government, all institutions should synchronously evolve to keep the good, toward support of the general welfare of the nation.
Machiavelli asserts, then later explains, why institutions and laws established in a republic at the time of its birth, when men were good, are no longer suitable later, once men have become evil. Even the occasional wise new law is rendered insufficient to deal with emerging evil, because the institutions in place corrupt the law. Institutions in place corrupt the law.
Roman institutions, the people, tribunes, senate, consuls changed little from the early years down to the last decades of the republic. Until this time, measures such as sumptuary laws and laws against adultery were passed for the purpose of checking corruption of the people. Still, men eventually became corrupted and their institutions were insufficient to check and reverse the rot. As Roman virtue waned, similarly corrupt and static institutions were incapable of keeping men good.
Machiavelli offers an example which illustrates that previously proper institutions for a free people are dangerous when corrupted. For instance, when the Roman republic highly valued honor, it was disgraceful to run for, and subsequently lose one’s election bid to the office of consul. Societal norms encouraged only very worthy and virtuous men to seek public office. By degrees, this system became extremely harmful.
In time, those with the most power rather than those with the most ability sought high office. Men lacking power, no matter their ability, refrained from running out of fear. Once Scipio Africanus conquered Carthage, followed by the rest of north Africa, and then most of Greece came under Roman rule, there were no enemies left to threaten Rome’s freedom. Being secure like no people in history, senior positions in government were increasingly occupied by men of charm rather than talent. In time, the good were completely excluded from such offices as powerful and conniving men proposed laws not in the name of common freedom, but for their own benefit. Against them, no one dared to speak for fear of reprisal, so that the people came to be either deceived or forced to participate in their own destruction.
Machiavelli laments that Rome did not adjust her governing institutions along with a changing society in which evil men were getting the upper hand and establishing dominance. Ever the realist, Machiavelli wasn’t hopeful that any republic could actually recover from thoroughly entrenched decadence. To possibly recover, one of two things must happen. Either prudent men along the way step in to introduce reforms as incremental corruption is detected, or a large single stroke of reform is necessary when debasement of society and government is evident to all.
Men accustomed to living in a particular way always resist change. Abstract arguments will not move those who either cannot see the danger or live well under the existing situation, and will disregard the distant observer who works to convince them of deepening, trending problems. Convincing others to join together in common cause to reverse incremental encroachments on freedom is very difficult.
As for reforming corrupt institutions all at once, long after ordinary practices have proved to be insufficient or have turned wicked, the prospects for restoration of free government are equally dim. The last resort now is to extraordinary methods, to violence or arms directed by a capable prince. Only on the rarest of occasions will a good man wish to become prince through evil means. Correspondingly rare is the evil man who intends to govern well.
Part II tomorrow.
* Machiavelli, Niccolo. Discourses on Livy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Book I, Chapter 18.