From yesterday’s post regarding thoroughly corrupted republics, Machiavelli* found that even when a few wise laws are passed, corrupt institutions in society and government will turn the law away from their intended, good purposes.
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 the debasement of society and government is evident to all. Since the republic in his discussion is already thoroughly corrupt, it would appear that the first of his possible solutions has been overcome by events.
Still, what Machiavelli determined in his thought experiment comports with reason. If restoration of free government is to be brought about at all, it follows that it can arrive either incrementally in small steps, or quickly all at once. One or the other.
In the first case, the assumption of organic reform within republican norms happens slowly. Since even corrupt republics like ours in 2016 are outwardly self-governing, and men do not take well to abrupt changes, whatever change can be peacefully brought about will arrive gradually. Also, since it is assumed as a starting point that the republic is extremely corrupt, it follows that those who propose and lead a movement, those prudent men, toward reform will be the very few, those with the leadership qualities and sense of the traditions of the republic to shame a debased people to reform their nation. This natural aristocrat within the republican tradition doesn’t inflame the populace to put their trust in his person, he asks them to put trust in fundamental ideas from the founding of the republic.
As for the second case involving lightning-fast single strokes, Machiavelli refers to princes. “Prince” is a broad term for one who assumes all power, a person who assumes all sovereignty. When a critical mass of the people attempt to give up that which is unalienable, their sovereignty, and place their freedom in the hands of a prince, the republic is gone. For Machiavelli, when abrupt changes are to occur to government they can only happen through strongmen, those with the force of arms behind them to subdue foes.
Also from yesterday’s post: ”It is only on the rarest of occasions that a good man will wish to become prince through evil means. Correspondingly rare is the evil man who intends to govern well.” Good men being good, they will not assume powers they don’t have. On the other hand, men with evil intent in the course of pursuing power can hardly be expected to do good once they are in power. If examined carefully, there is a distinct difference to discern between the appeal of the natural aristocrat who exhorts the nation to return to higher ideals, and the slick demagogue who whips up raw passions.
When posters to conservative websites consider what is to be done to turn back the Leftist tide, the talk sometimes turns to the inevitability of violence, a second civil war. As with Machiavelli, reason compels them to seriously doubt the possibility of peacefully cleaning up corrupt institutions. It is hoped that the general in this conflict would be a Washington rather than a Napoleon, a Cincinnatus who will just go home to his farm after doing his duty. Yet are we to expect a good man to overthrow our existing, corrupt institutions in government and society, only to impose new establishments that actually serve to secure God-given freedom? Can raw force actually be the spring of a restored republic?
It would appear, as Machiavelli concluded, that both peaceful and less than peaceful approaches are not likely to restore free government.
When I first came across this chapter from Machiavelli some years ago, my heart raced in hope that he would offer a panacea, a silver bullet to reverse the accelerating tyranny and restore free government. While my unrealistic expectations are fairly well dashed, the rise of non-establishment presidential candidates this year is without doubt a reflection of widespread disgust with our existing institutions. Perhaps our nation is not so thoroughly corrupt as Machiavelli’s assumed republic.
The question is whether widespread disgust can be turned toward the good of the nation, or will it be commandeered by Machiavelli’s evil man who has no intention of doing good. I cannot give up hope that it can be turned toward the former and away from the latter. What took a hundred years to soil cannot be cleansed overnight. Incremental reform is still possible.
We the Constitutionalists, the keepers of the patriotic flame, must continue. Our Declaration and Constitution are our sheet-anchors, and despite the ongoing storm, they will always be there as everlasting handholds to the first principles of freedom.
The nation yearns for reform and the restoration of free government. Let’s provide it.
* Machiavelli, Niccolo. Discourses on Livy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Book I, Chapter 18.