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Republic and Empire

Jerry Pournelle

As it was in the past, so shall it be in future: the history of the world has been the struggle of empire and republic. Each has its champions.

It used to be fashionable to say "the Republic of the United States," and our Pledge of Allegiance preserves that language. The name of republic holds magic no less than does the name of empire.

Some of that magic has been lost. In this enlightened time, we are all officially in favor of democracy, and we are pleased to call this the era of democracy. We are taught not only that all democracies are good, but that the worth of a government depends on how democratic it is. The notion that a government can be "good" but not democratic will strike many as bizarre.

It has not always been thus. If we believe, with Thomas Jefferson, that the purpose of government is to assure the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we might do well to recall what Acton said in tracing the history of freedom in Athens:

"Two men's lives span the interval from the first admission of popular influence, under Solon, to the downfall of the State. Their history furnishes the classic example of the peril of democracy under conditions singularly favorable. For the Athenians were not only brave and patriotic and capable of generous sacrifice, but they were the most religious of the Greeks. They venerated the Constitution which had given them prosperity, and equality, and freedom, and never questioned the fundamental laws which regulated the enormous power of the Assembly. They tolerated considerable variety of opinion and great license of speech; and their humanity towards their slaves roused the indignation even of the most intelligent partisan of aristocracy. Thus they became the only people of antiquity that grew great by democratic institutions. But the possession of unlimited power, which corrodes the conscience, hardens the heart, and confounds the understanding of monarchs, exercised its demoralizing influence on the illustrious democracy of Athens. It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist. But from the absolute will of an entire people there is no appeal, no redemption, no refuge but treason. The humblest and most numerous class of the Athenians united the legislative, the judicial, and, in part, the executive power. The philosophy that was then in the ascendant taught them that there is no law superior to that of the State—the lawgiver is above the law.

"It followed that the sovereign people had a right to do whatever was within its power, and was bound by no rule of right or wrong but its own judgment of expediency. On a memorable occasion the assembled Athenians declared it monstrous that they should be prevented from doing whatever they chose. No force that existed could restrain them, and they resolved that no duty should restrain them, and that they would be bound by no laws that were not of their own making. In this way the emancipated people of Athens became a tyrant, and their government, the pioneer of European freedom, stands condemned with a terrible unanimity by all the wisest of the ancients.

"They ruined their city by attempting to conduct war by debate in the marketplace. Like the French Republic, they put their unsuccessful commanders to death. They treated their dependencies with such injustice that they lost their maritime Empire. They plundered the rich until the rich conspired with the public enemy, and they crowned their guilt by the martyrdom of Socrates.

"The repentance of the Athenians came too late to save the Republic. But the lesson of their experience endures for all time, for it teaches that government by the whole people, being the government of the most numerous and most powerful class, is an evil of the same nature as unmixed monarchy, and requires, for nearly the same reasons, institutions that shall protect it against itself, and shall uphold the permanent reign of law against arbitrary revolutions of opinion."

—John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton
"The History of Freedom in Antiquity"


Classical writers spent much time analyzing the forms of government. Machiavelli put it better than most:

"I must at the beginning observe that some of the writers on politics distinguished three kinds of government, viz., the monarchical, the aristocratic, and the democratic; and maintain that the legislators of a people must choose from these three the one that seems most suitable. Other authors, wiser according to the opinion of many, count six kinds of government, three of which are very bad, and three good in themselves, but so liable to be corrupted that they become absolutely bad. The three good ones are those we just named; the three bad ones result from the degradation of the other three, and each of them resembles its corresponding original, so that the transition from the one to the other is very easy.

"Thus monarchy becomes tyranny; aristocracy degenerates into oligarchy; and the popular government lapses readily into licentiousness. So that a legislator who gives to a state which he founds, either of these three forms of government, constitutes it but for a brief time; for no precautions can prevent either one of the three that are reputed good, from degenerating into its opposite kind; so great are in these attractions and resemblances between the good and the evil.

—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Discourses


This view of government was held universally among writers on history and politics from Aristotle to very nearly the present day. And if we no longer believe that the pure forms of government are inevitably doomed, it is only because we have come to hold, with little evidence, greater faith in democracy than either the ancients or the founding fathers of the United States ever had.

Now, when the classical writers say that a government, whether monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy, is good, this means that the governors put the interest of the state ahead of their own narrow interests; that law, and freedom, and justice, were sovereign.

This, alas, is by no means inevitable in these days of partisan politics; there are politicos in plenty who would chance ruining the state to gain political advantage. Thus, the trend of the U.S. from Republic to Democracy may not deserve the enthusiasm it receives. None of this would have surprised the ancients. To them, human history was no more than the endlessly sad tale of the cycle from tyranny to aristocracy, aristocracy to oligarchy, oligarchy to democracy, and democracy to a chaos ended only by the imposition of an emperor, whose successor will be a tyrant; and on, per omnia secula seculorem.

However, there might be a remedy to the tragedy of the cycles. Cicero puts it this way:

"When there is a king, everybody except the king has too few rights, and too small a share in what is decided; whereas under an oligarchy, freedom scarcely extends to the populace, since they are not consulted and are excluded from power. When, on the other hand, there is thoroughgoing democracy, however fairly and moderately it is conducted, its egalitarianism is unfair since it does not make it possible for one man to rise above another.

"I am speaking about these three forms of government—monarchy, oligarchy, democracy—when they retain their specific character, not when they are merged and confused with one another. In addition to their liability to the flaws I have just mentioned, each of them suffers from further ruinous defects. For in front of every one of these constitutional forms stands a headlong slippery path to another and more evil one. Thus beneath the endurable, or if you like, lovable Cyrus—to take him as an example—lurks the cruel tyrant Phalaris, influencing him towards the arbitrary transformation of his own nature: for any autocracy readily and easily changes into that sort of tyranny. Then the government of Marseille, conducted by a few leading men, is very close to that clique of the Thirty which once tyrannized Athens. And as for the Athenian democracy, its absolute power turned into rule by the masses; that is to say, into manic irresponsibility.

"You may well ask which of them I like best, for I do not approve of any of them when it is by itself and unmodified: my own preference is for a form of government which is a combination of all three."

—Cicero, "Dialogues on Government"


Cicero believed that the Roman Republic had achieved that mixed form; that the Roman constitution was as near perfection as mankind could achieve. Yet even as he wrote, the Republic was falling, and Cicero was eventually murdered by agents of Octavius Caesar, later called Augustus. A single lifetime was sufficient to witness the glory of the Republic extinguished in civil war; the dictatorship of Julius Caesar; and the monarchy of Augustus.

Hundreds of books attempt to explain the fall of the Republic. Here is one of the best:

"Let us compare the situation around 150 BC [when the Republic was strong] with that around 50 [just before the end]. The transformation is astonishing. In a hundred years, the character of political competition—as well as its potential rewards—changed dramatically. In the 50s, at the very top of the political tree, the prize was total indefinite dominance. Caesar and Pompey fought to rule the Roman world. Contrast the 150s. Then the prizes were of limited character and duration . . ."

—Mary Beard and Michael Crawford,
Rome in the Late Republic


In a word, the scope of politics had changed. Moreover, the place of Rome in the world had changed. In 150 BC, Rome was a regional power. By 50 BC, she was the greatest power on Earth, with no rival but Persia.


Santayana tells us that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

In the nineteenth century, theorists might delude themselves into the notion that the cycles were ended, and progress had come at last. Marxism was one such philosophy that predicted that government and society would evolve from lower to higher forms.

Inmates of Auschwitz and the Gulag found otherwise. Not only is progress not inevitable; things can and do get worse, as well as better. If we wish to avoid catastrophe, we had best be aware of history.

Certainly, we have much to learn from the fate of Rome and Athens. In our enlightened time we may not kill our unsuccessful generals, but we allow the media to humiliate them. We may not conduct our foreign policy by debate in the marketplace, but is television much different? We are well aware that to tell anything to the Congress is to tell it to the world; yet the Congress, in the name of the people, demands to know all our military and diplomatic secrets.

The top prize in politics may not be unlimited power forever, but it is certainly fame and fortune. Lyndon Johnson never held any but public jobs, from Texas school-teacher to President, and left a fortune anyone might envy. Nixon may have resigned in disgrace, but he will never go hungry. Contrast that to Jefferson, who put up Monticello as a lottery prize in order to pay debts incurred when he was President.

In the last century, a Secretary of State could say, "Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will be America's heart, her benediction, and her prayers. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."

In this century, John F. Kennedy could say that America would "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to ensure the survival and success of liberty." We may not, in fact, have fulfilled all of Kennedy's promises, but we have gone abroad in search of monsters, which, alas, we failed to destroy.


During the hot summer of 1787, as remarkable a group of men as was ever assembled met in Philadelphia to write a Constitution for the newly independent United Colonies. All had some kind of political influence, but many were scholars, and most were much more familiar with history than would be any collection of that many politicians we might assemble today. They were all well aware of the cycles, and they were determined to found a nation that might escape them. "A new day now begins," they said, and so it was written onto the Great Seal of the United States. Our New Order would be neither democracy nor monarchy, but a mixed form—one that might endure so long as we were worthy of it.

"What have we?" an onlooker asked of Ben Franklin when the work was done. "A republic or a monarchy?"

"A republic, Madam, if we can keep it."

Many believed, and time seems to have proved, that the Philadelphia Constitution was the most perfect instrument of government ever devised by mankind. Certainly, it brought relative peace and absolute prosperity, and endured practically unchanged for generations; in fact, until the present.

This generation has seen more fundamental change in the nature of our Republic than any previous one. We have come a long way from the mixed Republic, and a long way toward a pure democracy. We have changed from a public philosophy of reliance on individual responsibility to a preference for collectivism. We have not so much disparaged liberty, but we have made security, not liberty, the highest goal of the state.

"Those who would give up essential liberty for a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety," Franklin warned us. We have come perilously close to doing that.


"The state was the great gainer of the twentieth century, and the central failure. Up to 1914, it was rare for the public sector to embrace more than 10 percent of the economy. By the 1970s, even in liberal countries, the state took up to 45 percent of the GNP. But whereas, at the time of the Versailles Treaty, most intelligent people believed that an enlarged stage could increase the sum total of human happiness, by the 1980s, the view was held by no one outside a small, diminishing, and dispirited band of zealots. The experiment had been tried in innumerable ways, and it had failed in nearly all of them. The state had proven itself to be an insatiable spender, an unrivaled waster. Indeed, in the twentieth century, it had proven itself the great killer of all time. By the 1980s, state action had been responsible for the violent or unnatural deaths of over 100 million people—more perhaps than it had hitherto succeeded in destroying during the whole of human history up to 1900. Its inhuman malevolence had more than kept pace with its growing size and expanding means.

"What was not clear was whether the fall from grace of the state would likewise discredit its agents, the activist politicians, whose phenomenal rise in numbers and authority was the most important development of modern times. As we have noted, by the turn of the century, politics was replacing religion as the chief form of zealotry. To archetypes of the new class, such as Lenin, Hitler, and Mao Tse-tung, politics—by which they meant the engineering of society for lofty purposes—was the one legitimate form of moral activity, the only sure means of improving humanity. This view, which would have struck an earlier age as fantastic, became to some extent the orthodoxy everywhere . . ."

—Paul Johnson, Modern Times


In 1940, the people of the United States believed in individual responsibility. They might look to government for a helping hand, even for temporary assistance to get past a crisis, but the notion that the government might be responsible for feeding and clothing and housing the citizens would have been rejected as socialism. Today, things are a bit different.

In 1945, the forces of freedom and liberty held dominant power over the world. The Republic of the United States had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, an enormous army in Europe and another in Japan, and a war economy. We might have imposed imperial rule over the world. Instead, we dismantled our army, brought the soldiers home, and used our economy to help our former enemies. We were given the choice between republic and empire, and we opted to remain true to our republican heritage.

Five years later, we were engaged in war in Korea—war that somehow, for all our might, we couldn't win. Within a generation, a president who had pledged to bear any burden and fight any foe stood below the Berlin Wall and could do no more than shout defiance. Within two generations, more than half the people of the world lived under tyranny, and we were still not done.

"In the days that followed Brezhnev's death in November 1982, the multitude of British and American Sovietologists and political figures interviewed from morning to night by the media urged that we "seize the opportunity" to give the Soviet Union proof of our good will. Most of them specifically recommended that the Americans immediately lift their embargo on technological transfers to the U.S.S.R.—even those with possible military applications (this was done at once)—and that we postpone for one year the deployment of the Euromissiles that were to comprise Western Europe's counterweight to the intermediate-range SS-20s Russia had already positioned on its Western frontiers.

"Just what was this 'opportunity' to be seized? The death of one leader and his replacement by another do not necessarily mean the country's policy will change. Only the new man's actions can show if he has taken a different tack. In the seven years preceding Brezhnev's death, it was Soviet foreign policy that was aggressive, not the West's. So it was up to Moscow to take the first step, not the West. There was no sign in Andropov's past of liberalism or pacifism. So why offer him unilateral concessions before he had given the slightest indication of his good will or uttered a single word that sounded conciliatory?

"Why? Because deep down, whatever they may say and write to the contrary, Westerners accept the Soviet Union's idea of them. They very nearly agree that they are at fault for the collapse of detente. We see ourselves through Moscow's eyes, we accept the myth of the Communists' desire for peace, and acknowledge that it is we who are guilty of aggressivity endangering the world's stability."

—Jean-Francois Revel,
How Democracies Perish


Democracies endure until the citizens care more for what the state can give them than for its ability to defend rich and poor alike; until they care more for their privileges than their responsibilities; until they learn they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury and use the state as an instrument for plundering, first, those who have wealth, then those who create it.

The American people seem to be learning that fatal lesson. The last forty years have seen the United States reject the temptations of empire, but nearly succumb to the seductions of democracy. We have reached the abyss, but not yet taken the last step over it. The survival of freedom itself is at stake, and that future is by no means certain.


Herewith, stories of republic and empire in the near and far future.

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