The other day I was reading Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws ( 1748 ) and found myself struck by the relevance of his assessment of democracies. I was especially taken by a story he told from Xenphon’s Symposium. Montesquieu’s writes:
Each guest in turn gives his reason for being pleased with himself. “I am pleased with myself,” says Charmides, “because of my poverty. When I was rich I was obliged to pay court to Slanders, well aware that I was more likely to receive ill from them than to cause them any; the republic constantly asked for a new payment; I could not travel. Since becoming poor, I have acquired authority; no one threatens me, I threaten the others; I can go or stay. The rich now rise from their seats and make way for me. Now I am a king, I was a slave; I use to pay a tax to the republic, today the republic feeds me; I no longer fear loss, I expect to acquire.”
Montesquieu went on to write, “Therefore, democracy has to avoid two excesses: the spirit of inequality, which leads it to aristocracy or to the government of one alone, and the spirit of extreme equality, which leads it to the despotism or one alone, as the despotism of one alone ends by conquest.”
Essentially Montesquieu concluded that either extreme of inequality or equality leads to tyranny. What is interesting is that both extremes lead to a despotism exercised by either one person or a small group of people. Despotism through inequality is easy to envision. Despotism through “equality” is more interesting because the resulting corruption weakens a people so much that one individual is able to use force to conquer the democracy.
True equality he noted was not equality of social standing but standing under law. He stated that, “Men are born in equality, but they cannot remain so. Society makes them lose their equality.” Equality of social standing can only be achieved by perpetrating inequality onto certain individual. If one man works harder than another, would not it be unjust for a government to subjugate him to the same level of standing as someone less productive? Equality under law on the other hand can be given to all without trampling upon anyone.
When everyone must be equal with everyone else, virtue is lost and corruption is bred. As the story illustrates, it is not just to favor the poor over the rich. Justice is considered blind to any man’s state in life, but attentive to right and wrong. Once a man’s state in life becomes relevant to justice, the better off become the target of corrupted individuals pushing extreme equality. Through this leaders eventually become corrupted and to hide it, they corrupt others. They take from some people in order to give it to others. Today leaders tax the productive in order to redistribute it to the unproductive…and they do it in the spirit of “equality.”
This extreme spirit of equality not only robs a people economically, it also robs them morally and spiritually. Rather than building up society to its highest level, we constantly tear people down. Just the other day, the news headlined a story about a girl’s basketball coach who was fired for allowing his team to win 100-0. No longer are there to be winner or losers. We speak about wanting to have the best schools in America, yet we reprimand any sign of excellence. While we give lip service to wanting to produce tomorrow’s leaders, we fire anyone who stands out of the crowd.
This can only go on for so long. As the people demand more, those in authority take more. Eventually, society must collapse under the strain of its own corruption because of its loss of economic and moral strength. To conclude with the telling and thought provoking words of Montesquieu, “The more the people appear to take advantage of their liberty, the nearer they approach the moment they are to lose it.”