[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]
In commemoration of Presidents’ Day (or of the possible alternative holiday No-Presidents Day) I offer these thoughts from William Godwin on the problems with elective and limited monarchy – since an elective limited monarchy is essentially what the Presidency is:
ON ELECTIVE MONARCHY
Having considered the nature of monarchy in general, it is incumbent on us to examine how far its mischiefs may be qualified by rendering the monarchy elective.
One of the most obvious objections to this remedy is the difficulty that attends upon the conduct of such an election. There are machines that are too mighty for the human hand to conduct; there are proceedings that are too gigantic and unwieldy for human institutions to regulate. The distance between the mass of mankind and a sovereign is so immense, the trust to be confided so incalculably great, the temptations of the object to be decided on so alluring, as to set every passion that can vex the mind in tumultuous conflict. …
The design with which election can be introduced into the constitution of a monarchy must either be that of raising to the kingly office a man of superlative talents and uncommon genius, or of providing a moderate portion of wisdom and good intention for these functions, and preventing them from falling into the hands of persons of notorious imbecility. To the first of these designs it will be objected by many ‘that genius is frequently nothing more in the hands of its possessor than an instrument for accomplishing the most pernicious intentions’. … If then genius can, by temptations of various sorts, be led into practical mistake, may we not reasonably entertain a fear respecting the effect of that situation which is so singularly pregnant with temptation? If considerations of inferior note be apt to mislead the mind, what shall we think of this most intoxicating draught, of a condition superior to restraint, stripped of all those accidents and vicissitudes from which the morality of human beings has flowed, with no salutary check, with no intellectual warfare, where mind meets mind on equal terms, but perpetually surrounded with sycophants, servants and dependents? To suppose a mind in which genius and virtue are united and permanent is also undoubtedly to suppose something which no calculation will teach us to expect should offer upon every vacancy. And, if the man could be found, we must imagine to ourselves electors almost as virtuous as the elected, or else error and prejudice, faction and intrigue, will render his election at least precarious, perhaps improbable. Add to this that it is sufficiently evident, from the unalterable evils of monarchy already enumerated, and which we shall presently have occasion to recapitulate, that the first act of sovereignty in a virtuous monarch whose discernment was equal to his virtue would be to annihilate the constitution which had raised him to a throne.
But we will suppose the purpose of instituting an elective monarchy, not to be that of constantly filling the throne with a man of sublime genius, but merely to prevent the office from falling into the hands of a person of notorious imbecility. Such is the strange and pernicious nature of monarchy that it may be doubted whether this be a benefit. Wherever monarchy exists, courts and administrations must, as long as men can see only with their eyes, and act only with their hands, be its constant attendants. But these have already appeared to be institutions so mischievous that perhaps one of the greatest injuries that can be done to mankind is to persuade them of their innocence. … To palliate the defects and skin over the deformity of what is fundamentally wrong is certainly very perilous, perhaps very fatal to the best interests of mankind. … If I lived under an elective monarchy, I certainly should not venture to give my vote to a fickle, intemperate or stupid candidate, in preference to a sober and moderate one. Yet may it not happen that a succession, such as that of Trajan, Adrian and the Antonines, familiarizing men to despotism, and preparing them to submit to the tyranny of their successors, may be fraught with more mischief than benefit? It should seem that a mild and insidious way of reconciling mankind to a calamity, before they are made to feel it, is a real and a heavy misfortune. …
ON LIMITED MONARCHY
I proceed to consider monarchy, not as it exists in countries where it is unlimited and despotic, but, as in certain instances it has appeared, a branch merely of the general constitution.
Here it is only necessary to recollect the objections which applied to it in its unqualified state, in order to perceive that they bear upon it, with the same explicitness, if not with equal force, under every possible modification. Still the government is founded in falsehood, affirming that a certain individual is eminently qualified for an important situation, whose qualifications are perhaps scarcely superior to those of the meanest member of the community. …
But, if we consider the question more narrowly, we shall perhaps find that limited monarchy has other absurdities and vices which are peculiarly its own. In an absolute sovereignty, the king may, if he please, be his own minister; but, in a limited one, a ministry and a cabinet are essential parts of the constitution. In an absolute sovereignty, princes are acknowledged to be responsible only to God; but, in a limited one, there is a responsibility of a very different nature. In a limited monarchy, there are checks, one branch of the government counteracting the excesses of another, and a check without responsibility is the most flagrant contradiction. …
An individual is first appointed, and endowed with the most momentous prerogatives; and then it is pretended that, not he, but other men, are answerable for the abuse of these prerogatives. … Having first invented this fiction, it becomes the business of such constitutions, as nearly as possible, to realize it. A ministry must be regularly formed; they must concert together; and the measures they execute must originate in their own discretion. The king must be reduced, as nearly as possible, to a cypher. So far as he fails to be completely so, the constitution must be imperfect.
What sort of figure is it that this miserable wretch exhibits in the face of the world? Everything is, with great parade, transacted in his name. He assumes all the inflated and oriental style which has been already described …. We find him like Pharaoh’s frogs, “in our houses, and upon our beds, in our ovens, and our kneading troughs.” … A limited monarchy… might be executed with great facility and applause if a king were, what such a constitution endeavours to render him, a mere puppet regulated by pulleys and wires. But it is among the most egregious and palpable of all political mistakes to imagine that we can reduce a human being to this neutrality and torpor. He will not exert any useful and true activity, but he will be far from passive. The more he is excluded from that energy that characterizes wisdom and virtue, the more depraved and unreasonable will he be in his caprices. … A king does not fail to hear his power and prerogatives extolled, and he will, no doubt, at some time, wish to essay their reality in an unprovoked war against a foreign nation, or against his own citizens.
On a related note, here’s an amusing article about the 2000 election:
“To suppose a mind in which genius and virtue are united and permanent is also undoubtedly to suppose something which no calculation will teach us to expect should offer upon every vacancy. And, if the man could be found, we must imagine to ourselves electors almost as virtuous as the elected, or else error and prejudice, faction and intrigue, will render his election at least precarious, perhaps improbable.”
In other words, even if we could merge the oratory of Obama, the principled integrity of Ron Paul, and perfect libertarian consistency (except for the fact he’d be running for office), he would STILL not get elected due to the electorate preferring the likes of Clinton and McCain.
Too bad the Chimpster’s face didn’t appear next to that bit about a “notorious imbecile.”