Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

A Republic or Democracy? The Case for a Democracy against Representative Government

The only way to erect such a Common Power, as may be able to defend them from the invasion of Forraigners, and the injuries of one another, and thereby to secure them in such sort, as that by their owne industrie, and by the fruites of the Earth, they may nourish themselves and live contentedly; is, to conferre all their power and strength upon one Man, or upon one Assembly of men, that may reduce all their Wills, by plurality of voices, unto one Will: which is as much as to say, to appoint one man, or Assembly of men, to beare their Person; and every one to owne, and acknowledge himselfe to be Author of whatsoever he that so beareth their Person, shall Act, or cause to be Acted, in those things which concerne the Common Peace and Safetie; and therein to submit their Wills, every one to his Will, and their Judgements, to his Judgment. This is more than Consent, or Concord; it is a reall Unitie of them all, in one and the same Person, made by Covenant of every man with every man, in such manner, as if every man should say to every man, “I Authorise and give up my Right of Governing my selfe, to this Man, or to this Assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy Right to him, and Authorise all his Actions in like manner.” This done, the Multitude so united in one Person, is called a COMMON-WEALTH, in latine CIVITAS. This is the Generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather (to speake more reverently) of that Mortall God, to which wee owe under the Immortall God, our peace and defence. For by this Authoritie, given him by every particular man in the Common-Wealth, he hath the use of so much Power and Strength conferred on him, that by terror thereof, he is inabled to forme the wills of them all, to Peace at home, and mutuall ayd against their enemies abroad.

-Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan: Book II, Chapter XVII: The Generation of a Commonwealth


…this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

-Abraham Lincoln: Gettysburg Address

Preliminary Delimitations of the Scope of Discussion

In a topic as massive as this, the elaboration of the distinction between a democracy and republic, it would be necessary at the outset to delimit the scope and points of discussion engaged here. To that end, I wish to limit my discussion to the following points:


(1) The interaction and relation between the People/Nation and the State/Government.

(2) The notion of citizenship or agency of the common citizenry of the Nation/People as it relates to the determination of public officials and public policy.

(3) The empirical plausibility of the spectrum of options as it relates to the arrangement of the particular duties, competence and powers of the common citizenry in determining the composition  and actions of the state/government.

Throughout this discussion I would be raising points of concern particular to those of ancient Chinese philosophy and hopefully, in so doing, I could shed some new light on this old contest.

Two Problems which Every State/Government Must Resolve

Any commonwealth of sufficient size and complexity will need to solve two basic civic problems:

(1) It must have ways of curbing the actions of the vicious and selfish whose vice would disrupt the coherent functioning of the commonwealth.

(2) It must have ways of resolving disputes concerning both principles of justice and the common good as well as its application in particular situations.


Most political thought invariably considers (1) as the par excellence function of the state or government, the wielding of the sword to curb the viciousness of the wicked who would dissolve the bonds of the body politic by their disruptive killing and stealing. However old political philosophers were a lot more preoccupied, and worried, about (2) than (1). Both the Chinese philosopher Mozi as well as Hobbes considers (2) in fact to be the greater threat to the harmony of the body politic.

Mozi argues that social disharmony and chaos is brought about because of the lack of uniform standards or rules for determining right behaviour. Conflict occurs because people of conflicting intuitions and convictions about righteousness want to implement their conception of the common good or righteousness, thus they clash against those who disagree or have differing views on what constitutes the common good or civic righteousness. While Hobbes particularly singles out the puritan theocrats who believe that the righteousness of God, or the Kingdom of God, demands the implementation of a certain political vision in conflict with the prevailing order, his arguments could be applied, without loss of generality, to communists and other more secular form of political revolutionaries who would disrupt the body politic in aid of their political ideals or principles. Hobbes also identifies conflicts which can arise even if people are agreed on civic principles because they disagree on their application. The particular example he invokes is that everyone may agree that everyone has a right to self-preservation, but some may think that a pre-emptive strike against you may be a legitimate application of this right, threatening a return to the chaotic state of nature of a war of all against all. Likewise people may uphold the principle of property, but we often disagree as to the facts of who actually owns a particular piece of property. Thus we will still end up fighting each other over disagreements on who is the actual owner of the land or in pursuit of our own legitimate right to self-preservation or ownership.


So even if society were populated by upright, moral, even idealistic and altruistic man, the Body Politic could still risk collapsing into the state of nature because even upright and righteous man do disagree on particular applications of righteous principles, if not even those very principles itself, leading to chaos in the commonwealth.

Thus because of disagreements on principles of justice and their application, a commonwealth must develop means of resolving such disputes harmoniously and peacefully. Perhaps in some paradoxical sense, Hobbes would say that at least the sensual and self-interested man would be much more easily influenced by displays of force and, as such, could be much more easily controlled by the coercive instruments of the Leviathan. The high minded idealist on the other hand would continue to plot against the common peace, unimpressed by the august appearance and coercive posture of the Leviathan.

An Irresponsibly Simplified Distinction between a Democracy and a Republic 

How would a democracy differ from a republic in resolving the two problems? The state/government will definitely have some role in resolving the two problems, the only question is how and what role. Here’s my brief and no doubt objectionable to some distinction.

(1) In a democracy the people or commonwealth itself directly determines the broad civic objectives and principles of the commonwealth, governments and the public officials who compose them are elected or placed into power to implement them after the fact. On this conception public officials look more like civil servants  rather than rulers or even leaders, mechanically carrying out the will or stated wishes of the people.


(2) In a republic the people do not determine either the principles or objectives of the commonwealth, or at least, they determine them only very indirectly. What the people do directly is to select their representatives or leaders, but it is the representatives themselves, and not the people, who alone determines the principles and the application of those principles. The people can only select their representatives, what they cannot do is to select policies or principles, only their representatives alone are empowered so to do.


One clear implication of this distinction should be obvious at once: Character plays a larger role in the determination of a public official in a republic compared to the democracy.

Since the direct object of election in a republic are the representatives rather than the principles or policies of the commonwealth, a large factor in determining that representative would be whether he or she is a “good guy”. Thus one may not really be familiar with particular policy specifics or principles, but one “trusts” that this or that person is a “sound person” possessed of fine virtues and character.

In a democracy of course since the people itself already determines objectives or civic principles, usually via a referendum, a politician’s character or personality plays a much smaller role. He is just there to carry out our wishes, not posture himself as our leader or something, he’s a functionary, not a ruler.

Of course in the real world a republic and a democracy are not always so evidently distinguished. A public official is often chosen as a means of expressing the will of the people concerning civic principles or policies to be implemented, not merely as someone to lead and decide those principles for them. And even a largely republican system, where elections are mainly held to choose leaders, may hold referendums from time to time. If we are to place them on a spectrum, America would be the most republican system since it is utterly lacking in civic and institutional facilities for the people to directly express their wishes concerning principles and policies, Britain would be somewhere in the middle where electing members of parliament as representatives are main objects of election, while occasionally there are referendums on critical questions (e.g. Brexit, Scotland, joining the European Community, etc) determining the destiny of the people, and finally we have the Swiss model as the most democratic where the people do regularly vote directly on issues of civic principles and policies.


Empirical Conditions and Realisability of the Various Arrangements

In determining the merits of a republic against that of a democracy, we need to go back to the basic empirical premise of our discussion: a republican or democratic government exists to solve problems which only arises out of a large and complex society.

If this is so, it is difficult to see how a republican government could actually work. As a society becomes complex, both the number and technicality of issues which needs resolving increases, it is hard to see how a singular man or representative possessed of good intentions could somehow acquire the mastery to solve them. The Chinese Legalist philosopher, Han Fei, has already long ago noted that in large and complex societies, the former ways of ruling through virtue and personal benevolence becomes obsolete:

Men of antiquity strove to be known as virtuous; those of the middle age struggled to be known as wise; and now men fight for the reputation of being powerful. In antiquity, events were few; measures were simple, naïve, crude, and incomplete. Therefore there were men using spears made of mother-of-pearl, and those pushing carts. In antiquity, again people were few and therefore kind to one another; things being few, they made light of profits and made alienations [abdication of power] easy. Hence followed alienations of the throne by courtesy and transfer of the rule over All-under-Heaven. That being so, to do courteous alienations, promote compassion and beneficence, and follow benevolence and favour, was to run the government in the primitive way. In the age of numerous affairs, to employ the instruments of the management of affairs that were few, is not the wise man’s measure. Again, in the age of great struggles, to follow the track of courteous alienations, is not the sage’s policy. For this reason, wise men do not personally push carts and sages do not run any government in the primitive way.

-Han Fei Zi: Chapter XLVII: Eight Fallacies

Han Fei therefore explains that that antiquity praises virtue because societies were simple and people are few, thus there were few competitors for goods and power, and as such, it was easier for people to be kind, compassion, and benevolent to one another. But as society grew in complexity and resources in scarcity, people started to compete and disagree with one another and struggle for scarce power and resources, and as such benevolence and virtue no longer works and rulers must employ different methods to harmonise a complex commonwealth. From there Han Fei would argue for a rigorous system of laws and various bureaucratic techniques implemented by a swarm of civil servants to manage such a commonwealth.

Han Fei later on in the chapter would continue to critique the idea of personal virtue as key to being able to manage a large and complex state. However I trust that the general point is clear. In a vast and complex society where issues (or “events” as Han Fei puts it) are many and technically complex, benevolence and virtue would not grant a ruler any advantage in resolving those issues.

However not only does a person’s personal character diminish in significance as far as statecraft over a complex society is concerned, the same empirical premise would render expressing the people/nations desires or will concerning civic principles or policy by voting for representatives absurd. If there are many issues, and even more differing solutions to those issues, there would be an absurdly high permutation of stances. However no election can possibly field candidates to cover every possible permutation. Eventually you will have to settle on a candidate who agrees with you on a significant number of issues while disagreeing with the rest. As such, a representative would be a very poor means of expressing the will or desires of the commonwealth when one is forced to choose “the whole package” of stances rather than on those specific one agrees or disagrees with.

Naturally some of these problems would plague a democratic society as well. It would be absurd to have a referendum, for example, to determine the fine for a parking violation. A referendum to determine the central bank’s interest rate or which drugs to limit and control would be irresponsible and impractical, if for no other reason than that we are not all economists or pharmacist, we can’t all possibly know which drugs have what effects, etc. In short, the level of detail and technicality involved in many civic issues renders democratic input an impossibility in every instance.

The Case for a Democratic System over a Republican System

The complexity of modern society will inevitably mean that some, if not many, functions or operations of the state will have to be handled by professionals and experts. Many particular policies and detailed issues will simply have to be decided by bureaucrats or judges on their own independently of electoral mechanisms or engagement with the people.

However even in this light, it seems to me prima facie that a democratic system will have advantages over a republican one. While on many technical or fine-grained issues would require specialised expert opinions, not all issues are matters of empirical or technical fact. Some of them involve more “romantic” or existential ideals of defining the character or destiny of the nation. Such issues are not primarily about dollars and sense but about maintaining or deciding the direction of the nation as a whole. Therefore while farming or fishing quotas should not really be a matter of referendum, deciding whether Scotland should secede or Britain should secede from the European Union are rightly issues to be decided by the people who ought to have the right to define their national character. The people ought also be able to decide on issues of national objectives like going to war, etc. As such, while many specific applications or policies maybe decided by the civil service or government, but general broad principles can, and ought even, be decided by a referendum and the people can directly express their wishes on that particular issue.


(An argument can in fact be made for even referendums on more technical issues. If referendums are voluntary then one can assume only those people who are concerned enough to invest time and energy to study the issue would vote on that issue. As such,  in a way, a referendum can sort of work if it is voluntary and we assume that the people who bother to vote are those who have bothered to invest the time and energy to acquire a mastery over that particular topic.)

However if the civil service or government can handle technical or specific policies while the people can directly vote for general broad principles, what will be the point “representatives”? Why does the people need to be mediated by representatives when they can directly express themselves via referendums and where they lack competence on those issue, hand it over to the experts?

Perhaps we can still treat elections of politicians and public officials as simply ways of “evaluating” their competence to carry out presupposed civic principles of the commonwealth rather than as ways of selecting those principles itself. In short, electing politicians are just a sort of way of firing or hiring “heads” of the civil service. However, this isn’t the same of saying that those elected officials are “representatives” of the people.

Conclusion: The Golden Mean between a Democracy and Republic and Senselessness of Republican Ideals

From my foregoing arguments it should be clear that I believe the UK to hold the golden mean between democratic and republican system of governments. Direct democracy for deciding existential issues concerning the destiny of the people, while republican systems of elected politicians simply as a way of hiring and firing people for being able to implement and realise civic principles decided anterior to the political process.

In theory of course there need not even be elected members of parliament. The Crown, the House of the Lords, and even a gentry dominated House of Commons, can simply run things on their own without election and decide to hold a referendum on what they deem to be critical issues which requires the involvement of the people of Britain as a whole.


However, in concluding, I am not exactly sure what is the point of a representative. The republican ideal makes very little sense to me. If the people feel strongly enough about a particular issue or principle, of sufficient generality to involve them all, then there should be a referendum for that particular issue. If the people are not competent enough to determine more detailed policies, or if it not practical to seek their input, then they shouldn’t be involved at all. But what exactly is the point of electing representatives? What exactly are they supposed to do? They are bad at expressing the will of the people since each of them will hold to a vast plurality of opinions which no one can possibly agree with all of them, and no singular representative can possibly possess technical mastery over every issue.

Perhaps ironically the republican ideal is actually rooted in the older imperial or hierarchical order. People need someone to follow, and they need to choose a “great man” or leader possessed of virtue and character to lead the people. Such a feeling is perhaps derived from the older idea that, somehow, if one has a fine chap at the top steering the helm of government, somehow the entire commonwealth will be mysteriously harmonised and coordinated, as if society rearranges itself automatically according to personal virtues of its leaders, or maybe some sort of mystico-political union will be effected between the people and their leader such that the people begin to conform more to the likeness of their leader.


Despite Hobbes’ advocacy for an authoritarian Leviathan, it could in fact be argued that he is the father of modern democracy. Observe well his arguments quoted at the start of this post concerning how the Leviathan is generated. It is not generated because people romantically believe that a great man can lead the nation to greatness, but because people desire certain objectives or goals, e.g. secure their property and lives, and then they form governments and the Leviathan to realise those objectives after the fact. For all the talk about how great Hobbes’s Leviathan is, the fact is that Hobbes’s Leviathan is a lot less “great” than the traditional republican representatives of old. The Leviathan may possess great powers, but ultimately, it is a mere functionary to carry out the predetermined wishes of the populace. He is neither their leader nor a great man. He is merely an instrumental “mortal god”.


3 comments on “A Republic or Democracy? The Case for a Democracy against Representative Government

  1. Pingback: American Civics as Confucian and British Civics as Legalist; Why Americans are Moral Exhibitionists | Deus Ex Machina

  2. Pingback: The British Monarch as a Chinese Legalist Ruler; On the Importance of Apolitical Institutions and Conventions | Deus Ex Machina

  3. Pingback: Democracy as Rule by Public Rationality and Common Sense | Deus Ex Machina

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This entry was posted on September 30, 2016 by in Uncategorized.
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