There are many forms of government. There are democracies of all sorts as well as aristocracies, oligarchies, monarchies, tyrannies and anarchies to choose from as well as even less often considered models of governance. So which is the best form of government and what is the most beneficial form of the body politic? Which form of government, for instance, is the most or least fair, the most or least efficient, the most or least competent, the most or least socially and economically just, the most or least biased, the safest or the most dangerous, the least stable or the most peaceful?
These are just some of the almost endless questions that plague anyone considering forms of governance. But given our contemporary proclivity for democracies, it seems that the most logical place to begin about thinking about forms of governance is with the idea of democracy.
Democracy is a “special” and distinct form of governance for one principal reason—the idea of natural rights. According to this ideology, God endows creation, particularly human beings, with certain natural rights that every living person possesses prior to entering into any social contract that establishes a certain form of governance. When one assumes that these certain God-given rights come even before the necessity to form a secure, prosperous social organization at any level, then the very purpose of governance changes. When natural rights are assumed, so goes the argument for democracy, the primary purpose of government is to protect those rights.
By framing the governance discussion in this fashion, the conversation about which form of governance best protects and encourages natural rights seems, inevitably, to shift towards democratic governance (in all of its messiness, its potential for lawless mob rule and mediocrity). In a sense, by first considering natural rights, democracy as a form of government seems to go from the least likely of all forms of governance to the most plausible. Or does it?
“The ideally best form of government is that in which the sovereignty, or supreme controlling power in the last resort, is vested in the entire aggregate of the community, every citizen not only having a voice in the exercise of that ultimate sovereignty, but being, at least occasionally, called on to take an actual part in the government, by the personal discharge of some public function, local or general.”
-John Stewart Mills
Outside of having a discussion about the pros and cons of various forms of governance (all of which impact the social fabric and thus cultural production), teachers may consider leading classroom conversations which consider the advent of limited forms of democratic governance in Ancient Greece and how the initial circulation of more democratic principles influence cultural and even aesthetic values.
Principle Questions Relating to the Great Idea
- How does democracy compare, in strengths and weaknesses, to other forms of government?
- In what ways does democracy have the tendency to degenerate into a “tyranny of the majority” or mob rule that seeks the lowest common denominator in its culture? How can this be avoided?
- Heroes are the embodiment of cultural values—societies have heroes that are extreme virtues of attributes deemed praiseworthy. What might a democratic hero look like? How are these democratic, heroic attributes transmitted in society (i.e. education, culture)?
“(In democracy) the whole power of education is required.”