The Idea that Extremes are Corrupting: Why Moderate Governments Work, and Why Pure Capitalism, Pure Communism, Pure Democracy, and Pure Aristocracy Don’t
Extreme equality and an extreme inequality are both equally as dangerous in a democratic society. In both cases it corrupts the government.
The same is true for extreme liberty and extreme illiberality (not enough liberty).
Since liberty and equality are the foundation of liberalism and democracy (classically speaking), it only makes sense that extremes and deficiencies of the foundation would be corrupting.
For a visual, a chart it might look like this:
|SPHERE OF ACTION||Not Liberal Enough / Too Conservative||Ideal Democracy||Overly Liberal / Not Conservative Enough|
|Liberty||Extreme Illiberality||Liberal||Extreme Liberty|
|Equality||Extreme Inequality||Equal||Extreme Equality|
To offer an answer before we get to a discussion: instead of extremes, a balance of liberty and equality as allowed for by Democracy tempered by Republicanism helps ensure stability and correctness (in other words, the structure of a “mixed-Republic” or “Polity”, with the proper spirit and letter of the laws, is the key to sustaining a democratically minded government).
Below we’ll examine this argument laid out by Montesquieu in his Spirit of the Laws BOOK VIII.: OF THE CORRUPTION OF THE PRINCIPLES OF THE THREE GOVERNMENTS, and mirrored and mused on by other thinkers from Plato, to Aristotle, to Livy, to Madison, to Tocqueville, and look at real life examples to prove the merit behind this concept.
It isn’t that we find all the great philosophers agree on specifics, it is that we find that they all elude or point to the same truisms.
Specifically, the underlying truism we’ll be dealing with here is that equality doesn’t work well in extremes (and neither does liberty). In fact, if we see equality as a synonym for fairness/justice, and think of this as a governing principle for all virtues, then we can say extremes and deficiencies of any virtue are corrupting (they create a vice, see virtue theory and what is justice).
In other words, one should understand this as a wider metaphor that, in general, “extremes are destabilizing and incorrect”. After-all, we aren’t just saying that extremes have a direct effect, but rather that they breed the political, economic, and social inequality that more directly corrupts governments and social systems.
The scales always seek balance, the pendulum will always swing. It is the nature of political things (and most physical and metaphysical things as well). Thus, moderation/temperance/justice/fairness is needed. And as that is needed, it must be imbued in the culture and spirit and letter of the laws of a nation.
THE corruption of each government generally begins with that of the principles [the “principles”, or “springs”, or “spirits”, are listed in Book III and are, roughly, honor and respect for monarchies, moderate equality for democratic governments, and moderate inequality for republics].
Democracy hath, therefore, two excesses to avoid; the spirit of inequality, which leads to aristocracy or monarchy; and the spirit of extreme equality, which leads to despotic power, as the latter is completed by conquest.
NOTE: For another perspective on this same subject, see: How Democracy Leads to Tyranny From Plato’s Republic. See Plato’s five regimes for more on the qualities of those governments.
The excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery.
Yes, the natural order.
And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty? – A conversation with Socrates from Plato’s Republic Book VIII
Why Was Montesquieu Important? Montesquieu was more likely to be cited by America’s founders between 1760 -1800 than any other author. He was a big proponent of moderate mixed governments, often saying things like “We are not always obliged to proceed to extremes“… and “mankind generally find their account better in mediums than in extremes“. He notes how laws based on the correct principles are the keystone to ensuring governments from corruption.
TIP: America is a Republic with a Democratic spirit; a mixed government (largely devised by James Madison, based on Montesquieu’s separation of powers, from the same book). Thus, all the principles noted above apply.
TIP: Extremes are destabilizing (the topic of this page), and this has been known since Plato and Aristotle wrote on the philosophy of governments in their Republic and Politics for example, yet at the same time stability breeds instability. Is this a paradox? Not really. Stability leads to psychological states like complacency. Thus, it is a petri dish in which extreme environments can arise. For an example, look at the Fall of Rome or Siege of Baghdad, which ended the height of Islamic golden age. The Fall of the Roman Republic is a result of inequality and factions, but the Fall of Rome herself is more of a matter of complacency. Political movements are complex, and there are many factors involved. Some are tangible, like broken aqueducts, yet some are intangible like the Populares disdain for the Optimates.
TIP: Another thinker who mused on the dangers of extreme forms of Democracy was Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville worried that if despotism were to take root in a modern democracy, it would be much more dangerous than that of the old days, as it would seek to guides men’s wills rather than break them. See Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.
The General Concept: Extremes are Destabilizing
The general concept here is that extreme inequality and equality are both destabilizing, although for a host of assorted reasons and with diverse effects. This makes the details complex to describe.
One example of such a destabilization was the inequality of wealth and resources that occurred with a bread shortage and price hike during the 1775 Flour War. These circumstances led to the French Revolution in which the royalty lost their head. The monarchy dissolved to anarchy and then finally to the odd liberal absolutism of Napoleon. We can also look at the inequality of power before America’s Revolution; the colonists demanded “no taxation without representation” as the monarchy dissolved to a confederate republic and then to a federal republic. We can see destabilization in 2016 in Venezuela as well. All citizens appear to be equal in not having access to food and equal in a lack of power to remove their government democratically since the republic dissolved to a less democratic form of government. We also have the historical example of extreme equality, in the Russian environment after Lenin. At that time, “being equal” meant being equal in a lack of power beneath the Despotic Stalin since the monarchy had dissolved in anarchy, then in communism, and then in pure despotism.
In all cases, the effect of extremes was corrosive in the form of government and its underlying principles.
A Justification for Extreme Equality Being Destabilizing
Examples of “extreme equality,” especially despotism not dressed up as justice, are harder to find than examples of inequality. It makes sense if you think about it, in a Commune everyone is equal except the one who controls the central fund and the ones that person delegates to, but this form of government isn’t “commune” it is despotism.
There is also this quote from Montesquieu to help this make a bit more sense:
THE principle of democracy is corrupted, not only when the spirit of equality is extinct, but likewise when they fall into a spirit of extreme equality, and when each citizen would fain be upon a level with those whom he has chosen to command him. Then the people, incapable of bearing the very power they have delegated, want to manage everything themselves, to debate for the senate, to execute for the magistrate, and to decide for the judges.
When everyone thinks themselves equal as they did during the socialist factions leading to the October Revolution, or in Jacobin France, respect is lost and political factions clash. Or as Montesquieu says
“Petty tyrants arise, who have all the vices of a single tyrant. The small remains of liberty soon become insupportable; a single tyrant starts up, and the people are stripped of everything, even of the profits of their corruption.”
TIP: Montesquieu gives some historic examples of governments being corrupted in Book VIII. The topic of this page is the topic of his book. For example, Montesquieu cites IV  Xenophon: The Symposium in which Charmides describes how when respect is lost for the “higher classes.” It is easier to live poor than rich and constantly on guard against tax collectors. The following is Montesquieu’s translation, not the more modern one I cited previously. “Content I am, says Chamides, because of my poverty. When I was rich, I was obliged to pay my court to informers, knowing I was more liable to be hurt by them than capable of doing them harm. The republic constantly demanded some new tax of me, and I could not decline paying. Since I am grown poor, I have acquired authority; nobody threatens me; I rather threaten others. I can go or stay where I please. The rich already rise from their seats and give me the way. I am a king; I was before a slave: I paid taxes to the Republic; now it maintains me: I am no longer afraid of losing, but I hope to acquire.” Thus, we have an example of both extreme equality and extreme inequality being corrosive at once.
TIP: For a range of views see the following. It’s Harder Than It Looks To Link Inequality With Global Turmoil, Joseph Stiglitz: How income inequality is destabilizing US society, Destabilizing effects of class structure could have driven its global spread, and Middle Class Series: Income Inequality in the United States Fuels Pessimism and Threatens Social Cohesion.
Extreme Inequality and Extreme Equality Corrupt all Forms of Popular Governments
The corruption of government due to extremes isn’t just true for “democracies” where everyone votes on laws directly, it true for any form of popular government with a democratic spirit, be it a type of democracy, or a republic or monarchy with democratic principles. Likewise, this is true not only for economics, but also for any extreme equality or inequality of power, law, class, respect, honor, or other key principles. The effect of extremism is not only a corruption of government, but of manners, order, virtue, and other key factors that lend stability to any form.
Each form of government has factors that corrupt it, and, in each case, different aspects of the government are corrupted. Both extreme equality and inequality, and consequently a lack of respect for the law and public interest, is typically at the root.
For example, a hereditary aristocracy corrupts a republic when laws are focused on the special interests of the hereditary families rather than public interests of the citizens, and politics is driven by an inequality of law, power, and currency. Balance can also be lost in a democratic republic if everyone considers themselves so equal that magistrates aren’t respected or are perceived as corrupt. This is an inequality of respect. There are also examples in a monarchy if the Prince no longer favors the aristocracy or citizens or if the wealthy incite jealousy or abuse their political power. Inequality can damage any government when privilege and law do not apply to all equally.
According to Montesquieu, and other great philosophers and historians, the spirit of the laws should be one that prevents these extremes and ensures moderation, modesty, honor, and other key virtues or “principles” as Montesquieu calls them. Laws should, speaking in modern terms, curb behavior away from pure Capitalism and pure Communism, and likewise, away from pure Democracy and pure Aristocracy, and certainly, away from special interests which are not the public interest. In all cases, the goal should be a moderate mixed economic system and a moderate mixed form of government. True liberty and true equality in a civil society should be thought of not as absolute freedom or pure liberty, but as freedoms within the bounds of the law. These civil liberties respect the natural inequalities of people’s skills and ambitions and allow a successful person to be respected as such and low income workers to live with dignity and without shame. The law should be applied equally to each, with everyone having an opportunity to change their lot; i.e. having civil equality.
“THERE is no nation, says Livy, that has been longer uncorrupted than the Romans; no nation where moderation and poverty have been longer respected. Such was the influence of an oath among those people that nothing bound them stronger to the laws. They often did more, for the observance of an oath, than they would ever have performed for the thirst of glory, or for the love of their country.” -Montesquieu on the Roman historian Titus Livy discussing the principle of moderation
TIP: America is a Republic with a democratic spirit. Thus, in a broad sense, America is a type of Democracy (a representative democracy). Thus, by this logic extreme inequality and equality can both be considered corrupting factors.
How Both Inequality and Equality in Extremes Corrupt Popular Governments and Lead to Monarchies and Despotic Governments Respectively
Given the above, we can say:
- In terms of socioeconomics, extreme equality and inequality don’t work, and this is why pure communism doesn’t work and also why pure free-market capitalism doesn’t work.
- In terms of the form of government, extreme equality and inequality don’t work, and this is why pure direct democracy doesn’t work and this is why governments, where no say is given to the people, don’t work.
- And in general, this is why extremes tend not to work in any area of life.
Examining this subject helps us to understand how figures like Solon and Julius Caesar came to power, helps us understand the American, French, and English Revolutions, and helps us see that extreme inequality is a common cause of many revolutions.
Famous Greeks Series Solon.
Julius Caesar’s Rise to Power.
An idealist might think that the centralized equality of the ideal commune is the best. An elitist might think a despotic government’s simplicity is best as long as it was economically and militarily strong. A staunch classical liberal might think pure natural liberty is worth the inequalities it causes. However, the laws of economics do not support any of these views.
Flood the market with silver, and prices go up; starve the poor neighborhoods and they riot; tax people and give them no say and they revolt; when the Senators and bankers live like kings, and everyone else suffers, the people stop working hard and start plotting.
When Caesar became God-King, the people were relieved that the corrupt senators have finally lost power. When Brutus and the senators killed Caesar to take back the republic, the republic fell into an empire under Augustus, and the Senators were executed. When Lenin liberated the working man, he soon died in his sleep, with the Despot Stalin waiting to take over. When Robespierre and The Jacobins defeated the Royal House and the Girondins, the fear of retaliation caused terror and the result was soon Napoleon.
Sometimes things even out and we look back fondly on the revolution (like Solon’s Athens, England, or America), that said the rise and fall of many popular governments have historically been in an environment of extremes.
Or at least, history points to this, as Montesquieu knew when he studied it all those years ago before even Madison was old enough to have read his work.
THE principle of democracy is corrupted, not only when the spirit of equality is extinct, but likewise when they fall into a spirit of extreme equality, and when each citizen would fain be upon a level with those whom he has chosen to command him… Democracy hath, therefore, two excesses to avoid; the spirit of inequality, which leads to aristocracy or monarchy; and the spirit of extreme equality, which leads to despotic power, as the latter is completed by conquest… In the state of nature, indeed, all men are born equal; but they cannot continue in this equality: Society makes them lose it, and they recover it only by the protection of the laws… The natural place of virtue is near to liberty, but it is not nearer to excessive liberty than to servitude… – Montesquieu explaining why pure individualist free-market capitalism and pure Communism won’t work… before either were things in 1748’s the Spirit of the Laws Vol. 1.
Taxes & Smuggling – Prelude to Revolution: Crash Course US History #6.
The October Revolution (17m).
A Workable Solution
As Montesquieu noted, extremes are not the solution to a government’s principles being corrupted by extremes. Montesquieu points out the problem and gives us an answer. The answer is simple: moderation, modesty, a separation of powers, and a system of checks and balances and laws and cultures will give all citizens “a love of country.” He felt that this patriotism would be translated into a love OF THE PRINCIPLES OF THE THREE KINDS OF GOVERNMENT for each government respectively in the case of a mixed government (a monarchy, republic, democracy mix). Laws and culture would ensure all the underlying principles remain in balance and create a culture which naturally avoids extremes and adheres to the public interest.