In 1787, as he left the last meeting of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked what form of government the delegates had chosen for the United States. “The Republic,” he replied, “if it can be maintained.”
alert of spoiler: we could not keep it. In 1963, Leonard Read warned Americans that “what was once a Republic” was turning into something else. “We are turning into a kakistocracy,” he wrote.
Kakistocracy means “the rule of the worst”. Read was particularly fond of James Russell Lowell’s definition: “a government . . . that privileges scoundrels over fools.”
Looking at the United States today, we appear to be subject to kakistocracy, as Read predicted. Those in the most important positions tend to be venal, authoritarian, and incompetent in their roles, and we often find themselves profligate in their personal lives.
The masses that empower these people have paid dearly for this choice. The cost is the loss of freedom and the fall in the standard of living. So a government “that privileges scoundrels over fools” seems like a pretty good description for the state of the country and the world as well.
It is an intolerable situation, of course. And the resentment over the kakhistocrats ruling us is entirely understandable. But we should also know that resentment often leads us to walk in darkness. Even though Leonard Read spoke to us of “a political situation based on rascality and foolishness”, he also warned:
“We must never regard any individual as a scoundrel or a fool. That would be an expression of our inferiority. Everyone makes mistakes, some more, some less. Label only ideas that seem dishonest or silly.”
In other words, think of the fight as something against bad ideas and values, and not against bad people. This practice may seem overly generous to those who persecute us, but it is more for our good than theirs.
When we demonize our political opponents, defining our struggle as a struggle against bad people rather than against bad ideas and values, we become susceptible to the temptation to we defend bad ideas and values, since we would be doing this in a war against the “enemy class”. The more we think of others as just scoundrels or fools, the greater our tendency to give in to scoundrels and foolishness.
We may, for example, be tempted to defend unjust policies in the hope that they will harm our ideological enemies: we attack freedom in the name of defending freedom. The more we do this, the more we become what we hate.
“The boundary between good and evil,” wrote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “does not pass through states or social classes or political parties, but through the human heart (…) even hearts taken by evil keep an open path to good. And even the best hearts keep (…) a little bit of evil”.
First of all, we need to protect ourselves from the kakistocracy within ourselves as individuals. We have to stop ourselves from letting ourselves be ruled by our worst impulses. We must protect ourselves from the tyranny of the rogue and the fool that we all have within us, to a greater or lesser extent.
As Read said, the only way to overthrow a kakistocracy without replacing it with another is through the “rebirth of a natural aristocracy”, an idea he took from Thomas Jefferson. By “natural aristocracy” he does not mean a ruling class that maintains privileges with the state; he referred to virtuous and talented individuals capable of leading by example.
“When a society is bestowed with a first-rate aristocracy – virtuous and talented men, capable of serving as examples of conduct – foolish or dishonest ideas are stifled. Because? Because people fear appearing foolish or dishonest in front of those they admire.”
That’s why Read argued that the struggle for freedom was, first and foremost, a struggle for self-improvement that should be fought by all lovers of freedom, especially through “understanding and explaining why freedom works.”
“To what extent will you or I aspire to this exemplary character of becoming an aristocrat?” asked Read. “This ambition is the only thing that is required of a person who wants to rid the world of kakistocracy.”
Freedom is threatened – as is our livelihood and, in some cases, our very lives. Under these circumstances, it may be easier to feel mentally constrained. Sometimes in the fog of political warfare, even defenders of freedom can forget what drove them to fight. But sticking to principles, not people, will help us keep moving towards a victory that will have been worth it.
Dan Sanchez is director of content for the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and editor-in-chief of FEE.org.