[X-Post: Thermidor Mag] On legitimacy and republicanism, with a nod to Kenneth Boulding

[This short and somewhat rough article marks my debut on Thermidor Magazine under the alias “N.T. Carlsbad”. It can be viewed directly here.]

[Thermidor appears to be one of the most recent publications on the “reactosphere,” and is thus still carving an identity. Nonetheless, it appears to have potential, and I do intend on writing more essays for it in the future.]

Legitimacy. Here is a principle that was once at the heart of politics, the guiding concept of the conservative order established by Metternich, Talleyrand, Castlereagh, von Gentz and others in the aftermath of the bloodshed and network of puppet states set up by Napoleon exporting the Reign of Terror to the continent.

In an age where we all autonomous commonwealthmen, virtuous citizens of a republic constituted by equal contract, such a principle seems antiquated and irrelevant. Legitimacy here means nothing more than the vector sum of votes in elections on the one hand, and the amplified voices in the press on the other. The nobles and priests have been hung by their entrails, so that each man may now be a priest of his own private volition, and a noble on equal footing with his fellow nobles, all given the one and same title of “citizen”.

The Founding Fathers were all readers of Cato’s Letters, one of the classic and most forceful statements of republicanism, published serially between 1720 and 1723 by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. Here, from Letter No. 35, is their description of that invigorating republican public spirit, and where it flourishes:

In popish countries, it is publick spirit to build and beautify many churches, at the expense of the poor people; who must also maintain, at a further expense, a long band of luxurious ecclesiasticks, to play tricks in them; or, in other words, to keep the heads and pockets of their deluded hearers as empty as they can. It is moreover great publick spirit, to adorn an old skull with pearl and diamonds, and to enrich a venerable rotten tooth with gold and emeralds, of a value sufficient to maintain a city and all its inhabitants, who yet perhaps are starved by doing it. It is likewise very publick-spirited there, for a man to starve his family and his posterity, to endow a monastery, and to feed, or rather gorge, a fraternity of reverend gluttons, professed foes to truth and peace, and to the prosperity of the world; idlers, maintained to gormandize and deceive. This, forsooth, is publick spirit; to rob the country of its hands, to rear up a pernicious and turbulent mob of drones, in principles destructive of liberty, and to bring up enemies to a country at its own charges.

In arbitrary countries, it is publick spirit to be blind slaves to the blind will of the prince, and to slaughter or be slaughtered for him at his pleasure: But in Protestant free countries, publick spirit is another thing; it is to combat force and delusion; it is to reconcile the true interests of the governed and governors; it is to expose impostors, and to resist oppressors; it is to maintain the people in liberty, plenty, ease, and security.

This is publick spirit; which contains in it every laudable passion, and takes in parents, kindred, friends, neighbours, and every thing dear to mankind; it is the highest virtue, and contains in it almost all others; steadfastness to good purposes, fidelity to one’s trust, resolution in difficulties, defiance of danger, contempt of death, and impartial benevolence to all mankind. It is a passion to promote universal good, with personal pain, loss, and peril: It is one man’s care for many, and the concern of every man for all.

Let us be thankful for the Protestant free countries in reconciling the interests of the governed and the governors.

But, I digress. It turns out that one of the good philosophical examinations of legitimacy is to be found in a very unusual place: a Quaker economist, Kenneth Boulding. In a paper about central banking, no less. But it is a worthwhile one. He enumerates six sources of legitimacy.

Firstly, for something to have legitimacy, it must pay off. As offspring of modernity, we clearly do not require any spiritual or ecclesiastical authority and therefore we may focus on what is truly important: optimizing our utility functions.

Here we already encounter a difficulty. Our republican governments are not concrete estates, but amorphous structures. Moreover, they are fully content on disconnecting taxation from spending, since they have nothing or no one that can act as a stable oikonomos, i.e. they are not managed as orderly household-like domains. They are driven entirely by autonomous expenditures issued in their own paper scrip. They have no liabilities that can realistically constrain them, for they owe all their scrip to no one but themselves. Which really means myself, for the republic claims to derive its power from me, among other citizens like me.

In the United States, one of the bureaus of the State Department is the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. What are the payoffs of such a thing? How can one tell? The republic is not embodied in anything beyond an ideal abstraction. Its Constitution is systematically different from its actual functioning constitution, something that should surprise no one who is aware of the foolishness of trying to codify the governance and customs of a polity into a fixed document. Incompleteness, ambiguity and deceit will be its consequences.

So much for our payoffs. There is a second aspect: sacrifice. It is always more powerful a motivator than payoff. But for what or for whom? The hilarious implications of popular sovereignty and “consent of the governed” reign in again. If I take a bullet for the republic, I am harming only myself! The community of virtuous citizens has been reduced to the basest of egoism, all over a misidentification of power.

But how exactly does one “ask what you can do for your country”? In a well-managed and hierarchically ordered society, one’s seeking of an honorable vocation and development of one’s craft means one already has made his contribution. Society is organized into many corporate bodies, each inhabiting its own sphere that harmoniously builds up into a whole. The republic asks much more from me. It asks me to be an informed citizen and to participate in “democratic self-government”. There are many things I can do. I can serve in the military, long detached from any historical warrior caste or levy by a higher lord and ever fissuring under democracy now that we are in an age of small wars. I can join an NGO, and gleefully plunder the fiscal apparatus of the state under the guise of charity. I can be an activist, carving my niche as a vigilant watchman of the people’s interests against a corrupt establishment. A corrupt establishment that interestingly seems to cover me positively in the press and already agrees with my far-fetched propositions on popular government. But I suppose fighting the Man is easier when he takes a liking to you.

Thirdly, there is age. “Tried and tested” is a phrase that rightly conveys positive feelings. Alas, our republican era does not come with wisdom, nor is it even particularly old. Yes, there is Chesterton’s fence. But here, the fence has a lot of wide openings.

We may trace the genesis of our republican mindset from one of its fiercest advocates, Algernon Sidney, in his Discourses Concerning Government (1698):

This, as he [Sir Robert Filmer] thinks, is farther sweetened, by asserting, that he doth not inquire what the rights of a people are, but from whence; not considering, that whilst he denies they can proceed from the laws of natural liberty, or any other root than the grace and bounty of the prince, he declares they can have none at all. For as liberty solely consists in an independency upon the will of another, and by the name of slave we understand a man, who can neither dispose of his person nor goods, but enjoys all at the will of his master; there is no such thing in nature as a slave, if those men or nations are not slaves, who have no other title to what they enjoy, than the grace of the prince, which he may revoke whensoever he pleaseth. But there is more than ordinary extravagance in his assertion, that the greatest liberty in the world is for a people to live under a monarch, when his whole book is to prove, that this monarch hath his right from God and nature, is endowed with an unlimited power of doing what he pleaseth, and can be restrained by no law. If it be liberty to live under such a government, I desire to know what is slavery. It has been hitherto believed in the world, that the Assyrians, Medes, Arabs, Egyptians, Turks, and others like them, lived in slavery, because their princes were masters of their lives and goods: Whereas the Grecians, Italians, Gauls, Germans, Spaniards, and Carthaginians, as long as they had any strength, virtue or courage amongst them, were esteemed free nations, because they abhorred such a subjection. They were, and would be governed only by laws of their own making: Potentiora erant legum quam hominum imperia. Even their princes had the authority or credit of persuading, rather than the power of commanding. But all this was mistaken: These men were slaves, and the Asiaticks were freemen. By the same rule the Venetians, Switsers, Grisons, and Hollanders, are not free nations: but liberty in its perfection is enjoyed in France, and Turkey. The intention of our ancestors was, without doubt, to establish this amongst us by Magna Charta, and other preceding or subsequent laws; but they ought to have added one clause, That the contents of them should be in force only so long as it should please the king. King Alfred, upon whose laws Magna Charta was grounded, when he said the English nation was as free as the internal thoughts of a man, did only mean, that it should be so as long as it pleased their master. This it seems was the end of our law, and we who are born under it, and are descended from such as have so valiantly defended their rights against the encroachments of kings, have followed after vain shadows, and without the expence of sweat, treasure, or blood, might have secured their beloved liberty, by casting all into the king’s hands.

The republican Overman must fend all for himself. He must not accept the authority of family, clergy, business proprietor, administrator or judge, for dependency on the will of another is necessarily to be a slave, and to be a freeman one must be governed only by laws of one’s own making! Ah, screw it. We’ll just delegate that task to elected officials, who can do no wrong in representing our General Will. The choice is between divine right of kings and divine right of parliaments, and I know where I stand.

Whereas mediocrity and stagnation now appear to have hardened, the earlier days of mass European republicanism were rather more tumultuous. One of the classic descriptions of this is Vilfredo Pareto’s The Parliamentary Regime in Italy (1893):

Ministerial crises in Italy rarely lead to an entire change of the cabinet. It is generally a matter of reorganization; and the opposition of yesterday may become a part of the ministry it had previously opposed. A newspaper inspired by Sig. Nicotera (minister of the interior in di Rudini’s cabinet) states that when Giolitti, for a long time a partisan of di Rudini, attacked him, the members of di Rudini’s cabinet agreed not to take part in any ministry which Giolitti might form. Two members — the minister of war and the minister of marine — did not keep their word, and took office under the new ministry. Sig. Grimaldi was one of the warmest supporters of di Rudini’s ministry ; in fact it was understood that he was about to become a member of it. On the 5th of May he made a speech in the House which was most favorable to di Rudini. He said, speaking of Giolitti and his friends, that their change of attitude was “illogical,” and that it did not seem right to him that those who had accompanied the ministry in its brightest days should abandon it when it seemed falling. He presented the order of the day in favor of the ministry, which was rejected. Consequently the ministry fell, and Giolitti took up the succession. But a short time elapsed before Grimaldi became minister of finance in the new cabinet.


The political condition of Italy today is in some degree analogous to its social condition in the time of the Compagnie di Ventura. Then the cleverest or most fortunate leader drew round him the strongest bands; now the politician from whom the greatest advantages can be expected attracts the greatest number of deputies, who abandon him without scruple for any other leader who seems better able to serve their interests; and sometimes they abandon him from mere love of change. Matters have been at their worst, in this regard, since the ministry of Depretis. Cynical and corrupt, Depretis destroyed the last remaining vestiges of parties; and it was then that the name “Transformists” was coined to designate the politicians of the new era. Politically, the Italian Transformists correspond to the French Opportunists; and it is worthy of note that at nearly the same time when Opportunism appeared in France and Transformism in Italy, the old lines between Whigs and Tories began to disappear or to shift considerably in England. It would almost seem as if the same causes had been operative in the three countries — with different degrees of intensity, indeed, and with results varying by reason of differences in character and institutions. Several leading Italian politicians have tried to modify this situation, but their efforts have completely miscarried. We must note, first of all, the attempts which have been made to promote the organization of parties through changes in the electoral law. The law of December 17, 1860, was based upon a property qualification. The system was modified by the law of September 24, 1882, which considerably augmented the number of electors. It was hoped, by interesting a larger number of persons in the political life of the country, to form large political parties. With the same end in view the scrutin de liste, or election by general ticket, was introduced; the kingdom being divided into electoral districts or “colleges,” in each of which from three to five deputies were to be chosen. In the districts electing five deputies provision was made for minority representation through the system of the limited vote, each voter being allowed to write but four names on his ballot. This law was born under bad auspices. Its approval in the committee of the Senate was obtained by a bargain, as a result of which the state bought the Venetian railways. As far as the constitution of parties was concerned, the results were absolutely null. It was not unusual to see three candidates of nominally diverse parties unite and the electors would vote for this incongruous list without the least scruple. It was therefore resolved to return to the scrutin uninominale, or district ticket, which was reestablished by the electoral laws of March 5, 1891, and June 18, 1892. The elections of November 6, 1892, were governed by these later laws, but the results were precisely the same as at the antecedent elections.

This type of trasformismo remains the heart of parliamentary politics, though it is seldom as dramatic, and moreover a partisan spirit tends to contrast itself with that of a pure unscrupulous clientelism.

Fourthly, we may consider mystery. Obviously, any stable institution must separate its administrators from its clients and maintain asymmetries in information. Modern republics do not do so adequately, but there are larger issues. Rather than use impenetrability and awe to instill faith, as the ecclesiology and arrangement of a monastery might, or to instill humility and reverence, as noble estates might, the impenetrability of our republics lies in their persistent denial that they are anything other than a conduit for the voices of those it governs. Per Robert Michels: “Who says organization, says oligarchy.” Yet the entire muckraker press that informs us citizens seems hellbent on ridding us of oligarchs and bringing “responsibility” and “accountability,” which really means adding more pages to the Code of Federal Regulations. How do we square that circle?

Fifth, ritual. We have plenty of it, but do we have any attitude like that of Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia witnessing the festivities after the German Campaign of 1813 (as quoted by Kuehnelt-Leddihn)?:

The reception-festivities are exquisitely arranged and I honour them as expressions of good intention; but they are too pompous. I am displeased with the accumulation of trophies, cannons, and banners in front of the armory and directly opposite my lodgings. One does not have to and indeed one must never jeer at the vanquished enemy. That is despicable boasting and don’t let us continue in our good luck the arrogance which brought us misery. It is against all manners to hurt the feelings of peoples with whom one has just concluded a peace, by frivolously exhibiting cannons and banners.

…The magnificent victory-columns, the showy trophies in the windows of the arsenal must be removed, tomorrow’s feast shall be one of Christian gratitude and humbleness before God. It is He who has done great things for Prussia; to Him alone all the honor is due.

Such humility and such worldliness. Nowhere is it to be found on the left or the right. So contrary to the demagoguery that promises us the world.

Sixth, there is the alliance with other legitimacies. Well, this goes without saying. All remnant of an older order was flattened, leveled or wiped out in the revolutionary fervors of the Spring of Nations. Our new order is internationalist in its scope like no other.

These foundational issues run much deeper than the typical right-wing populist presumption that we are an upstanding stock of people governed by virtuous “Western” institutions, and that our problems can be solved simply by kicking out cosmopolitan elites, then drawing ethnic and cultural boundaries. For behind these boundaries will remain the same rootless and deracinated men. Nor will any amount of pompous ritual that aims toward mass mobilization and a false sense of “national community” fix this. It will make the absurdity more apparent if you force commoners to believe that they are nobles.

The real legacy of Jacobinism, illuminism and philosophism is the fact that they shattered political continuity in Europe. All the parliaments, bureaus, offices, representatives, policy wonks and academic scribblers of the world are absolutely worthless as people, institutions or customs that one can actually appeal to. When a legitimate authority embodied in a person charters certain liberties or concessions to a corporation of men, it is setting up a definite temporal bond which can be cited back as the source of a tradition, having since become historically grounded. When a republic that is on the one hand represented by an assembly of clownish servants of political parties, and on the other, staffed by faceless mandarins who work behind an alphabet soup of branches and departments to draft “scientific public policy,” they signify the absence of any order, coherence or place.

5 thoughts on “[X-Post: Thermidor Mag] On legitimacy and republicanism, with a nod to Kenneth Boulding

  1. Good article, though one wishes it were a bit longer, and with comparison of legitimacy in a democracy to legitimacy in a reactionary order (perhaps through Aquinas’ De Regno). It’s awful tragedy that Whig Radicals, and Enlightenment Radicals conflated republic with democracy, but of course, the most serene republics probably represented an even greater affront to them than absolute monarchies.


  2. I would second ‘s Michael’s remark: democracy by nature seems unable to grasp legitimacy as a proper concept; apparently, it can seldom grasp legitimacy but by redefining the word to mean something else—indeed, by redefining the word to mean little other than democracy itself!

    One will admit that democracy has points in its favor, but democracy’s grasp of legitimacy is not such a point.

    Regarding another part of your article:

    Obviously, any stable institution must separate its administrators from its clients and maintain asymmetries in information. Modern republics do not do so adequately….

    Now that you mention it, that does seem rather obvious, at least to me.

    Demands for excessive transparency have long unsettled me. When I hear such demands, I remember that I myself am unable to make sound decisions while every interested person may be examining, and discussing, the flights of my brainstorming. As far as I know, institutions are no more able to do this than I am.

    One can think of any number of times candidates for office have earnestly promised transparency. I can think of no time an otherwise successful officeholder has delivered on such a promise. Could this be because such a promise is by nature unfillable?

    It is not only individuals that require a degree of privacy. So do married couples. So do families, even sometimes extended families. So do the management teams of corporations. And so too do the bureaus of the state.

    Admittedly, I believe that you were making a broader point regarding the spiritual value of mysteries and the majesty of institutions. However, the very nature of a mystery is that one cannot properly speak of it! Therefore, rather than comment to your broader point, I would merely nod affirmation thereto, and cease further to speak.

    Thanks for the article.


  3. The irritating thing about comment columns like this is that, once a comment is posted, one cannot return to clean up the typos! Here I go, carefully crafting a comment which (if I am truthful) serves the dual purpose of (i) replying to your article and (ii) making me look smart; and then there goes the stray typo, bam! exploding point (ii). Well, fortunately, point (i) still stands. Good article. Good point by Michael, too.


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