In Chapter V of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, he asks the above question: is it better to have the aristocracy or the commoners act as guardians of liberty? His answer: a good case can be made for either. Reason gives one answer – the commoners – while experience seems to favor the aristocracy. His examples for having the aristocracy guard liberty are Sparta and Venice, while the common people guarded it in Rome. Since the liberty of both Sparta and Venice lasted longer than the liberty of Rome, experience favors that approach. But if you want a more active government, one not merely concerned with protecting the liberty of a single city-state but of a larger republic and, eventually, an empire, then the people are the better guardians.
So says Machiavelli. The reader will wonder, I suppose, in what sense liberty under Sparta, Venice, and Rome are the same thing. I certainly do, and note that, if forced to choose, I’d take my liberty under Rome or, maybe, Venice, way before I would take whatever is considered liberty under Sparta.
What liberty means here is a huge question I don’t intend to consider at moment. Instead, let’s look at Machiavelli’s reasons:
As touching reasons, it may be pleaded for the Roman method, that they are most fit to have charge of a thing, who least desire to pervert it to their own ends. And, doubtless, if we examine the aims which the nobles and the commons respectively set before them, we shall find in the former a great desire to dominate, in the latter merely a desire not to be dominated over, and hence a greater attachment to freedom, since they have less to gain than the others by destroying it. Wherefore, when the commons are put forward as the defenders of liberty, they may be expected to take better care of it, and, as they have no desire to tamper with it themselves, to be less apt to suffer others to do so.
So, Machiavelli asserts that we commons have “merely a desire not to be dominated over” and thus won’t be tempted to use our guardianship of liberty to lord it over others. Hmmm.
When I look in the mirror, I do see a guy who mostly wants the government to leave him alone. I don’t want any power over others, and I wish no one, as much as reasonably possible, to have power over me. I fully recognize the necessity and even goodness of laws, and the need, therefore, of those with the power to execute them. But, after Thomas and Aristotle, I want those laws to be few, known by all, and an expression of our best understanding of the will of God (or the natural aspirations of the good man, in Aristotle’s case).
All this had me contemplating our own government at its founding. Jefferson had a copy of the Discourses in his library, and it seems he and the drafters of the Constitution did, in fact, intend to make the commoners the guardians of liberty after the fashion of the Romans. At first, the Roman Senate, backed into a corner, granted merely the veto to the plebs. Eventually, an inch at a time, most offices and honors were open to the little people. But this opening up to the commoners of the opportunity to have for themselves the same roles as the aristocracy seems more a safety valve than a safeguard of liberty: it’s an early version of Jefferson’s natural aristocracy, the recognition that ambitious men of achievement can arise anywhere. By allowing ambitious and talented commoners to satisfy their desire for honor and achievement, the Romans – and us, I suppose – channel ambition in a constructive, or at least, a less destructive, course.
But for the rest of us, who desire nothing more from our role in government than to be left in peace, what we want, or should want, is merely the veto, as it were, merely the ability to say ‘no’ to the ambitions of the aristocracy, whether it is natural or inherited.
I think that’s how we should view the House, and that’s why Senators, Electors, and Presidents were not to be elected by popular vote. It’s accepting the humility of ambitions that should go along with the humility of goals: if all we really want is to be left in peace, then we shouldn’t be voting on the basis of foreign policy or military strategy or any other complex issue we can’t possibly be expected to have any understanding of, given that we vote every two years at the most, and hardly discuss these matters in between elections, and don’t even get election day off from work!
If we merely said: I want one of us there, to keep an eye on these ambitious jokers, and so I’ll focus my duty on just picking some person for the local House seat who will yell veto when the time comes. I don’t even want to get involved in the big issues I have no time, talent, or inclination to study enough to begin to understand them.
Because these two goals are incompatible: to be responsible for the election of executives and aristocrats based on issues we have no hope or interest in understanding, and wanting to be left in peace.
We meddle, they meddle. Mostly, they meddle by incessant demagoguery. We can hardly complain that they aren’t leaving us alone.