The Republic and the Imperium
There are two theoretical models of government that get bandied about, which I think both contain important insights, but which each seem insufficient when measured against the ideal: The republic, and the imperium.
The two forms are roughly the government as collective construction, or Republic, and the government as organized hegemonic elite, or Imperium. These terms don’t capture the fullness of the dichotomy I mean, but get close enough to be servicable.
The story goes for the republic that individual men, or households, or cities, or states, or otherwise constituent parts of a whole, are not self sufficient. Thus they need to coexist and interact in shared language, social norms, social and blood ties, land, market, military fate, law, religion, etc.
These shared public things need administration, which needs to be unitary rather than multiple, so that it can execute a coherent plan for coherent ends without dissolving into disorder. Therefore a single decision-making body is constructed to decide on the use of the common powers for the administration of common interests, and accomplishment of common ends.
The story continues that the decision-making body needs power and authority, which is owned individually by the members, so it needs them to lend it their power. Thus the decision making body is empowered by the consent of its members, who delegate to it the right to command their individual powers, especially their tax dues and military service, for common purpose. Those members who refuse to go along with this either cease to be members, or are punished by the collective. But to some extent at least, possibly a large extent, the republic needs the compliance of its members, from which it derives not just its theoretical authority, but its actual power to exist and prosecute its will.
Note that this does not necessarily entail voting. Voting is a procedural mechanism that purports to anchor the decision making system in the interests of the members, but it is only one possibility for how the decision-making might be structured. You might also imagine a traditional folk-king, who derives his power from the fact that people trust him to carry out the collective will, and freely or mostly freely grant him the power to do so. A king doesn’t sound very republican, but to the extent that he derives his authority by his carrying out of the collective will, and derives his power from the support of his followers, he fits the model I’m using here.
The people who live in the domain of a republic are usually called “citizens”, implying that they are members of the state, that they offer their own power to the collective.
In this view, the most important things are the political unity of the community, the competence and interest of the government in pursuing the collective good, and degree to which the government enjoys the enthusiastic compliance of its members.
If the community is politically disunified, the most natural organization of primary loyalty for many people will be political parties and ethnic blocs, rather then the republic itself. Conflict between these parties, inadequately controlled, can badly damage the community. In any case, this factionation invalidates the assumption that the community itself had enough common interests to constitute a republic. It may be the case that full unification is impossible, but a “community” that is made up of two incompatible groups for example is in a much worse position than a more unified group with plenty of civic spirit and external threats to focus them on their commonalities.
If the government is incompetent or disordered, obviously it’s going to have a hard time carrying out its purpose. Additionally, it may be corrupt, in the sense that it does not care to carry out its purpose. Perhaps instead it pursues the interest of a small clique of the powerful. It would thus have failed as a republic, strictly defined.
Since a republic, by definition, does in fact require the willing consent of its members to deploy their power for common purpose, if it loses legitimacy, this is a serious problem for it.
Again, the important things, in the republic model, are unity of the community, competence of government, interest by government in carrying out the collective good, and legitimacy.
The story for the imperium is quite different. It procedes from the axiom that power exists, and is concentrated in the hands of a few. Power needs to be organized for common peace and purpose among the powerful, so an operating consensus is reached. Perhaps that consensus looks like a republic as described above, even a monarchical republic, or perhaps like something else. This story is not concerned with the internal structure of the consensus of power, but their relation to everyone else.
In this story, the few have the power to compel, command, tax, enslave, and destroy the many who exist in their domain, because they have hegemonic power. For example maybe they are an organized warrior class with advanced weapons occupying a country inhabited by relatively peaceful peasants and craftsmen.
You might think that this is a very bad thing for these peasants, as if there are bandits constantly robbing them and abusing them. But if the ruling elite is wise and well coordinated, and intends to stick around for the long term, it will find it in its interest to defend, educate, and develop its subjects, and tax them only at a sustainable rate. Mobile bandits, who have no interest in the long term health of a community, will destructively raid and exploit that community, and move on. But stationary bandits do have an interest in the long term health of the community, because they expect to continue to control it long term. They will husband and shear the sheep, not just immediately slaughter them. The relationship becomes more symbiotic.
So a powerful elite imposes themselves on some human community or communities, and symbiotically husbands them to be as useful as possible for their purposes.
We call this an imperium because it is based on coercive power, “imperium”.
The people who live under the domain of such an imperium are usually called “subjects”, implying that they are owned by the imperium, and don’t have much say in this.
In this view, the most important thing is the security, wisdom, and goodness of the elite, and the obedience and quality of the subjects:
If the elite is insecure in their power, they will be destructive in their attempts to crush opposition and gain power, and their interests will tend towards abusive exploitation rather than symbiotic husbandry. Wheras if they are knowingly secure in their power, they will be more naturally concerned with the long term growth and stewardship of their asset.
If the elite is unwise, they will be unable to see the deep complex system of regularities and incentives that they operate within, and will be unable to make good decisions, even in accordance with their self interest as a class. Wisdom is necessary for arguments about what is best to translate into actual reliable behavior.
Finally, the elite needs to actually be oriented towards the full human good, and not some false purpose. My belief is that this is much easier than usually implied, given humanity and having full wisdom. But I note it for completeness, that the orientation of the regime is a free parameter that should ideally be turned to the good. Otherwise bad things happen, of course.
Synthesizing the Imperium and Republic
I think neither of these models captures the reality of the situation or the optimal engineering design. But between them, they capture much of the problem. If we could synthesize these views, we’d be doing much better.
The problem with the republican view is that the republican elite in fact does have its own purposes, and grows in power to the point that many who previously were members become subjects. Then the formalism is out of whack with reality, and everybody and everything gets confused.
The problem with the imperial view is that it supposes a rigid separation between rulers and ruled, when in reality there is and ought to be a significant degree of both local self rule and circulation into and out of the elite. The rigidity requires the supression of social order, and results in an eventual overhang where the formal elite is less fit to rule than some non-elite faction. Chaos ensues.
Some organic synthesis of these ideas would seem possible, permitting clear recognition of both subject and citizen tendencies, smoth flow between them, and recognition of their hierarchical context dependency (the ruler of a local village may still be subject of the local lord).
It’s a problem to think about.