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With a Case for the Reconstitution of Srila Prabhupada’s “Mission”.

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Segment 24
Forms of Government.

Those who have read Srila Prabhupada ’s opinions on forms of government, are aware that he took a generally dim view of democracy, as opposed to the monarchical form of government that prevailed in Vedic times. The philosophers of early Western Civilization, like Plato, generally believed that monarchy was the best form of government. It makes sense that power should be vested in the person who is best qualified to exercise it on behalf of society. Naturally such a person should (and would) take advice and counsel from others.  However, the final decision would be his or hers’ alone, and this would permit the most efficient exercise of power. Such a person would be groomed from birth, for the position, and would possess leadership, and moral qualities, to the highest degree. Such were the Rajarsi or Philosopher-kings of Vedic and later times.

Press Interview at Muthilal Rao’s House — August 17, 1976, Hyderabad:

Prabhupada:

“Politician, of course, it is, in the Bhagavad-gita 4.2, it is stated,

‘This supreme science was thus received through the chain of disciplic succession, and the saintly kings understood it in that way. But in course of time the succession was broken, and therefore the science as it is, appears to be lost.’

This system, this science, was understood by the rajarsi, kings who were as good as rsis, rajarsis. So where is that politician, politician as good as a rsi (sage)? That is the difficulty. It is meant for rajarsi. Raja and rsi. Just like Janaka Maharaja, Pariksit Maharaja, Yudhisthira Maharaja, Prahlada Maharaja, they were kings, but they were at the same time so great and saintly, they were called rajarsi, and this is a subject matter for the rajarsis. …

… So where is rajarsi? That is the difficulty. Where is that brahmana, where is that ksatriya, where is that system? Now anyone can capture the political power by hook and crook, that is another thing. But it is meant for the rajarsi,. Where is their training? The politician, where he is trained up as rsi? There is no such service.”

It is interesting that the worst type of government, in the opinion of these same philosophers, is the one that has the quality of tyranny. As in monarchy; in tyranny the ultimate power is invested in a single person. However, the tyrant, as opposed to the monarch, takes the position of ultimate power, not by virtue of his eminent ability to govern, but by force, corrupt dealings, or automatic inheritance without the proper qualifications. Moreover, the tyrant’s aim is not the welfare of the society that he governs, but his own personal aggrandizement.

The tyrant, shares with the monarch, the advantage of the most efficient exercise of power, but that power is turned toward selfish ends. Therefore, while the form of tyranny is most similar to that of monarchy, it is farthest from monarchy in terms of social welfare, and is therefore considered the worst type of government. Historical examples are, King Vena, as describe in Srimad-bhagavatam, to the example of Saddam Hussein in modern times.

If monarchy is the best and tyranny is the worst, the next best and next worst are aristocracy and oligarchy, respectively. 

Monarchy and tyranny are both characterized by ultimate power invested in a single person. In the case of monarchy, it has the person best suited to govern, and in the case of tyranny, the most forceful or corrupt, (or corruptible), person. 

Alternatively, the ultimate power can be invested in a single class. Analogously, in the case of aristocracy.  This class would be comprised of those who are most competent to govern.  In the case of oligarchy, of those who have managed somehow or other to seize and retain power. Aristocracy is not as efficient as monarchy, since decisions are made by committee rather than by a single person, but at least the committee consists of the cream of the crop. This form of government was Plato’s description of the ideal Republic.

Conversely, oligarchy is not quite as bad as tyranny, since although the oligarchs are mostly interested in their own welfare, at least they keep each other in check to some degree. Monarchy and tyranny, aristocracy and oligarchy, together comprise what we may call “government by the few”. This broad form of government is considered to have the following characteristics:

  • It is most efficient.
  • In the right hands, it is the best.
  • In the wrong hands, it is the worst.

In contrast to this broad group, is the opposite approach: democracy, or,

 “Government by the many”.

In this form of government, the ultimate power is invested equally in all the people, or more usually in their elected representatives. It is the ultimate form of decision making “by committee”, and therefore it is extremely inefficient; just like the USA government.  Nevertheless, this weakness is also its greatest strength; no person or group, ideally, can control the government at the expense of all the others. Even if, as is generally the case in practice, everyone is out for himself, the extreme abuses of tyranny and oligarchy are prevented by the presence of checks and balances by other selfish people and groups, and some semblance of action toward the good of the whole society generally results. Thus, while it is very inefficient, democracy is not completely impotent; and while it is pervaded by, indeed, composed of, numerous special interests, at least the power is widely, and sometimes unpredictably, dispersed.

These notions of ranking can be conveniently summarized as follows:

BEST,

  • Monarchy.
  • Aristocracy.  
  • Democracy.

WORST,

  • Oligarchy.
  • Tyranny.

 

When we speak of democracy, we are referring primarily to the republican form of democracy that is dominant in the world today, and most particularly to the legislative branch of that form, which is where the ultimate power theoretically resides.  Pure democracy is impractical except for very small groups. In a democratic republic, the actual decision-making is carried out by the elected representatives of the people, each of whom is responsible to his or her constituency and presumably acts according to their wishes.  As a side note, this often predisposes the representatives to a form of limited oligarchy, at least in the perception of the people; witness the periodic irritation of the citizens of the United States when the U.S. Congress enacts a pay raise for its members. Although there is generally a President or Prime Minister, in a true democratic republic, this executive does not wield the power of a monarch or tyrant.

An examination of world history reveals the gradual transformation of monarchy into, or its alternation with tyranny; with aristocracy and oligarchy also putting in an appearance from time to time, culminating in recent times with the almost complete extinction of these most efficient forms of government; in favor of democracy. Most people nowadays accept democracy as the ideal form of government, to the extent that instances of the other forms are viewed as quaint, at best, or revolting at worst.

We see, for example, many people were very pleased, at the prospect, that was enacted in Iraq, of a powerful democracy crushing a small tyranny on the other side of the world, for no other reason, than at that time, it is a democracy crushing a tyranny. Yet, if we take a more balanced view of history as presented in the Vedic and classical Western traditions, we see that in fact, democracy is far from the ideal form of government; it is only the best that is practical in “evil times,” when “the masses are asses,” “might makes right,” and the best form of government is the one that keeps bad people, mostly in check, rather than the one that gives good people the most facility.

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