Our government recently came closer to revolutionary overthrow than any time since 1861. Some social media voices continue advocating such an overthrow. But Americans shouldn't get too excited about the blessings revolution would supposedly bring. The French and Russian (1917) revolutions indicate that optimism about outcomes is not supported by history.
Government overthrows rarely bring progress. Instead, it takes considerable time just to recuperate from the setbacks they produce.
Today's governments resulted from centuries of gradual reforms of highly imperfect predecessors. When there was no government and nobody had any idea of what one might be like, the original proto-governments were just organized crime — protection rackets which killed anybody who wouldn't pay them off.
Prolonged, intelligent resistance to the racketeers' more outrageous demands gradually forced them to reform, providing more protection and less racket. Some countries ultimately moved towards the rule of law.
Today's regimes range from gosh-awful to fairly, but by no means perfectly, decent. But even tyrants are better than nothing: "The bee fertilizes the flower it robs." In tyrannies, at least some people live well.
No matter how bad regimes might be, overthrowing them returns society to the original "state of nature" without any government. People again endure the "nasty, brutish, and short" lives that Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) described in his " Leviathan."
When the Soviet state collapsed in 1992 it wasn't even a violent revolution. But during the next 10 years organized crime became the de facto government in many areas. The economy was devastated. Inflation cost people their lifetime savings. Recovery was relatively rapid, since, unlike in the original state of nature, people knew about government. But Putin's Russia is less well-governed than Gorbachev's reforming USSR was during its final years.
Many current governments, including ours, had revolutionary origins. But progress occurred despite, not because of, revolution. Faster and cheaper progress could have been attained by reforming rather than overthrowing previous governments. Compare today's U.S. with Canada, whose independence from England came gradually through peaceful reforms rather than revolution.
Philosophers have long recognized revolution's dangers. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) stated the basic rule: Don't overthrow a tyranny if its people would thereby suffer more than they would from continued rule by the tyrant. Later philosophers thought that if this rule were followed there would be very few revolutions.
Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) put it well: "It ... is dangerous to remove a king, even though ... he is a tyrant. For a people accustomed to royal rule, and kept in check by that alone will despise and make a mockery of any lesser authority; and so, if it removes one king, it will find it necessary to replace him by another, and he will be a tyrant not by choice but by necessity."
The philosophical odd duck is Karl Marx: "The Communists . . .openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains."
But earlier in that "Communist Manifesto" Marx admitted that history did not support its concluding assertion that workers had nothing to lose. Historically, the class struggle was "an uninterrupted ... fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the struggling classes."
We have it straight from Karl Marx — revolution can produce "common ruin"!
Returning to today, no matter the sleaziness of some current leaders, does anybody think we would be governed better by those who seized the Capitol?
We should not judge most of them too harshly, since they were themselves victims of a charismatic manipulator. But the scene reminded me of an old adage: "When the pot boils, the scum rises."
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966 and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon and a number of other states. Read Prof. Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.
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