But a democratic system of government cannot be transferred to other nations simply by setting up imitations of our institutions—we have realized this all too clearly in recent times. For democracy to work, it requires what Montesquieu described as a special quality in the people: ‘virtue.’ And, I would add, understanding.

—Margaret Thatcher. Speech at the Church of St Lawrence Jewry, City of London, March 4, 1981.

A corrupt, thieving, brutal, lying, bribing, cheating, barbaric, lawless people is not capable of self-government. Any nation that has been long ruled by despotism (this includes a clerically ruled people) will always fit that description. Such peoples, being incapable of self-government, can only be ruled by force. If they ever do throw off a tyrant, it is simply to exchange him for another. The way to break the cycle quickly (rather than wait a hundred years or more for them to reform themselves) is to rule them by force while educating and reforming them. A letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson showed the two men disagreed on this issue and that Adams was often wise:

The first time, that you and I differed in opinion on any material question … was the French Revolution. You were well persuaded in your own mind that the nation would succeed in establishing a free republican government: I was as well persuaded, in mine, that a project of such a government, over 25 million people, when 24 millions could neither write nor read: was as unnatural, irrational and impracticable; as it would be over the Elephants, Lions, Tigers, Panthers, Wolves and Bears. (July 13, 1813.)

The French were an example of a corrupt people, made so by centuries of degradation under absolute government. They shouted, “Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!” while drenching the streets of Paris in blood. They then promptly acclaimed Bonaparte dictator and later Emperor. As it turned out, the process whereby the French obtained the modicum of civic virtue they now possess was long and painful. It took two centuries and five republics. Their enchantment with socialism, communism, and centralization of power indicates there may be more republics yet to come.

The Russians are a case in progress. They executed their absolutist Tsar only to make Lenin dictator. It was then another seventy-three years before they were able to throw off the communists. Nevertheless, even today they remain incapable of self-government. We know this because self-government is always marked by the regular orderly transfer of power between opposing political parties. This has not happened in Russia; instead today Putin is first citizen, like Caesar, Bonaparte, and Bismarck before him. The fact that his rule is relatively moderate and sensible is no cause for optimism. After all, Bismarck and the five ‘good’ emperors from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius were also moderate and sensible; it did not change the fact that their reigns accustomed the people to accept authoritarian rule.

Americans were already endowed with civic virtue at the time of their revolution. Their ancestors had already traveled the long and painful road towards civilization. Anglo-Saxon tenets of liberty dating from Alfred the Great had made pioneering progress down through the centuries and found their culmination in the Magna Carta, Bill of Rights, writ of Habeas Corpus, Act of Settlement, writings of Sidney, Locke, Trenchard & Gordon, the bodies of Common Law and Equity, and the colonial charters. The Americans inherited all these liberties and were already practicing self-government. Their revolution occurred not to throw off a yoke, but to prevent one from being put on.

In summary, it is utter folly to imagine that a corrupt people can be cured by free elections. That does not undermine the proposition that all humanity is destined to become capable of self-government. Rather, it is to say that before a people can become self-governing they must become capable of self-government. It is a fair hope that some corrupt peoples, such as the Russians, Chinese, Indians, and Indonesians, through trade, through exposure to the Internet, Western media and institutions, and through a national desire to progress, will gradually reform themselves. For other peoples (such as the Afghans), it is clear that their corruption is so deeply rooted in their culture that they will only ever be reformed with outside intervention.

Thomas Jefferson considered the problem of how a corrupt people might be made capable of self-government when he postulated on how Rome might have been reformed at the time of Cicero:

Their people were so demoralized and depraved, as to be incapable of exercising a wholesome control. Their reformation, then, was to be taken up ab incunabulis. Their minds were to be informed by education what is right and what wrong; to be encouraged in habits of virtue, and deterred from those of vice by the dread of punishments, proportioned indeed, but irremissible; in all cases, to follow truth as the only safe guide, and to eschew error, which bewilders us in one false consequence after another, in endless succession. These are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure of order and good government. But this would have been an operation of a generation or two, at least. (Letter to John Adams, Monticello, December 10, 1819.)

Thus, to reform an utterly corrupt people, they must be controlled, disciplined, and educated in the same way and upon the same moral justification as a child. During this process democracy is inappropriate for them, for the same reason it is inappropriate to give car keys to a 10-year-old. Thomas Jefferson observed, only too presciently, in relation to Latin America,

I wish I could give better hopes of our southern brethren … Ignorance and bigotry, like all other insanities, are incapable of self-government. They will fall under military despotism, and become the murderous tools of the ambition of their respective Bonapartes … I do believe the best thing for them, would be for themselves to come to an accord with Spain, allowing to Spain a nominal supremacy, with authority only to keep the peace among them, leaving them otherwise all the powers of self-government, until their experience in them, their emancipation from their priests, and advancement in information, shall prepare them for complete independence. (Letter to Lafayette, Monticello, May 14, 1817.)

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove