On a memorable occasion the assembled Athenians declared it monstrous that they should be prevented from doing whatever they chose. No force that existed could restrain them; and they resolved that no duty should restrain them, and that they would be bound by no laws that were not of their own making. In this way the emancipated people of Athens became a tyrant.

They treated their dependencies with such injustice that they lost their maritime empire. They plundered the rich, until the rich conspired with the public enemy … When the absolute sway of numbers had endured for near a quarter of a century, nothing … was left for the state to lose; and the Athenians, wearied and despondent, confessed the true cause of their ruin. They understood that for liberty, justice, and equal laws, it is as necessary that the demo­cracy should restrain itself.

The repentance of the Athenians came too late to save the Republic. But the lesson of their experience endures for all time, for it teaches that government by the whole people, being the government of the most numerous and most powerful class, is an evil of the same nature as unmixed monarchy, and requires, for nearly the same reasons, institutions that shall protect it against itself, and shall uphold the permanent reign of law against arbitrary revolutions of opinion.

—Lord Acton. The History of Freedom in Antiquity, an address delivered to the members of the Bridgnorth Institute, February 26, 1877.

Unrestrained democracy is as immoral and impractical as every other variety of tyranny. It amounts to the population proceeding through life without a code of principles, a practice as disastrous for the state as it is for an individual. Only through constitutional fetters can demo­cracy be perfected.

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