What is the best form of government? The theme is always topical in Italy. The answer to this question, however, has not yet found unanimous agreement.

In the world, in fact, republics, parliamentary or presidential, alternate with monarchies, whether constitutional or absolute or even elective [1].

The dispute on the theme of which is the best form of government is at least two thousand years old if its origin is given as a famous passage from the Histories of Herodotus in which three men discuss it:

  • Otanes,
  • Megabizo,
  • and Darius[2].

So, getting to the point: [what is] better[?]

  • democracy, i.e. the government of all;
  • the aristocracy, that is, the government of the few excellent by birth and ability;
  • or the monarchy, i.e. the government of only one?

Otanes had no doubts: «he would have wanted power to be given to all the Persian people», Herodotus reports in his Histories.

On the contrary, the satrap Megabizo argued that “the government should be entrusted to an oligarchy” and Dario instead affirmed that “between the best democracy, the best oligarchy and the best monarch, the preference goes by far to the latter government”.

“You can’t find anything better than a single governor, if he is the best. The intelligence of such a man can impeccably administer the multitude” explained Darius in the story of Herodotus.

Well, to Darius’ certainty I oppose two questions:

How can one certify that someone is “the best”? Are there specific tests or is it sufficient that the people or a group of plutocrats consider this merit? Or is it fate – guided by a divine hand – that can help resolve the difficult dispute?

Who or what can ensure that, as Otanes himself fears, time does not make [even the] best man in the world invested with such authority get “outside his habitual way of seeing”?

How to ensure that the best man cannot stop caring for the common good and instead devote himself to his own interest “when it is lawful to do what he wants without accountability? ».

According to Otanes, the best form of government is democracy
In short, Otanes confidently affirms a convinced ‟noˮ to the figure of the single boss.

In the Histories, however, he insists on his own opinion and explains: «The government of the people above all bears the name that most fascinates: equality of rights. Secondly [,it]

does none of the damage that the monarch does:
holds magistracies by lot,
accounts for the power exercised,
submits all deliberations to the public.

According to him, [it has] all the elements that would prevent a degeneration of democracy and, on the other hand, would ensure that actions are directed to the interests of the majority.

Otanes’ democracy, however, seems to me more intended as direct democracy, in the style of the Athenian agora. In fact, his statement “I neither want to command nor be commanded” convinces me in this assessment. We find it in chapter 83 of the Stories of Herodotus [2].

Was this Otanes an ante litteram libertarian?
For Megabizo, it is necessary to entrust the power to a group of the best

The problem of democracy, however, for Megabizo, lies in entrusting the government to “an inept multitude”, devoid of that intelligence which is represented by acting according to “its design”. “And how could it not be?” Nothing good has been taught to it and nothing has it learned by natural ingenuity; it breaks in and falls, without understanding: it is a flooded river », explains the satrap in the Histories.

This is why his solution is that of a ‟democracy of… meritˮ: «we give power to a group of men chosen from among the most capable. It is from the most capable men that one expects the wisest decisions”.

Today we can identify in representative parliamentary democracy this possibility of choosing “among the most capable” that Megabizo imagined.

Darius: Only monarchy saves us from personal hatreds and plots

Darius joins the conversation: “When the people are in command, it is inevitable that the value of rulers will decline, “. To him, however, even the oligarchy is not convincing: ” among the many men of merit who devote themselves to the interest of the state, strong personal hatreds are apt to arise; each one wanting to be the leader and make his own ideas triumph.”

On the other hand, Darius goes on to corroborate his own thesis of the one man in charge [stating that] on the other hand, in democracy ” not hatreds but strong friendships arise among the incompetent, and are to the detriment of the common interest: for those who harm the state act by conspiracies “.

It seems clear to me that everyone expresses Truths. What is the best form of government, in conclusion?

In conclusion, I believe that the question “what is the best form of government?ˮ is ill-posed, or at least incomplete.

I believe that it is the institutional “checks and counterbalancesˮ, if effective and functioning, that ensure a solution to the critical issues argued by Octanes, Megabizo and Darius with respect to different forms of government.

There is, in short, in my view, no absolute better form of government than another.

Thus, in my view, a debate on the best form of government cannot but include one on the “checks and counterbalancesˮ necessary for any form of government not to degenerate into tyranny or corruption.

Sources and Notes:

[1] Plutarch of Chaeronea, Greek writer and philosopher, 45 (or 50)-120 CE, ” De unius in republica dominatione ” (EN).

“Now these three types of government were distributed among the nations that had the most powerful and the largest empire.

Thus the Persians enjoyed kingship, because their king had full absolute power in all things, without being held accountable to anyone.

The Spartans had a council composed of a small number of the best and most considerable people in the city, who managed all affairs.

The Athenians kept the popular government free and exempt from all other intermingling.”

[2] Herodotus of Halicarnassus, 440-429 B.C., “Histories” (Book III, 80:83).