I promised to write this article a long time ago, and I’m very happy to see it published. Legend of Galactic Heroes has garnered many fans throughout its three decades of existence. (The OVA itself needed nearly a decade to complete: 1988-1997.) Part of the charm of this series is that it asks an eternal question: what is the best form of government? Monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy? The dress and cultures of our heroes reminds us of the First World War, and we recall that great cataclysm in the obscene casualty levels of each interstellar battle. Yet, does the Empire really represent the Second Reich and the Free Planets Alliance the Allies?
The question on the best form of government has its antecedent far before World War I: Herodotus’ Histories contains a scene where Persians debate over the best form of government for themselves. In the end, they decide on monarchy, since they argue that aristocracy and democracy are too unstable. They say that the natural course of affairs is for one person to gain all political power anyway; so, they might as well establish a monarchy!
Yet, contrary to the events in Legend of Galactic Heroes, the Persian monarchy is defeated during their wars with the democratic Greeks. There is another classical work which bears a closer resemblance to Legend of Galactic Heroes than the works of Herodotus: Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. The similarities between the two works, especially in the great debate over democracy vs. monarchy, are striking enough that I feel sure that Yoshiki Tanaka, the author of Legend of Galactic Heroes novels, has some familiarity with it. The Free Planets Alliance and Athens are easily similar in their democracy and willingness to punish unsuccessful generals or overly successful leaders. The heavy militarism and monarchic government of the Empire reminds one of Sparta. Just like in Thucydides, the single-minded monarchy of the Empire conquers a volatile, corrupt, and short-sighted democracy.
Does this necessarily mean that a monarchy is better than a democracy–at least in times of war? I would say no: actually democracies in the 20th century have more often bested enemy dictatorships. Every form of government has trade-offs. That’s why our Founding Fathers followed the Aristotelian ideal of creating a mixed government, combining kingly, aristocratic, and democratic elements. Each branch contains methods for checking the others in order to prevent dictatorship, mob rule, or oligarchy. Often, one branch of government gains ascendancy over the others for a short time, but energetic and principled politicians can usually prevent one part of government from subsuming all the power of the state.
As for the comparison between democracy and monarchy, I have to side with democracy, because it’s what I know. Sure, I would chose a constitutional monarchy over a democracy, but a constitutional monarchy is a mixed government. I only want to compare rule of the people vs. rule of an autocrat! It might be true that a majority can as easily oppress minority citizens as a monarch, but monarchy is subject to more extremes. And, I suppose one is far more likely to be ruled by the worst man than by the best man. So, my natural pessimism regarding human affairs inclines me towards democracy.
What would my dear readers prefer: being ruled by an absolute monarch or a parliament without checks on what it can legislate?