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How to “Hold the Reins” of Government Tightly

By Stan Szczesny

“Stick to your objectives and examine the results to see how they match; take hold of the handles of government carefully and grip them tightly.” -Han Fei Tzu, translated by Burton Watson

It is the way of an enlightened people never to allow their representatives to speak words that cannot be matched by results.

When representatives succeed or fail in fulfilling their campaign promises, the people should apply the handles of government.

The handles of government are rewards and punishments.

Campaign promises are a power that candidates exercise on the people. Only incompetent or corrupt candidates abuse this power.

Representatives who fail to fulfill promises because of unforeseen obstacles are incompetent. They should never have made unfulfillable promises.

Representatives who make promises with no intention of keeping them are corrupt. They lie to obtain and maintain power over the people.

What rewards and punishments are in the people’s hands?

  • Representatives who make and keep small promises should be reelected.
  • Representatives who make and keep larger promises should be elected to higher offices.
  • Representatives who fail to keep promises should never be reelected.
  • Representatives who violate the fundamental expectations of honesty should be impeached, and, if convicted, removed from office.

The enlightened people should be as benign as the seasonable rain when bestowing rewards; but in doling out punishments they should be as terrible as thunder.

If the people are overliberal with their rewards, their representatives will grow complacent in their duties. If the people are too lenient with their punishments, their representatives will do evil with ease.

Alexis de Tocqueville said:

“When the American republics begin to degenerate, it will be easy to verify the truth of this observation by
remarking whether the number of political impeachments is increased.”

He worried that the ruling masses would use impeachment too often. Impeachment would become not only a means of punishing criminal activity in office, but also a means of removing unpopular representatives.

Tocqueville’s concern is valid, but perhaps the people haven’t used impeachment often enough. Perhaps the
representatives should be made to know that the handles of government are gripped tightly.

Impeached representatives still receive a trial before the senate. If they are found innocent, they remain in office, but the representatives will take notice that the people mean business. If they are found guilty, they are dishonorably removed from office.

They still receive a non-political trial within the regular judicial system; in other words, impeachment leaves a man uninjured in life and limb. Therefore, the people need not fear that impeachment is inhumane.

In the words of de Tocqueville,

“…impeachment is the most formidable political weapon that has ever been placed in the hands of a majority.”

Even if the people do not agree with impeaching more often, they should at least return fresh candidates to office more often.

Never return candidates who fail to produce the results they promise. Only return candidates whose words match their deeds.

In this way, the people will hold the reins of government tight, they will get the results they desire, and the government will follow the Way.


About Stan Szczesny

Several years ago, I walked by Encyclopedia Britannica’s “Great Books of the Western World” set and realized that I was about to graduate from college without having read any of the authors listed there. So I dropped out of school and set a goal to read all of those books. The goal took eight years.

Along the way, I found schools that supplemented my change in approach to education. I completed a B.A. at George Wythe University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics at St. John’s College.

Now, I’m moving forward. I drive a 1976 van. I have a wife and 4 children under the age of 7. We don’t have much, but we stay happy talking about Francis Bacon and Confucius.

You can connect with me by reading my Great Books blog.


  1. This is interesting to think about. I would also say how important it is that we should pay close attention to the promises that candidates make while running for office. If we think about them and consider how likely it is that they can deliver these promises or if the office they are running for even has the power to do what they promise.

    I get a bit bothered by campaign signs of people running for congress stating that they will “balance the budget.” While congress is where such a thing would be passed, this is a pie-crust promise. Easily made, and easily broken. It depends so much on the candidate’s ability to persuade other congressmen that the most they can feasibly promise is to fight for a balanced budget, and vote for a balanced budget.

    However, this is also a pie-crust promise. Nowadays, legislation is so full of other piggy-back line items that have nothing to do with the original bill, that in voting for a balanced budget, you may be voting for something far worse as well.

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