Considering Democracy, Part 2
Democracy has become the dominant political ideology over the course of the past century because its proponents have successfully argued that democracy has advantages over competing ideologies. In this section we will examine some of the arguments used to advocate for democracy as the best form of civil polity. We will see that not only is democracy not the best form of civil polity, but that democracy is destructive of civilization. Democracy is not a friend of Christian progress, but an enemy of historic Christendom. Just as Satan attempts to replace genuine Christian faith with cheap imitations, democracy is a cheap imitation of what was Christian civilization.
Democracy and the Problem of Important Moral Questions
Democracy is incapable of satisfactorily resolving questions and problems of great moral import. The simple fact is that major policy should not be determined by 50.1% of hundreds of millions of people. Issues such as immigration restriction, abortion, marriage, taxation, or spending trillions of dollars are far too important to merely count heads. Social issues that are clearly settled in the moral law ought never to be considered for debate so that abominations would be allowed to gain approbation in the minds of the general public. John C. Calhoun was a nineteenth-century vice president and established his iconic reputation during his tenure as a senator from South Carolina. Calhoun argued against simple one person-one vote democracy by arguing that a simple majority doesn’t represent all the legitimate interests that ought to be represented by the government. Calhoun comments,
A broader position may, indeed, be taken; viz., that there is a tendency, in constitutional governments of every form, to degenerate into their respective absolute forms; and, in all absolute governments, into that of the monarchical form. But the tendency is much stronger in constitutional governments of the democratic form to degenerate into their respective absolute forms, than in either of the others; because, among other reasons, the distinction between the constitutional and absolute forms of aristocratical and monarchical governments, is far more strongly marked than in democratic governments. The effect of this is, to make the different orders or classes in an aristocracy, or monarchy, far more jealous and watchful of encroachment on their respective rights; and more resolute and persevering in resisting attempts to concentrate power in any one class or order.
On the contrary, the line between the two forms, in popular governments, is so imperfectly understood, that honest and sincere friends of the constitutional form not unfrequently, instead of jealously watching and arresting their tendency to degenerate into their absolute forms, not only regard it with approbation, but employ all their powers to add to its strength and to increase its impetus, in the vain hope of making the government more perfect and popular. The numerical majority, perhaps, should usually be one of the elements of a constitutional democracy; but to make it the sole element, in order to perfect the constitution and make the government more popular, is one of the greatest and most fatal of political errors.
The case is different in governments of the concurrent majority. There, mere numbers have not the absolute control; and the wealthy and intelligent being identified in interest with the poor and ignorant of their respective portions or interests of the community, become their leaders and protectors. And hence, as the latter would have neither hope nor inducement to rally the former in order to obtain the control, the right of suffrage, under such a government, may be safely enlarged to the extent stated, without incurring the hazard to which such enlargement would expose governments of the numerical majority.
In another particular, governments of the concurrent majority have greatly the advantage. I allude to the difference in their respective tendency, in reference to dividing or uniting the community. That of the concurrent, as has been shown, is to unite the community, let its interests be ever so diversified or opposed; while that of the numerical is to divide it into two conflicting portions, let its interests be, naturally, ever so united and identified.1
Calhoun is arguing against any form of absolute government and in favor of checks upon government. He is impressively candid when he suggests (rightly so) that “the tendency is much stronger in constitutional governments of the democratic form to degenerate into their respective absolute forms, than in either of the others; because, among other reasons, the distinction between the constitutional and absolute forms of aristocratical and monarchical governments, is far more strongly marked than in democratic governments.” Calhoun had witnessed the destructive natures of simple democracy during the debates on the “tariff of abominations.” The South was uniformly opposed to the tariff on manufacturing since they were concerned that this would cause foreign countries to raise taxes on Southern agricultural imports. The high tax on foreign manufacturing favored the North at the expense of the South. Calhoun argued that it was unjust for a simple majority in Congress to favor a dominant region or interest against another interest. Instead, Calhoun argued that concurrent majorities of different interests and regions are essential to maintaining truly republican ideals.
Democracy and Rights
One of the dominant arguments in favor of democracy is that the rights of citizens are more jealously guarded since rulers are accountable to the public who elects. It is argued that monarchs and aristocrats could disregard the rights of their subjects on a whim since they were unaccountable for their actions. Democratic politicians, on the other hand, are accountable for their actions since they are subjected to regular elections and can be voted out of office for any abuses of power that might occur during their tenure in office. This is the theory; however, this theory almost never plays out in practice.
The reality is that regular elections are no guarantee of integrity. It is painfully obvious to even the most casual observer of contemporary politics that this is not the case. The never-ending cycle of elections that characterizes American politics is simply an occasion for career politicians to make promises that they cannot keep and aggrandize an unwitting populace with delusions of grandeur. As part of the majority-rule paradigm, citizens of a democracy have become accustomed to having their personal and individual rights violated if they conflict with the abstract will of “the people.” Today, notes Jouvenel,
We are used to having our rights modified by the sovereign decisions of legislators. A landlord no longer feels surprised at being compelled to keep a tenant; an employer is no less used to having to raise the wages of his employees in virtue of the decrees of Power. Nowadays it is understood that our subjective rights are precarious and at the good pleasure of authority.2
Continuing in the same vein of thought, the brilliant John C. Calhoun noticed that far from preserving legitimate rights, democracy actually destroyed them.
No government based on the naked principle that the majority ought to govern, however true the maxim in its proper sense and under proper restrictions, ever preserved its liberty, even for a single generation. The history of all has been the same: injustice, violence and anarchy, succeeded by government of one or a few. . . . An unchecked majority is a despotism—and government is free, and will be permanent, in proportion to the number, complexity and efficiency of the checks by which powers are controlled.3
Rights have become entirely abstract as democracy has become more and more entrenched in society. Prior to democracy rights principally entailed rights to life, liberty (defined as freedom from unjust compulsion), and property. Rights were based upon a series of reciprocal responsibilities. For example, the right to life is established by the responsibility given in the sixth commandment to not commit murder. I have the right to live because everyone has the responsibility to not commit murder. Likewise, the principle of the right to property is established by the eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.” I have the right to own property because everyone else has the responsibility not to steal from me. The same responsibilities apply to me as well. I am required by Christian morality to preserve the lives and property of my neighbors. Democracy has destroyed this Christian rights/responsibilities paradigm. Now all rights are subject to the will of the majority. As Jouvenel pointed out, property owners have become far more accustomed to seeing their property rights trampled upon.
We are no longer surprised when we are required to hire people against our will, paying employees a wage mandated by the federal government. Under democracy, we now are told that certain people have the “right” to work without actually specifying how anyone has the responsibility to hire them. We are also told that people have a right to eat. This does not mean simply that people have the right not to be starved, but, contrary to the dictum of the Apostle Paul in 2 Thess. 3:10, that people have the right to be fed, often at public expense. Rather than promoting classical rights, democracy has actually witnessed a major abridgment of traditional rights, especially when they conflict with egalitarian abstractions. According to democratic thinking, rights are great until they offend the sensibilities of the all-important majority. This is a perspective of rights that cannot be sustained in a civilized society and must be jettisoned.
Are Democracies More Peaceful?
Many proponents of democracy argue that democracy would help prevent war and conflict from breaking out and tearing apart society. It is argued that when decisions are left to the people, they would naturally choose to opt out of war since they are the ones who will bear the burden of death and separation that war brings. This is the very argument advanced by Immanuel Kant in his thesis, “Perpetual Peace,” where he claimed a republican or democratic constitution to be the prerequisite for perpetual peace. For under a republican constitution,
[w]hen the consent of the citizens is necessary to decide whether there shall be war or not, nothing is more natural than that, since they would have to decide on imposing all of the hardships of war unto themselves, they will be very hesitant to begin such an evil adventure. In contrast, under a constitution where the subject is not a citizen, which is thus not republican, it is the easiest thing in the world, because the sovereign is not a citizen of the state but its owner, his dining, hunting, castles, parties, etc., will not suffer in the least from the war, and he can thus go to war for meaningless reasons, as if it were a pleasure trip.4
In fact, the opposite is true: the substitution of a republic for a monarchy does not imply less government power, or even self-rule. It implies the replacement of bad private-government administration by worse public-government administration.5
The transition from more traditional government paradigms, such as monarchy and aristocracy, occurred following World War I, which was at the time known as The Great War. Commenting on The Great War, Sitwell notes that
[t]he war, certainly, was the final triumph of the system. Every man, the world over, was forced to fight to make the world safe for Democracy, whether he believed in it or not—though the war itself was undoubtedly due to the very form of government for which he was now urged to fight, and one, in any case, peculiarly unsuited for the prosecution of a successful war. . . . The people of every country allowed only the most brutalized and hypocritical of their countrymen to come to the top and rule them, thereby proving how much they gained by education and the other blessings which they owed to the system.6
The transition from monarchy to democracy has not been a peaceful one. This transition began with the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century and was so rife with violence and tumult that even many of the initial enthusiasts of the revolution recoiled in horror. These radicals had believed that certainly “the people” were more civilized than what had led to the bloodbaths in Paris! As noted, the final blow for the ancient regime came with World War I, in which many of the European monarchies were overthrown or deprived of power. From this time on, the twentieth century has been marked by perpetual warfare and ceaseless violence. The myth that democratic government would yield peace in the world has been rendered entirely false.
Who is Really in Charge in a Democracy?
Another important argument that is advanced in favor of democracy is that under a democracy control of the government is given to the people, to the common man (and woman), and that this will prevent corruption in the government because the people will not allow themselves to be abused when they are in control. Democracy begins as an effort to involve people in government affairs, but ultimately leads to more centralization in which politicians represent scores of people whom they have never and likely will never meet. The process of centralization is the logical conclusion of democracy, since democracy teaches that the best government comes from the best input. More votes must mean better government, right?
The result is that your vote is so miniscule and diluted in a sea of millions of people that your vote effectively counts for nothing, especially if you find that you are not in the mainstream that political financiers find acceptable. Financiers govern elections since they control funding to those who need money for the massive undertaking of campaigning and advertising that is necessary in elections involving millions of people. The people are not in control; the political-financial class is.
Alexander Tytler was an eighteenth-century Scotsman who possessed great foresight in his analysis of the common fallacy of the people governing themselves under a democracy.
The people flatter themselves that they have the sovereign power. These are, in fact, words without meaning. It is true they elected governors; but how are these elections brought about? In every instance of election by the mass of a people–through the influence of those governors themselves, and by means the most opposite to a free and disinterested choice, by the basest corruption and bribery. But those governors once selected, where is the boasted freedom of the people? They must submit to their rule and control, with the same abandonment of their natural liberty, the freedom of their will, and the command of their actions, as if they were under the rule of a monarch.7, p. 217]
An editorial attributed to Elmer T. Peterson explains how democracy collapses due to this trend towards demagoguery: “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.”8 Likewise, H.L. Mencken notes, with his characteristic wit, that democratic politicians
seldom if ever get there [into public office] by merit alone, at least in democratic states. Sometimes, to be sure, it happens, but only by a kind of miracle. They are chosen normally for quite different reasons, the chief of which is simply their power to impress and enchant the intellectually underprivileged. . . . Will any of them venture to tell the plain truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the situation of the country, foreign or domestic? Will any of them refrain from promises that he knows he can’t fulfill — that no human being could fulfill? Will any of them utter a word, however obvious, that will alarm and alienate any of the huge pack of morons who cluster at the public trough, wallowing in the pap that grows thinner and thinner, hoping against hope? Answer: maybe for a few weeks at the start. . . . But not after the issue is fairly joined, and the struggle is on in earnest. . . . They will all promise every man, woman and child in the country whatever he, she or it wants. They’ll all be roving the land looking for chances to make the rich poor, to remedy the irremediable, to succor the unsuccorable, to unscramble the unscrambleable, to dephlogisticate the undephlogisticable. They will all be curing warts by saying words over them, and paying off the national debt with money that no one will have to earn. When one of them demonstrates that twice two is five, another will prove that it is six, six and a half, ten, twenty, n. In brief, they will divest themselves from their character as sensible, candid and truthful men, and become simply candidates for office, bent only on collaring votes. They will all know by then, even supposing that some of them don’t know it now, that votes are collared under democracy, not by talking sense but by talking nonsense, and they will apply themselves to the job with a hearty yo-heave-hoe. Most of them, before the uproar is over, will actually convince themselves. The winner will be whoever promises the most with the least probability of delivering anything.9, pp.148-51. As cited in Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s, Democracy: The God that Failed. p. 88.]
There are decent and respectable men that run for office in democratic governments, but they almost never succeed. They are overwhelmed by unscrupulous office-seekers who aren’t encumbered by moral standards and simply want to promise the public whatever it wants, even if its desires are unattainable. We are all familiar with this. Every election cycle we are told by politicians that we can pay down the debt, cut taxes, police the world, and that they can do all of this without cutting any entitlement benefits of programs like social security, Medicare, or Medicaid. Mencken was both observant and prophetic when he spoke of politicians promising the impossible to unwitting constituents. Because of the nature of one person-one vote democracy, honest office-holders will either be forced to sell their political souls to the establishment, or lose elections on principle.
Jared Sparks, former editor of the North American Review and President of Harvard College, summarized American democracy as the philosophy that “the majority is always right.”10 Toqueville wrote his travel log Journey as a precursor to his classic work, Democracy in America, which is one of the most thorough descriptions of American life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Toqueville recorded his conversation in New England with a well-bred patrician named Finley. Toqueville observed that “It is yourselves the members of the upper classes, who have made the existing laws. You were the masters of society fifty years ago.” Finley replied, “Each party, to gain power, chose to flatter the people, and bid for its support by granting new privileges.”11 What remarkable insight! Democracy has certainly been characterized historically by the politicians’ unscrupulous expansion of the electorate in order to gain votes and retain power. Politicians will champion the expansion of political rights to classes of people who are politically irresponsible simply so that these political classes will be indebted to them and their ideological comrades in future democratic elections.
Democracy is conceived upon the principle of allowing the people to govern themselves. This isn’t what results in practice. The reality is that too much money is required for your “average Joe” to successfully run for anything other than a local office. This means that he needs outside funding to publicize himself in order to become a palpable candidate. This gives financiers and lobbyists an incredible degree of power and influence that many theorists favorable to democracy could never have envisioned.
These moneyed interests are able to determine what constitutes acceptable political positions, and mass media controls whose image they will promote to the public. Democracy ironically becomes a means by which people can be controlled and manipulated. This is perhaps the great tragedy of democracy. Democracy was conceived under the laudable goal of allowing people self-governance and self-determination, but has instead resulted in a stranglehold on policy by elites who may have no tangible connection to the people they govern whatsoever. Rather than produce self-determination, democracy creates a super-elite political class who wields more power than ancient tyrants could ever have imagined.
In the next edition we will continue to examine the pitfalls of democracy. We will discuss how democracy is fueled by envy, and how this envy leads to economic downfall. We will also explore how democracy destroys the equitability of law by insulating the government from moral scruples by propagating a theory of public law versus private law. Finally we will look at how America’s founding fathers viewed democracy and how ironic it is that America has been on the forefront of promoting the spread of democracy throughout the world.
- John C. Calhoun, “A Disquisition on Government.” http://www.constitution.org/jcc/disq_gov.htm ↩
- Bertrand de Jouvenel, Sovereignty, p. 189. Cited by Hans-Hermann Hoppe in Democracy: The God That Failed, p. 62 ↩
- John C. Calhoun. “South Carolina Exposition,” December 19, 1828, Papers of Calhoun, 10:445, 457-59, 497, 507. ↩
- Immanuel Kant, “Perpetual Peace” (1795). Contained in Wilhelm Weischedel, ed., Gesammelte Werke in zwolf Banden (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1964), vol.11, p.205f. ↩
- On the illusionary character of Kant’s and others’ views to the contrary, and on the “positive” historical correlation between democracy and increased militarization and war, see Michael Howard, War in European History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976); John F.C. Fuller, War and Western Civilization, 1832-1932 (Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries, 1969); The Conduct of War, 1789-1961 (New York: DaCapo Press, 1992); Ekkehard Krippendorff, Staat und Krieg (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1985). Paragraph from Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Democracy: The God that Failed. p. 34. ↩
- Sir Osbert Sitwell, Triple Fugue, p. 410 ↩
- Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee. Universal History — From the Creation of the World to the Beginning of the 18th Century. Boston: Fetridge and Company (1850) [1834 ↩
- Elmer T. Peterson (9 December 1951), “This is the Hard Core of Freedom.” Daily Oklahoman, p. 12A. http://www.newspaperarchive.com/FreePdfViewer.aspx?img=65090381&firstvisit=true&terms=Tytler. This statement is commonly though perhaps mistakenly attributed to Alexander Tytler. ↩
- H. L. Mencken quoted in, A Mencken Chrestomathy [New York: Vintage Books, 1982 ↩
- Alexis de Toqueville. Undated Entry, 1831, Journey, pp. 58-59. ↩
- Alexis de Toqueville. Entry for November 3, 1831, Journey, 82-84 ↩