By Peter Landry.1
Democracy is a tender topic for a
writer: like motherhood and apple pie it is not to be criticized. One will
risk being roundly condemned if he, or she, points out the serious bottleneck
that is presented when a community attempts, through the democratic process,
to set plans for positive social action. A man is not permitted to hesitate
about its merits, without the suspicion of being a friend to tyranny, that
is, of being a foe to mankind?2
The notions of government
and of democracy are independent notions and do not, from what I can see,
depend on one another. What is likely required for the masses of people,
as we see in "modern" world societies, is an established system of government.
Where there is a need for an established system of government, it will likely
naturally come about; and do so, whether, or not, it has the consent of the
people, -- real or imagined. Putting aside, for the moment, the arguments
of Hobbes and Locke,
I believe, on the basis of plain historical fact, that governments come about
naturally and maintain themselves naturally without the general will of the
people; indeed, I believe, with many others I suspect, that our long established
democratic governments in the world (the United States and Canada being among
them) did not come about by the general will of the people, at all; nor is
it necessary that it should it be maintained by the will of the people.3
One should not conclude, therefore, that democracy is necessary for good
government: It may not be. What is necessary for optimum prosperity is a
state of acquiescence, which, as it happens, is the hallmark of western democracies.
It may be, that the only thing needed is but the trappings of democracy.
An individual or group of individuals may take and maintain power by the use of coercive force. From history
we can see that this is the usual way by which power is gained, and maintained.
However, it has long been understood that people might come together and
explicitly agree to put someone in power. The best of the thinkers saw a
process, -- call it democracy -- by which groups might bloodlessly choose
a leader. That each of the governed should have a say, or least an opportunity
to have a say, is a high flying ideal; but any system by which the peace
is kept is an admirable system and democracy, such as it has evolved, has
proven, in many cases, to be just such a system.
A precise definition of democracy might be had by consulting
the OED. Democracy is government by the people; a form of government in
which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole, and is exercised
either directly by them (as in the small republics of antiquity) or by officers
elected by them. In modern use it vaguely denotes a social state in which
all have equal rights, without hereditary or arbitrary differences of rank
or privilege. Walter Bagehot
gave it a more uncelestial definition: "Each man is to have one twelve-millionth
share in electing a Parliament; the rich and the wise are not to have, by
explicit law, more votes than the poor and stupid; nor are any latent contrivances
to give them an influence equivalent to more votes."4
It is from the suffix, "-ocracy" by which we might determine the operative
meaning of the larger word, "democracy"; it is the indicator of the dominant,
superior, or aspiring class who would rule; it is derived from the Greek
word kratos, meaning strength or power. Any word might be added to
this suffix, which will then indicate the type of rule, such as: plutocracy
(rule by the wealthy), ochlocracy (mob-rule), angelocracy (government by
angels), etc. Democracy is the rule by, or the dominion of, the people;
it comes from the Greek word, demos. It is often referred to as popular
government. Democracy, historically speaking, is to be compared with monarchy,
rule of one; or with aristocracy, rule of the "best-born," or rule of the
Whatever its origins (and we will consider its origins) democracy has
come to mean a principle or system to which most all political parties of
the western world, no matter their political beliefs, would subscribe. It
is politics. It goes beyond the periodic act of voting; it is characterized
by participation in government, viz., involving members of the community
in governmental decisions, allowing them to take part in anything at all
which amounts to a public demonstration of popular opinion.
1 - Grecian Democracy:-
The first democracy, of
which we have record, is that which was practiced in ancient Athens. In his
capacity as a history writer, Aristotle, in his work, The Athenian Constitution
(350 BC), writes that the Athenians practiced democracy only to the extent
of putting and keeping in power members of a very exclusive group, a group
which formed but a minority in the universal group we stylize as society.
The Athenian constitution was oligarchical, in every respect. The poorer
classes were the serfs of the rich. They cultivated the lands of the rich
and paid rent. The whole country was in the hands of nine magistrates, called
archons, who were elected according to qualifications of birth and
wealth. These ruling magistrates held their positions for life, except for
that latter period when they served for a term of ten years. In time, this
Greek notion of democracy was set aside in favour of the draw.
"... the method of election in the choice of archons is replaced
by lot; some way must be found to keep the rich from buying, or the knaves
from smiling, their way into office. To render the selection less than wholly
accidental, all those upon whom the lot falls are subjected, before taking
up their duties, to a rigorous dokimasia, or character examination,
conducted by the Council or the courts. The candidate must show Athenian
parentage on both sides, freedom from physical defect and scandal, the pious
honoring of his ancestors, the performance of his military assignments, and
the full payment of his taxes; his whole life is on this occasion exposed
to challenge by any citizen, and the prospect of such a scrutiny presumably
frightens the most worthless from the sortition. If he passes this test
the archon swears an oath that he will properly perform the obligations of
his office, and will dedicate to the gods a golden statue of life-size if
he should accept presents or bribes."
Durant in Our Oriental Heritage continued to write that the head man, the archon basileus,
must "nine times yearly ... obtain a vote of confidence from the Assembly"
and any citizen may bring him to task for an inappropriate act of his. "At
the end of his term all his official acts, accounts, and documents" are reviewed
by a special board, logistai, which is responsible to the Council. "Severe penalties, even death, may avenge serious misconduct."
Grecian democracy, however, such as it was, was soon covered
over with the murk of the middle ages. Democracy's re-flowering in the world,
in respect to the rights of the people, first appeared in England with the
Glorious Revolution of 1688. A study of an era known as The Enlightenment, is the study of the beginnings of of modern democracy5.
2 - The Enlightenment:-
Out of the Dark Ages, in
gradual awaking stirs, came the Age of Reason. The enlightenment was fully
established and growing vigorously by the eighteenth century. As the shackles
of oppression, so firmly clamped on during the middle ages, became loose,
men sought to apply reason to religion, politics, morality, and social life.
With the coming of the enlightenment men began to express their minds; no
longer were most all men cowed by the great mystery of the universe, and,
their minds, through ignorance, ruled by fears: The Enlightenment was a time
when human beings pulled themselves out of the medieval pits of mysticism.
It was a spontaneous and defused movement which fed on itself and led to
the great scientific discoveries from which we all benefit today. Beliefs
in natural law
and universal order sprung up, which not only promoted scientific findings
and advancements of a material nature; but, which, also drove the great political
thinkers of the time, such as: Francis Bacon (1561-1626),
Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733),
Charles Louis de Secondat Montesquieu (1689-1755),
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-88),
David Hume (1711-76) and, of course the brightest political light of all,
John Locke (1632-1704).
3 - Representative Government:-
In England, Edward
the First, in 1295, with a view to dealing with his impecuniosity, issued
a writ to the sheriff of Northhampton. The people, of all things, were refusing
to pay taxes and they were becoming belligerent. Edward was getting advise
to the effect that it might be better to sit down with the people, or rather
their representatives, than to let loose the royal troops. Letting the troops
loose would be an act which would destroy the country's riches, a share of
which the king wanted for himself. Thus, we would have seen the royal messenger
riding out from the king's castle to deliver this royal writ to the sheriff
of Northhampton. This royal writ of Edward's had the Latin words, elegi facis,
meaning that the persons who were to sit on the people's Council (the beginnings
of parliament) were to be elected headmen such as the burgesses and knights,
and they were to have "full and sufficient power for themselves and the communities"
which they represent; they were to come to Council -- ready, to conduct and
to conclude the important business of the land.
Now, one of the most fundamental questions of politics
- whether of 1295, or of modern day - is this: Should the representative,
sent to the legislature -- assuming, in the first place, that he or she has
canvassed the subject to be voted upon and all the far flung consequences
of it -- vote the way the majority of his constituents would have him vote;
or, should he vote on the basis of what he thinks is right, no matter that
it may run against the majority of what his constituents would like. Edmund Burke, a most brilliant political thinker, thought that the representative should vote his conscience.6
"Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile
interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate,
against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly
of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes,
not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from
the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you
have chosen him, he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.
Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment;
and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
The state includes the dead, the living, and the coming generations."
4 - The Dilemma of Representative Government:-
human nature and the political process, full democracy, beyond the smallest
group size, may simply not be workable, at all. Each of us has a right to
cast a vote for an individual to represent us in the legislative assembly.
The elected person then goes off to represent all of his constituents, whether
they voted for him or not, indeed, whether they have even voted. How is
he to look at issues and how is he to vote (assuming, for the moment, that
he has a free vote in parliament). Should he vote on the basis of what he
perceives the majority of his constituents want, right or wrong; or, as Burke
suggests, does he vote his own conscience, vote as a "better and more informed
person" than his average constituent; or does he, as it seems our system
obliges, just vote the party line.
"Representative institutions are of little value, and may
be a mere instrument of tyranny or intrigue, when the generality of electors
are not sufficiently interested in their own government to give their vote,
or, if they vote at all, do not bestow their suffrages on public grounds,
but sell them for money, or vote at the beck of someone who has control over
them or whom for private reasons they desire to propitiate. Popular election,
as thus practised, instead of a security against misgovernment, is but an
additional wheel in its machinery." (John Stuart Mill, Consideration on Representative Government.)
The problem, as is so clearly set forth by Mill, is quite aside from the
further and separate problem "that issues at stake in political life are
too many and too complicated and that very many of them [issues] are actually
unknown both to the representatives and to the people represented."7
It should be remembered, too, that any decision made and
action taken in an assembly of "our" representatives can be done on the barest
majority of a group; which might have been elected on the barest majority
of a popular vote; which majority of a popular vote, might well, and usually
does, represent a minority of the population. How can it ever be stated
that any particular government measure will accord with the wishes of the
5 - Democracy In Action:-
In a monarchy, or, for
that matter, any state where rule is carried out by a privileged class without
consulting with the masses in any direct way, it was recognized, at least
in the 18th and 19th centuries, that what was needed was a submissive, a
confident and a stupid people. Such people in these earlier centuries existed
in predominate numbers. Sadly, yet today, even as the 21st century dawns,
it is rare, even in the western democracies, to find many people who are
independently working through for themselves and taking fixed positions on
important political concepts such as democracy, freedom and government. For
democracy to work there must, as a prerequisite, be a people educated and
be a people ready to inform themselves of the great issues which face them.
Unfortunately, a politically educated public, this important ingredient to
the proper working of democracy, is missing.
First off, it must be recognized, that the country is not run, at least
not in between elections, with the executive checking with the people by
way of referenda (as the Swiss do). However, the people who possess government
power and who would like to keep it, are bound to proceed on the basis of
popular opinion; the difficulty is that public opinion arises as a result
of an agenda which is set by minority groups to which vote chasing politicians
cow, a process which is generally aided and abetted by an ignorant press.
"[Proper political conclusions] cannot be had by glancing at newspapers,
listening to snatches of radio comment, watching politicians perform on television,
hearing occasional lectures, and reading a few books. It would not be enough
to make a man competent to decide whether to amputate a leg, and it is not
enough to qualify him to choose war or peace, to arm or not to arm, to intervene
or to withdraw, to fight on or to negotiate. ... We should never hope or aim to choose a bully, but the elective process
will give no guarantee that the people will not end up with one. Democracy,
no matter its imperfections, is a way by which the people can bloodlessly
turn out leaders; but, the democratic process will only work with the consent
of the leaders. The best that can be expected of a constitutional democracy,
the best that can be expected by any political system, is a process by which
the people turn up a leader or leaders which are prepared to deal with both
the bullies amongst us and those at our borders. Hopefully, the leader or
leaders, so turned up by the "democratic process," do not turn out to be
a worst set of bullies then that which might exist in an ungoverned state.
If, in the "democratic process," an elected leader turns into a bully; well,
then, one should not rely on democracy, except as a rallying cry, to turn
him out. To turn out a powerful bully, great quantities of spilt blood are
When distant and unfamiliar
and complex things are communicated to great masses of people, the truth
suffers a considerable and often a radical distortion. The complex is made
over into the simple, the hypothetical into the dogmatic, and the relative
into an absolute. ... the public opinion of masses cannot be counted upon
to apprehend regularly and promptly the reality of things. There is an inherent
tendency in opinion to feed upon rumors excited by our own wishes and fears."
(Lippmann, The Public Philosophy, p. 25.)
6 Democracy, Government, and Freedom:-
in my view, is only compatible with a free economy; it can only exist, in
substance, in an economy of ideas. Like a fish to water, democracy can only
exists in a total atmosphere of freedom of action; it is completely incompatible
with a system that provides for a governing authority with coercive power.
If one accepts (anarchists, for example, do not) that a government, to some
extent or other, is necessary for a civilized society, then it is to be recognized
that the business of governing (as apart from the business of electing representatives)
cannot be conducted in democratic matter. Lippmann deals with this problem:
"... there has developed in this century a functional derangement of the
relationship between the mass of the people and the government. The people
have acquired power which they are incapable of exercising, and the governments
they elect have lost powers which they must recover if they are to govern.
What then are the true boundaries of the people's power?... They can elect
the government. They can remove it. They can approve or disapprove its
performance. But they cannot administer the government. They cannot themselves
perform. They cannot normally initiate and propose the necessary legislation.
A mass cannot govern. The notions of freedom and of democracy, we might reasonably conclude,
rest on the same foundations. This is not the case for the concepts of government
and freedom: they will have nothing to do with one another: they work against
one another. The principal business of government is the taking of freedom
away from people; it is how government achieves its ends.
Where mass opinion dominates the government, there
is a morbid derangement of the true functions of power. The derangement
brings about the enfeeblement, verging on paralysis, of the capacity to govern.
This breakdown in the constitutional order is the cause of the precipitate
and catastrophic decline of Western society. It may, if it cannot be arrested
and reversed, bring about the fall of the West." (Op. cit., pp. 14-5.)
7 - The Press and Democracy:-
To begin with: those
charged with informing the public, such as our journalists, should very carefully
examine the "expert evidence" that is thrown their way. Our government experts
must be cross-examined and asked if they have any interest in the outcome?
The answer is that most of them do -- if, for no other reason, than they
are in the pay of the government, as either; bureaucrats, lodged in the upper
end of the government echelon; or those resting in publicly funded universities;
or those who are in the social welfare business.
The result of the syndrome is predictable, for, as the public conflict
grows, people come to doubt expert pronouncements. Normally people primarily
judge the propositions before them in a most obvious way, by their source.
For example, "Of course she claims oil spills are harmless - she works for
Exxon." "Of course he says Exxon lies - he works for Nader." When established
experts lose credibility, the demagogues take over and we are left in our
mass democracy with groups trying to outshout one another.
"When their views have corporate appeal, they take them to the public
through advertising campaigns. When their views have pork-barrel appeal,
they take them to legislatures through lobbying. When their views have dramatic
appeal, they take them to the public through media campaigns. Groups promote
their pet experts, the battle goes public, and quiet scientists and engineers
are drowned in the clamor."
Do the important issues get debated in the mass media? Some things seem
to work well enough without any notice being taken by the public: and, often,
these are the most simple and important workings of society such as family
cooperation. In the media, as in human consciousness, one concern tends to
drive out another. This is what makes conscious attention so scarce and
precious. Our society needs to identify the facts of its situation more swiftly
and reliably, with fewer distracting feuds in the media. This will free public
debate for its proper task - judging procedures for finding facts, deciding
what we want, and helping us choose a path toward a world worth living in.
8 - The People:-
I now deal with the concept, "the
people": and, in particular Burke's notion that it consists of not just the
aggregate of living persons, but; "those that are dead and those who are
to be born."
"That is why young men die in battle for their country's sake and why old men plant trees they will never sit under.
"This invisible, inaudible, and so largely nonexistent community gives rational
meaning to the necessary objectives of government. If we deny it, identifying
the people with the prevailing pluralities who vote in order to serve, as
has it, "their pleasures and their security," where and what is the nation,
and whose duty and business is it to defend the public interest? Bentham
leaves us with the state as an arena in which factions contend for their
immediate advantage in the struggle for survival and domination. Without
the invisible and transcendent community to bind them, why should they care
for posterity? And why should posterity care about them, and about their
treaties and their contracts, their commitments and their promises. Yet
without these engagements to the future, they could not live and work; without
these engagements the fabric of society is unraveled and shredded." (Lippmann,
Op. cit., p. 36.)
9 - Virtual Representation:-
Edmund Burke was an exponent of "virtual representation."9
The idea is that - those who do not have the franchise or those who cannot
have it by custom or law (i.e., for reasons such as they are infants; or,
indeed, are unborn) -- are, nonetheless, represented by those exercising
government power. When one thinks it through, one is bound to come to the
conclusion that it is pretty presumptuous to strike on a legislative course,
not knowing the degree or type of impact which such a course will have on
those generations which stretch out (we hope) much beyond that time which
will mark the current generation's departure from this life.
In the days prior to 1832, great large populated areas,
for example, Manchester in England, were not represented by a seat in parliament;
while little villages, particularly in the south of England, had a seat,
sometimes more than one. While some of the larger county seats were somewhat
democratic, the little southern village seats were totally in the pockets
of the local lords.10 The Great Reform Bill of 1832 fundamentally redefined the electoral districts, thus came the end of the pocket boroughs.11 Since 1832, Britain (and, thus, in modern day Canada) there exists a permanent commission on electoral boundaries.
All that I can see of democracy's role is to put into place those people;
who, in a very general way, represent the views of the majority, or rather
the views of the party to whom they owe their advancement. This of course
is a recipe for the oppression of the minorities (no matter from which strata
of society they come; and, no matter whether any particular individual from
within society likes the party policies, or not).
"The most difficult of all political problems is to be
solved - the people are to be at once thoroughly restrained and thoroughly
pleased. The executive must be like a steel shirt of the Middle Ages - extremely
hard and extremely flexible. It must give way to attractive novelties which
do not hurt; ..."12 (Bagehot.)
-- Is democracy workable? -- Can it
work at all? For a free and democratic nation to work, a politician must,
in the first place and right off the bat, in an honest fashion, convince
the electorate that democracy is what they need, if they are to get what
they want -- optimal human conditions for the medium term. The reality of
things, with no exceptions that I can think of, is that what people desire
is the soft and the easy; what is needed is the hard and the difficult (if
only to achieve the soft and the easy).
"Faced with these choices between the hard and the soft, the normal propensity
of democratic governments is to please the largest number of voters. The
pressure of the electorate is normally for the soft side of the equations.
That is why governments are unable to cope with reality when elected assemblies
and mass opinions become decisive in the state, when there are no statesmen
to resist the inclination of the voters and there are only politicians to
excite and exploit them. Much is asked of democracy: for while by definition no one within a democracy
is to have special privileges; it, as a system, is to accommodate all groups
of people, no matter how unalike they may be, one to the other. It may be
that democracy can only work where the great mass of people are alike, or
at least striving to be alike. This may be the reason why, through the years,
democracy has worked so well in countries such as Canada and the United States.
Historically, the United States (and Canada as well) was the great melting
pot where newcomers came: -- their wish was to be American (Canadian) and
to raise their children as Americans (Canadians). However, there are now
signs that democracy in our countries, as a system, is breaking down. More
and more, it seems, there are groups, particularly in Canada, which arise
and are no longer content to strive to stay in the common middle and share
common ideals, but rather they diverge; and, this divergence, unfortunately,
has been supported by government action in a combined effort to hold and
promote distinctiveness of these existing and emerging groups.
There is then a general tendency to be drawn
downward, as by the force of gravity, towards insolvency, towards the insecurity
of factionalism, towards the erosion of liberty, and towards hyperbolic wars."
(Walter Lippmann, pp. 45-6.)
Thus, democracy, as past experience will demonstrate,
works only where the population shares, fundamentally, the same goals and
aspirations. Historically, God and country have been the two banners under
which the great masses could proudly stand; but, in a modern society, God
and country mean less and less, while, at the same time, the goals and aspirations
of various groups increase and diverge. It maybe that democracy is, and,
indeed, has always been, unworkable; but we must continue to hold the ideal
high and see to it that its trappings are securely fixed in place as, well
-- as a bulwark, such as it is, against tyrannical rule.13
The reality is that we are forever fixed with a oligarchy (government
of the few) masquerading as a democracy. The purpose of the ruling few is
to execute its constitutional functions, which, because democracy is unworkable,
should be tightly circumscribed. The ideal of democracy is to be promoted,
as it has been, to the rulers and the ruled, as a sacred icon; never mind
that it cannot be used to put a society into action, to pass laws, and never
mind that it rarely will cast up honest and wise leaders; it is, in the final
analysis, a system that will routinely and expensively rotate those in charge;
a manner of bloodlessly changing the guard.