By Peter Landry.1
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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 nobles.
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), Voltaire (1694-1766), 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."
"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 majority?8
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 needed.
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:-
Democracy, 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 Bentham 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.)
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.)
"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.
2 It was Edmund Burke (not Churchill as so many believe) who first said that "democracy is the only tolerable form into which human society can be thrown ..."
3 The British settlers, on coming to colonize the eastern seaboard of the North American continent, arrived with but a few physical possessions; what they did have, in full measure, was their love of freedom, a condition which very much defined them. The roots of democracy and freedom for all "western" democracies are planted in the rich history of Britain beginning with the Magna Carta. Enough to point out that when Captain Christopher Jones and his officers, together with their crew and their passengers disembarked from the Mayflower, in December of 1620, the pilgrims drew up a compact that provided for the government of the colony by the will of the majority.
4 The English Constitution (Oxford University Press, 1928) at p. 130.
5 In fact there is no specific date to which we can point. Human rights, a subject I deal with elsewhere, came about only through deep and long struggles culminating in historical declarations such as the Magna Carta (1215) and the Petition of Right (1628, "A man cannot be compelled to give evidence against himself"); but it is only with English Bill of Rights in 1689 that we see any real progress in the evolution of law designed to protect the "rights" of the normal citizen. With the defeat of James at the Battle of the Boyne, the claim of divine right or hereditary right independent of law was formally brought to an end. Ever since, an English monarch is "as much the creature of an act of parliament as the pettiest tax-gatherer in his realm." (Green, vol. IX, p. 58.)
6 We do not want our medical doctor doing what we want; but, rather, in the final analysis, what the doctor thinks is best for our health and our life.
7 Freedom and the Law (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 3rd Ed., 1991.) at p. 122.
8 There is nothing new about this line of thinking, see John Stuart Mill. John Buchanan (The Nobel Laureate in Economic Science in 1986) and Gordon Tullock in their work, The Calculus of Consent, have shown in an "irrefutable way that whenever a minority is well organized and determined to bribe as many voters as necessary in order to have a majority ready to pass a desired decision, the majority rule works much more in favour of such minorities than is commonly supposed." (Leoni, Op. cit., p. 242.)
9 See Burke's speech, On the Reform of the Representation of the Commons in Parliament (1784).
10 "Devonshire was a great maritime county when the foundations of our representation were fixed; Somersetshire and Wiltshire great manufacturing counties. The harsher climate of the northern counties was associated with a ruder, a sterner, and a sparser people." [Bagehot, Op. cit., at p. 146.]
11 In 1830 the British Commons represented an electorate of about 220,000 out of a total population of approximately 14 million, or about 3 percent of the adult population. (See Leoni, Op. cit., p. 115.)
12 Bagehot, Op. cit., at p. 181.
13 It was Sir William Temple (1628-99), one of the architects of the Glorious Revolution, who was of the view that states often fell "under Tyrannies, which spring naturally out of Popular Governments." Since, this observation has proved to be true, time and time again.
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