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Among my many failings as a teacher is my refusal to indulge students’ persistent use of the word “democracy” to mean “all good things.” Particularly when I am teaching about constitutionalism and what a constitution is supposed to do, the constant refrain is that a constitution must establish, protect, further, or just “be” democratic. And what do students mean when they demand this state of wondrous democracy? Certainly not simply that a majority of the people get to vote particular persons into and out of office. No, they also mean a government that provides every individual with free speech, due process of law, free healthcare, free contraceptives, and that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you have forced some private group to either disband or let anyone who walks through its doors run the place. Democracy, for them, means governmental guarantees for our “right” to all good things.

This is, of course, the worst kind of utopianism. Defining an everyday term to mean “all we desire” can breed only disappointment and resentment. Political experience shows the power of such self-indulgent dreams to entrap minds and destabilize even the best governments in the name of “justice.” And those of us who oppose, for example, same-sex marriage, at times find ourselves dubbed not merely wrong but undemocratic would-be oppressors and are not-so-subtly linked with tyrants and supposed tyrants from the past.

I would not want to give the impression that my students are especially clueless concerning the meaning of democracy, or even that they are entirely wrong. As students at a small, Midwestern law school, they are less far to the left of most Americans than are students at most law schools. And most of my students are rather normal young people whose opinions (alas) are rather typical of mainstream, television watching, internet surfing America. Our goal as a nation, after all, is supposed to be “spreading democracy” to the world, by which is meant turning other countries into cheap copies of liberal regimes, complete with all the latest “progressive” transgender rights, and traditional culture be damned.

Of course, there is something to be said for democracy—just not everything. The grain of truth in the idolization of democracy is that modern governments really do have to be instituted and maintained with the consent of the governed. Indeed, properly understood consent, taken as the result of tradition and tacit compromise, is a necessary grounding for all good governments. A government has to be accepted by the people it governs or it will either fall or sustain itself through violence. This means a good government—one devoted to the common good rather than just the enrichment of the rulers at the expense of everyone else—will find ways to gauge the approval or disapproval of the people for significant changes in policy.

One easy, and to modern eyes particularly efficient and just, means by which government can gain the consent of the governed is through elections, whereby the people can choose and remove officials. In this way the people become cooperators with the government participating, at least in an abstract sense, in its decisions. This means, for example, that it is reasonable to say at one level that Americans deserve what is going to happen to us over the next several years because most of us who voted chose to retain as President the man who, with his minions, will be doing it to us. The policies from which we will suffer will be wrong-headed and unjust, but they also will be legitimate in the limited sense that they will be instituted in accord with majority consent.

Thus it is not surprising that most people refuse to accept the rather simple understanding of democracy as rule by consent, with elections playing a significant role in establishing that consent. In addition to failing to encompass all we desire, such an understanding establishes the people’s responsibility for the actions of those they elect, which is inconvenient for people, like we Americans, who increasingly shun responsibility at all costs.

It is in a sense true, moreover, that democracy is more than merely a method of determining the identity or even particular policies of the rulers. The demand for a government that guarantees us what we like, is in its way democratic. In addition to an aversion for responsibility, such demands are rooted in a love of radical, moral equality. As Plato noted so long ago, a democracy, by making the people rulers, makes them masters of public power and the very definition of public goods. There is much freedom in such a polity for people who want to shock, or merely “express themselves” with odd clothing, tattoos, various bits of metal on various parts of their bodies and such. But those who dare to truly stand out with displays of or calls for true excellence and/or virtue do so at the risk of their own ruin. All things can be seen as public goods by a democratic people—except those things, and those people, who irritate us by calling us to virtue or censuring our lax hedonism. So democracy becomes a system in which people follow their whims-of-the-moment and use the state to subsidize their desire for all good things except virtue—until, of course, they spend themselves into bankruptcy, anarchy, and the rule of a tyrant. This is, of course, the direction in which we are heading as a nation.

It did not have to be this way, of course. And the fault is not specifically with democracy, understood as either a narrow or a rather wide concept. When he visited America during the early nineteenth century, French philosopher and statesman Alexis de Tocqueville termed ours a democratic society. By this he meant that ours was not just a government in which consent was measured at the ballot box, but also that Americans were, for both good and ill, committed to social equality. Now, I am not among those who pine for the wonders of inherited aristocracy. But Tocqueville recognized the down side of Americans’ commitment to such a broad notion of democracy: we had a tendency, even then, to value material well-being too much and to value higher, more important goods too little.

It is the love of comfort and material security that breeds the subservience of welfare-ism (or, if you prefer, “economic democracy”). It is forgetfulness regarding the higher calling of the human person that allows our baser desires to take over and demand impossible levels of satisfaction. And it is the confused notion that we are the highest beings in the universe that allows us to confuse our desires for what is good. Democracy, taken in the limited sense of one means by which consent may be gauged, brings neither heaven nor hell, unless we will it so. But the notion that we can will our way to heaven, well, that leads only to Hell.

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2 replies to this post
  1. There are a variety of different definitions for democracy, and as far as I can see, you didn't settle on any particular one. This is fine, I suppose, if your only argument is to say that "the fault is not specifically with democracy," but rather lies with a general "confusion notion" among the masses.

    I believe, however, that the fault does lie with democracy, or more specifically, with the failure of our constitutional arrangements to insulate national politics from some of the more direct democratic influences that are only healthy when properly exercised at the local neighborhood level. I'm not saying I have the complete answer; but I do know that it lies somewhere in the subject areas of federalism and subsidiarity.

    I am very glad to see that you do not pine for the days of inherited aristocracy, because neither do I. I do think, however, that the direct popular election of leaders who represent millions of constituents is a major problem (just for fun, look up the number of constituents or voters for a U.S. Representative to Congress in the late 18th century), especially when the scope of their official duties have grown far beyond national security, patronage of the technological arts, and prevention of trade wars among lower levels of government, but rather have grown to include … well, more or less everything.

    It is very true that modern governments need a greater degree of consent from the governed than in the past, and this is not a bad thing. It is indeed a worthy goal to change regimes in certain repressive parts of the world so that their governments can become more responsive to popular humanitarian concerns. It is important not to get carried away though.

    Voting should not be seen as a sacred right for every adult. There simply needs to be a way to disperse electoral power among enough varied interests so that collusion of one group over all the rest does not occur. As we all know, when the Julius Caesars and Hugo Chavezes of the world succeed with their demagoguery, democratic participation quickly becomes a farce, absurd regulations proliferate, and a small coterie of elite politicos ruthlessly take control over everything, robbing the average head of household of his own honor and masculinity.

    The Supreme Court has proved itself an illegitimate institution that is woefully inadequate at its appointed task of being a mouthpiece for objective interpretation for a certain code of republican laws. The question is: Okay, so how could we correct this constitutional flaw? How do we find somewhere to start over again when the world has become so small? I have no idea.

  2. "How do we find somewhere to start over again when the world has become so small?" We build O'Niell cylinders at L2, for a start.

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