This is Part 10 of the Conservative Standpoint by Cole D
The United Nations on Democracy: Democracy is a universally recognized ideal and is one of the core values and principles of the United Nations.
Democracy provides an environment for the protection and effective realization of human rights. The UN General Assembly has reaffirmed that “democracy is a universal value based on the freely expressed will of people to determine their political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives. “According to the United Nations not only is democracy a universal value but also, the protector of human rights, an aspect of all our lives, and a means of free expression that offers the people the ability to determine their various social and economic systems. What could be wrong with this? How could one dispute it?
I insist that the conservative must dispute it. The conservative must come up with a critique of democracy that either indicts it as unworkable and debasing to the political system or at least provide an examination of the deplorable elements in the democratic system as a means to extract genuine legitimacy. The faults inbred in the will of the people and the exercises of such a will in political affairs, have been expressed for thousands of years, and yet, in the last approximately two hundred years the wellspring of dissention has ceased to bubble. The conservative may not in fact oppose democracy; however, if we examine the faults we may actually determine why it is, to a conservative that despite its vast flaws democracy has merit.
It is also worth drawing the distinction between blanket support for democracy, liberty, and deference to the mandate; as opposed to judicial superiority, representative government, and circumscription of powers and popular authority, because such distinctions allow one to draw a clearer line between the libertarians and conservatives.
Francis Fukuyama in his book the Origins of Political Order gives a brief outline of the shape of modern democracy and the attendant controversy. He notes that democracy is considered the sole legitimizing factor of a regime claiming that even the most tyrannical despots hold elections or maintain assemblies as a means of generating authority. Meanwhile, Fukuyama despite admitting that he sees democracy as a current, default form of government, Fukuyama is not so naive as to insist that such an ideal is a good by nature. Fukuyama asserts that despite the near universal demand for democracy, the efficacy is still in dispute, and poor execution may be behind numerous regressive outcomes. Agitators around the world push for democracy, and may in fact secure regime change, but they expect quick and ethical government without accommodation for the time it takes to establish institutions capable of making the democratic system operate in an efficient and transparent fashion. Fukuyama insists (as I do) that wealth and security are conducive to democracy. Democracy is bound up in these things. Hierarchical and orderly government along with strong institutions serve as the foundation for a secure economic and social order. Fukuyama notes that those who aspire for democracy and prosperity are seeking to “get to Denmark” Denmark: a place with good political and economic Institutions. Two problems arise out of getting to Denmark. First, Somalia, Afghanistan or anywhere else cannot construct institutions which evolved over centuries, and have a basis in local culture; secondly, most people like those in Denmark have no idea how their institutions evolved or became useful in the first place, and if such a thing is unknown it's certainly not simple to emulate.
The key to Fukuyama’s assessment, aside from the recognition of organic institutions bound within a cultural and time, is the observation made by Fukuyama that the democratic system is bound within a multitude of categories primary among them being the state, the rule of law, and accountable government; all important, but not all necessarily existing concurrently. Fukuyama gives the example of Prussia in the 18th century, were despite the lack of what we would consider democracy the monarchy was held accountable.
What I would title these various factors, social consensus, the rule of law, physical stability, accountability, civil unrest (in order to motivate extension of the franchise), legitimate institutions of government, and educated population is independent preconditions. Factors that may operate independently or within a democratic system: they are necessary for the genesis of such a democratic system, but in the absence of more than a handful quickly cause the collapse of democratic structures.
Francis Fukuyama has observed that in contrast to his thesis in The End of History, democracy has in fact ceased to expand, since 2009 Freedomhouse has recorded a decline in the number of democracies in the world for 4 years in a row. This according to Francis Fukuyama is the first time this has happened since the 1970’s. If democracy is now contracting is, there a picture we can draw of how and why democracy earned its universal appeal, and why those same sentiments are now, potentially, beginning to fail? Maybe this will offer the conservative a better picture of the beliefs, successes and failures democracy as a theoretical exercise in the will of the people.
To be sure, I am using the term democracy in a macro sense, democracies inevitably vary widely, and that will be part of the consideration on behalf of whomever reads this. They must assess whether these statements apply to all democracies and to what extent. Electoral systems and various institutions will change the function and purposes of a democracy or may bring into question whether or not such a system is by its nature democratic; I will bypass specifics simply out of a lack of time and a consideration for brevity. However, by painting with a broad brush perhaps we will portray the universal components of democracy, the things in common and the collective weaknesses implicit in popular government.
The first thinkers to study democracy were Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato. Perhaps, authors did before or concurrently, but their writings do not survive. Plato and his pupil Aristotle sought to understand the faults of the democratic system in which they lived. A system of direct democracy organized though mass plebiscites and extensive meetings whereby the citizens of the polis decided upon issues without recourse to representatives. Looking back at these early assessments is valuable, because not only they remain contemporary in form, but also they allow for an understanding of the potential of direct democracy to fail.
Plato was the first to scrutinize democracy; he did so in the Republic book VIII where he gave his account of the five forms of government, and his analogy of the ship of state. Plato insisted that the government of the people: democracy was a latent system that existed within the ship of the state. The ship of state being an allegorical conception of the relationship between the philosopher and the people, where the sailors (politicians/demagogues) in their wish to take the boat from the pilot (philosopher), who seems to be doing nothing of use. The Sailors appeal to the ship-owner (the Demos) who despite his strength and ownership of the ship, is deaf, nearsighted, and unskilled, despite his right to own and decide on behalf of the ship it is obvious that he is not fit for custody.
Plato states of the sailors, “they are always crowded around the ship-owner himself, begging and doing everything so that he’ll turn the rudder over to them.” The sailors quarrel and bicker and the show themselves too distracted to understand the navigation of the ship, the techne (art) of the pilot who navigates, like the philosopher who knows the techne of ruling. The concept of techne is the key to Plato’s theory of government in the Republic, the concept of techne insists that the art is something that is rational, teachable, and good for the object of the art. To Plato the techne of ruling fits into this class. An exceptional person can be taught to rule and established in conditions to do so, despite the authoritarian means required, and that ruling is just or at least of its art and true ruling when it is done at the benefit of the ruled. This is forms a large part of Plato’s disdain for democracy, those who would be elected or make decisions in the public forums do not possess the art of ruling and are therefore incapable of benefiting the object of their art— the ruled, and the failure to act on behalf of those who need it, the producers in the city with bronze souls, and countenance their desires is part of why democracy is unjust. Democratic government is not harmonious government.
Plato illustrates this disunity and vacillation inherent in democracy by first illustrating its evolution from the oligarchic state, and then its further devolution into tyranny.
Plato did not permit his Guardians and Philosopher kings to own property or keep families, but Plato sketches a necessary scenario where both families and ownership of property and wealth come to be permitted through the gradual failure of the eugenics and education in his just city leading to the Timarchy (the spirited government). Timarchy gradually leads over generations to an oligarchic nature. The rulers begin to fetishize wealth and property acquisition and the loosening of norms related to wisdom and moderation. Slowly imperfect souls enter the ruling class, and to placate the leaders who now own great wealth and property, the city enshrines wealth and property ownership as prerequisites for government bringing the oligarchy in its official capacity.
Oligarchy necessarily descends into democracy because of the hierarchy between rulers and ruled is no longer one based on rationality and fittedness, but rather a government based on one's property and wealth determine opportunities to rule. Those who had the ability to rule through virtue and natural intelligence (their nature) are no longer permitted and discontent erupts from the bronze souled in a city. The legitimacy of the government has been shattered and the ability that made the gold souled Guardians most able to restrain and moderate the desires of the bronze souled in the just city has fled.
From here, the transition to democracy occurs; democracy creates a city obsessed with freedom and its unnecessary desires. The obsession with the desires drives the individuals away from interest in governance and tyrannical men into perceiving themselves as being exploited quickly manipulate them. The polis descends into factionalism: the rich feeling threatened about the poor restrict their freedom. In fear of the oligarchy returning the people to revolt. To protect the masses the man with the most tyrannical soul will seize power and in doing so expunge the city of anyone who may offer a challenge, and because this man originated in the society with no restraint upon its appetite and desires. The tyrant uses any means to protect his status in leadership, busying the people with constant war, and lives out his life in authoritarian opulence.
Aristotle too concedes something similar. Aristotle envisioned in Politics a description of government vastly greater in flexibility that of Plato’s Republic. Government to Aristotle did not exist only on a continuum, but rather in an antithetical relationship between forms. So that each form had its corresponding corruption. Kingship vs Tyranny, Aristocracy vs Oligarchy, and Polity vs Democracy. Unlike Plato, Aristotle conceived of democracy as the most moderate of the corruptions to government. He realized that a government run by a collection of unchecked oligarchs or a king had little capacity for correction without extreme political action, and that a smaller body of people is more prone to corruption than a larger in some respects. Here we have one of the first reasoned apologies for democratic governance. The interesting in Aristotle derives not from the fact that he wrote about democracy, but rather that he did not dismiss it like his teacher, rather he recognized that it was imperfect in nature.
The Greeks tell us something about perennial problems with democracy specifically that it operates on the assumption that people have the capacity to be rational and that freedom and legitimacy could and should derive themselves from the assent of the people. The Greeks did not see the people as rational actors nor did they see freedom as a good thing, but others in times that are more contemporary would see no limit to the rationality of man or see any concern with the right to rule being vested in an implicit contract between the ruler and the ruled. Meanwhile, Plato’s devolution from democracy to tyranny would validate premonitions from thousands of years in the past.
Back in modern times democracy, the default form of government is floundering across the globe. Iraq, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and countless others all serve as emblems of the dangers of majoritarian rule and the propensity toward democratic failure. These states fail because they are established without the necessary order. The democratic impulse has superseded reality. Too often, the democracy is an infant birthed by a foreign father in the land, but set free from his pen long before he has matured enough to support himself in the world. Instead, he is carried place to place and held as a symbol of dignity and accomplishment by the father and his collective of friends long before any accomplishments themselves have been rendered. The speak of his precociousness and then watch as the child plunges headlong down a staircase with an ill-timed step.
This analogy brings us to another question. . . . Both implied by reference to the child and in reference to Plato’s ship-owner are either fit to rule? Do they have the means by which they can make effective choices? Are they culpable for their own actions? And how simply can the child and the short sighted and stupid be manipulated?
In the democratic system, immense weight is placed on the social contract and the mandate. The concept, which I hope shall be proven pernicious, that the authority to govern is not coffered through tradition, merit, appointment, arbitrary selection, committee, or any other such manner, but rather than the right to rule has its natural legitimacy embedded in the choice of the majority. Since the people, as a collective, are the ones to be governed and rule is bestowed upon them from above, in some form, they are the ones who hold the key to its legitimacy. All the power of investments and governance is maintained in a single notion, this seems of the utmost danger. James Madison recognized this early on writing in “Federalist No. 49,” Madison would not concede to Jefferson’s radical notion of a constitution subject to frequent revisions and rewrites. Jefferson proposed that constitutional disagreements and amendments could be rectified through appeal to electorate. Madison however, knew that the people's interests and desires are fleeting and fickle, prone to emotional highs and devastating lows. To Madison the assumption that the majority acts in a reasonable fashion was questionable. He suggested a nation of Platonic philosophers could govern in such a fashion; reassessing the constitution through study and dialogue before placing it before their assembly, but the people have no such ability, and by modifying the constitution whenever deemed fit the document itself would cease to be a permanent source of authority, or an object of reverence, once tainted too frequently by human hands the immutable and indissoluble character of the document would be gone. The relation between the contemporary and the past would expire and the permanent convention of the nation would die.
Democracy through its nature invites destruction, sophistry, and revolution.
How does democratic rule invite destruction? It invites destruction because without appropriate checks, we place the body of people in command of a tradition that they may have no desire to maintain. The people not seeing the direct benefit of one institution or tradition on society, and invested with the power of the legislature can easily enough destroy what they deem as arbitrary. To the conservative the failure to uncover immediate benefits in established traditions and institutions is not a failure of reason or a failure of the institution. Instead, we as people have remarkably little comprehension of the utility of structures that exist at the periphery of reason. Democracy causes destruction because it is the ultimate leveler. Its egalitarianism applied to politics and its interests consistently advance in that direction.
Carl Schmitt wrote of the way in which the state is capable of merging with society through popular sovereignty until the soft despotism leads the nation to ruin either fiscal or otherwise. Schmitt wrote after the establishment of Weimar Germany. In the Weimar assemblies, the Reichsrat was greatly weakened and could no longer check the assembly at leisure, and the Reichstag, now elected through proportional representation, became a debating hall for any interest group. In Schmitt's words, “the distinctions between state and society vanished. Schmitt wrote that many of the class and confession based parties that emerged in the interwar period were changing the nature of the state and society. Society overcame the state whenever it had the opportunity to do so, and he asserted that, “If state and society are in principle to become identical, then all social and economic problems immediately become problems of the state.” With a unified state and society, the state would by its nature seize control of the welfare, culture, and “every aspect of social life.” It was in this society (a society of unchecked democracy) that Schmitt saw the origins of totalitarianism. A soft totalitarianism, but a totalitarianism none the less.
Schmitt asserts that democracy and particularly large and complex elective assemblies with a diverse base of parties not only establishes a “total state” through appeal to all demographics, confessions and subcultures, but it also makes for pedantic and ineffective government, which has no means to legislate or act of its own will due to the broad base of support necessary to ensure a successful parliamentary majority. The parties to maintain such a majority, very regularly through coalitions, are always beholden to a diverse section of outside interests and not their own duty to govern.
I mentioned the natural tendency of democratic regimes to fall victim to the arguments of sophists and rhetoricians, and that conjecture will be extended upon the implication being that the natural state of democracy is one that provides for the circumvention of institutional control and the and the enablement of revolution at the cost of the enfeeblement of the state. The very concept of revolution being antithetical to the conservative propensity for moderation, must therefore lead to a healthy scepticism of the democratic project.
No doubt the great mass of people in any society hold the largest portion of the reserve of power, but they are naturally kept from its exercise through the interwoven bodies of authority that provide a basis for their respect and affection. It is these bodies, as resides in the monarchy, the constitution, the popular assemblies, and the courts, the family, among other webs such as the church and the enforcers of law, which place us into a position of trust with the state and allow for the allocation of certain responsibilities to those most able and fit for the task. Yet, by investing the authority of government in the reciprocation of the people we have effectively elevated the people beyond the traditional constraints and brought them into a sphere formerly reserved for a powerful and well fitted minority— the best in a society.
Through the introduction of the popular sovereignty institution and law are subject to change at the will of people and if a legislative body or any other body seeks to check this temper than it must be so that it is in immediate conflict with the public good, if we are to assess the public good on the basis of majority opinion. Hobbes recognized this acutely in Leviathan. Hobbes suggests democracy is dangerous because it establishes the mandate of the people as the means of determining legitimacy, but the mandate of the people may easily shift to popular politicians or outsiders who may undermine the political order, such as Julius Caesar. Democracy to Hobbes may to easily transfer authority from a sovereign body to a despot.
This ability to bypass the framework of institutional authority and informal obligations would not, by nature, be a great risk, if it were not for the fact that a naturally distinguished class of people with means and property beyond that of the majority is certain to develop; distinguished though these elites may be they are in no capacity equal to the power of the majority, and as Jerry Muller notes in Conservatism these elites must trust in government structure, stability and strength to maintain the by-product of their industry and heredity. Edmund Burke was well aware of the hardship and betrayal innate in revolutionary seizures when he wrote. “When men are encouraged to go into a certain mode of life by existing laws, and protected in that mode as a lawful occupation . . . I am sure it is unjust in legislature, by an arbitrary act, to offer sudden violence. . . .To stigmatize with shame and infamy that character and those customs which before had made measure of their happiness and honour. If to this be added an expulsion from their habitations, and a confiscation of all their goods, I am not sagacious enough to discover how this despotic sport . . . can be discriminated from the rankest tyranny.”
Flowing from the capricious and demanding nature of the great body of the population begs the question of whether or not most are prepared or deserve self-government. We do not tell children to rule themselves and what other relationship does the state have to its charges than that of a parent? The nature of the bond and its execution may change, but the subordinate relationship does not, and any true child will direct its affections upward to the parent likewise. Those who stray from this formula all too often ended up with easily bypassed harm to those, which are incapable of recognizing the risk and dangers long since triumphed over by ancestral good sense and collective wisdom.
Joseph Schumpeter dedicated himself to an analysis of the gap between the theoretical conception of democracy and its empirical reality. Specifically, he took the time in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy to expose the errors of conferring too much agency upon the public. Schumpeter unlike most theorists believed that a relative lack of oversight and a degree of negligence was necessary to ensure efficient government, by those who govern best more specifically, and he asserted that despite our wishes to the contrary, the vast body of popular opinion did not find itself engaged in the political process in any meaningful way. “We all know the man . . . who says that the local administration is not his business and callously shrugs his shoulders at practices. . . . “ Likewise Schumpeter states, “ High-minded citizens . . . who preach responsibility of the individual voter . . . invariably discover the fact that this voter does not feel responsible for what the local politicians do.” He contrasts this with larger scale national elections were a coherent and significant interest group might emerge; however, these interest groups often focus directly on short-term goals and limited rationality. This short run pattern often produces corrupt leaders. But as Schumpeter says, “[O]nly the short-run promise . . . tells politically.” Schumpeter postulates that when the people are moved to act it is often based on passion and indignation and that since these are fleeting moments often driven by emotion the general will likely be dangerous and possibly “fatal to his nation.” Schumpeter realizes that interest groups can manipulate the perceived general will and coerce the individual into false desires and indignations. This is problematic, as Schumpeter notes because any decisions made in a democracy are not like purchases in a store, you cannot try out the products and replace them at leisure, yet our political apparatus functions like commercial advertising.
This leads to my closing comments on the unconservative nature of democratic politics. By no means is the jury decided, rather, I and most other conservatives have a degree of reconciliation to democracy that must yet take place. However we can determine that there is good cause to be suspect about the primary way by which we choose our leadership and hold them accountable today; this is not because the leadership itself is truly the problem, most conservatives can reasonably assert that there is a hierarchy to rule, and a necessary one at that: John Adams, Edmund Burke, and countless other historical tories and conservatives attest to this sentiment, but rather that our democratic constitutions, untempered by the value of unelected and timeless sentiment— of monarchs and upper-chambers— are prone to rampant destructive and revolutionary impulses. Sentiments advocated by revolutionary and freedom loving individuals who see change as the barometer of success and hold no affection for the ways of the past.
More than anything else however the conservative must consider themselves a skeptic of the democratic process, because the democratic process does not concern itself with the future nor the past, but rather it places its trust in the now— at the expense of its posterity and antecedents— and this is devastating: perhaps not perceptible to all but the most sagacious, but look back at the years of change and the way they advanced inexorably toward the modern degeneracy and disunity and you will see, as have I, that devastation may occur piecemeal. Philosopher Roger Scruton, in his book The Meaning of Conservatism, rightly asserts that democracy inherently breeches the founding principle of conservative thought, it necessarily confers choice and acts in the interests of only those who of the present generation, for they are the only ones present to vote! However, he touches on one important redeeming factor of the democratic process and one we would do well to recall in times of great hardship, and that is it provides a legitimate way to oust the worst of leaders [but does it also not allow the worst to make appeal to the people despite of institutional rejection? In a democracy, we may get rid of our rulers.