July 4, 2014


What's So Special About Democracy? (HARVEY MANSFIELD, July 26, 2006, NY Sun)

The answer to [What is special about modern politics?], Mr. Dunn indicates, is representative government, invented by Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century. Hobbes (followed by Spinoza and Locke) argued that government is properly instituted by contract among individuals in the state of nature who authorize a sovereign over themselves to represent them. The crucial new concept in this theory is the state of nature that precedes all society, is therefore insecure and full of violence, and is further characterized by the rough equality of all those who experience or imagine it. Men are equal in the state of nature, according to Hobbes, for the very realistic reason that no one can be sure of always getting the better of (i.e. killing) anyone or everyone else. Here, democracy is installed as the foundation of all government.

Democracy in the basement, however, is not necessarily democracy in the house above. A representative government may not hold elections (such as the hereditary monarchy that Hobbes wanted), and if it does, the elections may not be democratic, with universal suffrage. Representative democracy came later, in the American and French Revolutions, and of course women's suffrage was still later.Yet the nature of democracy is changed when it becomes representative. No longer does the people meet in a body to deliberate on and decide the most important questions of government, but rather the task of actual governing is delegated to a few elected (and non-elected) representatives. In this delegation, as we are often reminded, lies a hidden oligarchy dressed up as democratic. If every representative government is fundamentally democratic, every modern democracy is in practice oligarchic. The ancients knew of a mixed regime composed of democracy and oligarchy, but this is a mixed regime of a new kind in which no one speaks of oligarchy in its principle though everyone find it useful in practice. [...]

Mr. Dunn's analysis turns sober and profound when he presents the opposition between democracy as a form of government and as a way of life. As a way of life (best shown by Tocqueville) democracy is not satisfied with existing equality but tries relentlessly to equalize everything. In this sense democracy is open-ended, or points toward a goal of no power or government at all. As a form of government, however, democracy tries to contain this infinite democratization. One mode of containment is to accept, as democratic electorates even in Europe have done recently, the "order of egoism" that socialists like Babeuf and Buonarroti hate. Mr. Dunn worries that "malign consequences" will follow from the separation of the democratic ethics of equalization from the democratic reality of surrender to egoism.

One may agree that it is harmful to the souls of intellectuals, as Mr. Dunn worries, when they cherish their own moral purity as against the evils of reality. But a remedy can be found in the notion of "self-interest well understood" that Tocqueville attributes to Americans. "Egoism" in America, both in business and in government, is more about ambition than greed for money. The socialists, obsessed with money as they believed their capitalist enemies to be, always missed the point. Money is a sign of success, and success is the satisfaction of one's ambition. It is not necessary to go against egoism or self-interest in order to be public spirited. Ambition was in Aristotle's list of virtues and it is featured in James Madison's famous discussion of the separation of powers in "The Federalist." The history of democracy is the democratization, not the elimination, of oligarchic ambition.

Robert D. Kraynak, a former student of Professor Mansfield, has a better handle on the flaws of democracy.

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Posted by at July 4, 2014 5:10 AM

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